Not all actors are filmmakers, and not all filmmakers can act. And certainly not all actor-filmmakers walk in slow motion in Times Square with cans of oil poised on their heads (in performance protest of the 2010 BP oil spill), cross the Brooklyn Bridge in fish-shaped hats (to promote awareness of ocean health), play the accordion in an all-female band (The Main Squeeze Orchestra), or strip naked at the Museum of Modern Art in earnest homage to Marina Abramović. Not all artists perform with 360-degrees of their soul, reminding us that the 21st century is a time to think and live in more than two dimensions.
Josephine Decker is a Wunderkind of passionate play – the kind of quick, curious, and open mind that thrives in parts of Brooklyn, but owes its unique creativity to a childhood in conservative Texan suburbia. Like other multitalented alumnae (e.g., Greta Gerwig, Amy Seimetz and Kate Lyn Sheil) of Joe Swanberg’s early do-it-yourself tales of generation Y angst and doomed hipster romance, Decker is more than meets the male gaze (still) so often reinforced in Hollywood screenwriting, casting, cinematography and mise-en-scène. Her dramatic roles in Swanberg’s improvised Uncle Kent (2011) and Art History (2011) might be explicit, but they also intellectualise sexual experimentation on her terms. Well-versed in the politics of gender and sexuality, she spent three years on Bi the Way (2008), a feature documentary (co-directed by Brittany Blockman) that explores the rise of bisexual fluidity in the United States. As funny as she is serious, Decker can just as easily spoof the “Daphne” figure of a Scooby Doo-like foursome in Spencer Parsons’ Saturday Morning Massacre (2012) as embody the wholesome bride in Onur Tukel’s Richard’s Wedding (2012). An exemplar of the communal work ethic of microbudget filmmaking, Decker tirelessly adds titles to her acting filmography, a pipeline that currently stretches into 2015. In the past year, I had the opportunity to work with Josephine Decker, the actress, and in the process of shooting my own first feature, Rosehill, to get to know her growing oeuvre as a filmmaker.
It is telling that her directorial fiction debut, the short Me the Terrible (2010), which marks the beginning of an ongoing collaboration with cinematographer Ashley Connor, features a little girl (“a time-traveling pirate”) determined to conquer Manhattan Island. Like the child scaling a cardboard cut-out of the Empire State Building, Decker herself voraciously seeks out challenges. I have seen her get immersed in tasks – mastering a bridge in a Hoagy Carmichael song, dancing with the last ounces of the day’s energy, accessing dark, buried emotions in a dramatically difficult scene, running, warmly dressed, for several takes in the hot, midday sun, or quickly editing four roles of super-8 film into a work of art. Not content with well-worn paths, Decker, the filmmaker, turns her swashbuckling curiosity to female (mis)behaviour, terrain often neglected or sanitised in larger U.S. productions due to the exigencies of the film marketplace.
Like her indie film peers (Seimetz, Eliza Hittman, Hannah Fidell, the U.S.-educated Anja Marquardt) and those who have forayed into television (as writers, Diablo Cody, then Lena Dunham, and, as actors, Seimetz, now Gerwig), Decker creates diegetic worlds in which twenty- and thirty-something women are complex characters – not always able to do the right thing, not always in control of their minds and sensuality, not always rewarded with a clear resolution. But where some of these other filmmakers pursue such questions through realism, tight scripting, or edgy humour, Decker is drawn to murkier audiovisual experimentation, the formal and generic upending of not only the way that women “are supposed to” be, but also of the way that narrative films (with commercial potential) are supposed to look and feel.
While industry statistics continually reveal a lack of women filmmakers “at the top” and while many gifted actresses cite the dearth of good roles for women generally (but also for those who are over 40 and not Meryl Streep), Hollywood’s feminist milestones often take the form of Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Lawrence “getting to play” an action hero(ine) and “surprisingly” drawing (male) spectators to the box office. (1) In the DIY universe, things are different. Decker’s unconventional first and second features, Butter on the Latch (2014) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014), films about women on the verge, both premiered in the aesthetically rigorous Forum section of the 64th Berlin International Film Festival this February. Amid a general paucity of U.S. titles, the freedom and dexterity that she, Connor, and her lead actresses displayed served as a reminder that American independent cinema is a wellspring, not a desert, of female talent, ideas, and risk-taking from which broader film culture can benefit.
