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by Peter Knegt
February 11, 2014 12:49 PM
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Berlinale Breakout: Josephine Decker On Her Much Discussed Festival Double Feature

Josephine Decker Abe Avisnan

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!"

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"

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.

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