Teen Turmoil: Josephine Decker on Madeline's Madeline

One of the fiercest talents on America's vibrant indie film scene, Josephine Decker discusses about her impressionistic new feature Madeline's Madeline, which centres on an extraordinary performance from teen newcomer Helena Howard

Feature by Philip Concannon | 07 May 2019
  • Madeline's Madeline

An artist never knows when inspiration is going to strike, or what form it will take. Josephine Decker wasn't actively looking for the star of her next film when she agreed to be one of the judges at a teen arts festival in early 2014, but there she was in the shape of a 15-year-old named Helena Howard, whose powerful rendition of a monologue from David Harrower's play Blackbird moved Decker to tears. When she had recovered from the impact of this performance, Decker sought out Howard backstage, driven by an overwhelming and unignorable impulse – she simply had to work with this girl.

“Yeah, I never even hesitated,” Decker says as she recalls that serendipitous meeting. “It was so clear to me that she could do anything as an actor and that she was just a great human being as well, and when something strikes you so hard I just try to follow it all the way. It's weird to have that strong of a feeling, so when I do, I try to listen to it. You know, sometimes actors do things and you don't understand why you're so gripped, and I always feel that those are the best kind of actors to work with. Sometimes you think that a person is such a great actor because they can do all these impressive things, but it's not as great as when you just face someone and you think, ‘I don't know why I can't stop watching you, but I just can't.’”

The rest of us will surely be just as captivated by this remarkable young actor. Helena Howard is a natural; her effortlessly charismatic performance in Madeline’s Madeline is the kind of exhilarating debut that feels as rare and exciting as a comet blazing across the cinematic sky. She plays 16-year-old Madeline, fresh out of a stay in a psychiatric hospital, who attempts to escape from her troubles by joining an improvisatory theatre troupe led by Evangeline (Molly Parker). Evangeline and her actors are developing… something through their various improvisations and roleplays, but Evangeline quickly latches on to Madeline’s personal problems – and particularly her fractious relationship with her mother (Miranda July) – as a source of inspiration.

Where is the line between inspiration and exploitation? It’s a question that Decker often pondered as she developed Madeline’s Madeline through a series of acting workshops organised with the Pig Iron Theatre Company and their artistic director, Quinn Bauriedel. “It's never really a conversation that we're having as artists, but how do you stay responsible to the people you build work with and how are you portraying their story?” she asks. “What are the ethics of improvising, even? When you're improvising, you're forced to use what's inside your own head and that's to some degree personal, so when does that become exploitative? All of those ideas were things that we were just encountering as we did this process. Eventually I thought that I've learned so much from this process it would be a shame not to be putting that learning into the film.”

In this respect, the authoritarian and vampiric Evangeline might be seen as a worst-case scenario version of Decker herself. “Yeah, completely. If I never listened to anyone and didn't pick up any clues along the way, then maybe what I'm doing is a little off and that would have been me.”

Collaboration is very important to Decker. Her two previous features, Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014), relied heavily on improvisations with the cast, and she is quick to pay tribute to the contribution of key colleagues behind the camera too. Her regular cinematographer, Ashley Connor, brilliantly finds a variety of inventive ways to place us inside Madeline’s fractured headspace, while editing consultants Marie-Hélène Dozo and David Barker proved to be invaluable when Decker reached the long and challenging post-production stage.

“I love editing and often that's where I find the movie, I think maybe to a fault,” she admits. “With Madeline's Madeline, I was like, ‘Cool, the script is kind of there, we're gonna find it in editing,’ and then we got into editing and I was like, ‘Oh fuck.’” The editing process took the best part of a year and the story took on many different shapes (at one point, Decker says, it was an Alice in Wonderland-style adventure) before she found the right path. “When we restructured the first third of the film I think people started to get the movie, and I don't think they'd really gotten it before that because it was a pretty abstract and elliptical thing. I had eased into it a bit and David was really good at finding that sometimes you need a sharp edge around something for it to stand out and really hit, so I was grateful for that.”

We can feel those sharp edges throughout Madeline's Madeline. Decker's work always feels poised on a knife-edge, with every scene feeling like it could flip into comedy or violence, or plunge into pain or ecstasy, at any moment. The whole film possesses this nervous, off-kilter energy. It's invigorating, but it's not an easy or comfortable experience. “Yeah, maybe that's one of the flaws of my work, that nobody can be comfortable when they watch it!” Decker says with a laugh. “I love that, though. I appreciate when a movie is giving me a visceral experience and I'm not really into passive entertainment. A lot of that is just trying not to let a feeling land until it's the right feeling, so my editors and I talked a lot about not having beginnings or endings on scenes, and how we could push the energy of a scene into the next scene, so there's always a kind of question at the end of a scene that has to be answered in the next one. If you have this rising series of questions, then ideally the answer is going to be something you didn't expect, which creates a new question that launches you into the next section of the film.”

That feeling of watching a film constantly reinventing itself, going for broke in every single scene, is what makes Madeline's Madeline feel so special. Even after multiple viewings, the film retains its capacity to surprise and thrill the viewer, revealing new facets to its complex structure and provoking fresh emotional responses. In fact, it's a film that even managed to surprise its creator. “I think some people really do make the movie that's inside their mind but my movies are often so improved by becoming whatever is happening with the people that are working on the film, so I'm always really grateful once the movie has reared its head and revealed itself to be something really unexpected and new,” she says. “In this instance, it was nothing like what I thought I was setting out to make, and I'm kind of happy that's the case.”

Madeline's Madeline is released in select cinemas 10 May by MUBI, and will also be streaming on MUBI from that date