srijeda, 26. studenoga 2014.

Josephine Decker - Thou Wast Mild and Lovely / Butter on the Latch (2014)


Filmovi o živcima, šumi i damama... prizori snimani iz gledišta životinja itd. Very very.

Berlinale Breakout: Josephine Decker On Her Much Discussed Festival Double Feature
By Peter Knegt | Indiewire

We'd call it a double Decker, but basically everyone already has. American filmmaker Josephine Decker has been the talk of the Berlin International Film Festival thanks to the programming of both her first and second features in the festival, "Butter on the Latch" and "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely."
Josephine Decker
Abe AvisnanJosephine Decker
We'd call it a Double Decker, but basically everyone already has. American filmmaker Josephine Decker has been the talk of the Berlin International Film Festival thanks to the programming of both her first and second features, "Butter on the Latch" and "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely."
The latter -- which could be more or less described as an existential and highly sexual horror film set on a farm -- world premiered in Berlin's Forum section.  The former -- set in a Balkan folk camp and dealing with similar themes (though with a much less coherent narrative) -- was shot way back in the summer of 2011, and premiered very under-the-radar at the Maryland Film Festival back in May of last year. For it to find its way to Berlin nine months later and, more over, for it be joined by Decker's follow-up, is a pretty remarkable feat.
"To take it at all was incredible," Decker told Indiewire at the festival. "I get to come to Berlin with this little movie I thought no one would ever see. And now there's like audiences of 300 every night."
Decker admitted there also a few fortuitous incidents surrounding the buzz she's build here in Berlin.
"There was this German journalist the party for the films last night who came up to me and said 'who is doing your publicity? Because Greta Gerwig mentioned your name at the opening ceremony and then an hour later I got an invite to your party!' It was just funny because of course we didn't plan for her to say that. But it was awesome!"
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Joe Swanberg
Pre-Berlin, Decker was perhaps best-known for undressing in front of Marina Abramovic at The Artist Is Present (and being quickly escorted out by MoMA security), or perhaps for her various roles in the films of Joe Swanberg (who himself has a prominent role in "Mild and Lovely"). But these two films she brought to Berlin -- both exceptional and unique narratives filled with tense eroticism and experimental, largely free-form filmmaking -- have already changed that for a lot of folks.
Decker's first film was inspired in part by the improv-style filmmaking she'd experience working with Swanberg.
"I decided to improvise 'Butter on the Latch' because of the work I'd done with Joe," Decker said. "But I think he make improv look a little easier than it is. It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. Also he at least used to do these improved movies under these extremely spare, controlled settings where it's like a room or a house or an office. And then I decided to do it at this Balkan camp with like 200 people in the background. I just hadn't thought about what it would mean to manage. It was a place I'd never been to before and a whole community of people who are trying to have their own experience. Maybe I got a little ambitious. But that's the thing about being a filmmaker sometimes. You just naively walk into a situation that's way more complicate than you think."
But things ended up working out anyway, leading Decker into her second feature, which she initially had wanted to improvise as well. But a mix of three things -- a new and intense relationship, practicing "The Artist's Way" (the book by Julia Cameron about creative personal development), and reading Steinbeck's "East of Eden" -- came together to inspire Decker to write a short story which eventually became the first act of the entirely scripted "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely."
"I was actually kind of afraid of [the script]," she said. "I was like 'what have I done!' I poured my soul out. I was really worried people would think I was sick or perverse and disgusting and way too much."
"Butter on the Latch"
"Butter on the Latch"
Decker actually lost one actress for the part because "the material was too sexual" and had to recast the role with Sophie Traub, whose quite impressive in a clearly intense role. 
"Honestly, it worked out great because Sophie is the best," Decker smiled. "I cant believe the level of actress she is. She's so young. And she's just present and fearless. Which is such a huge gift as a director. To have someone that doesn't question, they just trust and throw themselves into it. She did that every single day."
So what advice does Decker have for those trying to get into filmmaking who clearly should view her Berlinale double dip as a bit of a dream scenario?
"I think the other trajectory for me would have been trying for three or four years to write this script and raise a million dollars to make my first film," she said. "I think a lot of people feel all this pressure that their first film has to be, you know, really good... But I think you only learn how to do this by doing it. Or actually, that's not true. There's many ways. But I think that for me the most instructive way is to be doing it. And I've learned exponentially more byjust  making something. I feel like not putting up barriers and just being willing to fail and take the risks you want to take and do a movie for much less.  $5,000, $10,000, $15,000... And then you've made something and you know what works and what doesn't."
We can't wait to see what she's learned for round three.

Joe Swanberg and Josephine Decker
Filmmakers and friends Swanberg and Decker—who both have features at the 2013 La Di Da Film Festival—discuss the immorality of not making comedies and the challenges of making sexually charged films.

Joe Swanberg and Josephine Decker have amassed a fascinating body of work that seems to continually intersect. Swanberg, who has directed over twenty films in less than a decade, has been receiving phenomenal reviews for his most recent film, Drinking Buddies, while Decker, who has frequently appeared as an actress in Swanberg’s films, has been receiving rave reviews for her short feature Butter on the Latch, including a New Yorker article that called her film “an utter exhilaration of cinematic imagination.” Separately, they have established strong, original voices that continue to garner praise. Together, these two boundary-breaking artists often grapple with themes of community and sexuality in highly intricate and nuanced ways. With both filmmakers screening work—Decker’s Butter on the Latch and Swanberg’s thriller 24 Frames—at the upcoming La Di Da Film Festival, Swanberg and Decker sat down to talk about their films and the challenges they are working to tackle.   —Russell Sheaffer

Josephine Decker I’m heading down to Sidewalk [Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama] this weekend. Are you going?
Joe Swanberg I wish. Drinking Buddies is opening this weekend and they need me to do press. There’s a lot more to do and there’s a lot more interest, people are really watching this one. It’s already been a big success on VOD.
JD That’s great! It’s a great title, too.
JS People who love the movie think it’s too mainstream of a title and people who hate the movie get really upset because they feel misled by a title that makes them think it’s going to be a really fun romp.
JD I like the title and I imagine you’re pulling in an audience that’s looking for a stupid comedy but gets something smarter. Win-win? OK: questions. How do you feel like the stories you want to tell have evolved since you started making movies?
JS Honestly, I don’t think the stories that I want to tell have changed. I think the way that I’m interested in telling them has changed a lot. I’m interested in an audience now in a way that I didn’t used to be. Very early on I was interested in critics. I was a kid who went to film school and who grew up loving independent and art house movies, so that was the stuff I wanted to make. The more that I’ve been doing it, the more that it has become my job and how I make money and support my family, my engagement with some of the movies has changed. I’m still making very aggressive art house movies but I’m also interested in connecting with bigger audiences, too.
Over the course of the last couple years I’ve started to consider the very noble goal of entertaining people, which I don’t take lightly. I had a conversation with Madeleine Olnek, and she gave me one of the greatest pieces of film theory that anyone has ever given me since I’ve been a filmmaker. She said, “If you have the ability to make comedies, then it is immoral not to.” I really have not stopped thinking about it since she said it and it’s why I did Drinking Buddies after a string of very insular, arty movies. I started thinking, “Maybe she’s right. Maybe it’s a waste of a gift if you can entertain people and make them laugh, make them feel better—maybe it’s immoral not to.” It’s really intense but it really struck me. I think that everything I make for a while, even it’s traumatic, you will find in the comedy section of the video store.
JD That’s interesting because it begs the question, “What is a comedy?”
JS I just think about the audience now, about holding up my end of the bargain. I think about what it means for someone to come and spend twelve dollars and two hours of their time and all of these parts of the equation; I really think about my role in that. Is it just to put up on screen whatever I feel? Is there a sort of implicit contract that I am to entertain them? That used to feel really gross but now it feels sort of noble, the task of entertaining people. It’s not easy, that’s the other thing about it. It is much easier to make an art film. It’s much easier to make “smart choices” that film critics respond to. At this point, I could do that shit with my eyes closed. (laughter) How do you make America laugh? To me, that is a challenge. I’m ready to tackle that.
JD I think, too, that your films have been screening to bigger and bigger audiences at bigger and bigger festivals and it’s different to watch a film on your own with a small group than to watch it with a big audience. You think “Oh, no! This part feels slow and it didn’t feel slow when I was watching it alone on my TV!” You want them to love it.

