‘Madeline’s Madeline’ writer-director Josephine Decker on her experimental portrait of a young actress
What would happen if you could drink lightning in a bottle? The results might look something like “Madeline’s Madeline,” a vertiginous head-trip through the creative process that’s so boldly, electrifyingly composed you can practically see sparks flying out from the edges of the frame.
At the heart of it all is Madeline (Helena Howard), a troubled New York teen who falls under the spell of experimental-theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker), much to the dismay of her concerned mother Regina (Miranda July), whose relationship with her daughter grows increasingly strained as Madeline gives herself over entirely to Evangeline’s vision.
When director and co-writer Josephine Decker (who’ll be at the Brattle Theatre this Saturday at 7 p.m. for a post-screening Q&A) first planted the seed for the film, she sought to capture the extraordinary, extemporaneous energy of theater troupes, and explore how actors can become their most demanding roles. “I was interested in making art about making art,” she says.
For the 37-year-old filmmaker and performance artist, few subjects have proven more consistently mesmerizing; and when she discovered teenage actress Howard at a New Jersey festival back in 2014, Decker says she knew immediately she’d found the ideal collaborator with whom to embark on such a journey.
Q. How did you first realize you wanted to tell a story set within the experimental theater scene?
A. I had attended this amazing theater intensive for three weeks one summer; they do commedia dell’arte, neutral mask, and then clowning. And during the clowning section, I just saw people get very real. Clowning is about breaking the fourth wall, but you have to be incredibly honest with yourself and with the audience. The breakthroughs I saw people have there… It was like whole new people emerged. We discovered new sides to our personalities.
Q. There’s this restless improvisational energy to “Madeline’s Madeline,” which feels in large part due to how the movie is edited. What was it like to put it all together?
A. The edit was really challenging. It was kind of a poem on the page. We had to do a lot of work to structure it a bit more in the edit, but truthfully also a lot of the edit was just playing with the music and figuring out how to tie together all the different chords of the narrative. Editing was a weird journey; it was very long and involved. But that was sort of the whole movie. There was a lot of figuring out what we were making when we were rehearsing and improvising, when I was trying to write it, and then also when I was editing it. I think that’s good. When it’s really clear what you’re making, maybe it’s not so mysterious and magical.
Q. This story revolves around a trio of powerful women in the arts. Did you draw from your own life or experiences?
A. Most art is autobiographical in some ways. Even if you’re writing about vampires or alien invaders, I always feel like writers are writing about some aspect of themselves. What I realized slowly about the three women is that they were three different parts of myself. I don’t think the writing really worked until I owned them and actually let myself be Madeline, because I’d kept otherizing her in some ways. She became much more exciting when I learned to just let her be this complex person.
Q. Helena Howard’s performance in your film is one of the most lauded acting debuts of the year. How did you two meet?
A. I met Helena at a festival in New Jersey, where she did this monologue from “Blackbird,” which was stunning. She was 15 at the time. It was kind of a movie moment. She finished her monologue, and I burst into tears. You’re meant to offer notes, and I just sat there with my mouth open and I was like, “That was the best performance I’ve ever seen in my life. I have no notes.” And then she started crying, too; she had brought it, and I had witnessed it, and I think we both felt seen in different ways... I chased her down the hallway after and was like, “Can we work together?” She has this amazing, strong presence. Even when you’re just walking down the street with her, people stop and talk to her. They notice her.
Q. How has it been to put this movie out into the world and see people respond to it?
A. It may make me a better artist — although it definitely makes me way more tortured — but what I always internalize is the negative feedback. For about a year, we were showing the movie, getting notes, and making changes, trying different things with the editing. What’s weirdly sticking with me now is that I got so used to this movie receiving criticism. It’s bizarre that now that it’s finished that people love it. [laughs] The responses have all been deeply moving and inspiring. I made a movie about female artists struggling to believe in themselves: surprise, surprise. [laughs] It’s not too far off from reality. But when you make something very personal and challenging, and you put that out there, it can pay off.