Film

Miranda July, Josephine Decker, and Helena Howard on Their Sundance Hit “Madeline’s Madeline”

"The beautiful thing about making art is the enormous possibility of failure."

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Madeline’s Madeline, directed by Josephine Decker and starring the electrifying newcomer Helena Howard, was one of the true revelations of the Sundance Film Festival: a dramatic film that had been developed through collaboration, and that embodied the tensions of its creation onscreen both narratively and formally. Of course, you don’t need to know anything about how the picture was conceived, developed, or shot to be able to appreciate its beauty. Nevertheless, the story behind Madeline’s Madeline makes for a fascinating look at how a powerful movie can be realized in unorthodox, bracing new ways. While at Sundance, it was my good fortune to speak to director Decker, star Howard, and co-star Miranda July about the making of their film.

How do you even start a project like this?

Josephine Decker: Last night [during the world premiere] was when I felt like I saw it for the first time. I’ve seen it a bazillion times, but last night, I realized it really has a circular navigation. I mean, in this gendered world it’s complicated to call something “feminine storytelling,” but I do think it has a real feminine style of storytelling. And it’s because of the road to making it, and it’s nice that the product respects that. But, really, it all started when I fell in love with Helena Howard’s incredible talent, and I met her at an acting festival that she performed at… Helena, do you want to tell the story?

Helena Howard: It was a teen arts festival in New Jersey where you basically come to showcase something that you’ve been working on or that you’re passionate about. I came with a monologue from “Blackbird” by David Harrower, and for some reason Josephine was adjudicating… A room full of teenagers in New Jersey, I don’t why she was here, you know? [laughs] And I go up, do this monologue, and she’s just crying, doesn’t speak for a little bit. Then she goes, “That’s one of the best things I’ve seen in my life.” And I don’t really know how to process that, so I start crying. She’s like, “Yeah, I don’t have anything else to say.” So, we’re both crying. And then I’m getting ready to go, and she’s like, “Wait!” She goes out into the hallway to get something to write on to give me her email. I don’t know who this woman is. She doesn’t know anything about me except that I’m an actor. We stay in touch, after people telling me that she’s weird and stuff. Because we looked her up and her website doesn’t do her justice.

JD: Yeah, pretty immediately, I think I said, “I want to build a film around you.” I wanted to devise work with actors, so I brought in a bunch of actors from New York who I respected, and we started devising that Fall. We spent about eight months, I guess. On weekends we’d meet and rehearse, and then I had a ton of material; we had been recording all the improvisations we’d done. I spent about a year writing the script, and I was a little lost. My boyfriend’s a filmmaker, and he took me for a walk, and asked, “What are you trying to say? What is the center of your movie?” He’d been through the [Sundance] writing labs here, and I’ve never really had any training in filmmaking or film writing. He made up what questions to ask and how to draw out of me what the center thing was, and it actually made a big difference in trying to get at the heart at the story, and get at the meat of the mother-daughter relationship, and what happens with the mentor and this director. But it was a very elliptical journey.

And at what point did Miranda come on?

Miranda July: Very late. There was already the sense that this whole troupe, including Helena, had worked together for years and years. Luckily as a mom you never know what’s going on anyway, so [laughs] it was fine. [To Josephine] And hearing you talk now is interesting because there are certain things I didn’t even fully know. But Josephine just reached out to me, and I very greedily wanted to do it simply to get to sit on her set and watch her direct. It’s something you don’t get to do as a director, and I was gearing up to make a movie, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime learning possibility. The acting part I was a lot more nervous about, and I actually quit a week before. I wrote a very serious, real one-in-the-morning email.

What did you say in it?

MJ: I said, “I just really know that I can’t do this.” I mostly was trying to be like, “Don’t try and talk me out of this. Like, I’ve really thought through it.” And so, when we talked on the phone the next morning, she didn’t try and talk me out of it. We talked about other things — maybe I could be a producer on the movie. I had a moment where I said, “Gosh, I feel, you know, almost wistful. This is so nice talking to you.” And I think that the second I said, “wistful,” something flipped in her. She is a director in her bones, and she just started making a speech about fear — a very zen speech that was just… I wish I had that speech for the rest of my life.

