“I feel like the movies this year are better than they’ve ever been,” says “Madeline’s Madeline” writer-director Josephine Decker about this year’s Sundance fare, before settling into a conversation about her latest film, “Shirley,” which played as part of the festival’s 2020 US Dramatic Competition. “I like to think that having a fascist for a president is at least helping our art succeed….meaning, everyone is taking their art way more seriously. And there’s more funding for art, because people are like, ‘we need to compensate, we need to change the narrative.’”
While Decker’s film is about a real-life literary figure—famed horror and mystery writer Shirley Jackson (played by a never-better Elisabeth Moss)—it’s deliberately not a biopic. Adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name by Sarah Gubbins, “Shirley” is a fictional, twisty and sensual journey into the author’s mind as she battles with her writerly demons alongside her controlling academician husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a young couple—Odessa Young’s Rose and Logan Lerman’s Fred—who move into their Vermont home in the ’40s to provide the duo company and help. Gradually, “Shirley” grows into a womanly tale of liberation, as Shirley and Rose find themselves drawn to each other in ways creative, intellectual and sexual through a boozy, manic, and superbly orchestrated dance that feels like an homage to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Below is our conversation with Decker on the themes and crafts of her film.
While this isn’t your script, but it very much plays within your world; playing with performance, with perspective, sexual dynamics and the space between reality and dream.
The script came to me, and I said this is something I want to do. But then we spent about a year together having wonderful conversations, just work-shopping the script and brainstorming and bringing certain things out more. Sarah was so welcoming to my thoughts and vice versa. We had a great time working on it together. It did change a bit in that year, but it was an incredible script when I got it, which is why I wanted to be involved.
That sounds like a perfect sync, between the two of you.
Perfect sync. Because we were so open to the other person’s ideas, in that we don’t always agree and that disagreement always fueled something more interesting, which was a real gift. She’s such a special, special awesome person.
This isn’t a conventional biopic. I don’t know if I would even call it a biopic.
I really wondered if we should even call the film “Shirley” because it does make it seem like it will be a biopic, and “Shirley” is the name of the novel it’s adapted from. But it’s so obviously not a biopic. If anything, I would say we took Shirley Jackson and put her into one of her own fictional stories, so definitely the opposite. So [it] has nothing to do with biography and also, we were not adapting her real life. We were always clear this was a fictional character inspired by a real human.
We took the novel as our starting point and then in writing the script, found new things and were also deeply inspired by the characters that Susan had drawn in the novel. So, it’s definitely not an exact replica of the novel, it takes creative liberties. It’s so sweet, I saw the novelist Susan, and she seemed really excited by where we had taken the film.
I really love how you steer the way into the sexual dynamic between Shirley and Rose. Rose is really infatuated by the idea of this woman. Before she even meets her, she reads her story “The Lottery,” and there is this arousal, followed by a sex scene with her partner. Rose reads the story, and she is awakened inside.
That’s a nice way of putting it. Much of that was there in the script that Sarah wrote and you know, that first moment was something we found in the edit. Originally, they have sex and then she goes and reads the story. And then in the edit, we were like, “what if this was the opposite…she reads the story and that pushes her into having sex with her partner?”
We really pushed in the edit, the aspect of her being turned on by Shirley’s story and that’s also something that feels very real to the story as a whole. There’s something about Shirley that turns Rose on. I have it too, I have a friend who’s a total genius and every time I go to her house, she’s basically in her underwear and just lying on the couch and there’s just so much liberty to just be yourself and just arrive where you’re at. You don’t have to dress up for her, you don’t have to stand up and serve her cakes. I think there’s a way of being that Rose feels circumscribed to. Being around Shirley, [she] realized there is another way. Sometimes Shirley is even encouraging her to let go of all that care-taking she’s doing. [It] is an unlocking of a much more vibrant, embodied sexual being.
The moment with the mushrooms in the movie, where the two women share them, is significant. In the last few years, we’ve been seeing mushrooms in cinema used to put men in their places and regain control; like in “Phantom Thread” or “Lady Macbeth.” But this movie takes mushrooms further. It’s not about men; it’s about female liberation, creative freedom, sexual freedom.
So it’s really interesting. The mushroom scene always felt like the hinges of the movie turned around that. It’s because the metaphor that’s made in the scene of these deadly or not so deadly mushrooms is the metaphor of their relationship. Their friendship. Either could be toxic and destroy them or it could be this juicy, meaty sensual passing between them that is something liberated next to death, that is a creative act.
Meanwhile one of the best scenes I’ve seen in Sundance this year is the swing scene—where two women share a very sexual moment without having sex. One of the most sensual things I’ve seen in a while.
With that scene, it was really obvious we needed to start wider and then get closer and closer to our actors as they come together. It’s also the first time we find Shirley outside of the house in this comfortable way, and that felt important, they’re both moving each other into this space of liberation. But actually that scene used to have a lot of dialogue. It was a dialogue-driven scene and then when we were in the edit, we just kept cutting. We’d like cut out this and then cut out that and then eventually we realized how strong the scene was without any dialogue because the performances were so wonderful. I think that’s one of its strengths. I actually think that’s a sign of great dialogue. Continually we would realize that the reason the movie was working so well was, Sarah had written such great dialogue and it created such a map for our scenes that you could just take it out. That’s [the sign of] really great writing. It meant that the performances around the dialogue were telling the story—there was so much going on in the eyes, the glances, the breathes, the speed, the rhythms… Subtracting allowed the essence to emerge.
Your movie is mostly set indoors: gritty, grainy, with layers of production design detail. That informs a certain look in cinematography.
