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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”

For her part, Howard understands how it happened. A lot of herself went into the character. “Madeline is definitely having to balance two different worlds that she doesn’t want to come together,” the actress explained, “and that’s true for me.” Most of all, Howard related to the role that performance comes to play in Madeline’s life. “Growing up was never easy. People were always bullying me or trying to take advantage. Acting is my safe space. Reality is sort of a reckoning.”

No wonder Decker had felt like forcibly conflating Howard with her character had been such an unforgivable violation. “I wish I had handled it so differently,” the director said, “but it did teach me a lot about the dangers of what I was doing, and then it became clearer of what the dangers are that Evangeline could do.” Decker threw that draft in the trash before anyone else could see it; subsequent versions immediately began to pivot further into “fiction.”

I was about to ask a follow-up question, but Decker still appeared to be in the grips of her guilt. “Our relationship has been very intimate,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of each other’s lives, and there’s been really hard moments for both of us…”

Decker’s body began to shudder and constrict. Howard leaned forward and hugged Decker close. After a few minutes, the director collected herself with a laugh. “Basically I’m crying because my relationship with Helena is really important to me, and the fact that she continued to trust me after that…”

Howard jumped in, looking at Decker but talking to me. “Josephine has put a lot of things in perspective in my life. She is such a beacon of hope and light, and I’m always so grateful that I had the opportunity to work with her. We’ve grown together, and it really means a lot because I don’t have a lot of people in my life, friends-wise. She’s a really great friend to have, and a really good mentor. And I love her so much. And it sucks that she moved to L.A.!”

Decker wiped away the last of her tears as she laughed: “It sucks for me too!”

“Madeline’s Madeline”

Every delirious moment of “Madeline’s Madeline” reflects Decker’s nagging self-doubt that she (or anyone else) can possibly tell another person’s story without making it their own. “You don’t know myself,” Madeline snaps at someone who presumes too much about what’s happening inside her head. “I am being myself.” In other words: “The emotions you are having are someone else’s.”

If there’s a visceral curiosity to the way that Decker’s cinema explores the hazy space between collaboration and exploitation, it’s because she’s charting the ethical boundaries that most filmmakers choose to cower away from or ignore altogether. “The inspiring thing to me about making movies is working with real people,” she said. “The thing I’m most excited about isn’t necessarily their performances, but the conversations we’re having, and the vulnerability that people bring into the room.”

There’s something inherently quixotic about trying to make art out of pain without hurting anyone in the process, but Decker is one of the few American directors who — at a time when the distance between people seems too far to cross — is daring to see the movie screen as both a window and a mirror. She’s able to do that because she finds people who are just as eager to get out of their own heads and into somebody else’s, to trust each other to subject themselves to things they aren’t ready for, and to grow together through that shared experience.

Howard may be young, but she understands Decker (and Madeline) implicitly. “The best thing you can do is support the people you love and try not to overprotect them because you think something’s wrong. If it’s mental illness, well that’s a chemical imbalance; it’s debilitating, but it’s part of their body. You can’t control that — you can’t take on what they’re going through.” She argued the same was true of artistic creation. “It would be great if Madeline didn’t have Evangeline trying to push her into certain places, or if their rehearsal process didn’t constantly remind her of all the things that she didn’t want to bring into that theater troupe. But sadly,” she smiled, “that’s not life.”

“Madeline’s Madeline”

Decker takes permission from the art she sees around her, and she gives permission to her collaborators in order to make her own. With “Madeline’s Madeline,” she even gives permission to her audience — not just watch her characters, but to inhabit them: to be inside the cat, to internalize Madeline’s experience to the point that it becomes more than just another expression of their own.

To this day, Decker still has no idea if it’s possible — or even positive — for a filmmaker to free a story from under their own shadow, but that’s ultimately not what she’s trying to do. It’s not about erasing herself, it’s about making room for everybody else, and allowing them to see themselves as clearly as she does. Making that kind of art may not be easy, but it certainly isn’t futile. Helena Howard is a living testament to that.

As for the size of Decker’s crowds, well, they’re about to get a little bigger. Hired off the strength of “Madeline’s Madeline,” Decker has just started to shoot a hyper-subjective biopic about the author Shirley Jackson. For the first time, Decker will be working with a cast full of major stars (Elisabeth Moss is playing Jackson; Michael Stuhlbarg is her husband). And, for the first time, she will literally be telling someone else’s story. It’s a big leap, but Decker insisted that it’s still familiar territory: “It’s weird how often Jackson’s work resonates with themes of my own! ‘What is exploitation? What is taking advantage of someone? What is the beating heart of friendship between two women?’ And the script goes from this third-person perspective to inside the minds of her characters, and it just gives me so much permission to be really bold with my own narrative voice.”

Decker took a deep breath and stared down at her hands, as though visualizing the future. “I keep reminding myself that I was hired to do the thing that I do,” she said. “It’s intimidating to work on a movie with a bigger budget and these famous actors, but the finished product is only going to be exciting if I bring to it the thing that I always bring to my shit, which is guts splayed out all over the fucking table.” She looked up. “Not just mine, but everybody’s.”

“Madeline’s Madeline” opens in theaters on August 10th.

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