Josephine, do you remember what you said?

JD: I don’t know how we talked about this, but I said something like, “You know, you could walk out your door and die very easily. You can die in a million ways. You can fail.” This is not going to be as eloquent as whatever I said that day, but something like, “If you’re going to learn to skateboard, you’re going to fall off a skateboard a zillion times.” And “Stepping out the door is already a risk.” You were talking about failure: “I don’t want to fail. I don’t want it to be a public failure. I don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, there’s Miranda July who can’t act.’” And I said “Well, first of all, I’m an editor. It doesn’t behoove me to have you in the film acting poorly [laughs]. There are scenes that are not going to work, and I’m not going to put those in the film. And if we never do anything that we’re afraid of, what are we ever going to do?” Something like that.

MJ: Once I was acting, I didn’t fear being bad again. It wasn’t really relevant to the task. But I do remember her talking about fear, and the tears just running down my face, and she was still talking, and I was thinking, “Fuck, I’m going to have to do this.” I already knew, “You can stop talking now. I’m yours.” But part of it was realizing that as long as I was under her spell, I was safe, and I would not ever not be under her spell in the course of this movie. So, I didn’t have to worry about one-a.m. freakouts anymore.

Helena and Miranda, you’re playing mother and daughter, and even though this isn’t a conventional story, I imagine there is a certain amount of grounding and comfort that you need to establish just to be able to act against one another. 

MJ: As it turns out, not. We didn’t. [laughs] We met and the next day we started shooting. We did Skype, I think. Did we Skype?

HH: Once. But Miranda did say something interesting. We were ordering food one day, and I didn’t get anything, and she got a sandwich. She asked, “Oh, are you sure you don’t want anything?” And then when she got her food, I asked for half of the sandwich, and she was actually really hungry. And it was like something that Madeline would do. I can’t believe that I did that. I don’t think I even ate the sandwich.

MJ: She was really very polite. And of course, in the moment I was happy that she was eating. [Laughs]

Maybe the fact that you didn’t know each other before actually helps, because there is a certain amount of alienation between your characters.

MJ: A lot of this has to do with how Josephine works. You drop into that world in a deep way, and it’s comfortable and you’re swimming in it, and so all that practice and rehearsal is almost irrelevant to this state you’re in.

JD: We we did have a rehearsal. We did what I call this “open canvas”, which is basically a weird dance rehearsal where you improvise physical movements together. We did a bunch of warm-ups, stuff that’s similar to what’s in the film, physical theater warm-ups. Then we did these open canvases to music, and I remember that you two and Molly [Parker, who plays Madeline’s theater director Evangeline] were improvising — this was maybe a day or two before we started shooting — and they improvised an open canvas where [Helena was] on the ground and the two women ended up moving around you in a circle, and I thought, “That’s the whole movie!” They just improvised all of the relationships of the movie. I wonder what enabled that dropping in. But sometimes, I’d think, “Maybe I should have rehearsed the actual scenes of the movie. Shit, we have no time to shoot.” Instead we rehearsed like weird art theater shit.

Helena, did you ever feel like quitting?

HH: Deep down, no. But I would oftentimes say, “You guys don’t need me, I shouldn’t be part of this.” I mean, when you’re told by the people in your life that you’re not good enough, that you’re not worth it — because of jealousy or things like that — it stays with you. And then when you’re in something that’s so great, you can’t believe it, and so you revert back to the past. And maybe it was because I was so deep inside of Madeline or whatever, or maybe it was myself. But yeah, I’m not necessarily quitting, but just saying that, you know, I shouldn’t be part of … yeah. I can’t. Words! [Laughs]

As a director, you’ve got this beast, this film that’s constantly changing. Tensions — creative tensions, personal tensions — are built into not just the narrative but the very form of the thing. Do you need to create that kind of tension in order to embody them on screen? 