The films combine generic play with the unusual sensitivity and meandering interests of Connor’s camera as well as Decker’s expressive, freestyle editing. The improvised Butter on the Latch, set in the woods at the East European Folklife Center in Mendocino, California, infuses sexuality with trauma, female friendship with irrational jealousy, and nature with the supernatural strains of Bulgarian folklore. After Sarah (played by photographer and singer Sarah Small) receives a disturbing phone call from a friend and later finds herself in the centre of a similar, vaguely defined and terrifying sex act, she joins Isolde (played by nonactor Isolde Chae-Lawrence) at a Balkan music camp, a place in which documentary moments of dance and drum-circle fellowship commingle with the daytime and nocturnal mysteries of the forest. The more scripted Thou Wast Mild and Lovely tells the story of the shy farmhand Akin, who comes to work for sexual synesthete Sarah (Sophie Traub) and her physically impaired, occasionally offensive (step)father Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet). In a clever casting revanche, this time it is the usually transgressing Swanberg, embodying Akin, who becomes the object of Sarah’s desire. In both films, Decker probes the allure of taboos hidden below the surface of human interaction.
Decker will tell you that she did not go to film school, that it is her ignorance of classical continuity rules and film history that emboldens her formal missteps. More often than not, however, her editorial disruption of the continuities of time, place and action produces innovative disorientations in the passage of time, the contiguity of space, and the certainty of phenomena. This avid musician and graduate of Princeton University’s comparative literature and creative writing programs is profoundly aware of the suggestive powers of music and sound and deeply steeped in literary tradition. Borrowing from, but hardly beholden to, horror and the psychological thriller, Butter on the Latch can sometimes feel like the European film experiments of the 1920s, many of which owed their fascination with the relationship between reality and fantasy to 19th-century Romanticism, gothic horror, Freudian psychoanalysis and wartime post-traumatic stress. Decker’s pursuit of the simultaneity of good and evil in her characters takes form in Connor’s exploitation of the Canon 5D’s shallow depth of field, potential for mobile “proximity”, and intuitively (un)racked focus as well as in Decker’s own editorial refusal to confirm and clarify suggested events. The camera captures Sarah from the side, behind her back, “in” her face or follows the little touches of intimacy that migrate between her and Isolde in the bathroom, along a wooded pathway, or in their cabin: a smile, the play of fingers, words whispered in an ear, hair falling from a face.
The French filmmaker Jean Epstein celebrated the “photogénie” and musicality of movement and called close-ups “the soul of cinema”. They were precisely the shots that could transform optical information into something haptic: “I look, I sniff things, I touch. Close-up, close-up, close-up.” (2) Yet getting close to Sarah produces new distances and uncomfortable revelations. Did that blurred man behind her just anally or vaginally rape her? Was that unseen object torn on the soundtrack a condom, tape that held her down, or a harmonica, now in view, being removed from her body? Which invisible force lies waiting in the blurred darkness towards which she runs and into which she temporarily disappears? Like Freud’s fascination with the continuum of meaning between the known and familiar (heimlich) and the strange and uncanny (unheimlich), both Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely perform the dangerous investigation of “everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has come into the open.” (3) In Decker’s films we are near but not quite sure of both Sarahs and their ambiguous stake in sex and violence; we can never be quite sure of what we ourselves have understood and desired as spectators. Rather, we are left in a state of hermeneutic and perceptual dangling – not in suspense, but in suspension.