JD Sure!
JS What does it feel to be one of the few filmmakers out there making films about female sexuality?
JD Wow. I don’t feel like I’m one of the few.
JS How many are there? First of all, you don’t see many women directing movies in the first place, but, beyond that, sexuality is such a minority of the topics of films and when you combine that with the scarcity of women writer-directors, I feel like you are in the minority of the minority.
JD Wow, that’s cool! I mean, I don’t know if that’s true—I’m a part of this female filmmaker collective in New York, Film Fatales, and we talk a lot about magical realism and female sexuality, so I feel like there are a ton of women making this kind of work. Eighty of us female filmmakers very interested in having open conversations about female sexuality meet in living rooms once a month. But, in terms of people who have work on the circuit right now, maybe you’re right?
JS When you go to a film festival with Butter on the Latch, for example, you are both going to be one of the minorities in that you are one of the few women directors in the program and then, additionally, you’ll probably be the only film in most festivals that is explicitly about female sexuality. Do you feel representative of something? Do you feel obligated to present that point of view?
JD That’s funny, because when I’m trying to pitch things, I’m aware that I have to pretend like I represent something that I definitely don’t feel like I do. People want to hear that “Josephine’s making work about female sexuality,” but the truth is that I’m just making work about my sexuality, which is totally weird. I would be shocked if any other woman felt the same about sexuality as I do. I’m so glad that my first lesson in making films was Bi the Way because I learned really early that everyone’s sexuality is different. No one can ever represent a larger group. But it is exciting to make work about my sexuality because it allows people to talk about their sexuality and that’s what I’ve craved my whole life. I can’t believe I went through all of puberty in Texas and wasn’t able to have conversations about my sexual experiences with my own best girl friends. I mean, could we talk about being with men? Yes. But could we talk about our own pleasure? No. I’m actually very nervous that when Thou Wast Mild and Lovely comes out, people are going to be very offended and say, “This is not female sexuality!” And I’ll say, “Of course not, it’s my weird quirks and the things that turn me on!”
JS That gets at the heart of my question. Are you nervous? Excited? Do you feel brave or vulnerable? What is it like to be out there with that stuff?
JD Honestly, I wonder if it will hold me back. I don’t know if female programmers will feel like “This is not the way we want to portray female sexuality” because I’m saying, “some women want to be dominated. Some women want to be dominant.”
JS So, what you’re saying is you want to be dominated. You want to be dominant. You’re saying the film is about your sexuality.

JS I want to keep asking you questions, but I’ll let you ask me one.
JD I brought a list.
JS Look at that preparation, that says a lot about you and me. You’re asking me all of these questions and I’m just babbling, asking you whatever comes into my head.
JD The irony is, I think your questions will probably be better than mine because you’re going with the flow of our thoughts. So, next question: What is it like to act in a sex scene in a movie that is not your own?
JS I’ve done it a few times and I go through different thoughts about it. The internal, heady thoughts are probably the same as a lot of people: “What does my body look like? Is this unflattering?” Insecure kinds of things. I think a lot about the other person: “Am I making this person uncomfortable?” There is a lot of typical guilt and shame built into taking your clothes off in front of cameras and other people. Also, on the self-conscious end, I’m aware of my reputation as someone who makes a lot of work about sex and the negative side of that reputation is as someone who sort of exploits people or gratuitously uses sex in movies. So, when I’m in a sex scene, I wonder, “Is this fodder for a cannon that the critics of my work can use against me?”
On the positive side of it, it’s nice be an actor and not be in charge of it. It’s hard to be in sex scenes in my own movies because the power dynamic is already shifted, you know? I’m the boss and the creator of the situation, and when I’m in it, there is a weird power dynamic. I have to work with people I trust a lot. When I’m in someone else’s movies, I’m not engineering the situation so I can remove a big amount of stress from it in terms of worrying about all those things. Also, not being the director, it’s someone else’s job to make sure it comes out all right. I’m just doing my one job.
On your movie, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the sex scene I acted in was an incredible experience. I liked the people I was working with, I felt really comfortable on your set, and it was cool to have Ashley Connor, a woman, as DP. Honestly, it was kind of exciting to be objectified. I had never been in a situation where all of these women were looking at me in a sexual way. There are a lot of very good-looking men who get to feel that all the time, but that was the first time that I felt like “Oh, I’ve been cast as the leading man in this movie.” I mostly act in horror movies, though, so sex scenes in those are there for a very specific purpose. Your movie’s sex scene was a pleasant experience because the scene was an unusual part of the plot and because I trusted you and I liked Sophie and Kristen, so it was easy to feel safe. The big thing is that you always want the movie to be good. If I think the movie is going to suck than I automatically feel bad about it. Even if someone is like, “this is going to be horrible, its going to be uncomfortable, the actors hate your guts, but the movie is going to be incredible,” I’d feel a lot better than, “Oh, you’re going to be working with all of these amazing people and it’s going to be a lovely experience but the movie is going to suck.” On your movie, I felt really good because I thought the movie was going to be really good. You never know, but that always adds to my comfort level.
JD That scene is very sexy.
JS It was very sexy to shoot. It was the only time for me that a sex scene was actually sexy to shoot. It never is. I think you created that experience, you wanted it that way. As an actor, I felt freedom to be invested that way. I’m not a deep actor, I’m pretty surface level. I can do a passable job but I don’t let myself go that deep. Your movie was one of the only times that I felt like it was a part of my job to really be present there. I’ve also never had a blindfold on, so that was weird. I liked it though. It was different.
JD It’s wild to hear you say that shooting sex scenes is never sexy. Your films are centered around sex, like Nights and Weekends. That’s not enjoyable? That’s amazing.
JS The sex scenes in Nights and Weekends were miserable to shoot. We were fighting the whole time. Greta [Gerwig] didn’t trust me at all by that point and I didn’t trust her at all. That’s the last thing we ever did together. We couldn’t be friends or collaborators after that shoot. It was the worst. I’m incredibly proud of that movie, I feel like its really good and people will still be interested in it long after some of the others, maybe, but the process of making it was the worst.
JD Well, it’s good that the movie turned out well!
JS (laughter) I can only be sexy and enjoy it if I’m not worried. You gave me permission to relax for like twenty minutes and that’s the only time I’ve ever been even remotely sexy.
JD At the time that we shot that I had known you for almost three years and the Joe that came out after the sex scene was like a different person; your joy came out. That’s not to say that you aren’t joyous, I’ve had a great time with you on a lot of different collaborations, but there was something—free.
JS It’s weird because I’ve know you for three years but we’ve almost exclusively known each other in the context of making work and, more than that, in the context of me making my work and that’s probably the least joyous I ever am. (laughter) We need to just hang out more!
JD We should go dancing!
JS Speaking of dancing, you have a really weird moment in Butter on the Latch that has to do with dancing . . . How did you come up with that?
JD I wish sometimes that my brain had a better way to narratively structure movies, but I have been trying to embrace that I make intuitive connections between what I am making and what I want to shoot and what happens on-set. I had no idea how those dream sequences would turn out. That movie was so improvised, very much inspired by you! I just was like, I want girls in the woods. I want these white dresses. I want old ladies. I want hair. And those are the main elements of the dream sequences. As you’ve seen on Mild and Lovely, I like to let the crew play a bit when I am working from intuition. It’s fun to let Ashley [Connor] try things and to hear what actors want to experiment with. Sometimes I get mad at myself after the fact for being too loosey-goosey on-set when actually, I do have very clear visions that I just need to arrive at through experimentation. But I think those Butter on the Latch dream sequences were a natural outpouring of my vision for the beauty and terror of the woods combined with the talents of the actors at hand. The woman that dances in Butter happened to be a modern dancer for a long time and her initial dancing was too good, so I told her to throw a tantrum instead. Her tantrum is very graceful – and weird.
JS How do you feel like intuition changed Butter on the Latch? Did you end up with the film you started out to make?
JD I’m actually surprised how well we stuck with the treatment. But we had some genius inspirations on-set that shaped the film. The night before our last day of shooting, Sarah Small came to look at the footage and I think she was just blown away by how beautiful it was turning out. We sat up late into the night and made up a whole new ending that riffed on the original but took it much further. I’m so happy with how twisted and distinct it became—even more than I had hoped. It’s funny, having now made a scripted movie and an unscripted one, I think my process is somewhere in the middle.

