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Josephine Decker Turned to a YA Drama to ‘Change Everything’ After ‘Extremely Hard’ Grief During ‘Shirley’

"I wanted to do the opposite of what I had been doing," Decker tells IndieWire, and the deep pockets of Apple and the artist-first mandate of A24 made it possible.

Josephine Decker

Josephine Decker

AP

Josephine Decker knows it sounds a little weird — that the filmmaker behind such tone poems as “Thou Wast Mild & Lovely” and “Butter on the Latch” and internal dramas like “Madeline’s Madeline” and “Shirley” wanted to make an Apple-backed adaption of a popular YA novel for her fifth feature film — but it made perfect sense to her.

“I remember calling my mom when I first got the movie and I was like, ‘I’m making my first happy movie, Mom. You’re going to love it. You’re going to be so excited to watch it!'” Decker said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “She’s like, ‘What’s it about?’ And I was like, ‘It’s about a girl whose sister died.’ But it really is, by far, my happiest movie. It’s much more positive than the things I usually make, and I was really ready for that. I needed it.”

Adapted by Jandy Nelson from her bestselling YA novel of the same name, “The Sky Is Everywhere” follows heartbroken teenage musical prodigy Lennie (a wonderful Grace Kaufman) as she recovers from the death of her beloved older sister. And while that sounds, well, pretty sad, the film really is Decker’s happiest yet, rife with music and color and fantasies, a fantasia of feeling.

For Decker, the film allowed her the chance to “totally change everything,” as she explained, and refresh her creative coffers while proving her versatility in a seemingly unexpected space. It’s her first film since her 2020 Elisabeth Moss–starring Shirley Jackson biopic “Shirley,” her most daring (and trying) feature yet. That’s no coincidence.

“I had made so many intense movies and the process of making ‘Shirley’ was extremely hard,” she said. “It was just painful. I was ready to do something completely different. I went through a lot of personal grief during that time, which was actually another thing that motivated me to want to make this movie, just to have a place to process grief in a hopefully productive and, to some degree, joyous and life-affirming way.”

Josephine Decker working with her acting troupe on the set of "Madeline's Madeline"

Josephine Decker working with her acting troupe on the set of “Madeline’s Madeline”

An Rong Xu

Apple’s deep pockets also allowed Decker to step up the technical aspects of her filmmaking, with Decker eschewing handheld for the first time. She wanted something big, complete with sweeping crane shots and plenty of dreamy musical sequences with giant pops of color and people playing music that literally sweeps them into the sky. And, from the start, Decker knew that “The Sky Is Everywhere” had the most ready-made audience she’d ever approached: YA lovers and women and families.

“I think Apple was actually very, very excited about this project and really looking to gain this audience, and they were excited about content that could have a broader appeal and be family-friendly,” Decker said. At the time the streamer signed on Decker, “The Sky Is Everywhere” was only its second original movie to be announced (the first was Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks”), so the sky was pretty much the limit. Like Coppola’s film, Decker’s is part of a production pact with A24, which Decker also loved.

“Obviously, A24 is known for being so artist-friendly and artist-forward and really just giving you a lot of freedom and tons of support, and then Apple has the funds to really let you play,” Decker said. “I don’t know that the movie would’ve gotten made without Apple, because we shot during the pandemic. There were so many COVID costs. I think streamers aren’t as reliant on any single project or product to make all of their money, and so there’s just a little bit more freedom and flexibility and less pressure on one single product.”

Decker said she felt loved and supported throughout the process. When notes would come in from Apple and A24 brass, Decker was surprised to find that nothing was being demanded of her. It was still her film. “Then we’d get on the phone and I’d be like, ‘Here’s why I feel strongly about this,’ and they’d be like, ‘Okay, great. You don’t have to do the note.’ And I was like, ‘Did that just happen?'” she recalled.

"The Sky Is Everywhere"

“The Sky Is Everywhere”

AppleTV+/A24

Decker’s experience is becoming increasingly more common, affirmed by the latest USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Study, “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair: Analysis of Director Gender & Race/Ethnicity Across 1,500 Top Films from 2007 to 2021.” It found that female filmmakers in general fare better at streamers, and those outfits are far more likely to hire a female director than the studios.

And while the last few months may have been fixated on the awards contenders backed by streamers, from Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” (Netflix) to Sian Heder’s “CODA” (Apple) and many more, the streaming world has also provided a space for female-helmed features that have reached beyond the awards fray.

Standout female filmmakers like Coppola, Ava DuVernay, Augustine Frizzell, Julia Hart, Sara Colangelo, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and many more have all made movies for streamers in recent years. Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne just sold their debut “Am I OK?” to Warner Bros. and HBO Max after its Sundance premiere, while Mimi Cave’s much-hyped “Fresh” sold to Searchlight, though the studio will make it available exclusively on Hulu. And that’s just the start.

Asked what kind of films she was offered after “Shirley,” and a common theme emerges: most other outfits were only interested in giving Decker more of what she had done before.

“The Sky Is Everywhere”

AppleTV+/A24

“I got a lot of thrillers and mysteries, but everything was super-dark and was based on things I had made, and I was really interested in making something that had a little bit more lightness and comedy, and people hadn’t seen that,” Decker said. She also fielded offers for other biopics, which she also passed on. “I don’t want to make another biopic,” she said. “I’m not interested in doing another period piece right now. I just made that movie. I don’t need to make another one.”

But when she read Nelson’s script, she could see herself inside of it. “I was super drawn to the script because it felt very me in a bunch of ways,” she said. “It was so many layers of things that I was excited by, but the heart of it was that I cried, I cried so hard every time I read it. I just felt like I had such an emotional experience of this work and then I wanted to live in that.”

Decker knew she could make it work, using the same tools and tones and obsessions that had guided her earlier work. “It did feel like it had a lot of space for me, especially in these subjectivity moments, these magical experiences,” she said. “I definitely was like, ‘Oh, I think I can do those well, and go inside of Lennie’s mind.’ The interiority aspect felt really aligned with everything I’d done.”

Also appealing? The stuff that Decker couldn’t do on her own.

“I do miss writing my own work, but I think part of the reason I was drawn to this so much was that I was like, ‘I would never write this. I would never write something where people say how they feel this much,'” she said. “I was so happy to make a movie that was sentimental instead of kind of mysterious and erasing itself as it goes.”

Room 104 HBO Season 2 Josephine Decker

Josephine Decker in “Room 104”

Tyler Golden / HBO

Not to worry: Decker intends to get back to her usual obsessions in her upcoming projects, including one she’s currently writing that builds on the wildness and weirdness of puberty and coming of age (with a generous dash of “The Metamorphosis”) to tell a story of self-discovery. But she’s still taking what she learned from “The Sky Is Everywhere” to that one, too.

“This is definitely the most straight-up storytelling[-focused film] I’ve ever made, and I think my next movie is going to be totally bonkers,” Decker said. “I would really like to write my next movie myself and I would really like it to be a complete poem and make almost zero sense, but very evocative.”

She added, “But I love living in both worlds, so I’m glad I got to live in this one. I feel like that’s how it works. I’ve always felt drawn to do the opposite just to liberate myself, which is probably a reason I really wanted to make this. I wanted to do the opposite of what I had been doing. Now I’ll bite back into that even harder. Poetry movie coming your way!”

An Apple and A24 production, “The Sky Is Everywhere” will be released in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV+ on Friday, February 11.

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