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the more ambitious and twice as costly, but also the more flawed, of the two films, combines ambiguities of desire with melodramatic excess. Loosely based on John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and set on a lush farm in rural Kentucky, the film’s progression from Akin’s initial removal of his wedding ring to a brutal and unexpected climax reaches for the careful plotting of the 1950s-‘60s Hitchcock films that Decker devoured during childhood sick days. Her poetic writing and rhythmic editing, Connor’s instinct for discovering threats in nature and architecture, Straub and Longstreet’s turns of slightly incestuous innocence and experience, and Swanberg’s evocation of not only the Jimmy Stewarts and Cary Grants, but also the Vera Miles and Tippi Hedrens, are reinforced by Martín Hernández’s sound design and Molly Herron’s Bernard Herrmann-like strings. But the film’s first third, which exhaustively establishes Akin and Sarah’s mutual desire in close, often redundant shot/reverse shot patterns, risks cheapening the glorious idiosyncrasies of Decker and Connor’s shared visual language. It is the microbudget equivalent of Wong Kar-wai becoming too enamoured of his own brilliant use of slow motion.
Still, the film has strong moments, particularly in the final act when the plot becomes as tightly wound as the red ribbon that Sarah is continually tying and unraveling. In one scene that condenses Decker’s gifts as a haptic filmmaker, Sarah and Drew (Kristin Slaysman), Akin’s wife, tie this ribbon around his eyes. As visibility competes with blindness, as the audio track cuts between sound and sound-mixed silence, and as objectivity and subjectivity become indistinguishable, the spectator is implicated in an orgy of the senses – straining to see and hear more, groped by the finger-like sensation of sudden aural bursts, and stimulated by elliptical actions revealed in glimpses through the cloth. To watch and listen is to participate, not from the male, voyeuristic position that film theorist Laura Mulvey once attributed to Hitchcock, but from one’s own embodiment, regardless of preferred gender identification and sexual practice. (4) It all happens so quickly, inescapably, like a fall into wonderland. This ir- and sur-reality of the everyday, is just a cut away, Decker seems to suggest, from cinematic realism and from our waking and sober social interactions. It is there in the potentially violent sex of Sarah and Steph (Charlie Hewson) in Butter on the Latch, in the galloping demons in oneself and others, and in the discrepancies between nature and culture in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.
It is also there in play, which, in Decker’s on- and off-screen worlds, is as nourishing as a daily vitamin or a spiritual practice. Play is where ideas come from, and it is also how adults find their way home. At least that was my impression a year ago when I attended a Wizard of Oz-themed party in Decker’s apartment. Guests were asked if they would like to have an “experience”. If yes, they were blindfolded and led into the adjacent room. I won’t reveal the entire journey, only that somewhere between Kansas and the Emerald City, a question was asked and answered, “Have you been good or bad?” In life, as in Decker’s art, a compelling way to begin or end a story.
The following is a conversation we had at the 2014 Berlinale.
It’s so interesting to see these two films at the same festival, particularly since I remember you saying that you had once considered editing them into one longer film. How did your ideas about these two narratives emerge?
Well, folktales are really important to me. I see so much folktale in each of them. Originally, I made Butter on the Latch because I was obsessed with Balkan culture. The title “Butter on the Latch” actually comes from a Slavic folk song. I had an idea about Thou Wast Mild and Lovely that I then forgot as I was reading East of Eden and dating another artist. This dark horror was pouring out of my guts.
How did you find the Balkan music camp where you shot Butter on the Latch?
Sarah Small sings in a trio called Black Sea Hotel, a Bulgarian singing group. I had seen her perform with members of that community and saw something in the community that I felt I was missing. It was that feeling that everyone knew the same dances and knew each other’s name. Rooms were filled with movement instead of computers. Moving in unison is one of the most connecting things that people can do, and our culture has lost that. It’s vital to feeling like a part of a group. I then made a short documentary on the Balkan camp and shot something like forty hours just to get those 10 minutes. It was something I did on my own, but the East European Folklife Center was interested in using it.
Both films portray women named Sarah, who are more complicated than they at first appear.
I don’t know why I reused the name Sarah for the lead character in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. I think I liked how plain it is and how not-plain that character is. Butter on the Latch came from being afraid of my own madness, that underneath me as a nice, normal person was this other person, who can do things that the rest of me doesn’t approve of.
I guess I pretend to be a very nice, happy person. I’ve pretended that so well for so long that I tend to forget all this other shit that’s going on in me. The only way I deal with that is to let that other shit have a place, which is art. There’s something inside that can’t be said and that I don’t know how to say, and the only way I’ve ever said it was by playing the piano as a kid. The way I’m saying it now is through movies.