JD: I never mean to create tension, although I think I do it very accidentally. I think why we enjoy tension in movies is because we feel that human relationships involve tension — moments of tension and release. Moments of connection and disconnection. And when you get a lot of people together to do something collaboratively, it’s very natural that tensions arise. So, it wasn’t necessarily my intention, but I think I wanted to make something that could feed off the work of many people, and that had the input of all those people in it. And I wanted that input to be present in the film itself.

MJ: This reminds me of something you said the other day. There’s a scene in the movie where actors are saying, “So, you are going to tell her story — think about the optics of that.” You said the other night that you actually relish being called out on those things, and that did happen during the process, and that was really interesting to you. You had meetings in the middle of shooting where people opened up about how they were being represented, or whether they felt like a certain line really represented them. I don’t think you court tension in the way a lot of directors create drama to bring out emotion or whatever. You’re doing it because these issues are really tricky and messy, and you’re not afraid of that mess.

JD: The feeling of deserving to be there, or knowing enough to be on that set, and what Helena was speaking about, it comes up. I sometimes felt it myself: “Do I deserve to be here? Do I deserve to make this movie?” We had had so many roundtables in our process — like a sit-down and talk-back. I was like, “I really think everyone might feel that way, and I think it’d be nice if we shared.” So, we  stopped filming for an hour, and we just all shared. Helena said, “I’m feeling this way.” And I said, “I’m feeling this way.” And then Molly [Parker] said, “I’m feeling this way. I’m playing a theater director and I’ve mostly been a film actor.” And then the prop master started bawling! She’s like, “I’m so glad I’m here. I’m a woman of color and there are so few women of color playing a lead of a film.” And by the end of the hour everyone was in tears — this was like the sixth day of filming. We had literally called the whole cast and crew to the stage to have this conversation, because that was the kind of thing we’d done in our creation process. I remember even Danny April, our lighting guy, was saying how he felt so seen, because we would do these morning circle meditations, and he’s like, “Nobody cares… I do my job and nobody wants to see me.” That day changed our whole shoot. It was the best thing we ever did.

Were there any points at which you thought to yourself, “Forget it. There’s no movie.”?

JD: Oh my god, every day. Every day for the last two, three years. There were some things that triggered that. Something major would happen with financing, or I’d get some bad news about a location, or even in the editing… we had an editor, and we ran out of money for that editor so early in the process, and then I was alone with this thing that was a crazy mess. When you write and direct something, you need another voice in the room to help you edit. Finally I was like, “We have to raise more money because I will die if I don’t get an editor to help me finish this movie.”

One of the things that I’m so enraptured by in the film is that while it’s narratively and emotionally all over the place, there’s also a fluidity… I always know where I am in the movie. I feel like I’m in assured hands even though what’s happening on screen is pretty out there. How do you establish that?

JD: So much trial and error. I made this movie so many different ways. And actually we got really close to locking picture in August on a version — it was tight, and it had none of the dreamy stuff that’s in the first twenty minutes, and it made a little more sense. You could follow it a little more easily. And we watched that version, and I remember looking at Liz, the producer who was also helping me edit at that time, and I said, “I just don’t like this movie. I don’t want this to be the movie.” And she said, “It’s lost something.” We’d done a lot of paring down. It had become a really dark film, and I thought, ‘This is about darkness, but it’s also about ecstacy. It’s about the creative power of imagination. It’s about how that can really be brutal, it can also be gorgeous…” And so, I started to pull back in all these wild, crazy, gorgeous immersive elements that had kind of gotten cut out by the notion that this needs to make sense. Now those are all back in the film. I don’t know if the movie would be itself without those.

Helena, are you also seeing the film at these various points during the edit? Because it’s been such a collaborative process for you.

HH: I saw two early cuts, but seeing it now has been a very visceral experience. I feel so proud of the entire cast and crew, and especially Josephine. After, people were asking me, “How do you feel? What is it like?” I couldn’t answer because I was still trying to process. I was still trying to understand what I had just seen, because it was so amazing.