JD Bi the Way was my first movie, and so I was not only talking about sex but everyone thought Brittany, my co-director, and I were a couple, so we were constantly having to talk about that. I think, now, I love it. It’s a part of why I’m making these movies. We are making things that we never got to experience when we were kids. Being open enough to talk about sex feels so liberating. Maybe it will get old if I have to answer the same questions a hundred times, which I’m sure you have to do for your movies. I guess I must like it a lot, but, to be clear, I never thought of filmmaking as a means to an end to talk about sex. I think my movies explore not just sex but everything I’m afraid of, which is why I need to make them. The only thing I’m starting to hate talking about is getting naked for Marina Abramović. I didn’t know that would follow me around forever. I’m happy to talk about collaborating with you, about sex scenes in my work and other people’s work, but I think getting naked for Abramović will follow me until I make something that trumps it.
JS I can tell you this, it’s never going to go away. I still get asked about masturbating on camera for Kissing on the Mouth, my first movie. That’s why I asked if you’re already getting sick of it.
JD I love Marina Abramović the person and artist, but I’m sick of talking about the incident.
JS I have another question I’ve been wanting to ask you, so I’m going to tie it in. As a woman who makes work, not just film work but also performance work, do you feel like men assume things about you or have an attitude towards you that is caused by that?
JD I think that who I am as a person is so dramatically different than what would be a part of some fantasy that’s like, “Oh, this girl is so kinky because she acts in Joe Swanberg’s movies and all these sex scenes and she’s naked all the time and she got naked for Marina Abramović.” Once you meet me, you see that I’m so goofy and such a good, wholesome girl. Those kinky hopes are dashed pretty quickly. I’m also really good at redirecting energy to a much more sincere space. That isn’t always good though. I think sometimes it’s nice to let people view you as sexy and enjoy that. When I was younger and I would get sexual attention from men, I would always re-route it into intellectualism or figure out how to squash it with my dork-dom. I didn’t know how to let in that kind of attention. My friends who really exult in the sexual attention they get, they have a lot of power. Being objectified is not just about being an object, it’s about receiving the energy of being a powerful, sexual person.
When thinking about your sex scene in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the word “objectification” is really a problem because it’s not like you were just being objectified. You had a relationship with these two actresses who admire, respect, and get along with you and who think you’re sexy, and so its not just like you are an object. They are seeing you as a sexy person.
JS Have you seen 24 Exposures?
JD No, where has it been playing?
JS The premiere was at Fantasia in Montreal and La Di Da will be the second screening.
JD What is it about?
JS It’s an erotic thriller about a photographer and a private eye. The film centers around these questions about whose responsibility is it to say “no” when you’re uncomfortable with something and explores all of these ideas about objectification. When a man takes a camera and takes a photo of a woman with her clothes on, is he actively objectifying her? These are questions that Art History asks—it’s not new stuff—but by taking those questions and placing them in a genre film, I feel like it complicates them in a way because the film is actively, constantly muddying the questions that it’s asking by taking part in exactly the kind of filmmaking it’s criticizing. Rather than take this critical, distanced, objective stance against, say, the exploitation of women, the film is playing right in the world of these B-movie erotic thrillers and then pulling out every few minutes and asking a question and then diving back in to very surface level, genre stuff. It’s very exciting for me because there is nothing more boring than a filmmaker that’s criticizing something from a distanced, safe space—preaching to the choir and standing arms length from something and saying, “This is so wrong, don’t we all agree it’s so bad? Here’s ninety minutes of my lecture about how awful this all is.” 24 Exposures is like a ’90s Cinemax, soft core, erotic movie that lives and dies by those rules and does feature a lot of gratuitous nudity. (laughter) And then within all of that, it’s critiquing and criticizing it.
What I’m most excited about is that, as a filmmaker, I’m implicated in all of that, in all of the questions it’s asking. There is nothing safe about where I’ve positioned myself in the movie. If you agree that the film is exploitation and that exploitation is wrong, then I am guilty. (laughter) Hopefully that’s a way to start the conversation.
I have very complicated feelings about it as well, because I’ve worked with so many smart, strong, independent, interesting, amazing, women and it’s always very weird for me when criticisms of my films take the attitude that I’ve somehow tricked these people—or successfully manipulated them—into being in my movie. It’s really dismissive of the women that I work with.

JD I agree. I’m always very critical of the people who are critical of you in that way because I never felt that in our working relationship.
JS I feel like this new movie is very much a big, grey, messy, blur in terms of those questions. The erotic thriller side serves to undermine the questions and the questions undermine the erotic thriller aspects of it. I’m really excited for people to see it. It was nice to screen in Montreal; the Q&A was nice and tense in terms of those kinds of questions.
JD Joe, it was so nice to catch up with you more!
JS It’s fun to talk with this formal limitation on our conversation.
JD It’s nice that Thou Wast Mild and Lovely will come out and we’ll constantly have to talk about the obscure things in our art through long phone conversations. Bye, Joe.-

For a lot of the singular voices in the American independent film scene -- several of whom attended the affable Maryland Film Festival this week, where short films and discoveries take center stage -- things are rough. In conversations with a few attendees, I heard candid admissions about the challenges of making movies unhindered by commercial boundaries and for that same reason kept out of the public eye. But that's also what makes the discovery of a movie completely obscured by more attention-grabbing entries so gratifying -- it validates the search. So it goes with Josephine Decker's "Butter on the Latch," which had its world premiere at the festival on Thursday night.
Decker has made a couple of well-received short films (including "Me the Terrible," which the New Yorker's Richard Brody acclaimed for its "simple heartbreak and cosmic wonder") that blend comedy and pathos; she also famously stripped naked in front of Marina Abramovic, an attention-grabbing feat that managed, for a moment, to upstage the official one on display. Those sensibilities -- imagination and showmanship -- are fully on display with this brief feature (it clocks in at just over an hour), but they also show the filmmaker's capacity for communicating darker sensibilities.
Photographer Sarah Small stars as urbanite Sarah, who endures a wild night out and then ventures into the forrest for a Balkan music camp in the green emptiness of Mendicino, California. Once there, with her rascally pal Isolde (Phillippa Lamb), she spends time with dozens of other visitors taking part in the mystical rituals of the music and learning about its history. Eventually, Sarah falls for a hunky camper and loses grasp on her surrounding reality; as the filmmaker provides glimpses of nightmarish visions taking over Sarah's mind, "Butter on the Latch" gets seriously bizarre and intangible.
However, Decker never tries to impose a conventional narrative structure on the proceedings, and the ambiguities develop their own bizarrely compelling rhythm. She presents each development in fleeting, at times aggressively confounding fragments that never lack an inviting sense of strangeness. Beautifully captured by cinematographer Ashley Connor, the empty vistas and shadowy night scenes lit by fire and flashlights take on the qualities of a haunting fairy tale all jumbled up and  oddly familiar at the same time.
When things get wacky, they get really wacky: With the arrival of a speedy POV shot darting through the woods, like the menacing force of "Evil Dead" lost in an experimental purgatory, Sarah starts to see some crazy shit -- and acts out. Frame rates speed up and slow down as eerie music charts her downward spiral. While demonic women dance through the woods and grin madly, Sarah may or may not take a page from their lunacy in a sudden off-screen twist. Constructed entirely out of improvised dialogue, "Butter on the Latch" is a spooky portrait that shares its protagonist's dwindling subjectivity without simplifying it. The movie has a liquid, transient quality that syncs with its clear-cut interest in the intangible qualities of self-identification. Yet like the music at its center, "Butter on the Latch" conveys something ancient and powerful that transcends any precise interpretation.
However, the movie bears the obvious markings of an unfinished, unpolished product. Decker supposedly wrapped the editing process moments before the premiere. It's missing an extra act that might make its character easier to feel for; instead, she's hardly defined well enough for us to care much about her fate. Still, "Butter on the Latch" frustrates by design while showing off the evident vision of its creator, whose career is one to keep an eye on. This isn't the easiest kind of work to release into the world, but surely deserves a place in it. - Eric Kohn            
Attention fans of dark, surreal drama, there’s a new voice in town and here’s hoping she sticks around. When I came to her new film Butter on the Latch, I didn’t recognize Josephine Decker’s name but a little research revealed I had seen her before, not just in films like Joe Swanberg’s Uncle Kent and the Scooby-Doo inspired thriller Saturday Morning Massacre, but in censored photos recounting her notorious nude stunt at an MOMA exhibit for performance artist Marina Abramovic back in 2010.
One can mention all of this and then leave it at the door, because what matters here is the work itself, a bold, unsettling film that can feel reckless one moment, and then methodical and accomplished the next. It’s the calling card of a new voice in a sub-genre that has spent far too much of its time worshiping at the altar of David Lynch and not enough exploring the dark-side of our own natural and social histories. Weaving a dreamlike web of psychological and mythological connections, Latch asserts itself from the very first scene, causing us to question not just the mental stability of its protagonist but the very nature of the world she lives in.

