“One Long Descent Into a Dream”: Talking to Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely direcor Josephine Decker

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11/05/2014 4:00 AM |

Brooklyn resident Josephine Decker has previously made shorts and documentaries, acted in features from Joe Swanberg among others, raised awareness of environmental issues through her performance art, played with the all-female Main Squeeze Accordian Orchestra, and taken her clothes off in front of Marina Abramovic at The Artist Is Present. Her feature films, last year’s Butter on the Latch and this year’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, will both open on November 14 at DUMBO’s Made in NY Media Center for weeklong runs. In the former film, shot at a Balkan folk art workshop in the woods outside of Mendocino, California, an edgy meditation on female friendship gives way to a surreal psychodrama as the banalities of art-making—workshops, social niceties with collaborators—begin to cohere and transform into a full-scale exotic performance. In the latter, a farmhand (played by Swanberg) is drawn to the farmer’s daughter (Sophie Traub), in an atmosphere whose moodiness (courtesy D.P. Ashley Connor’s uneasily rapturous images, and Robert Longstreet’s insinuating, old-goatish pappy) portends another quasi-Lynchian psychic break.
Decker answered some questions of mine over email.

A bajillion years ago, I interviewed you briefly about your short film Squeezebox, which you said came out of some dreams you’d been having around that time. (You also said that the idea of a character “waking up” to magic was something you hoped to explore further in a feature…) Do dreams remain important to your creative process?

I think that movies are basically dream spaces. My next feature is going to be such a dream. I’ve been studying my favorite films and have started to realize that the films I love most are films with a structure that is a container for a dream. The Shining and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are both films that live in the subconscious—but are structured in such a way as to allow entering and leaving that subconscious to heighten the tension instead of throw the story out of whack. I really aspire to this in my films—to allow the dreamspace to be the dominant forward motion in the structure as well. To find ways to meld fantasy and reality and the turning of a face and the twisting of a hand—almonds rumbling with tile floors and the black magic Madonnas we always fall for… Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is certainly an exploration of dreamspace. That film really came together once I allowed the dreams to be the meat and structural essence of the film. They set the tone that the film is built on, and I am so grateful to editor David Barker for guiding me to trust my instincts on that. I don’t know that every film in the world needs to exist in a dreamspace, but the movies I make generally tend to….
Butter on the Latch was just one long descent into a dream. Originally, the ending was much more in the “real world,” but we followed our instincts during, and went down the female-friendship-power-dynamic rabbit hole. The redwoods and our incredible cast inspired a descent into madness that someone recently called “the female version of Fight Club.” I was very very honored to have even a remote allusion to my movie and that movie in the same sentence. I loved loved loved Fight Club.

Both films explore rural settings—both their pastoral beauty, and some strange undercurrents. The best I seem to be able to come up with is “ominously unresolved spiritual energy,” but maybe you can help me a bit by talking about what sort of tensions or dichotomies you see at work in the forest of Butter on the Latch and the farm of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely?

I firmly believe that mood and tension are as powerful storytellers as a film’s characters. I think one reason Steinbeck’s novels are so effective is that they let the land tell the story as often as the characters do. The vistas and worlds in those books are as alive and bristling—with wildlife, terror, tragedy, small perks, strange interactions—as any character’s life, and it just serves to reveal the wildness inside all of us. I try to let nature speak her truth. And in return, she takes me on some crazy journeys.

Sex and violence are commingled in the climaxes of both films, but before that as well, through foreshadowing like subliminal-speed insert shots. Does sensuality in your films threaten a kind of rupture in the logic and balance of the world?

Yeah, you know… it was only during sound mix that I was like: Wow. Sex NEVER appears in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely without violence. In both states, you’re incredibly vulnerable. I guess I try to honor that vulnerability in my films… There’s a kind of deep submersion that can happen during sex—you’re sort of blind and deaf and powerless and yet super strong and totally alive—so, in my films, I make those sensual moments deeply immersive as well. I definitely learned something about myself regarding sex and violence in rewatching Mild and Lovely—I saw how deeply ingrained one is in the other for me… I should ask my therapist about that.

How was the process of production similar, and how different, between the two films? The actors in Butter on the Latch get a dialogue credit, unlike those of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely—was the script indeed more set, and if so, why did you decide to go in that direction?

Although I loved the fluid and spontaneous energy of Butter on the Latch, I remember wishing during editing that I had had more control over the arc of each scene—so that a scene could “turn” at the moment that I proscribed instead of the actors slowly discovering it. We didn’t shoot two cameras on Butter, only one—so, when editing around a long dialogue scene, you have to get very creative… On Mild and Lovely, I did a better job asking for help and creating more structure around the making of the film—we had an AD and producer and production manager, and… a script! And that allowed me to focus much more on the performancesa thamselves. I love the spontaneity of improvisation and collaboration from Butter on the Latch; that goes so deep it’s hard for anyone to extract their contribution to the film in one little credit. But I also think that having a clear structure and more solid schedule and intention makes it much easier for me as a director to focus in on details instead of worrying about the big picture all of the time. But—I think filmmaking is a process of growth, so I doubt I’ll ever in my life feel like: “Aha! This is my process.” Every film is a discovery.

Perhaps along those lines, I’m curious about your collaboration with your DP, Ashley Connor, who seems to have quite a bit of freedom to do things like shoot things evocatively out of focus or in low light, or to move the camera via breathless, shaky handheld. How clearly do you see the movie before you get onto the set?

Ashley and I always do quite a bit of planning beforehand—and then throw everything out the window once we get on set… I think it always helps to know your influences and general style, so it’s great that we do spend the time conceiving in advance—but we love to improvise, to allow intuition to guide our choices and not feel constrained or committed to a shotlist. I think it becomes clear to us once we’re in the room with the actors how the scene needs to feel. We developed a shorthand for this kind of spontaneous camerawork during Butter on the Latch. We call it “Ashcam,” which basically means: Ashley takes the camera and does whatever she wants. I think it’s vital for a director to really believe in and trust her DP.
Ashley and I started working together five years ago when Ashley shot my short film Me the Terrible. I had budgeted to pay her, and she said she would rather shoot on film than get paid… but, when you shoot on film, you don’t get to see how the shot looks, so I storyboarded pretty heavily ahead of time, and then when we were on set, occasionally, I’d look through the lens, but—mostly, I let her do her magic. I was insanely happy with the results. Since then, I know that my job is to direct the actors, to really always be thinking of the story as a whole and communicate with Ashley about that—but also, my job is to know that Ashley spends her life holding a camera and deeply understands how to make a scene work (especially on low-budget films like this when our lighting options are nyeto). We have our arguments, but mostly, she and I have built a lot of good connection.

Let’s do “the influence question” because it’s a good way to orient people going into your films. What films and filmmakers were helpful to you in figuring out how to bring these two movies into existence?

I tend to recognize my influences after the fact. I don’t know that I ever usually think: I better go watch this movie because I want my film to feel like that film. I usually just want my film to feel like my film. After the fact, I saw that Butter on the Latch was pretty deeply influenced by Darren Aronofsky and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely was coming from a Lars von Trier-influenced exploration of my darkness. I love that those men don’t pull any punches. They are going to fill you with wonder and then hit you all the ways to the guts, and while that’s sometimes uncomfortable, that’s an experience…