Sophie Traub in Josephine Decker's "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely"
Just named as two of Filmmaker Magazine's "25 New Faces of Independent Film," Josephine Decker and Lauren Wolkstein have both produced an impressive body of work that has placed them as bold, young voices on the independent film scene. Decker's short feature Butter on the Latch premiered this year to incredible reviews, including a New Yorker article that called her film "an utter exhilaration of cinematic imagination." An actor in many of Joe Swanberg's films, Decker is finishing her new feature film Thou Wast Mild and Lovely while Wolkstein, whose film Social Butterfly premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and whose The Strange Ones showed at SXSW and Sundance 2011, has been writing a feature adaptation of Social Butterfly and plans to co-direct the feature of The Strange Ones soon. Preparing for the "25 New Faces" screening series in Tacoma, Wa., Decker and Wolkstein sat down to chat via video Skype about their films, their influences, Hitchcock, and the importance of sex scenes.
The following is part two of a two-part interview. The first installment is available at Filmmaker Magazine.
JOSEPHINE DECKER: I feel like I have to ask this, but I don't think it's really fair. As a female filmmaker, how do you think being a woman shapes your filmmaking?
LAUREN WOLKSTEIN: I don't know. Being a woman is all I've ever known [laughs]. I do find that I want to tell more stories about female protagonists that I haven't seen on screen before because these are experiences that I can probably speak from experience. I also love telling stories about the other genders, genders in the plural, not just male or female. It's not that black or white, the female experience. I feel like even guys have the female experience whether they're in touch with it or not. But we also have the male experience; it's not a binary. I don't think I'm answering your question, but I don't know the answer. I don't know if I'd even call myself a female filmmaker. Am I a female filmmaker?
DECKER: Well, you're a woman and you're a filmmaker, but maybe you aren't a "female filmmaker."
WOLKSTEIN: I tell stories about all gender experiences because ultimately I want to express and explore the human experience, not necessarily a binary female or male experience.
DECKER: It's interesting because when I was writing Thou Wast Mild and Lovelyt, I was channeling a very deeply male psychology. Even though, obviously, I'm not a man, when I put myself in a male perspective and used the "male gaze," as they say, I was able to be really dirty and disgusting with the film and let that man part out a little bit. I don't want to say it was aggressive but...
WOLKSTEIN: It's interesting, though, because it's a part of you.
DECKER: Right, very much so. That was the surprise of it though, because in the directing of the film, I had a very feminine energy whereas the writing has a more masculine energy. Maybe that's why it has taken so long to edit. I thought the movie was the hired hand's movie but then it's directed like it's the daughter's movie. It took some crafting to blend those two voices and have it be both of their movies.
WOLKSTEIN: I find that I'm naturally attracted to telling sensual stories, it sounds like you are too, to express myself that way because that is very much a part of who I am. Apparently I'm also very twisted. The Strange Ones is a very twisted kind of sensuality.
DECKER: Yeah, I would have never put the word "sensual" with that film but you have got to talk to me about the twisted sensuality.
WOLKSTEIN: I think my films kind of border on the blurred lines of the limitations of relationships and The Strange Ones is all about the question: "What is this relationship?" And depending on whose perspective it is, it changes your view of what that relationship is. I think all relationships are kind of like that, there all these blurred lines with people and it's all about the boundaries that you set. It could be seen as a twisted relationship or as a loving relationship or as a brotherly relationship; it all depends on what you bring to it personally when you watch it.
DECKER: Everything looks different depending on whose perspective it is. It's funny because the script for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely was the most horrific, sexual, dark, creepy thing. I was like, "this is disgusting! I'm taking this further than I could ever possibly go!" And then when we shot it, I don't know if it's me as a director, but the sex scenes are very playful. When you're on set and you get to do a sex scene, it's so fun. Without even meaning too, because we're having such fun and the actors are totally loving it, a lightness comes into those moments. But also, I've realized that after Quentin Tarantino made Pulp Fiction, you really can't surprise people in a movie. There's nothing that is that twisted. Yes, you can make dark and twisted shit, but what is more important is having characters that you connect with and empathize with.
WOLKSTEIN: So that you can see your own darkness in them.
DECKER: Yes, exactly! And I was so surprised to get to see my own film and get to this crazy ass ending and have it be a natural outpouring of who these characters are and the relationships that have been set up. In a way, this kind of gorgeous, kind of terrifying thing happens in the film. I think that it was surprising to me that the rest of the film really supported it in a way that makes it shocking but also makes it so it doesn't come out of nowhere. Its funny how it's like a recipe: if you put your people in the oven at the right temperature, you get your cake! It could be brownies or mustard-ketchup cake, whatever.
WOLKSTEIN: It will taste yummy.
DECKER: Something like that.
WOLKSTEIN: I think you have to put some weird elements, ingredients into your stuff to make it different.
DECKER: How do you think your films have changed since you started making movies?
WOLKSTEIN: I feel like I have more confidence going in now. I feel like I know more what I want than when I started out and I know better how to achieve that than I did in the beginning. That's what film school enabled me to do: putting all this work out there and messing up. I mean, I went to film school for five years, it took me that long to figure out what I wanted to say and I think film school was great for me because I knew what I wanted to do going in but didn't know how to do it and, by the end of it, I knew what type of work I wanted to make and execute what I wanted to say in the proper film language.