The universe unfolding onscreen is unique in the way it blends a very specific, realistic microcosm—the culture and community surrounding a Balkan music festival in Mendicino, California—with the imaginary dread of Bulgarian folklore and the implied danger of an unraveling psyche.  When we meet Sarah (Sarah Small) she’s landed in an extremely strange situation that questions the film’s chronology and sends her packing to the wilderness, where she hooks up with old pal Isolde (Phillippa Lamb)  for the festival.
Much of Decker’s brief running time is afforded to the event itself, complete with numerous songs that either slither across the soundtrack or manifest as visual performances, a few of them potentially only happening in the mind’s eye.  In between this folksy miasma, we glimpse Sarah and Isolde interacting in the cracks of the film. Their playful, smoldering flirtation—that’s what it must look like to Sarah at least—gives way to other emotions when one of them starts a fling with Steph (Charlie  Hewson), a male camper.

The tone abruptly shifts halfway through, and a pivotal event occurs that unleashes the hypnotic and trippy side of Butter on the Latch, with Sarah confronting female spirits and fantastical creatures lurking under her own identity. Throughout, Decker keeps the film focused and achingly specific in its setting while suggesting the magical and nightmarish–and possibly the demonic –present in the wild and haunting beauty of the wilderness. Sensual, nighttime campfires and steamy dalliances near quiet lakes adopt a hazy insubstantial sheen when viewed through Ashley Connor’s lens.
The rituals and customs tied to the Balkan folk songs add an intriguing element of the ancient and universal to the psychodrama that’s coursing through Sarah and Isolde. The sexual saunters up to the mystical and the eroticism towards film’s end is effectively contrasted against the story the friends tell early on, about dragons that will entwine themselves in a girl’s hair and carry her off to burn in the night sky. The character development between Sarah and Isolde is minimal at best, but the actors are so integrated into Decker’s fantasia that who they are isn’t as important as what they bear witness to.
Films that reconstitute reality to reflect and inform the mental agency of their characters are a pretty common occurrence, especially in the genre of fantasy and horror, and more often than not they rely upon a fixed concrete point that the audience can navigate around. That’s not so with Butter on the Latch, which introduces us to its world of songs and folklore without any explanation or contextual understanding, and bounces us through the perspective of its characters without revealing to us anything more than they themselves seem to know. Strangely, the narrative becomes more substantial as the imagery and structure themselves become fluid, Sarah’s mind behaving like a dog that’s been leashed to a pole and has circled until it’s become hopelessly entangled.
Decker has made a compelling feature that revels in its own rough-hewn nature, and although it’s not successful or polished in everything it tries to do, the result is honestly disorienting and memorable.  The director’s finest accomplishment is the bridge she crafts between three different experiences; that feeling of restless displacement that follows a vivid dream, that disorientation that comes with a sudden perception shift, and the catharsis of channeling those feelings into a work of art—be it a song, a story, or a film– that puts a mask back on the unknown and, ironically, lets us see its face. -

Filmmaker Josephine Decker Discusses Darkness, Sexuality, and the Problem with Wes Anderson

two girls run across a field in Butter on the Latch
A scene from Butter on the Latch, Josephine Decker's film about "nerves, woods, ladies, and Balkan music." 
Brooklyn-based filmmaker Josephine Decker is taking the indie movie scene by storm with two fascinating feature films she released within the past year. Her film Butter on the Latch (2013) is set at a Balkan music camp in the woods and built around completely improvised dialogue, and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) is a gripping tale of loosely related characters who act on their dark impulses. Both films are intriguing character studies centered around the nuances within sexual and romantic relationships. Decker has a hand in every part of the filmmaking, working with a small team to collaboratively write, direct, produce, edit and cast the movies. While she has a clear vision, she's not an authoritarian on set; Decker approaches filmmaking with a spirit of responsiveness that gives her films a feeling of authenticity rarely experienced through mainstream films.
I sat down with her for an interview in March, just after she returned from the Berlinale Film Festival, where both films scored high praise.