You grew up in Texas and then moved to New York after college. How did this cultural and regional shift affect your creativity?
I think repression is great for being an artist. You’ve got all this stuff you’ve got to say, and you’re trying to say it your whole life. Being from Texas was very helpful. Also, I had a very strict, British nanny when I was little. She’d just lock me up and let me cry until it was over. When you’re playing music, you can play something without words that isn’t necessarily your own. People approve of it. I’d be playing Beethoven on the piano, and people would say, “Oh my God, you’re so expressive.”
So you could just point to Beethoven, “It wasn’t me. He did it!”
Exactly. And I think in my 20s, it was the same with documentaries. I was making movies, but I could always point to these causes and say that I was making them about something. Then at some point I had enough friends and support in my life and lived in a supportive place, grew up a bit, did some therapy and meditation, and I started to want to make my own work.
In shooting Rosehill and seeing several films by women our age, I’m struck by this struggle that a lot of us seem to go through in articulating female complexity. So much of what we think girls and women are supposed to be is ingrained in us as children. Your films feel like the inversion of the nursery rhyme “What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all that’s nice”, which left boys with “snips and snails and puppy dog tails.”
Joe [Swanberg] once said that when you have really loving parents, you can make really unloved art. You can make choices that are gross or more disgusting. People who are making art that tries to please other people maybe had really sad childhoods. I feel like I get to make these really dark things because my parents were really embracing of all the sides of me. I was always encouraged to do anything I wanted to do. I liked to race cars and play drum sets when I was a kid, and they weren’t afraid that I was going to turn into a boy. I don’t want to call all of my female characters masculine because that creates a dichotomy. But they’re taking charge of their own destinies. They’re leaders. They’re the ones operating the situation and manifesting their ambition and visions. In some ways they’re imposing that on other people, but they’re strong women.
But you’re suggesting that your characters’ ambition comes at the expense of, let’s say, “mild”, un-rocking boats.
When it comes to “sugar and spice and all that’s nice,” for both Sarah in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and for myself as a filmmaker, it totally works in our favour to be perceived as lovely, beautiful and maybe a little offbeat, but then no one sees it coming when all the other stuff rears its head. As a filmmaker you get interviews with people who’d never interview you, or you get through doors you’d never get through. “Oh, she’s just a little girl doing her little, silly movie. No one’s ever going to see that.” They don’t care that you’re there whereas if you show up with papers and you’re a man, it’s “no way, dude.” So doors open for the sugar and spice. As for the puppy dog tails, luckily all my female characters are in touch with that side of themselves. Sophie Traub’s character has her hands in the mud all the time. She’s not afraid of her body. She’s literally taking a bite out of nature and very in touch with the land – the things you associate with little boys.
Butter on the Latch is an improvised film, in which you cast two non-professional actresses, Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence. How much of the film had you planned, and how much did they contribute to the story?
We had a treatment, and later I was surprised to discover that we actually stuck to it. There were just a few small but significant changes at the end. When you write a treatment, what you’re really saying is “Here we go.” Because it’s step one on a mile-long hike to the end of production, and the actors are the ones who are going to put their voices into those bodies and make the characters come alive. They’re all improvising themselves, but I wouldn’t say they’re “playing” themselves. I don’t think Sarah Small is that character. But they were really incredible about using their own instincts and following their guts. I would love to be able to take credit for that, but when you’re in that sticky situation – “Oh shit, I signed up to be in this movie in the woods, and there’s no script!” – your main resource for coming alive on camera is to use your instincts. The characters are definitely different from what I had originally, but so much better.
Early in the film, right after Sarah joins Isolde at the camp, there’s one scene in the bathroom that really establishes the intimacy between the two characters. You expect Sarah, as a musician, to be a performer, but the scene is crucial for Isolde’s legitimacy as a counterweight to Sarah’s perception of the world. Isolde tells this long story about a visit to a tantric massage parlor, and the camera just lingers on the little details of this communication at close range…
Isolde Chae-Lawrence was a total surprise. I was really trying to cast a close friend of Sarah’s since I knew that chemistry. Isolde was a wild card since she and Sarah had never met. I thought, “Oh God, I hope they can pull off being friends, being close.” And then they were both really available and up for it. They found something in each other, a similar strength and female power that resonated for both, and they calmed each other’s fears about improvising a movie. The first night we had been shooting that scene of their sensual bathroom story for a while, and it wasn’t working. I said, “We need something really specific and drawn-out.” And then Isolde pulled out that story, which is not necessarily true, but is a combination of experiences she’s heard of, etc. That scene became such a backbone for setting up their relationship outside the camp. She just rose to the occasion of creating a moment. And I had no idea that bathroom scene was going to be so significant; it ended up being seven minutes of the movie.
