Josephine Decker is an actor, writer, performance artist and filmmaker. Her most recent creations are two fearless feature-length films, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. These evocative movies defy expectations of narrative and rely on alternative styles of storytelling to illuminate the lives of young women. I got a chance to ask Decker some questions about her filmmaking process, feminism and fantasy. She is currently taking a physical theatre course in Philadelphia, gathering inspiration and research for her next film.
A: What is a physical theatre company? How is it making you a better director?
J: I’m at Pig Iron Theatre Company. They do really magical performances influenced by clowns, dance, and Jacques Lecoq-type theatre. One of the reasons I wanted to go was, well, I don’t want to say that I’m done with writing a script and making a movie, but I’m curious about what happens when the movie is generated through the voices of many people and the film grows out of that collaboration instead of out of one person’s mind. That’s how they work at Pig Iron: actors improvise and work with the writer and director to find the story. It’s a very deeply collaborative process and I want to do more of that in my own films.
A: Yeah? That was one of my questions! I know both movies were made with very different processes. Butter on the Latch had no script, but Mild and Lovely did. I was going to ask which one you liked better, or how you were going to approach the next film, but it seems like…
J: Yeah, a combination. There are beautiful things about both. It’s so nice to work with actors and let them discover interesting dialogue and find unique moments and play with those. It’s also important, in terms of just being able to shoot a movie to have a guidepost like a script. Writing the script from improvisation gives us a lot of liberty. All of the actors know their characters really well. What’s hard about acting in low-budget improvised movies is that you can feel lost as an actor trying to play a “character” who isn’t you, but who you haven’t ever gotten to rehearse or develop. Finding that character on set is high stakes. It isn’t the safest place as an actor to take risks.
A: Plus it’s all coming from someone else’s project. It’s all coming from someone else’s vision that you’re trying to grasp instead of a collaboration.
J: Exactly. Right.
A: I was thinking about the position of the director in a film. It can be very authoritative and almost dictatorial, and so I wonder how you can make a director — or, you know, any leadership position — “feminist.” This kind of collaborative work answers that question a little because you don’t just hand people scripts, but really work with everyone.
J: Yeah. You know who you would love? Someone that I’m just learning about is Ariane Mnouchkine. She runs the Théâtre du Soleil in France. She’s the visionary head of it, but it’s wildly, revolutionarily collaborative. It pays equal for everyone. Everyone shares roles and helps clean the theater space. I don’t want to say it’s communist, but it’s certainly about equality. Always, the way you make work is going to influence what work is made, but with film we ignore the process all the time. We say, “we’ll get on set, we’ll do it on set.” It’s very rare for low-budget films to have the resources to hold rehearsals, so everyone comes in a little unprepared. But that process is going to define what people see on the screen. How did you treat people? How did you discover the things that you discovered? I’m huge on letting collaborators have their way. I love to hear a collaborator’s idea and then see it all the way to its fulfillment instead of imposing my own ideas halfway through and then going “nonononono that’s not going to work — let’s do it my way.” For people to do their best work, you have to give them space and time to create. I try to give that. Sometimes it backfires, but most of the time it turns out awesome.
A: Do you relate that to the word feminist at all? Do you think what you described is a feminist process?
J: Sure, it could be seen that way. It just feels like a collaborative process. I definitely consider myself a feminist. I grew up with a feminist mom in Texas; we would hand out fliers to get Ann Richards elected. I think about women and women’s issues a lot. It’s funny — what is the official definition of feminism? I think it’s probably different for everybody.
A: Agreed. The dictionary definition of feminism has been making the rounds lately, but it’s totally different for everyone. Speaking of which, how about the female characters in your films! They are all such sexual deviants! They actively reject accepted norms about sexuality and seek their own truths: sex with strangers in massage parlors in Butter or masturbating while fantasizing about farm tools in Mild and Lovely. Are those alternative sexualities important for you to show in film?
J: [Laughing] Shooting that masturbation/sky/tools scene was one of my favorite days on set because all of us were lying on the ground sticking our hands into the frame…
J: I think that female directors have female experiences so we’re bringing that to the film without realizing it. A lot of people have commented that the women in Butter are real women, they’re sexual women, and they’re sharing these stories that are very specific to them. [When Isolde talks about her tryst in Butter] we weren’t intending to shoot that long. It was just going to be the two friends catching up, but it was feeling a little vague so we re-crafted a true story that we’d heard to make that massage parlor story. I think it’s just about portraying women and having women in your movies and then working with them to build what you’re making because the stories that arrive are going to be unique and special to them as people.
A: I love to see that on film: people talking about or approaching sex in different ways than we’re used to seeing.
J: Me too.
A: I read an interview about Mild and Lovely that you hadn’t been getting many questions about the consent in Sarah and Akin’s sex scene. Maybe because the flashback clarifies Sarah’s intention to be alone with Akin, but she is clearly a sheltered and naive character. It seems reasonable that she didn’t know what would happen when she was in that situation, and she says “no.” So, it’s interesting to me that people don’t react to it as a rape scene. Or has that changed?
J: It really varies. When I talk to audiences it comes up. Obviously, the feminist in me realizes that this scene is complicated, but sexuality is so complicated. [Aggressive behavior during sex] is something that some women are interested in. How do violence and sex intermingle? How is that a real turn on? How is it not dangerous? We’re so used to making women victims when there’s violence around and I think there’s something a little more powerful going on a lot of the time. For Sarah, it’s a huge power move not only if she sleeps with Akin, but also if he leaves thinking he raped her. She has so much power in that situation. She can destroy his life so easily. I like leaving it unclear, I guess. Did it get more violent than she wanted it to? I don’t know, but I think also, in my mind, it was satisfying. I like not answering all of the questions around that scene. I don’t know that I know all of the answers. Every sexuality is so different; every woman is so different. I think that was a scene where Sarah was exploring her sexuality.
A: At the end of Butter, there’s a long shot of Isolde standing next to a woman with wild white hair who is making a wild face at the camera. How did you get her to make that face? Who was she?
J: [At the Balkan camp where we filmed] we asked if anyone was interested in being in our dream sequences and she signed up. I remember after putting her in this white outfit learning she was an experienced dancer. It was fun to get to use that in her performance. Meanwhile, that face that she makes is a face I made all the time when I was a kid to scare my little sister. There’s something about when your eyes are popping out of your head that is really weird.
A: Pretty unnatural.
J: As part of the dream sequence, that felt appropriate. I asked both of them to do it, but Isolde was not very good at it. The dancer’s eyes really look like they’re going to pop out of her head.
A: Awesome. Are there any tips that you would give to female filmmakers on a tight budget?
J: I would say that it took me all of my twenties to feel like I deserved to be making movies. I think that is something very particular to women versus men. Men come out of the womb ready to make movies. I just feel like it’s so hard to give yourself permission to raise that much money, to spend that much on your own art, to feel like you have a voice that’s worth hearing. My other advice would be to make a movie for as little as possible. When you make a film that doesn’t cost as much as a vehicle would cost to drive, then you have so much freedom to pursue your vision, rather than having to be beholden to a bunch of investors. Women are great enablers. We’re nurturing, we take care of each other, we’re very emotionally in touch, but when we’re looking out for people in a deep way, sometimes we’re not looking out for ourselves in that same way. It can be helpful to just, just — what do they say? Lean in.
Images via Josephine Decker, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Butter on the Latch