ERICA THOMAS: How did you get your start as a filmmaker?
JOSEPHINE DECKER: My first film was actually a short called Naked Princeton set at Princeton University. It’s about a secret underground nudist society that starts up in protest against the actual ban on nudity that Princeton instituted my freshman year. It was so much fun. It was the opposite of the dark things I made afterwards. I don’t think I ever conceptualized Butter on the Latch as “my first film.” I was so committed to making my “first feature” that I went out and fundraised a lot with individuals –mostly family and friends–and then we did a Kickstarter for the finishing funds. These films don’t cost that much money in the scheme of films—you’re not raising a million dollars, you’re just raising less than $100,000. It’s not nothing, obviously, but we were able to raise enough to make something we felt good about.
Even though you’re working with low budgets it seems like you’ve done a lot with them.
Yeah, yeah. My dad, he’s so sweet, he asked, “Did this cost a million dollars, Josephine?” And he was just confused about how it could look so good and sound so professional and not have a huge budget. It was good to hear that from him because my dad is part of the reason I love movies and why I want to make movies. He’s, like, a BIG movie fan. He watches tons of movies. It was really cool to seem him be impressed with Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.
Your films are dark and intense and are about intimate and sexual relationships. What is it like to share your work with your family?
The good news is that I try to not share them until they are coming out in a festival so there’s already a lot of applause around it by then. I was terrified for my dad to see Mild and Lovely for a really long time. But once it got into the Berlinale festival and there was all this excitement about it I realized that it didn’t really matter anymore that the content was sexual and kind of dark. He was surprised when he saw the film. I think he was like, “Oh god, did we mess up raising you?” And I was like, “No dad, you did a great job!” Most people can never make any art because their parents don’t support them at all. I think if I had shown my dad the rough cut of the film a year ago I would have been terrified that he might have been like, “Oh god, this is a mess.” But when there are 500 people in the theater, and it’s the premiere and that’s the first time he sees it he’s like, “Wow, it’s dark and weird and fucked up but I guess people like this stuff.”
My films are definitely exploring my own ugliness. Partly I feel free to do that because I have love in my life, which is a weird and interesting conundrum.
Josephine Decker holding a book that says "oh rats!"
Filmmaker Josephine Decker, exploring the fauna at her local library.  
I’m interested in how you take a much more collaborative approach to filmmaking. Can you talk about your production process?
At Berlin opening night ceremony I saw the Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Ultimately that film is engaging and exciting and you’re along for a ride. But Anderson’s first two films, Rushmore and Bottle Rocket, which I really loved, blew me away because they were so loose and character-driven and you really cared about these people. I just feel like something sort of happened in his latest films where like I don’t care about the characters quite as much. I think it’s partly that the filmmaking technique is getting in the way of the emotion of the narrative. Everything is so stylized, every frame is so perfect. There’s also a lot of equal weighting–medium shot, centered in the middle of the frame. Giving that much balance to every shot, you sort of don’t know as a viewer what to pay attention to. I think that there’s something really important about imperfection in terms of communicating about actual emotions. That’s my process for now. I’m not sure if I’ll feel that same way in 10 years, but for now I really love being intuitive and letting the situation tell me how to shoot it, instead of me telling the situation how I think it should be.
It’s sort of like writing. You can come up with amazing ideas but reality is always going to be so much more fascinating than anything you can come up with. It’s sort of about, as a writer, taking reality and then processing it and changing it and collaborating with it as opposed to ignoring it or imposing something on it.
Working in the Balkan music camp on Butter on the Latch was a godsend. I’m so honored that they let me shoot there because it’s like that place is just a vibrating world waiting to be made into a movie - or many movies. I was really open to how we could capture that place.
One of my favorite things about the film is that when she’s walking alone in the grass you’re hearing other people practicing the music. That’s just something that was always there. At first the sound guy kept asking, “How am I supposed to record sound? There’s all this background noise! You can’t ever get clean dialogue.” And I was like, “No, that’s the point! Let whatever’s coming in come in, because that’s gonna feed the film in a different way.” I think it really did make a big difference on the film as a whole to not try to get clean sound but to have every conversation overlaid with music that we had no control over. That kind of thing excites me. It’s almost a very interesting sexual thing, you know. Filmmaking that kind of relates to some degree of top and bottom. I love that as a director I’m simultaneously in control and yet the loss of control is as important to the process. It’s like I’m being more submissive to reality.
Your films seem to have a really loose structure and to be responsive to the actors and the locations. Do you script? Do you have shot lists and a post-production plan in place before you shoot? How much of your finished films are planned before you start?
I do have a shot list. It’s usually not followed very closely. The importance of shot lists is knowing the mood of the scene. That’s important to setting up the tone of the film overall. Then once you get to the location, everything is always different than you imagined it. The shot that you had figured out in your mind either doesn’t fit the surroundings or it isn’t the best way to capture the emotion of the moment. That’s what I love about Ashley Connor, my DP [Director of Photography]. She’s very intuitive. We’ll talk through everything for hours before we go out there and we’ll have all these ideas and then when we get there we’ll change all the blocking. We’ll change everything to fit the environment. I’m just going to say I feel really grateful to be a woman, because I feel like there’s more openness and availability to work that way.
It’s a funny thing because I don’t think of myself as a snappy, quick-witted person. If someone insults me it it takes me like two days to come up with a comeback. But I’m simultaneously very fast at adapting. So if a situation isn’t ideal, very quickly I’m able to be open to another possibility and to make that work usually better than any of my original ideas could have worked. Filmmaking is sort of about knowing about your own strengths as a human. I don’t know that everyone would enjoy or feel comfortable making films the way I make them but I love making them in that way.
Yeah, plans are good, but it’s good to be willing to throw them away sometimes.
I just had a great conversation with my friend who’s a social worker. We were talking about drinking versus not drinking. I really don’t drink that much in general but I’m always creating these ultimatums where I tell myself that I’m never ever drinking again. And then I’ll go out and have two glasses of wine and be really mad at myself for not sticking to my ultimatum. And [my friend] was like, “Well, Josephine, maybe that’s good because you don’t want to be rigid. You’re living in a space of moderation and that’s what’s good.” And I said, “Yeah, but I love discipline.” And she said, “Discipline and rigidity are very different things.” Discipline and structure are incredibly important, but rigidity is the thing that will bite you in the ass every time.
That’s what my goal is with filmmaking–to be disciplined and to have structure but to still have tons of flexibility.
When you’re working with actors, how much of their dialogue is scripted and how much is improvised?
All the dialogue was completely improvised in Butter on the Latch. We had a treatment about five to ten pages long for the film. Then we actually did a collaborative rewrite for the ending. We realized that we weren’t even clear on who actually exists within the film. We were able to remap the ending to reflect that discovery.
Then Mild and Lovely was all scripted. There were a couple of scenes that were improvised, namely the one where the horse was hurt at the very beginning of the movie. We were scheduled to film at that barn that day and the owner of the barn told us, “I’m sorry, I know you guys were planning on coming but one of our horses was just really badly injured.” My producer, Laura Klein, she’s so good, she was like “Oh I’m so sorry, I completely understand... Can we film it?” It’s a really emotional scene. It was really emotional for the actors too because they’re actors, not farmers or ranchers. It was a really new experience. Sophie Traub, who played Sarah, was really struggling between being the character, who would be a little more used to that, and being herself who was totally stunned and horrified and really emotionally moved by seeing this horse who was hurt. So anyway, that scene was improvised.
What happened to the horse?
The owners were going to put it down because it was like a $300 horse and that’s like a $3,000 vet bill. But then we shot there and everyone was crying. [Actor] Robert Longstreet actually offered to pay for the vet bill but the owner didn’t take him up on it. They ended up bringing the vet out, they stitched the horse up and the horse is fine! So, there’s a happy ending.

The Butter on the Latch team (incluing Decker, second from left) take over the Berlinale's red carpet.
You give the female characters in your films a lot of sexual agency. Why do you feel it’s important to address this kind of content and write the characters in that way?
I’m so glad you saw that! And also no one else has asked about that! It’s not even that I write thinking of that necessarily. It’s not like when I’m writing I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m going to give this woman sexual agency.” I think my own sexual agency just naturally emerges when I’m writing characters. It’s so funny that when the cast and crew flew out for the Berlinale Film Festival, I looked around and thought, “There are a lot of strong, independent women running around this film festival thanks to these two movies.” It was really cool to realize that all the people I had chosen to collaborate with were really strong, powerful women—and in totally different ways.
When I was first writing Mild and Lovely I actually had a lot concerns about the way the lead character Sarah was given sexual agency. I was worried about how people would read her. There’s a scene where it’s sort of clear but sort of not clear whether the sex she has is something she wanted or not. I was really surprised that no one brought that up after the fact as a question. I was really worried that it would be a question of whether she wanted to have sex with him. But the film does answer that question for the audience in a way.
To me, women’s sexuality is all very different and what we like is very different. That’s something I learned with the documentary I made, Bi The Way. Some people like to go have sex with someone of their same gender in the woods and that’s the thing that turns them on the most. And then some people like to have sex with someone they’re married to in the missionary position for their whole life. The things that make people comfortable are totally different for everyone. I’m really just exploring the things that I’m curious about or question within my own sexuality. I think those are what end up going into the films.
I like exploring the darkness in people through character. Characters like Kate from East of Eden—she’s so evil, she’s like the worst person ever portrayed in literature. And I loved it. I loved it. There’s something about her portrayal that just resonated with me in the same way that Antichrist, the film by Lars von Trier, resonated with me. I love Lars von Trier’s films.
I totally see his influence on your work! I feel like you can really see references in both Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch.
I just realized that his films have really influenced me. Everyone’s always asking me who my influences are and it’s hard to answer because I’m too close to them. I watch a million movies and I’m influenced by all of them but with von Trier’s film Antichrist I walked out of the theater and feeling totally excited. He’s just really honest. It’s interesting that some men have asked me, “How can you write male characters so well?” It’s actually just that I’m writing about women really deeply and about my deepest fears about men. I think I’m touching on something that’s true to the human experience. With Mild and Lovely I was looking at the place inside me that’s powerful and sexual and manipulative sometimes to find out what happens when you take that all the way to it’s conclusion.
It can be scary to approach topics in your work with questions rather than answers, when you aren’t trying to say something but trying to ask something, but it can lead to much more interesting work. I really like that space of ambiguity.
Yeah, my mom’s always asking, “What’s the message of your film?” And that’s usually something someone says when they really hate your movie. Because either they didn’t get the message or they don’t like that it doesn’t have one.
What else do you want to say about your film that no one is asking you about?
The things I still want to change. Even though Butter on the Latch has gotten lots of great feedback, I’ve never felt like it was done. I don’t know that you’re ever done making your movies. We sold out all the screenings at Berlinale, which is incredible, but still when you watch it with that many people, the things that you feel aren’t working are that much more clear. Even though sometimes you have to give in to that feeling. Embracing imperfection is still something I have to work on.
In Mild and Lovely, you don’t really have anything to latch onto for the first 20 minutes of the film until the sex scene happens. You’re wondering, “Who is the main character? Who am I supposed to care about? What’s even happening?” I think all of that confusion is really important for the film but it was really hard for me to accept that there would be 20 minutes of the audience feeling confused. At first I didn’t know if I could do it because I thought people might just turn it off. But then once that scene happens I feel like the film gets really gripping and doesn’t release until the end. Even then it’s not really letting you go.
Ultimately, there’s nothing that I want to say about the film that isn’t already in the film. I mean, I’m glad I’m doing interviews because then people hear about the movie and go out and see it but I would be perfectly fine saying nothing about the movies. The point of  having a movie that’s full of ambiguity is that you want the audience to have their own experience with it.
What’s next for you?
We’re planning on releasing Mild and Lovely in Germany and Poland. I don’t know yet about distribution in the US yet. So, fingers are crossed and conversations are being had. We’re knocking on wood.
For my next personal project, I really want to make a film about these three girls in New York making a theater piece about the three little pigs. But then they slowly realize that this story is a metaphor for immigration and the prison system and they try to explore these bigger topics through their little weird clown piece that they’re making. I think it actually might be a comedy which would be great after making these two really dark films. There’s so much potential comedy in assuming that with your crazy performance art piece that you do at some weird underground theater, that you’re going to conquer what’s wrong with the American prison system. That’s ultimately what I feel like I’m doing–trying to look at really big issues with my art.