The other thing that scene reinforces is the sensitivity of Ashley Connor’s cinematography, which runs throughout your films. How did you collaborate on a scene like that?
Ashley and I work so intuitively together, and the bathroom scene turned out just the way I wanted it to look. We didn’t have to talk about it so much. The bathroom was such a small space that we didn’t have enough room to shoot it any other way. I liked the choices she was making, and I don’t remember asking her to modify her shots. Maybe I told her to push in with hand signals because you can’t really say, “Stop”. You’d ruin the energy. With Butter on the Latch, I was so focused on the acting, writing and directing of the film that I just trusted Ashley to make decisions. She had done such an excellent job on Me the Terrible, which was shot on super-16. I would look at her framing, but everything she did was exactly what I wanted. I just learned to trust her deeply. With Butter on the Latch, there were a few shots I wanted, but more often than not I’d say, “Let’s just go with your gut instinct.”
Did your background as a documentary filmmaker help you to edit this improvised material?
For most people getting all the footage from Butter on the Latch would have been overwhelming. We shot a lot of things in one take for 12 minutes, and there were no cutaways. If you want to cut in the middle of that take or else three or four times, you have to be very creative in how that happens. I had learned that from working on Bi the Way, but I think a bad editor is someone who’s like, “Oh, I can’t believe they didn’t get the shot of X.” You don’t actually ever need the shot you don’t have. You’re just seeing what the material is telling you and then finding a way to make it work. Or leaving stuff out if it doesn’t work. I felt really lucky to have that background because otherwise I would have been like, “Oh, shit.” The bathroom scene and the scene of the women talking on the bench were difficult because Isolde and Sarah nailed it in the first take and didn’t want to do it again. Ashley was just slowly moving around their faces. Later I had to be creative about how I let the scenes unfold and not have them take forever, while still giving them the attention they deserved.
Another place where you and Ashley are creative is in your use of focus. So often, blurred focus feels like a neglected option in cinema, particularly for entries and exits from the frame. The mere fact that a person who walks away from the camera – provided it’s not a wide shot – will eventually go out of focus and transform into colourful, cubist shapes is so evocative. The new single-lens reflex cameras can make this too easy to do, but Ashley’s cinematography and your editing really embrace the narrative potential of shallow focus.
I don’t even notice it. I didn’t notice that Butter on the Latch was out of focus until audiences started asking about it. I was just like, “Obviously we’re going to use that shot where Sarah walks away and it’s all blurry.” I could have chosen other shots, but these just felt right. Especially with Butter on the Latch, the question wasn’t how you could tell this story by way of a scripted narrative, but how you could tell it with the available images. Blurry moments are the essence of the film. The film is about how life is so fucking blurry. Nothing makes sense. My relationships don’t make sense. My mind doesn’t make sense. My connection between the present and the past is confused – which it is for everyone. That blurriness felt so natural and so appropriate to the film that I didn’t even think of it as being “out-of-focus”.
Two shots in Butter on the Latch use this blur in a particularly striking way. In the first, Sarah is in a vaguely defined garage, surrounded by men, who appear to be watching what might have been her own rape. She navigates her way through the space and then runs towards this blurred darkness, which is even scarier because of the unclear contours of the space. The other shot that comes to mind is when Sarah is lying in Isolde’s bed after a traumatic real, fantasised, or dreamed encounter with Steph. The camera pulls away, backs out the door, tilts up to capture a bit of the gutter, and then is gone. There’s a kind of demonic approach and departure that gets echoed in the film through the focus.