Sturla [Brandth Grøvlen] and I were lucky, we had a lot of time shot-listing in that house before we got started. And Sturla is a very intuitive DP, very smart. He’s great at questioning things, so when you have to defend certain things, you start to understand why things are there, and why things need to be shot a certain way and why maybe it doesn’t need to be shot a certain way, or even be in the movie. We kind of plotted out during that time a few different techniques for aspects of the film.
So we had a look we wanted for being inside the house, the reality of the house. [It meant] more immediate camera work, over the shoulder, really following the action of the actors and really being present, almost like you’re in the room with them. Then there was even closer, more intimate camera which was a way of bringing out the sorcery of Shirley, which we called creature cam. The camera had to move as if it’s a rodent or a small child. It had to move along surfaces so it couldn’t really travel. It couldn’t move through air, it had to travel along surfaces to a person and then back, and it had to stay close; it wanted to cuddle you right here. So the first time the two women come together in that kitchen scene, that was creature camera.
And then we had a look we wanted for the town because so much of this film is about being inside Shirley’s head and Shirley doesn’t really leave her house much, so we wanted the town to feel very different and almost like it could be inside Shirley’s head. So we used sharper lenses for that look.
And then there was Shirley’s book that she’s writing. We knew the audience needed to know when they were outside of all reality, inside Shirley’s mind seeing this character in her book, Paula, who’s always wearing this red coat. We shot a lot of that on the lens baby, which is almost like a slinky that’s attached to a lens. It makes it very gooey; we thought that would make the audience see what Shirley is imagining.
Talking of Shirley’s mind, this movie is really charged by that writerly psyche; you’re up and down constantly. One day you’re on top of the world and the next you are really down.
Yes, Shirley is a volatile being who might love you one instant and hate you the next. She might be so intimate with you one moment and then bossing you around. And we really worked in the edit to bring that out even more. Those juxtaposed moments when Shirley is gracious and loving with moments when she is so distant or even violent to Rose. So that felt really important. I didn’t read anything about a specific mental diagnosis besides the agoraphobia that she had, but there was clearly something going on that she was clearly struggling with, and in the film, we brought that out as almost a bipolar situation.
I think this my favorite Elisabeth Moss performance. She has that witchy quality to her and this film really brings it out.
When we were talking about people, she was first on our list. I had just come on the project, and we were like, ‘what about Lizzie?’ Sue knew her and sent her the script and it happened really fast, she got attached really quickly. We felt blessed because that performance was stunning.
Did you do rehearsals with the cast, to establish that intimate, volatile dynamic that feels out of “Virginia Woolf?”
We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse. It was really hard going into the first week because it’s not just that you want to rehearse the scenes and know the dialogue and know what the blocking is, but we were [also] developing big characters, larger than life, big personalities. Finding those personalities while you’re shooting is its own journey. But I have to say, something that’s really interesting to me is that as we were going along. Partly because I didn’t write the script, I really needed to let the actors have the time to make choices in their bodies [to] define how we shoot.
So there was so much dialogue in the film and the film is very dialogue-driven at times. So we would [rehearse], especially in those Shirley-Stanley scenes. I remember getting into trouble with so much rehearsal time in the morning because it wasn’t just blocking the scene, but, when you have a 4-page dialogue scene, it’s not like “you’ll start here and you’ll end there.” It’s 4 pages, that’s going to be really boring if you’re sitting together for 2 pages and then you’re sitting apart for 2 pages. We really worked on the dialogue being more of a dance. And then bring them apart and then back together, they’re 5 feet apart and now 20 feet away from each other and that giving the actors time to explore that was super important to me.
It was not only to find the dialogue, but also to create an atmosphere of deeper collaboration. We were finding the film together and it wasn’t like me telling you “go here, go there,” because I’m not playing Shirley. I can imagine, and I can give feedback. Often we would rehearse a scene, we would try a blocking. [I’d say], “Here’s what I saw, here’s what I felt, this is what felt the meatiest about what you just did, and maybe we can try a little more distance for this section.” But Lizzie and Michael are two of the greatest working actors. Logan and Odessa are just stunning; they’re so committed and open to discovery and open to their sex scenes. [With] the scenes in their room, we had so much room to play, and to find things. There was a real openness and vulnerability in those scenes. Those scenes were also some of my favorites in the movie – there’s just a lot of love in the way they approached the work. So I feel really honored that I got that cast.
Odessa Young captures Rose’s journey that so beautifully. She kind of transforms into something closer to Shirley by the end. And that gets reflected in her costumes, too.
I’m so glad you picked up on that, because that’s one of my favorite aspects of the film. It’s almost like they switched places. Shirley looks like a wet rag at the beginning of the movie, and then at the end of the movie, Rose looks like a wet rag. And at the beginning of the movie Rose is so put together, and at the end of the movie Shirley has her hair pinned up and is much more confident, she’s finding her book. We wanted that to reflect in the costumes too. We wanted to have colors be very different from each other. Rose would start wearing these bold, dark reds that Shirley had previously been wearing. Then towards the end, Rose had shown up in this pleasant yellow, and then at the end when she’s leaving, she’s in this bright vivid gold, kind of, fuck you princess gold.
And her hair says, “fuck you,” too!
Yeah. That last shot, I was so proud of. The cinematography, Odessa’s performance is stunning and I feel like that costume just flies off the page in how it evokes what she’s going through. Amela Baksic, our costume designer, is a wonderful, wonderful collaborator and worked so hard. This is not a huge budget movie. And it’s a ‘40s film, so the costumes are expensive. She did so much with the budget we had.
Are you working on something next? Do you want to keep collaborating with other writers as well as write your own material?
I’d love to do both. I have a couple projects I’m adapting from books actually. My next film is called “The Sky is Everywhere” and its writer Jandy Nelson adapted it from his book of the same name. It’s a teen novel, very joyous project about grief, which is a stunning thing to pull off. And I’m also trying to write something, a TV series.