Berlinale 2014: Josephine Decker on Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch. by

Thou Wast Mild and LovelyThou Wast Mild and Lovely
At every festival, there are “did you see that?” moments which create a buzz among audiences and critics. One such early example at this year’s Berlinale came midway through Josephine Decker’s hypnotic, farm-set thriller Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, when the point of view of a violent, ambiguously-rendered sexual encounter suddenly switches to that of a cow, through whose eyes we see the next few scenes. It’s a playful, idiosyncratic touch which recalls the chimp’s flashback in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, although it would be wrong to attempt to draw obvious comparisons between Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Decker’s other film — a surreal tale of friendship gone wrong at a Balkan folk camp, Butter on the Latch — with anything else: they are strikingly original works which herald a new voice, and are both screening in this year’s Forum section.
The films’ director, Josephine Decker, has previously made shorts, acted in films by Joe Swanberg, and gained some notoriety for stripping naked in front of Marina Abramovic at MoMA on the last day of The Artist is Present in 2010. She was also recently named one of Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces of 2013. I spoke with Decker ahead of the public premiere of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.
Filmmaker: Congratulations on having two films at the Berlinale. It’s unusual for a director to have two films playing at a festival.
Decker: Thanks. I submitted Butter on the Latch as a rough cut last year, and they didn’t take it. We eventually premiered it at the Maryland Film Festival, and it was much better than the first rough cut. That was eight months ago. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely wasn’t done yet, but this fall we finished the edit — a little past deadline — and we sent in the final version.
Filmmaker: How do you feel about having your films seen at a festival, where there will be film fans, but also sales agents, critics, programmers?
Decker: It’s a good question. I haven’t seen [Thou Wast] with a big audience yet. You said that, and I got really nervous. In general I’ve loved festival audiences because they’re smart, they ask questions and they want to know… and maybe they are watching with a more critical eye. But maybe they’re watching with a more forgiving eye because they’re comparing it to other micro-budget indie films rather than, say, your film versus Batman!
Filmmaker: Despite the two films’ obvious differences, do you see an overlap?
Decker: I initially wanted to make a film that was half based on an American folk song and half based on a Balkan folk song: two shorts. But Butter on the Latch became its own thing, and I can’t just go straight to an American folk camp from a Balkan folk camp! Then I was reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and it all came together in the script. Once Butter on the Latch was made I never imagined it being with another thing.
Filmmaker: And how did you balance making the two films?
We shot Butter on the Latch and then I was just finishing the edit when I went into production on Thou Wast Mild and Lovely in 2012. Then I was trying to edit both films at once. I was putting the finishing touches to Butter but I’d just started editing Thou. When it’s a new project you give it all your care and attention. I really wanted to get Butter out there but my time was being eaten up by having a real job that pays me and then two movies of my own.
Filmmaker: At what point for you is a film finished? Would you describe yourself as a compulsive editor?
Decker: Oh my God! I don’t know… I wish I could say two edits. That would have been nice, and it wouldn’t have been haunting my life for so long. Joe Swanberg [who stars in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely] inspired me so much. He is so good at editing something and moving on really fast. I can work on editing forever. Sometimes I realize I’m not making it better. But for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely about a year ago we’d been editing for four months and I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t the quality I wanted. I started working with this editor called David Barker… he’s also a psychic. When you sit down to talk with an editor about what you want to do you’re usually referencing other movies, but he, for the first two weeks we worked together, just asked me questions: “Why is he listening to that music when he’s driving around?” “What was your intention with this?” He’d ask me exactly what I was trying to convey with dialogue. What became clear was that all of these ideas that I had about the movie weren’t in the movie. When I started working with David, we made Akin [Swanberg’s character] more serious. We gave him more edge. It was exciting to realize how dramatically you could shift a character in the edit. We also re-ordered the film a bunch.
Filmmaker: What kind of things stood out for you as priorities during the edit? Pacing? Tone?
Decker: Thou Wast Mild and Lovely really used to take its time. It used to be 99 minutes, and I don’t think anyone would like to sit down with it for that long! More important than pacing were the things David brought out in me: “What is the soul of the film?” “What are the boldest choices you could make?” “What will create a question for the audience?” We were constantly escalating and creating gaps that the audience has to be clever to fill in. Sometimes I was like, “David, you’re making a smart movie and not all audiences are going to be patient!”
Filmmaker: How was your experience of Kickstarter for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely?
Decker: Kickstarter was great. I’d never done crowdfunding. It was much harder than I thought it would be but it was also a joy to think “Wow, I can do this! I can get on here, ask people for money, get press.” I felt really lucky that people were getting to hear about it. To start with, everyone who donated was someone I knew, and I was like, “Shit!” The way that these things take off is when it’s not someone you know. And then in the last week it got bigger and went faster.
Filmmaker: Was there much of an overlap in creative teams?
Decker: Actually the only crew on Butter was me, the cinematographer [Ashley Connor] and a sound guy. So in a way you could say some of the crew who worked on Butter worked on Thou because they were the only people there.
Filmmaker: What camera did you use?
Decker: We shot on a Canon 5D.
Filmmaker: It looks great. Your cinematographer has really pursued the “shallow depth of field” thing.
Decker: Yeah, I like that a lot. She’s really a master of just going for it. My executive producer invited me to an art opening in New York about five years ago. I met this painter, and we hung out. I checked out his website – his name’s Brad Kunkle – and his website was the exact visuals that I want in my movies. He said, “You have to meet Ashley,” and this real darkness with this crisp, glowing color coming through — Ashley was responsible for that.
Filmmaker: And it really worked out!
Decker: Oh man, it worked really well! We joked that our collaboration was like getting married to your childhood sweetheart. I didn’t get to make a bunch of movies with somebody else. I feel weird committing so deeply! But why bother changing? It’s really hard to develop a collaboration, and we do know each other well. I know what to expect of her.
Filmmaker: There seems to be a “scene” in New York of prolific filmmakers swapping roles, acting in other people’s movies. You’ve acted in Joe Swanberg’s movies, he’s in Thou. You were in Onur Tukel’s Richard’s Wedding. There’s overlapping roles. What’s your take on it. Is it a bit inward looking? Does it even exist?
Decker: I’m glad you’re asking me that because I think about that all the time subconsciously. I was very unpopular in middle school. I had like, no friends. We moved when I was 10 so it was terrible. It was not a fun time. Maybe because of that I have a mental paradigm where I will never been cool enough to hang out with the cool kids, and so it still shocks me that Onur would cast me in something, or that I’m working with Joe. I don’t know why they’d wanna hang out with me… the uncool kid at school who’d get signs put on her back! I never feel like I’m part of the scene because I always feel left out. For a while I’d wanted to be a part of that scene. But the irony is my films are a bit different.
Filmmaker: They’re not based in New York, for one..
Decker: Yeah. And I’m really interested in what the female filmmakers are doing. For instance, Green by Sophia Takal — I’d made Butter, and Green came out maybe six months after we’d shot it. And I remember thinking, “Oh shit, everyone’s going to think I saw Green and responded to it.” But I hadn’t even seen it yet. I just had this vibe that they were going to be similar. I saw Sophia’s movie and I loved it. I think the movies are similar. I finally saw it after Butter got into its first film festival.
I feel more in common with the female than the male filmmakers. In terms of filmmaking style, I love guys like Joe [Swanberg] and Nathan Silver who are like, “I’m just gonna fuckin’ churn this out!” It’s like giving birth really fast! I’m going to say something gendered that maybe isn’t, but I think that women can take a lot longer to make their movies. That’s the pattern that I have seen from a very small sample size. The men I know that are making movies will churn them out pretty quickly, and the women take like two-to-three years; for the men it’s six months to a year. That’s kind of a big difference actually. People say that there’s less female filmmakers than male. I think it’s the same, but there might be less movies, because there’s something about raising the baby of your film, right? I don’t think that men get it wrong; I love Joe Swanberg’s movies. I think he’s good at what he does. I’ve always wondered about this — the girls I know who work on films spend years trying to figure them out.
Filmmaker: Both films, in particular Butter, are propelled by a strong sense of female sexuality, which is refreshing in a male-dominated film world. It’s a terrible question, but to what extend do you see yourself as a feminist filmmaker?
Decker: Well, my first documentary was about bisexuality, and we talked about what you mean when you put a label on someone. “Bisexuality” can mean a million different things. Yet I thought it was important to use the word, because every time someone gets to know someone new who has that label, that person is seen smashing the boundaries of that definition. In that way, I’m totally a feminist. I love the word “feminist,” definitely. People get really sensitive. I remember seeing an interview with Natalie Portman, and they asked her if she was a feminist, and she got really uncomfortable and said “I don’t think of myself that way.” I was like, “Really? Why? What it so scary about that word?” I don’t there’s anything bad about feminism. I think it’s about creating incredible communities of women supporting each other and trying to get their work out there as much as men. It’s about resolving the inequality.

