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Josephine Decker Felt Like Her Movies Didn’t Matter, Until She Met the Teenager Who Would Star in Her Masterpiece

Josephine Decker felt like her movies didn't matter. Then she saw Helena Howard in a high school acting competition, and everything changed.

“Madeline’s Madeline”

“Madeline’s Madeline” sinks in with the disorienting heat of a sudden fever. Someone you’ve never seen before is doing something you don’t understand. She purrs with a smile, and licks the back of her brown hands. Is she happy? Troubled? Loved? Fetishized? You try to make sense of what little you can see, but the scene is so slick and woozy that even your most basic assumptions won’t stick to it. Then, a voice whispers in your ear: “The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s.” The girl takes hold of a steam iron and sneaks up behind the nervous white lady in their cramped New York apartment. “You are not the cat — you are inside the cat.”

So concludes our introduction to a truly unclassifiable movie. In Decker’s words, the film “takes permission” from all sorts of sources — she cites “The Diving Bell and the Butterly” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” as major inspirations, and sees the subjective frenzy of her work reflected in the films of Darren Aronofsky — but “Madeline’s Madeline” ultimately owes more to its own making than anything else. One can’t help but wonder how its director might have communicated her singular vision to the 15-year-old star who’d never been on a film set, or to the members of the Pig Iron Theatre Troupe she’d hired as a Greek chorus.

Howard scrunched her face and looked at her director: “You kind of said that you wanted to make a movie centered around me, but with thematic elements that are based on truths that we experience routinely.” Decker replied: “I told everyone that we were making a thing together, and that we were gonna be inspired by our lives. I had all these ideas going in, but so many things happened in between.”

As rehearsals continued, a dangerously self-reflexive story began to take shape. They referred to it as “Movie #1”, as though it were the first in a series of minimalist paintings. The plot revolved around a talented but vulnerable black teenager with an unspecified mental illness, and the experimental theatre troupe that allowed her to find some respite from her struggles. There was Evangeline (Molly Parker), the overzealous white director whose interest in her young black star would be empowering and predatory in equal measure. And there was Regina (Miranda July), the heroine’s rattled white mother, who feared that her daughter was drifting out of reach.

Read More: 10 Films Directed By Female Filmmakers You Can’t Miss This Summer Season

Some key details were mined from secondhand experience or invented out of whole cloth — Madeline’s chemical imbalance chief among them — but it was clear the project had cohered into a dark shadow of its creation. Decker had designed a hall of mirrors so intricate and dizzying that even its own architect couldn’t find her way out. In order to work through her own anxieties as an artist, she had to build a film around them. In order to answer if it’s right to tell someone else’s story, she first had to ask if it was truly even possible. The process of doing so nearly broke her heart. “My therapist taught me that I either have to be comfortable with pissing everyone off, or I have to look at my own process,” she said. “With this movie, I had to do a little bit of both.”

“Madeline’s Madeline”

As if by design, that process forced Decker to contend with some heavy moral questions: “Would I ever be that oblivious to the pain I was inflicting on other people? Would I ever be that Machiavellian in the way that I took someone’s real story and then started to distort it?” She felt like she was turning into Evangeline, the movie’s obsessive theater director. “In some ways she was such an obvious exaggeration, but wanting everyone on set to like me, wanting people to think everything is going great, those anxieties are so real!” she said.

Decker turned to Howard and addressed her directly: “A moment that was a real dividing line for me was when we met up and I had written a new draft of the script that included something that had actually happened between us.” Not a character detail they had forged together for Madeline in rehearsal, but something that Decker had taken from Howard herself. “I just remember the look on your face,” the director said, staring at the actress who had entrusted her with almost a quarter of her young life. “You didn’t even say anything. I was just like ‘Oh my God, I’ve completely crossed the line. I’ve completely crossed the line.’ I remember thinking ‘this is really bad,’ and you were just like, ‘I’m not feeling very much right now.’”

Decker began to sob during our interview. Howard reached over and silently took her hand. “My journey with Helena has been very important to me. You fall in love… I didn’t fall in love with Helena in that way, but as an artist when I want to work with someone it’s a deep falling in love with them. It’s ‘I want to understand you, I want to pay tribute to you,’ and it’s a complex relationship because for a character to be full you have to explore the full range of who the actor is. And in that moment it was like… Helena is not Madeline, and that line can never be crossed again.”

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