I always wanted that shot of Sarah looking at the camera and the camera walking out, but the shot being out of focus wasn’t a choice. It’s just what Ashley did, and I loved it. I guess that’s why I never conceived of it being out of focus. That’s what I saw and responded to and ultimately put in the movie, but as a director, I never said, “Let’s shoot this out of focus.” When we talk about focus, the example that I think of is at the beginning of one of the dinner scenes in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. The camera sort of walks into the room, and everything is blurry. Then it sort of lands on Sarah, who’s looking at Akin. Eventually she says, “You’re like a witch.” That was a choice. Then at the end of the film, in one of my favourite shots, we’re outside with that little kid, who’s in focus. We go past the door, which is in focus, and then into the house, where the living room is all blurry. You hear Sarah’s voice over in the blurry house, and then the camera floats into the kitchen and lands on Akin’s in-focus face in his traumatic state. In those two shots, I feel as though the choice to use blurred focus really makes a point relative to the story. There’s no reason that that room needs to be in focus. We know everything that’s happened there. At that moment it’s the idea of the room that’s important. I love that moment because the character at that moment is also in the ether, seeing things in a blur: who is she, who am I, where am I?
That’s just it. In both films those moments are precisely terrifying because of this confused orientation and limited vision. It’s not just thematic; it’s literally in the image, in the frame. “I am scared because I don’t know what I’m seeing.” Where does this desire to portray fear and trauma come from?
It’s hard to say. I write a script that comes from somewhere, from some weird thing that I want to work on or work out, but it’s hard to think about it abstractly. My fear is always, “Am I going to be too terrifying?” When they get inside there, are they going to find out that I’m not all “nice and spice” and discover that I’m a real person who has a darkness, too? Is that going to be horrifying? I don’t remember the exact myth, but in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces, there’s one of a boy who happens upon Artemis in the woods. (5) He’s been tracking her, and one day he sees her. She’s naked with all her nymphs and also sees him. And of course, he’s like, “Oh, you’re so beautiful.” He has no negative intention, but because he’s seen something he shouldn’t have, she turns him into a deer. Then she transforms her nymphs into hounds, and they race him down and chew him up. I guess that’s my fear. Like Artemis, I have things inside of me that I’m not willing to share – some nakedness of my spirit that I’ve been protecting for a long time. And that’s the question of my movies. If the boy comes innocently knocking and there’s even love between us, but he sees the fear, does that mean I have to unleash the hounds?
Or the demons. Or the dragon to which someone refers in Butter on the Latch. What is the Slavic folk song in the title about?
The girl was singing, “Young boy, young boy, be patient. I’ll get some water for the latch. Young boy, young boy, be patient. I’ll get some milk for the latch. Young boy, young boy, be patient. I’ll get some cream for the latch.” Ultimately she gets butter, and then you realise that she’s either slipping him into the house or slipping out of the house, while her parents are sleeping. I liked the idea that when you make something quiet, it can still get in and be very dangerous.
“Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” is also a song…
It comes from an Appalachian hymn. I don’t love the title as much as I love “Butter on the Latch,” which feels perfect for that movie. I tried several other titles for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, but this is the one that has both teeth and baby skin. “Thou wast” is a really weird and ferocious way to start something, and “mild and lovely” is mild and lovely. But it’s so clear from that title that the movie is not mild and lovely.
In Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, you and Ashley apply your formal approach to a more classical narrative, for which you wrote a script and “controlled” the language a bit more. How was the process of moving from the first film to the second?
At the time, I was fed up with improvisation although now I love it, after editing a scripted film for a year and a half. But back then, I couldn’t wait to script a movie because I thought it would be so much easier. It’s hard both ways. There’s no easy way to make a movie. But with Thou Was Mild and Lovely, I was just happy to be able to prep the shoot, have an assistant director, and get the scene ready while doing something else. What migrated with me unintentionally from Butter on the Latch was my editing style. At first, we had edited the movie as a realist film, and I thought it was totally lame. Then David Barker and I started watching it together, and I showed him some sequences that I had been editing on the side. These were more fluid, more dream-like and nightmarish. Whenever I’d try to put them in the film, everyone else would say, “That’s weird. That doesn’t work.” But he was like, “This is exactly what works. Let’s build a movie around this language.” The reason these things weren’t working is because they came out of nowhere. As the film is now, there are a lot of strange choices, and when they come, you’re more prepared to accept them.