An Interview With Josephine Decker: Feminist Filmmaking and Farm Tool Fantasies
By Audrey Cerchiara

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 LovelyThese 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.
Screening dates and times are listed here and here. If Decker's films aren't playing at a theater near you, they are both available to stream online:
Butter on the Latch on vimeo, fandor

Interview: Josephine Decker

Josephine Decker may be leading a revolution. When Richard Brody exalted her second narrative feature, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, upon its premiere at Berlinale this year, he suggested that her films point ahead to a “new grammar” that functions as a “reappraisal of narrative” structure. It’s definitely true that inspite of their modest budgets and gentle, lyrical weirdness Decker’s films often seem revelatory: they’re freewheeling and completely uninterested in being like anything you’ve ever seen.  When NoBudge called attention to her Kickstarter campaign for Lovely, (starring frequent collaborator Joe Swanberg) it was mentioned that her films aren’t “film festival weird – they’re actual weird.”  Parts of Lovely occur from the point of view of a cow, an experience Decker says made her interested in creating a series of science videos from the points of view of different animals. (cont'd)

Her first film, Butter on the Latch, played alongside Lovely in Berlin after getting attention on a limited festival circuit last year. It’s similarly experiential, and definitely weird: a psychosexual nightmare that takes place at an actual Balkan folk camp in the California wilderness. Decker’s creative partnership with cinematographer Ashley Connor, which pertains to both films, is seemingly struck with a deal that no amount of bold experimentation is off limits, making for a visual experience that’s immediate and unique.

How was the Berlinale experience? It’s a pretty rare, awesome experience to have everything you’ve worked on in the last few years being celebrated at once.

It was so great. It’s funny, because everyone’s like, how was it? Was it weird to have everyone recognize and congratulate you? And no, it just felt amazing! You spend so much time as a filmmaker being alone in a room working on something and thinking that no one will ever care, and then to have anyone connect with it is so great.
Were you concerned about marketability beforehand at all? Both films sort of fall towards the longer end of that nether region between being a short and being a feature that distributors tend to shy away from. Was that a concern while you were editing, or after, or whatever? That people wouldn’t be receptive to that?

Yes. Well, Butter on the Latch was frustrating because I thought that was going to be a short film; that’s what I was setting out to make. It’s funny -- I was on a shoot for the United Way this morning, I produce things for them sometimes and Ashley [Connor] shot this one. And I kept filming more and more footage, and Ashley was like, “God, you’re such a documentarian.” Everyone’s like, how did you shoot Butter on the Latch in six days? And Ashley’s like, “you don’t know what Josephine’s like. She films everything.” So I think I way overshoot, and for the short it didn’t feel right to cut it down as it wouldn’t have held the whole story that I ended up shooting. But during the shoot I knew I didn’t have enough time to actually make it a feature. We did a few pickups later, because it was like fifty-eight minutes.
Right, yeah, that’s like the film festival death knell.

Yeah, we were like, who’s going to program this? So we added the beginning section, and I think that actually made a huge difference as far as making the movie better.

So as you edit your films, since there’s this abundance of footage and, it seems, like a million different ways that you could put it together since both films are structured in such a unique way, how do you know when to just quit and call it done?

I still haven’t really felt that Butter on the Latch is one hundred percent done. When I saw it in Berlin I thought, “oh, maybe I want to take out three minutes again…” So I’m still editing that in my brain, which is really not good. I should really stop. Lovely, I only know that one’s done because it’s like trial by exhaustion. I’ve literally tried every possible way to construct the movie and I really do think that this is the best possible way to make the movie with all of the material that I had.
Is it liberating to edit like that? To sort of puzzle piece it together and find the best combination? Or is it super frustrating to get to the edit and realize that there are a million different ways that you could put this footage together?

I feel like always, with any movie, there’s a million ways that you could put it together.

In addition, though, you edited Butter on the Latch by yourself, which is a pretty stressful undertaking for any director. But under the circumstances you just described, I feel like I would drive myself crazy with all of the options.

It does. I feel like I’m going insane sometimes. Sometimes I worry about myself because you can get to a place with editing where you feel like a dog that’s been left at home for too long; where they chew their skin until they just have patches of hair left. I feel like I’ve edited to a point where it’s no longer healthy, where I’m no longer cleaning the wound and instead devouring my own flesh, which is appropriate, I guess, for these movies. But yeah, I worked with Steven Schardt and Dave Barker on Lovely, but I was always the one with my hands on the keyboard. I think ultimately it would be a healthier situation for me to get an editor. You get farther faster and they see the things that aren’t working faster than you see them. At the same time I love editing. I’m actually editing a friend’s film now, and it’s just reinforcing that I really like doing this, and that I think I’m good at it. I’ve done it for a long time.

How involved are you with the other technical aspects of post? The sound design in Butter really stood out to me as some of the best I’ve heard in a low budget film. It’s so exact and layered -- there’s a definite tendency with no budget indies where that’s the last thing on the filmmaker’s mind, and it shows.

What was it exactly that you responded to? I’m really curious.

I mean, that it was good, for one thing. It’s a great mix, but beyond that you get to the point where you can then make choices that really stand out, like things that are really inventive and creative, like the weird, psychological montage stuff, which matches your editing style really well. Also details like when Sarah wakes up in the beginning and there’s all of that tape on the floor, which is really loud in the mix and almost kind of disturbing.

Honestly I think most of that is just hiring good sound people. There’s nothing alive to me about just putting a Zoom recorder in the room with the actors. I’ve never shot anything without having a sound person on set who was really committed and knew what they were doing. That tape, actually, was just there and Hiram Becker, the sound guy, told us to leave it, because he liked the sound. So I think it’s just having good collaborators.

Do you have that sort of creative collaboration with all of the technical members of the crew? I’m thinking mostly of you and Ashley. Was the look of the film more from her or did you talk a lot about it beforehand?

I actually think on Butter it is more her. I was so stressed out I could barely think of anything beyond, “can we put these actors in this scene and shoot it before the sun goes down and everyone comes out and eats dinner here?” So I feel like that one I gave her free reign. And then on Lovely she had since shot lots of other stuff and had an even better eye, and I had an even better sense of working with her. A lot of Mild and Lovely is what we called the “Ash cam,” where I would just say, “shoot this scene however it feels right to you.” So in a way it was my decision, to say, “this is your free-form time” and then we had other scenes where we shot listed. She also didn’t have a gaffer or anything, so she was on her own trying to figure out how to light the kitchen interiors.

