Credit ahead-of-the-curve kids Filmmaker magazine who named Josephine Decker one of their 25 New Faces of 2013, but to the rest of the world, this director came out of nowhere and then landed a whale of a debut at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival. Dubbed the “Double Decker” experience, Berlin premiered Decker’s first two mysterious and enigmatic movies: “Butter On The Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild & Lovely.”
A multi-hyphenate who started in documentaries (producing for A&E, ABC, and Discovery), Decker has been working in the highly collaborative field of micro-indies these last few years, acting for directors like Joe Swanberg, Onur Tukel, Adam Wingard, and Spencer Parsons. The doc “Bi The Way” explored the rise of bisexuality in America and her short, “Me The Terrible,” about a child pirate who tries to conquer New York City, also received lots of critical plaudits. Her two features were first conceived as shorts, but then grew into full-blown films after they took on a life of their own. “Thou Was Mild & Lovely” stars filmmaker/actor Swanberg, Sophie Traub, and Robert Longstreet, and is perhaps the more conventional of the two, but is still a provocative work about sexuality that even has horror undertones (read our review). “Butter On The Latch” is even more inexplicable, Lynchian in tone with unexplained notions of friendship and sexuality (read our review). Both explore visceral and uncomfortable moments, but also possess dreamy and sensual qualities.
Decker’s indies may not be for mainstream audiences, but there is an undeniable raw talent coming through her work and it won’t be long before she becomes a fixture of indie filmmaking. Maybe one day she’ll be spoken of in the same breath as Sofia Coppola; she does seem to have the makings of a young auteur. With her pair of films opening this weekend, we asked Decker to pen her thoughts in our “The Movies That Changed My Life” series and she happily obliged.
1. The first movie you ever saw
I watched “Singing in the Rain” with my mom in a theater when I was 3. According to the story—I don’t remember any of this—I danced down the aisles the whole time and begged her to let me become a ballerina. I had to wait one whole miserable year to turn four before I could start ballet class and then I stuck with it for ten years and now use that training in my performance art. It turns out movies have been changing my life for a LONG time.
2. The first moviegoing film experience you can remember.
We taped “The Last Unicorn” off of PBS so it became one of the three movies we owned when I was a kid, and I probably watched it 4237 times. That film was my one pathway into the reality of growing up. All the other kids’ movies I saw were trying to tell me that life had a happy ending, and I already knew in some instinctive place that was bullshit. “The Last Unicorn” is all about failure and regret and life not turning out how you think it will and not happening at the pace you expect it to. The unicorn meets Molly, a middle-aged woman, who screams “Why do you come to me now!? When I am old!?” And the unicorn travels with a magician who regularly fails at accessing true magic. The film is about learning to believe in yourself even after you’ve taken a beating, it’s about being kind to yourself and others when you have no reason to—it’s about regret and sorrow and red bulls and unicorns and I fucking loved it. Realest movie I’ve ever seen.
3. The best moviegoing film experience you ever had.
I was living abroad in 2002 in Argentina, which was—a bad time for Argentina. All the students in my university there were struggling to make enough money to cover rent and food and school—with jobs whose pay had stayed the same but that pay’s value had just decreased 400%…. I was immersed in this deeply political time for that country and was also kind of lonely and eating too many steaks…. I grew a very beautiful friendship with another American student Adam who lived near me, and that friendship was centered deeply around movies. We went to the Francois Truffaut Retrospective in the center of town. We would walk five miles to San Telmo to see old ‘50s horror films in this amazing backyard bar. But the most memorable film we saw together during that time was “The Amazing Spiderman.” Yes. I am an American. And ironically, after being in a country that had lost so much infrastructure and was suffering so much, I watched ‘Spiderman’ and in all its cheesy flagbearing candyland, it reminded me how lucky I am to be American. Plus, it’s a pretty wildly fun ride. Adam and I saw that film and then talked about American pop culture and the resonance of being in Argentina at that time until the sky started to brighten. I realized I was in love with him soon after that, and I don’t know if I’ll ever fall in love like that again.
4. The first movie you became obsessed with.
When Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” opened on a POV shot flying through that giant bat sign, my 11-year-old self was like: we are in some good hands. I think that was the first time I really felt a director in a movie. I walked out of the theater also feeling the Catwoman inside me, and I am pretty sure that phase didn’t end for a few months. I think a sign of a great film is that you leave and the experience doesn’t. I just remember those characters flying through my backyard and my brain space for a long time after—and the way we played with them and wanted to be them and wanted to grow them as extensions of ourselves—lots of Batcars and adventures inhabited our pine trees and our windows thanks to that film—that was pretty magic.
5. The movie that always freaks you out/makes you scared
I basically cannot watch any horror movie, and I am kind of making horror-ish movies, so… !!? I guess I like to be close to the things that terrify me. I find films in general extremely immersive, and I have trouble separating them from reality. When I agreed to see “Zodiac” with ten friends, I didn’t realize it was a serial killer movie, and I almost walked out – but instead stayed and then blamed them deeply when I had nightmares for a year. After I saw “Jurassic Park” (I was 10 I think?), dinosaurs haunted my dreams every night for four years. FOUR YEARS. That feels like a record. The velociraptors would corner me in one of those metallic rooms….. Sometimes, I would manage to climb on chandeliers or dinosaur bone sculptures to get away but — wow, the tension. I think maybe this was a particularly troubled time of my life… Middle school was a lot like “Jurassic Park.”