JD: Actually, on the first cut, you had some notes. You said, “There were some scenes that are not in here that I think should be in here.” And they did come back. “What about this pig lady in the basement? Remember that?” And then she ended up back in the movie. And the painting in the park was out for a minute and then ended up back in the movie. Sometimes you would bring up a scene and I’d think, “Oh, I even forgot that scene existed,” because it’d been out of the movie for so long.

MJ: I think Molly also does some heavy lifting,  in a really modest way, of making it feel like a story. She has a pretty clear arc — more so than anyone else. And to have someone that grounded and struggling in very familiar ways — as an artist, or a woman in power, or even anyone in power, struggling with not having a handle on the thing and yet having to lead.

JD: We were joking yesterday that we tend to focus on talking about the messiness of the process. “Of course we’re a bunch of women who made a film.” It’s has all these women in all these roles, and I thought, “Of course we’re going to go into these interviews and we’re going to be like, ‘So, you know, the process was complicated, and this was complicated, and that was complicated.’” And if I was a man, I’d be like, “I made a great film, and you know, I didn’t need to ask anybody else what they thought, because I just knew, beginning to end, what I was making.” I feel really strongly also that I want to say in this interview where we’ve talked so much about how difficult the process was, that I think…[takes a deep breath] It is so hard to say this. I think we made something very beautiful.

You did. Is it OK if I mention the fact that you’re all crying right now?

MJ: And that we’re all using the same tissue!

Miranda, how did the film you saw differ from the film you expected? Did it?

MJ: Well, I had seen Josephine’s other two movies so I knew what I was getting into. And me and my husband had talked about them a lot. He gave some feedback earlier when I was unwilling to watch it, just because I wanted some time before I saw it. I called him last night after I saw the film, and I said, “Yeah, it’s better than the other two.” And he loves those movies. So, I felt like I got exactly what I came in for, and more than I hoped. I had thought, “If I can be in one of those ones like the earlier ones she did, great.” But it really, to me, feels like way beyond that. And to be part of that leap… it is so useful, and I need to remember how hard it was, how unsure it felt. [To Josephine] I mean, the night before last, when we were in your condo [before the film’s premiere], we were talking about what are good things to say in press, and you’re like, “Well, you know, I’m just gonna say I did what I could, and it’s not a perfect movie, and failure is important and in some ways the movie’s about failure and I failed.” And I was like, “Don’t — maybe don’t say the one part about that it’s a failure!” But I was right there with her because I hadn’t seen it yet. So I was thinking, “Alright, maybe it didn’t work out.” And that is how I often feel about my own things. It’s such a hard process, it has everything to do with doubt and being willing to swim in that, and to not tie everything up just so that you can be done or so that you can create something you’ve already seen before. “Well, this kind of reminds me of that and that was good, so maybe this is good.” And that you would still be swimming in the process right up to the night before… Yeah, I’m so glad I came just to get that refresher course.

Is great work even possible without that kind of doubt?

JD: Oh yeah, that’s a good question. The movies I like are pretty weird [laughs]. Under the Skin is such a great film. Persona is one of my favorite films. Babe actually is my favorite movie. I loved Ida, the Polish film. And a lot of what I read about the processes of those films… Well, Babe was probably a more conventional process [laughs]. But I know, for instance, that with Ida they had a script that they presented to investors, then they went back and made the script that they actually wanted to make. It was like forty pages, and they improvised on set. I was just saying this to a friend earlier, because I woke up this morning and I was like, “Wow, it’s really big what just happened, you know? And I feel exposed.” And I was thinking about exposure… I love the outdoors so much. I love camping, I love being outside. I was saying, “Oh, exposure is gorgeous. You can stand on a mountain, you see the mountain… But also, you could freeze to death.” The beautiful thing about making art is the enormous possibility of failure. And I can only speak for myself, but I think the feeling that it’s never good enough or that it’s never right is probably a lot of what makes me work really, really hard, for a long time.

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