It was very much a deep collaboration, but it’s also defined by a look that I wanted it to have. I wanted it to be very close to the characters the entire time, except for the end, and that you couldn’t escape from the film. So Ashley’s a deep collaborator, but there are also plenty of times where she just totally ignored me and shot how she wanted to. But I think that’s also why it’s such a great collaboration. We have incredibly similar visions and passions, but also we argue a lot and have different ideas about how to shoot something. And she’s often right, honestly. She does this for a living and she knows the angles we need, and where to put the camera, and what the blocking should be. I really like that she’s so active and cares as much as I do.
It’s so inventive, the way that she shoots. There are so many limitations on that camera, that, again, I feel like a lot of low budget filmmakers just sort of accept because they feel like they don’t have a choice, like, “welp, we’re shooting with a 5D so it’ll just look like DSLR footage.” In both of your movies she tries so much crazy stuff, and I think that’s part of what keeps it feeling so fresh.

Oh my gosh, when we shot the sex scene, she took the lens off the camera and was holding the camera in one hand and the lens in the other, so the sex scene is all sort of wavering and coming in and out of focus, and there’s black space on the edges, and I love it. Joe couldn’t act in that scene because he was so excited by what she was doing. He kept looking over at the camera and I’d have to be like, “Joe! Act!” But it’s beautiful! I think it totally creates the energy that we wanted to have for that. It’s like you’re seeing though a dark veil.

Your films seem really preoccupied with the physical human form in a performative sense, like performance art, almost more so than cinema, so I’m really curious as to what your past relationship with film was. What made you want to become a filmmaker, and are there filmic influences that you would talk about with Ashley? Because I think part of what makes your films seem so unique and immediate is that I couldn’t connect them with any other films that I had seen.

Oh, that’s good!

That’s really good! That’s great! It just made me wonder about the type of films that you were interested in, and if you had any influences.

That’s a great question, and one that I was kind of blank out when I’m asked. Because the films that you’re interested in making are always different than the films that you like and the films that your film is like. I actually got into filmmaking because I loved Pixar movies. I wanted to make awesome kids movies that had like a ton of action and adventure and were really funny and made you cry. But then when I started writing obviously that didn’t happen. The realization that I wanted to be a filmmaker happened while I was watching Monsters, Inc.

Is that still something that you’re interested in?

Down the road? I would love to make a kids movie eventually, especially once I have kids I’m sure I’ll love to make a kids movie. Now I think I’m just interested in something else. I’m also just really afraid of making a movie that costs a lot because it’s terrifying to have investors that expect money back, and the pressure that goes along with that.

Was there a huge difference in making Lovely from making Butter, obviously without going into budgetary specifics, in terms of amount of crew and what was available to you?

It was a pretty big difference, which isn’t to say that production cost that much on Lovely, but that’s just because everyone’s a saint and worked for nothing. But with Butter on the Latch it was just me and the sound guy and the DP, and not only that, but we were in a crazy environment where there were hundreds of people, so there was a lot to manage. And then on the other film we had a much bigger crew but much more control. We were just on a farm in Kentucky with no one else around.

But on the other hand, the doc style way Butter was shot in the Balkan camp is like, instant production value. I’m sure that kept costs down.

Yeah, I thought if I had had to really “make” that film it would’ve cost millions of dollars. To find extras who know traditional Serbian music or whatever? In terms of enjoying the process, I think I enjoyed myself a little less on Butter on the Latch. I had to run around in the morning and wake everyone up. I would go to bed last and then wake up four hours later and walk a mile to wake people up. That was hard. It was nice to have an AD, so when everyone’s tired and miserable they’re all mad at her instead of me.

You also had a Kickstarter campaign for Lovely. What was your experience with crowdfunding?
It was great. It’s an incredible tool. I didn’t know how hard it would be until I started. The problem with Kickstarter is that the people who are going to give a few thousand dollars otherwise are more inclined to give less money, just because it’s a Kickstarter. Because it’s open and visible crowdsourcing, like two hundred dollars seems like a lot of money. By the time the campaign was almost over, though, I had enough people helping me run the Kickstarter that we started getting press and that helped tremendously. The first two and a half weeks were all people that I knew, all of my friends, and I was like, “aw shit.”
I was curious, given your past history performing in Joe’s movies, if you ever had the idea to appear in either of these films. I feel like in a sense it’s almost expected of low budget filmmakers.

I definitely didn’t want to be in either of those movies. I’ve been thinking about being in the next movie, which really makes me nervous, because I think you’re more open for criticism if you do that.
Yeah, I think so too.

And rightly so! Because most filmmakers are not great actors. I mean, I think Joe’s great, that’s why I cast him. But I see some films where I’m like, oh, you should’ve focused on one or the other. And it’s not even that the next movie is more personal, it’s just a role that I feel like I could play or would want to play. The other roles never felt like they fit me, so I never thought about that. But sometimes I think, in general, that it wouldn’t be a bad idea. I thought Sophia Takal’s performance in Green was amazing.

Is your process working with the actors extremely collaborative or more exacting? You worked with a script on Lovely, right?

Right. It was very collaborative on both. On the first we were all writing the film together in a way, but I think the second one was collaborative in a different way. I was really excited about Richard Brody’s article because he said something like, “she doesn’t observe behavior, she invents it.” Even working off of a script there were moments that we would come up with actions or behaviors on the spot that ended up making the scene. We didn’t really have any rehearsals beforehand.
I’m not really interested in having a more exacting style of directing. It’s always good to be in control of your set, but I want to give people the space to try things and fail or succeed and make it their own.
Speaking of Richard Brody, I was curious of what you thought of that review, where he talks about how Lovely is part of a movement of a “new narrative grammar.” Was that something you responded to at all?
Oh, I loved that. My movies are so weird, and you’re right that it doesn’t fit into certain ideas about film and aren’t part of a clear genre, and I’m just making what comes to me, which is oftentimes more influenced by music or literature -- I love Steinbeck, obviously -- than by film. But that also means that a lot of people are like, “I don’t get it; fuck you!” So the Brody piece helps in the sense that it contextualizes it as something that’s going on, and that’s really helpful, I think. It basically says take her seriously, because it’s not just about her, it’s something that’s happening and acceptable in cinema. I don’t think Shane Carruth or Leos Carax have the same influences that I do, but sometimes there’s just something in the air that you’re responding to. It’s nice to have perspective of what you’re doing in the case of something other than just yourself.

Do you have a sense of your own voice yet as a filmmaker, and the creative and aesthetical qualities that unify your work?

Well, I think I grew up a lot over the last year in terms of my understanding of cinema by working with David Barker. I learned something that was important about what you keep from an audience and the way that you ask an audience to fill in the gaps between two scenes, when two scenes don’t necessarily feed into each other. I think that way of storytelling has sort of become ingrained in me. Now I watch movies and look for that. I’m teaching a class this spring at the School of Making Thinking about magical storytelling in film, and I’m teaching Rosemary’s Baby, Babe, Buster Keaton’s The General, and The Fifth Element.

Those are all great movies. And I think what you said about the editing style is kind of exactly what Richard Brody is talking about, too; that narratives can be told in a more withholding, ephemeral way. I’m not sure what exact films he mentioned, but stuff like Upstream Color, or Amy Seimetz’ Sun Don’t Shine all sort of utilize a similar structural vocabulary that you do in different ways. Not to paint you into a corner, but yeah, I think that context is interesting.

Yeah, definitely. And in Rosemary’s Baby the cuts are so exciting. Nothing is what you expect. Which is what the movie is about, and I think good editing reflects what you’re saying in the movie. I feel like I’m making movies that are edited in a way that asks the viewer to take risks along with you and work, I guess, while you watch. I’m really interested in immersive experience. I loved shooting from the perspective of the cow [in Lovely]. I think the next movie I make I want a lot more of that; entering the perspective of some other being. Those are things that are kind of interesting to me.

And one thing that was really great about having both films in Berlin was that having them back to back was very validating in terms of my voice. If everyone had been like, “fuck that,” I think I would’ve just been, like, maybe I’ll just make a normal narrative movie! I want to fit in! But the fact that people are responding deeply and viscerally makes me want to push further and explore my voice more.

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