6. The movie you love that no one would expect you to love.
So, I generally love the artiest, subtitle-iest movies ever. My sister and I once had a blow out fight because she “forced” me to see “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton.” I had just moved to NYC and was making $600/wk working as a PA in television, and I was like: I CANNOT BELIEVE I BLEW 10 DOLLARS ON THAT TERRIBLE FILM!!! So—I would say the biggest surprise is that I really enjoy “The Hunger Games,” “Twilight” and all those female superhero-y, teen-girl-appropriate movies…. I just love women as action heroes. I get into it way more than I do when the heroes are men for some reason. Also, the writing is great—women make more complicated fighters somehow because their vulnerabilities are more alive to an audience, so more feels at stake. Also, I am a woman, so it’s always nice to see women doing awesome things on film.
7. The movie that defined your coming-of-age/high school experience.
Ha! You know, Hollywood films (which are mostly what I grew up on) have a strange way of defining puberty. Basically, everyone else’s love life looks so epic and romantic and performative, it can really ruin your experience of reality. My boyfriend and I went to see “Titanic” and I remember crying in the car afterwards because he wasn’t Leonardo DiCaprio. I still cry sometimes about that.
But actually, I remember two films defining that coming of age. It’s funny, when you’re a kid who doesn’t fully fit in, you’re always looking for other examples of folks who don’t fit in: “Clerks” and “Bottle Rocket” come to mind. I remember seeing each of those movies and just being stunned that they felt like they had been made by/for/with my friends. “Bottle Rocket” felt like a real discovery—my friend from Texas sort of dug this VHS out of a pile and showed it to a bunch of his guy friends (I just happened to be there) in his attic. I laughed so so hard and just knew I wanted to see the next seven movies that director made. “Clerks” I rented from our video store, and I watched it for the first time alone looking up each word that came up as a chapter heading. I was so curious to get inside the film and read it the way the filmmaker was “intending.” (This seems possible when you’re a teenager.) I also think those two films kind of inspired my generation of filmmakers that our own unique voices were enough to bring an audience to a film—you didn’t need 70 million dollars, you just needed to have fun making stuff.
8. The movie that defined your childhood.
“Sesame Street” defined my childhood—with that free-form, no-holds-barred short content for any age, that show really sent me all over the map creatively. I wonder about the future of cinema and whether we’ll be able to talk about feature films in twenty years…. and am really curious to explore short content more… It relies on visuals versus story in an interesting and poetic way. But I just love how a great film grabs my collar and doesn’t let go until days after it ends.
The truth is: I’ve always felt more of a kinship with literature than with movies. We have like 6000 books in my home in Texas. Before I fall asleep, I like to fall asleep with an image, and with books, you get to create the images yourself—and shake free wilder dreams. As an adult, I’m not an avid movie-watcher. I see films at festivals and almost nowhere else because I’m too busy making them. And I guess I have some kind of fear about starting to make movies that are “normal” if I expose myself to too many movies, so I try to expose myself to dance and theater and poetry and the art world—because I think there are already 289,000 filmmakers using cinema as a reference. What does it mean to be a filmmaker who uses poetry as one? To use religion? To use bunraku puppets?
9. The film that made you fall in love with cinema.
I think every film ever made me fall in love with cinema, but one turning point film was “Spirited Away.” I have always loved animation more than almost any other genre because of its infinite possibilities. I loved in “Sesame Street” when the P would become an elephant’s trunk would become a mouth saying the next number in the program. I saw “Spirited Away” right after graduating college, and I found something there that I had found in magical realist literature in Latin America. The: YES THIS IS WHAT I HAVE BEEN LOOKING FOR something. Miyazaki’s animation was making a social commentary while exploring an entire spirit dreamworld while sticking to the tightly crafted journey of one main character. The dragon turns into a bunch of tiny paper birds. I had never seen such intensely dreamy imagery integrated so perfectly into narrative. García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” got me to learn Spanish, study abroad in Argentina and read that book in the original language. “Spirited Away” got me to take night classes in Japanese 101 in the New School and to dream that every firm staircase we climb onto might at any moment become a cupcake and drop into the sea.
10. The film you’ve rewatched more than any other.
While I think I watched “Chipmunk Adventure” probably more times than any other movie, the movie I’ve watched the most conscious times is “Babe” about the little pig who uses sincerity and kindness to “save” his farm. This movie is insanely gorgeous—every detail is precise. The mice sing! The duck is trying to be a rooster! I found every character in that film to be deeply engaging and surprising. If you haven’t seen it, you should see it right now. Basically, it’s got that Pixar way (it’s not Pixar, it’s by a producing genius named George Miller who now just directed “Mad Max” which I HAVE to see….) of having you on the edge of your seat either laughing or holding your breath or crying every second of the film…. and its story is just so basic and good. I rarely like “happy” movies because I always feel like they’re lying to me, but this movie reckons so deeply with the darkness and just has such a stellar and simple main character in Babe—that it works for me. Basically, a sort of gullible but bright pig gets conned by a duck, gets laughed at by all the sheep, is taken advantage of by a cat, but never loses his strong hold on his values – which are to treat all creatures equally. It’s like “Breaking the Waves” but with pigs. Jejune hero meets dark world and doesn’t seem to notice that he/she is usually “losing”— so therefore wins.
“Butter On The Latch” & “Thou Wast Mild & Lovely” both open this weekend in limited release. Watch the new trailer for “Thou Wast Mild & Lovely” below.