Yes, that’s a very delicate contract between the film and the spectators and how far they’re willing to step into unfamiliar territory.
Have you seen Hal Ashby’s film, The Landlord (1970)? I don’t think it got amazing reviews at the time, but it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. I had no idea that he was an editor for a long time before he started directing. He makes a lot of crazy editing choices in the opening of the film. When you use that kind of style in the beginning of a film, your audience is prepared for it and doesn’t take it as an offense later. Whereas when you introduce something like that more than 30 minutes into a film, people of course are going to be like, “Wait, what the fuck? I don’t trust you anymore. Who are you?”
In Butter on the Latch, you develop this great economy to your editing. In the beginning of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, it feels as though you bring Akin and Sarah’s mutual looking (through a window, a fence, a barn, the grass, or the dinner table) to excess. On one hand this feels too loose and unformed; on the other hand, it evokes certain overladen shots in older Hollywood melodramas and thrillers, where framing, cuts, and non-diegetic music all converged.
The sound design is sometimes a little over the top and maybe not fully done. Martín Hernández is a genius. He worked on 21 Grams (2003) and Pan’s Layrinth (2006). The film is rich and full because he spent a lot of time on each minute, almost too much time. Now it maybe sounds overdesigned for this level of movie. But the sound design also adds something – a sense of tension. It’s very immersive, and you definitely feel like you’re shitty-ass stuck in this world.
It’s funny because my critique was really a visual one, but I love that you responded with these thoughts on sound. It’s true that sound completely changes how we see and sometimes, literally, what we see in images.
I do hear you though. We really struggled with the beginning: how to set up the characters so that you care about them, don’t know that much about them, but still understand why that explosive scene between Sarah and Akin at the creek is happening and what is at stake for those two characters. There were many versions of the beginning that didn’t make that clear. Now I think the beginning is a bit disorienting and can be confusing, but I think it does the best job of setting up that moment. Because then you land in that moment…
“Landing” is a good word for that sudden change in the film’s density. Before that, you’re kind of “flitting”.
Exactly. All the scenes before are short, and in that one you actually spend some time with them and are like, “Oh, this is what this movie is going to be addressing.” That made the movie easier to understand as a whole in a way that wasn’t working before we made the choice to keep the opening disorienting and trust that the audience would trust us.
Three years ago, you attended the Berlinale as an actress in Joe Swanberg’s Art History, which he screened in Forum along with Silver Bullets (2011). How was it to go from being an actress in his films to directing him in your own?
Directing a director is really interesting, probably in the same way that you saw with me on Rosehill. A director is thinking about acting, but she or he is thinking more about everything else. The acting comes out, but the director brain never leaves. Joe said that he tried as hard as possible not to be or think like a director on Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, but I saw him thinking like a director for his own film. He was trying to find a distributor for Drinking Buddies (2013) while we were shooting. So he was on email and on his phone a lot. I didn’t have his full attention. In contrast, it was interesting to work with Sophie Traub and Robert Longstreet because I did have their full attention. That was helpful for me in terms of directing actors. Ultimately I’m very glad that I cast Joe. We got what we needed for the film, and we did get to communicate about his role. I think he was like, “That’s how it is when you’re a director,” and I understand that more than anyone. Your project is your baby. So he had a lot going on, but the minute we were shooting, he was available. The minute we cut, he was emailing his producers. That was very different from cutting and having Sophie say, “Okay, so this is what I’m thinking about for the next shot.” But I appreciated him doing it at all. He really didn’t have time to do the movie.
In Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Joe is blindfolded in an erotically charged scene with Sophie Traub and Kristin Slaysman. More than any other scene in the film, this one conveys your potential for a cinema of touch and texture.