DECKER: I just watched Cigarette Candy and it feels very different than Social Butterfly, which is hand-held doc style, which is much more the way that I feel comfortable making movies. But it's interesting because I had this whole idea of you as a filmmaker as this doc filmmaker and then Cigarette Candy has all these perfectly composed, very Hitchcock shots. I'm wondering if you feel like you're moving towards one style or another or if, when it's the right project, you'll employ this or that style.
WOLKSTEIN: I think it depends on the project and what resources I had. With Social Butterfly I had shorter days, so I knew we had to do long takes, handheld. Cigarette Candy, though, took over a year to prep and, for a short, that's nuts. But it was my thesis. For Social Butterfly, I wrote for maybe a week and then shot it two weeks later, so it was something that happened spontaneously.
DECKER: I can't believe you wrote that in a week! It's one of the best-written movies that I've ever seen. Its so compelling and you're confused but intrigued and then everything pays off. All of the dialogue in your film feels superfluous at first, but then later, you are like: OH! That tiny moment was so important. You do such a good job at keeping it realistic but also making it tight. There are movies where there isn't a single line of dialog that's superfluous, and they really lose their spark. I mean, half of our conversation right now is probably superfluous, but it is revealing who we are as people and your movie is just the right amount of blow off lines that later pay off one hundred percent.
WOLKSTEIN: It worked! Good! It may have been longer than a week, I had been in the South of France for two months writing a feature and then I starting writing a short story every day based on my experiences there and throwing the stories out until I felt like it was the one to do. Then, my producer's sister turned twenty and I went to her party and it was the most surreal moment for me. I was the only one who spoke English, surrounded by these French teenagers and they threw me in the pool. I started with that, with the idea of a group of French teenagers throwing an American into a pool. That's where I started because as soon as they threw me in the pool I thought, "what would happen if I just stayed in this pool?" And that was the one time that I had this private moment in this public space where I felt alone surrounded by all this otherness. That's when I knew that the climax of the film would be an underwater scene between two people.
DECKER: I'm so grateful to hear that you actually just experienced it and the movie is about that in a way. You had a personal experience and turned it into a movie and that's why the moment works so well, because it was a moment in your life.
WOLKSTEIN: I'm happy that it works because when I wrote the script and got quick feedback some people said, "I don't get why they're throwing her in the pool. It doesn't make any sense." And I thought, "no, I'm not taking that part out." Some things you can't explain. There are movies that don't make sense narratively but experimentally they do because they are touching on some nerves that you can't quite explain but you can feel. I think those are the most powerful films. If you can find a way to merge that feeling with some sort of through line. I think that's the beauty of filmmaking, being able to hit you viscerally but also understand what's happening narratively. Those are the most interesting and the boldest. But I noticed that all of your films, too, have this otherworldly quality that's like they are from different areas that you're not from. It seems like we are these transient people making films everywhere but our home.
DECKER: Me the Terrible is obviously a very New York movie, but that was complete fantasy. It's going to come out wrong to say that New York doesn't inspire me, but we have so many friends in New York who live here and make movies here and the movies are about their friends and there is something about making a movie about my own world that feels so boring because I know what my world is like, there is nothing about it that is exciting or intoxicating. For me, in order to make my films honest and personal, somehow I have to get out of my world.
WOLKSTEIN: You have to get out of your world to see your world, to see who you are. I feel the same way. I have to enter into another world in order to understand my characters. That's why I went to France. I love the culture but I'm not a part of the culture, so I wanted to embrace that and become a part of it from an outsider's perspective.
DECKER: When are you going to make this feature?
WOLKSTEIN: I don't know! I might have to do a Kickstarter!
DECKER: [Laughs] I'm just amazed, thinking "oh my god, shooting a movie in France, that's going to be so expensive!" But that's the magic of low budget filmmaking now, if you had two 5D's you could get by on a budget that wasn't too insane.
WOLKSTEIN: Also, with documentary style, that urgency of handheld and getting that raw performance is everything you need. It's not the equipment. In that way I would say Cassavettes has influenced me because he was all about following actors with a camera and not really shaping his shots before the actors did their thing. He just let them take the camera places, if that makes sense.
DECKER: The truth is, I very rarely want the actor to change their performance to make a shot look good. I would much rather have a performance feel authentic even if half of it is off camera.
WOLKSTEIN: That's what I love about using the camera around performances. I like thinking about how the camera is or is not another character. The camera should be thought of like choreography. What is the right dance for this movement or scene? I really like how your films are about subjective experiences of the main character's internal struggle and you see that externalized through the camera.
DECKER: It's one of those things you learn. With Butter on the Latch we shot most of it two years ago and then we shot the very beginning this spring and I could feel how far I'd come as a filmmaker in that time. I realized that I could capture the feeling that I want the audience to have with the camera. And this is one of the reasons that I feel so joyous that I found Ashley [Connor], my DP, to collaborate with. For a long time I just had to trust her because I had good writing instincts and good instincts about how to direct actors but I really didn't know how the camera would evoke that feeling. It has been exciting to realize that the camera is really the key player. It says everything to be in a wide shot or to be so close that you can see flecks in their eyes.
WOLKSTEIN: You've been learning that visual language by doing it.