Josephine Decker on Madeline's Madeline: 'I was curious about what it means when you flow between reality and a performance'
The film's writer and director discusses making responsible art and the blurred line between fictional and authentic selves
'What you are about to see is a metaphor,' a woman says into the camera at the opening of Madeline's Madeline. With that reassurance, the audience dives headlong into its teenage protagonist Madeline's conscious in one of the most visually striking films in recent years. In the film, the troubled Madeline joins an improv theatre group where the line between performance and reality begins to blur.
For a film so submerged in subjectivity, it's hardly a surprise to learn that this project was deeply personal to its writer/director, Josephine Decker. An actor before she moved behind the camera, Madeline's Madeline was inspired by a three-week intensive Decker took in clowning with Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia.
'During the clowning, people revealed parts of themselves I had never seen before,' she explains over the phone. 'I was struck by how performance can be such a conduit to authenticity, even more authentic than the person you're presenting when you're just walking about in the world. I was curious about that and what does it means when you flow between reality and a performance, and what arrives to you in a performance that's maybe more real than what feels like your real life.'
After seeing her lead actor Helena Howard, who plays the titular Madeline, at a New York acting competition, everything came together for Decker. 'I met her and just knew I wanted to work with her,' she laughs. 'I said, "let's build something together for you."'
While Madeline's Madeline isn't a horror film, strands of psychological horror begin to surface as Madeline's interiority – and therefore the film's – begins to spiral, something that has been inherent in all Decker's work. 'People have called my film emotional thrillers or emotional horrors,' she explains. 'The psychology space is so unsafe throughout the movie, and even the spaces you or Madeline perceive as safe turn out not to be all that safe.'
Drawing on her career as an actor before she moved behind the camera, questions over the ethics of creativity was something she wanted to explore. 'It's hard for me to speak to every piece of art but, for me, I was responding to the art that I had been a part of, whether as a maker or a participant as an actor or crew. I've been part of really nurturing projects and it's always challenging to make super collaborative work, but then there are experiences where afterwards I wasn't sure about the ethics of what just happened. Like I'm don't know if I'm happy with how my image was used or how I felt about the dynamic of a scene, especially as I've been a part of a lot of sex scenes.
'I've also worked on documentaries where I couldn't believe how the truth was squandered in favour of a good narrative. All these questions had been accumulating over my life: how do you make art that tackles big issues and is responsible and treats everyone involved responsibility? And how useful is this art? These questions around ethics were essential to the movie.'
'I think it's like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle,' Decker says after a pause when asked if she thinks film can ever capture an absolute truth. 'By trying to record light, you change its path. I think so much of film is like that: by pointing the camera at anything, you change it.'
Available to stream on MUBI and on limited release from Fri 10 May.