A New Grammar: Josephine Decker

American indie director Josephine Decker is currently on a tour of discerning UK cinemas with her first two features, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. We chat to this singular filmmaking talent

Feature by Patrick Gamble | 06 Aug 2015

“Oh my god, what an honour.” There’s no hiding the glee in Josephine Decker’s voice when discussing the praise that has been bestowed on her work. A former documentarian turned narrative filmmaker, Decker is also an actor, an environmental activist, and an accordion player, but most of all she’s a powerful new voice in independent filmmaking.

Her work has been described as the unholy marriage of Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch, and The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody recently wrote an article about her, proclaiming “A star is born.” Despite the praise, Decker remains relatively modest about her work, admitting her own influences are perhaps a little more grounded in her youth. “I wouldn’t say those filmmakers [Bergman and Lynch] are necessarily an influence on me. I enjoy their work but weirdly I feel more shaped by kids' movies, Sesame Street, and Lars von Trier. But I’m grateful that the confluence of my influences have allowed that type of comparison.”

After successfully featuring in the Forum section of the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, Decker’s first two films, Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) are embarking on a UK-wide tour courtesy of The Independent Cinema Office, the national organisation for the development and support of independent film exhibition.

Quite unlike anything being produced by her contemporaries, Decker’s experimental and deeply sensual work defies genre and challenges its audience to adapt to a new form of storytelling. Decker points to meditation as one of her main sources for inspiration: “I practice Zen Buddhism. Meditation is all about being comfortable with the unknown, so I think that’s something that I’m also working on with my filmmaking. It’s the opposite of how Hollywood works, where everything is supposed to be known before you even start shooting.”

Still from Butter on the Latch (2013)

Butter on the Latch, Decker’s first feature, is a predominantly improvised tale of an entangled female friendship in a real-life Balkan music camp. It’s a disturbingly immersive psycho-sexual horror that burns with trauma and jealousy. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is a scripted, lyrical and deeply sensual thriller about a farmhand who quickly learns to regret acting on his desires for the daughter of his boss. The film also features perhaps the first ever shot that privileges a cow POV, just another quirk in a sea of Decker unconventionalities.

Both films examine human behaviour and the allure of taboos, inhabiting the grey area between the dichotomies of sex and death. “That’s just good stuff!” Decker asserts. “You learn that in poetry and in writing classes about juxtaposition; you always want to put one thing on top of the other because that’s exciting. I love layering emotions and images and feeling something that you’re not supposed to feel. It’s always felt exciting in the work that I read to blend beauty and danger. That’s just how life works: one day you’ll get this amazing voicemail saying you’ve got this job right after someone ran over your cat.”

Although Decker’s background is in performing arts (she never went to film school) there is a particular type of filmmaking she admires. “The films that have influenced me most in the last year have been Ida by Paweł Pawlikowski and that beautifully wild film Under the Skin, by Jonathan Glazer, because they’re not necessarily films built around a script but films built around images.” This focus on imagery is apparent in both her films, with mood and atmosphere as revealing as any line of dialogue and it’s apparent that the films’ scripts are little more than Decker’s rough drafts. “Pawlikowski has an incredible lecture on his website that’s basically about how he doesn’t want to make work based on a script.” Decker expands on how this has shaped her process: “He states how it’s really important to him to make work that emerges from imagery rather than an idea he had ahead of time. I think I’m still finding my process with these two films but I’m definitely similar. Both films are influenced by whatever I was excited about before I made them and I think that when I’m making something I’m generally not aware of my influences until much later. That Pawlikowski lecture is deeply affecting the way I’ve recently been, like, ‘Fuck a script. I’m not having a script for my next movie, and if I do, I’ll throw it away.’”

Shifting between genres, willfully disorienting the viewer and re-shaping notions of time and place, there’s been talk of Decker’s films heralding a new grammar of filmmaking. This is a compliment she’s more than happy to accept. “It’s awesome! I definitely think that when I make films I’m actively trying to make choices and images that are new, that I’ve never explored before as a viewer or filmmaker.” Decker goes even further, questioning the rigid conformity of other filmmakers: “I’m surprised that most people aren’t doing that, I mean, I’m shocked that so many films are just composed of medium and wide shots. I understand some stories are straight-up and ask for that kind of storytelling, but often I’m just thinking to myself, ‘I’ve seen a million films like that, why would I ever want to shoot a film like that too?’”

“I love layering emotions and images and feeling something that you’re not supposed to feel” – Josephine Decker

It’s clear when watching Decker’s films how naturally her actors embody their characters, with the camera highly attuned to their every emotion, be it erotic desire for the unattainable or a surge of pain caused by a well-placed strike to the head. The spontaneity of her work offers the viewer an incredibly primal image of human behaviour – something she puts down to improvisation. “I think it’s important to have energy in the work I do, even when it’s scripted. It’s always good to find ways to loosen up the actors, especially when you’re on like the fifth or sixth take. I definitely think my process is somewhere between improvisation and scripting.”

Recently Decker has been studying at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training in Philadelphia, attempting to find a way to bridge her love for improvisation theatre with film. “I went to study how to write collaboratively with actors and script from these sessions. I wrote a script based on the improvisation I did and I think my next film will probably be a loose version of that script. When I shoot, I’ll make sure we have time to do improv. I think there’s something really wonderful that comes when you have this gestation time to rehearse and settle into character.”

Both of Decker’s films have bucolic settings and are enraptured by the beauty of the American landscape. They’re shot with a haptic, almost hallucinatory sense of place. There’s a real feeling of memory within these settings, especially in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, a loose adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Decker uses her sensory style to recreate Steinbeck’s love for the land while simultaneously delving into the mysteries of the female body. “Steinbeck always writes about his landscape,” Decker states, while pondering the influence of nature on her work. “The landscape is telling as much about the story as the characters are and if you think about the Grapes of Wrath, for example, the way Steinbeck cuts away from the story to talk about dust, and the fields and the dead things, then comes back to the characters, they’re all infused with the world around them. That’s brilliant.”

But couldn’t the city hold this same sway over its inhabitants? “My next film will be the first I’ve set in a city,” Decker reveals. “It’ll be set in New York and I’m very curious how it’ll feel because the energy of the city is insane. I think location really determines a film. I go to this artist residency every summer, it’s where I wrote both these films, and when I’m there I’m just aware that the world is alive.”

Decker’s surreal distortion of the Southern gothic genre may herald a new grammar of filmmaking, yet there’s also something primal in her work. Her films lack the commercial viability to garner a theatrical release and UK audiences should seize the opportunity to see her work on the big screen. Anchored to the earth by an inquiring mind desperate to understand human behaviour, her films are whispered tapestries of mood and emotion, visual poems with a hypnotic tenor fumbling in the dark for some form of deep understanding. Decker is adamant she’s still trying to hone her process but anyone lucky enough to catch her films will agree that even if she’s still unsure where’s she’s going, she’s certainly on the right path. “I’m always looking to how I can express things in a new way. I don’t know if that’s a new grammar or an old grammar but I think it helps to have that sense of the unknown. I don’t know if that’s new but it’s definitely a different way of thinking how a page turns into an image.”

Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely are currently on tour nationwide until 15 Aug, including:

Glasgow Film Theatre, which screens Butter on the Latch on 8 Aug and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely on 9 Aug (Decker will be in attendance for a Q&A following the latter)

Home, Manchester, which screens Thou Wast Mild and Lovely on 10 Aug and Butter on the Latch 11 Aug (Decker will be in attendance for a Q&A following the latter)