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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”

The story behind one of the most vital and visionary independent films of the 21st century began four years ago, when Josephine Decker woke up feeling like her movies didn’t matter, and fearing that they never would. It was the spring of 2014, and the filmmaker should have been on top of the world.

Barely 30 and blessed with an irrepressible creative streak that lit the way towards a brilliant future, her rising star had suddenly gone supernova: Both of the features she wrote and directed had been selected to premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. Feral and free, “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” boasted all the mainstream appeal of a renaissance faire, but they were touched with an arresting sort of newness that made some critics sound like astronomers — people wrote about her movies as if they had discovered new moons.

For Decker, it was all too much and not enough. “I’d just done the biggest thing that I’d ever done in my life,” she said on a recent July afternoon “and had the biggest audience I’d ever had, and I was just like: ‘In the grand scheme of things, more people are going to know about their local grocery market closing down than are ever going to know about these movies. What am I really doing with my life?’”

For Decker, that was the start of an epic adventure that would confirm her talent, and so violently force Decker out of her comfort zone that she still can’t talk about parts of the production without breaking down. Filled with expressionistic dance and sophisticated emotions, “Madeline’s Madeline” is a masterpiece — the last four years of Decker’s life condensed into 93 delirious minutes — and it provides a bridge to the next major stage of her career.

But the movie, for all of its success, is haunted by the pain of its creative process. And as its singular artist prepares to take the next step in her ascendant career, working with Hollywood stars for the very first time, her original question has been answered with a far more difficult one. In order to figure out what she’s doing with her life, Decker had to make a movie that wasn’t afraid to ask why — in order to make a movie that anyone would see, she had to make one that might hurt too much for her to watch.

Decker wasn’t only dismayed at the size of her audiences, she was also starting to fear that her ideas had become incompatible with her intentions — it was self-doubt that was holding her back. After spending the previous summer with a theater company, and participating in a clowning workshop that forced her to strip her self-identity down to the bone, she knew that she wanted her next project to explore that process on her own terms. “The intensive taught me that performance is this incredible way of accessing different elements of your own humanity,” she said. “I wanted to look at acting and the rehearsal process and have this thing where the camera went from watching actors to actually becoming whatever they became.”

The problem was that Decker’s previous experience left her skeptical about the ethics of telling other peoples’ stories — of exploiting their lives and bodies by submitting them to an artist’s will. She had seen it from both sides of the camera. First, as the co-director of a documentary about bisexuality called “Bi the Way,” a blip of a film that she felt was guilty of forcing its subjects into a prefab narrative. Then, as the co-director and subject of “Flames,” an explicit piece of meta-fiction that she and her ex-boyfriend made about their short, fiery relationship together.

Read More: ‘Madeline’s Madeline’ Review: Josephine Decker Has Made a Mind-Scrambling Masterpiece — Sundance 2018

“Art is the commerce of intimacy,” Decker told me earlier this year, “and that is so complicated. “You cross your own boundaries, you cross other peoples’ boundaries, and then you cross other boundaries without even realizing that you’ve invaded someone’s privacy or dignity.” Those invisible transgressions may not have bothered many of the great (and overwhelmingly male) filmmakers of the 20th century, who saw all manner of abuse as a means to an end, but Decker is compelled to reveal them by any means necessary — to redraw the space between people by tracing it on the most intimate terms.

Prior to her first two features, she was most famous for sitting across from Marina Abramovic during “The Artist Is Present” and stripping naked in the middle of MoMA. At the time, she said that her hope was to be “as vulnerable to [Abramovic] as she constantly makes herself to us.” Decker was escorted out of the museum by police, and forced to explore other means of accomplishing that goal.

Decker is an extremely sensitive human being — not at all delicate, but simply attuned to the emotional wavelengths that buzz inside and around her. That intrinsic thrum of empathy and understanding is crucial to Decker’s filmmaking, but it also has the potential to slow her down, or to keep her stuck in her own head even when she’s traveling the world with her work. She can’t make anything without questioning its true authorship — she can’t direct anyone without anxiously investigating the dynamic between them. For better or worse, Decker’s entire being hinges on the basic questions that Hollywood refuses to ask itself. It’s hard to be a curious person with a powerful conscience.

“That’s going to be a struggle for me as an artist,” she said. “My therapist was like: ‘You want to make movies with real people, you want to collaborate with those people to make them, you want to take their stories, and then you want to fictionalize them and then have total control over the ultimate story that’s told.’” She laughed. “‘And you don’t want anyone to hate you for it!’” A divorce court would call those “irreconcilable differences.”

It all seemed hopeless, until two things happened that changed Decker’s life forever. The first was that she had an epiphany that would allow her to confront her neuroses head-on: She needed to make a movie about the futility of her making movies. The second was that a teenage girl she had never met before made her cry in public. Her name was Helena Howard.

Ask the “Madeline’s Madeline” star how she first met Josephine Decker, and Howard cracks a smile as wide as the world: “The universe just works in spectacular ways.”

It was the kind of chance encounter that she might be asked to recount on talk shows for the rest of her long career. She was only 15 at the time, but already grown-up and self-possessed in a way that separated her from the other kids at her New Jersey performing arts high school.  While most of the students chose to sing “Frozen” duets at that spring’s annual teen arts festival, Howard prepared a devastating monologue from David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” in which the heroine confronts the man who sexually abused her as a child. It was a bold choice, but it paid off: the judge burst into tears, and declared that it was the best performance she had seen in her life. Unsure how to respond, Howard started to cry along with her.

“It was just a part-time job for three days a year,” Decker, the judge, recalled through her laughter. “And in my head I was just like ‘I have to work with that woman!'” At the end of the event, she raced after Howard and gave the high schooler her email.

Sitting across from Decker in the back room of distributor Oscilloscope’s Brooklyn headquarters, a week shy of her 20th birthday, Howard shared a similarly frazzled memory of that first encounter: “When Josephine approached me in the hallway, the only thing I knew about her was that we had just cried together,” she said. Any skepticism Howard might have had about her new biggest fan evaporated after she and her mom met with Decker in Manhattan the next month. “It was evident she wasn’t off her rocker,” Howard said. “She was someone who was about making art, and wanted to do something that was important.”

What Decker wanted to do was create the perfect conditions for her fascinations to collide with her fears — to find someone who could help her chart the fraught space between collaboration and exploitation. “When I met Helena, I was like, ‘We can build something around this human being! This human being can hold a movie for sure!’” She gathered an acting troupe and started developing some ideas. “It took a long time, though, and I wasn’t always really clear about what I was making,” she said. Watching the finished product, it’s hard to imagine how she could ever have found the words to describe it.

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