When we first edited that scene, there were moments when it went completely silent. I miss this. If I ever do a new sound mix, maybe I would do that again. But that scene was really inspired by Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There is this incredible scene in that novel in which a guy is blindfolded. He’s taken in this woman who might be able to help him find his wife. He’s led, blindfolded, into this room, and he’s sitting. He doesn’t hear anyone enter. He feels his pants being unzipped and someone sucking on his dick. It’s the most erotic experience I’ve ever had with a novel. That was the first time I realised that giving head doesn’t have to be demeaning. His power is completely swallowed up into someone else, and he can’t see the person and doesn’t know who/where/what he is anymore. The gorgeous embrace that that other person has on his most intimate part – I remember reading that on the subway and thinking, “This is the sexiest thing I’ve ever read.” It changed my way of thinking about that part of male sexuality. That’s not what happens in the scene in my movie, but I realise that a lot of that novel ended up in the film.
In both films, but also in your acting and performance art, you seem fascinated by taboos, particularly those surrounding women’s sexuality.
But isn’t that what makes good storytelling? Is there a good story about people who are good all the time and only do nice things for each other? Working with taboos just feels like working with conflict. I’m still Christian to this day and feel very committed to that faith, but I was very upset in college to find that I had been lied to for a lot of my childhood about what’s right and what’s wrong and who’s the authority on that and the fact that there isn’t one. If you believe in that type of god, “God” would be the authority on these things. But God may be a very complex being that understands the lightness and darkness that’s part of experience. With all these people walking around proclaiming what’s right and wrong, it was suddenly very frustrating to feel as though I had outgrown that. Even in high school, when I’d hear in my Christian community that Muslims were going to hell, I’d be like, “I don’t believe that. It doesn’t make any sense that a person who happened to be born in Egypt as a Muslim would go to hell.” I rejected all that. Religion loves to make everything a taboo. And America loves to make everything a taboo. There are ways that people hurt each other, and we can learn from these things. It’s also nice to have rules about these things in society. But there are a lot of other things that are taboo that are not hurting anyone: a lot of personal interactions between people that are actually expressions of love. It’s sort of silly that those things are also taboo. Views on homosexuality, views on other people’s sexuality at all.
So much of your editing is about not serving up an answer, not providing a visually confirmed solution. Shots that might exist in other films for this purpose are often absent in your work. Your denial of this gesture puts your spectators in a dubious position, allowing them to navigate grey areas.
That’s the goal. The movies that give you all the answers feel very boring to me. It’s so much more fun to leave with a bunch of questions and to answer them yourself. That’s often what a good teacher does. A good teacher doesn’t give you all the answers. A good teacher asks you more questions than you’ve asked him or her. I’m not saying that I’m trying to be a teacher, but exciting interactions that are part of growth are the ones in which the answer comes from you, not from the outside. And that’s ultimately what the characters are doing. They’re trying to find an answer inside themselves, and it doesn’t come easily. Maybe there’s a glimpse of it, and then it’s gone. And then they don’t know what’s real and which part of themselves to trust. That’s what I’m trying to do with those sequences that make you ask, “Wait, did that just happen? What did I just see? Shit, I’m not going to see it again!”
- See Govindini Murty, “How Female Directors Could, at Last, Infiltrate Hollywood: Go Indie First,” The Atlantic, 21 February 2013; Gary Susman, “Where Are All the Female Filmmakers?” Rolling Stone, 29 November 2013; See Frank Bruni, “Waiting for Wonder Woman,” The New York Times, 21 December 2013; Ramin Setoodeh, “Hollywood Sexist? Female Directors Still Missing in Action” Variety, 2 January 2014; Lexi Alexander, “No More Excuses: Hollywood Needs to Hire More Female Directors,” IndieWIRE, 15 January 2014; and Kevin B. Lee, “The Gender Gap in Screen Time,” The New York Times, 27 February 2014. See also the blog, www.womendirectorsinhollywood.com, the list of films that pass or fail the Bechdel Test [link to: www.bechdeltest.com], and the website for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: www.seejane.org/index.php.
- Jean Epstein, “Magnification,” in Richard Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1988, pp. 236-237.
- Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, Trans. David McLintock, Penguin, New York, 2003, p. 132.
- Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, vol. 16 no. 3, autumn 1975, pp. 6-18.
- Decker is thinking of the hunter Actaeon, who comes across Artemis bathing. Once he is transformed, his own hounds hunt him down.