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ScreenTalk Archive: Josephine Decker on Madeline's Madeline

Lead actress Helena Howard in an animal hat, smiling in front of soft pink lighting.
26 Jul 2021
30 min listen

In this episode, writer-director Josephine Decker and cinematographer, Ashley Connor, discuss the triumphant experimental cinema of 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline. 

Josephine Decker's third feature is an emotionally bracing experiment bringing together indie cinema's strongest female presences. A mysterious drama following lonely young girl Madeline (Helena Howard) as she participates in a theatre project. The work slowly begins to shift form as Madeline sinks deeper into her performance. Featuring a stand out performance from Howard and riveting support from Miranda July and Molly Parker, Madeline’s Madeline is vivid, dream-like, unpredictable and utterly captivating.

The Barbican ScreenTalks Archive podcast is presented by Ellen E Jones and produced by Jane Long for Loftus Media. Listen to more episodes on: 

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‘I would love to find a creative process that isn't unhealthy or obsessive, but I think that it eats you a little bit, making art, and I sometimes wonder why I do because it's so painful‘


Ellen E. Jones: Welcome to the Barbican ScreenTalk Archive podcast. This time, it is my privilege to introduce a particularly joyful gem from our archives. A conversation with the creative team behind 2018's triumphant experimental cinema, 'Madeline's Madeline'. They are writer-director Josephine Decker and cinematographer Ashley Connor.

Madeline's Madeline stars Helena Howard as Madeline, a teenage actor who has a fraught relationship with her single mum, played by indie darling Miranda July, and an intense relationship with theatre director Evangeline, played by Molly Parker. Evangeline encourages her young star to blur the lines between her stage character and her own real identity. it's not entirely dissimilar form the improvisational production process that filmmaker Decker used to work with actor Howard. And this blurring of reality and fantasy becomes a visual motif in the film. Madeline's Madeline was Decker's third feature film as writer director. Since this ScreenTalk was recorded in 2019, she's gone on to make a fourth, the loosely biographical drama Shirley, starring Elisabeth Moss as horror-writer Shirley Jackson. In this conversation though, Decker discusses her debut feature, Butter on the Latch, a psychological thriller set and filmed in a Balkan folk music camp. She also mentions her follow-up, the racy rural quasi-thriller, Thou Wast Mild And Lovely, and an early part-animated short called Me, The Terrible. All of these were collaborations with cinematographer Ashley Connor. Connor is a hugely accomplished camera person in her own right, she's done all the cool stuff in her career, including episodes of Broad City, music videos for Jenny Lewis and MGMT, and the upcoming Lena Dunham film, Sharp Stick. Still, something magical happens when Ashley and Josephine get together and the special quality of this collaboration really comes through here. Thanks to some expert Q&A moderating from film journalist Beth Webb. You'll hear them talk about how the film is in Deckers', words, 'a critique of its own process', how all creative process verge on the unhealthy and obsessive, and why clowning is a lot less fun than it sounds. The pair also reveals their cinematic influences ,which you'd otherwise never guess in a million years. And make sure you listen all the way to the end, for a surprising question, which elicits an equally surprising response. I'm Ellen E Jones, and this is Barbican ScreenTalks on Madeline's Madeline with Josephine Decker and Ashley Connor. 

Beth Webb: I'll start by saying, what probably, one of my favourite things about the film is. and that's that it never seems to kind of sit still, it feels like this organism that's constantly moving and changing, and watching it, my reactions to the story and to the three central characters changed all the time, and I wanted to know if that was the same for yourself over the lifespan of the film, because there was a process to making the film, and I wonder how your relationship with the story and with those characters changed

Josephine Decker: Yeah, well thank you for that question, I don't think no one has ever asked that before, that's a great question. It's interesting, the character of Madeline, I think you guys can probably tell, this is a pretty personal film in a bunch of different ways, there's some meta aspects to it, but Helena, the lead and I, I mean I basically discovered her at this acting festival when she was 15, and ran down the hallway, like 'I want to make something with you' and then we rehearsed with a group of actors for about 6 months, we spent time working with improvisations and sort of devising, in a way, the film, and Ashley was part of that process, but I think, you know, it's clearly in some ways, I think this film is also a critique of its own process, and there were so many things I learned along the way and there were so many ways that each of these characters changed and I think Madeline evolved in so many ways. Both as us getting to know Helena, and learned her range and what she could do, I mean there is a lot of learning that happened over the course of this film. So Madeline, I think, for a long time it was hard for me to write her, because I felt like Helena is not me, I don't know her story, I'm not mentally ill, though this film was deeply inspired by someone very close to me who was hospitalised for mental illness the year that I started making this film, and I've been very close to that person my whole life, so I'd really really, inspired the movie and in some way the deeper questions in it, but also I was aware of my outsider-ness to that story, even though it was something that I felt as a witness to an intimate way, I'm not a person who has mental illness. But so for a long time I felt like the character of Madeline didn't work on the page because I wasn't allowing myself to bring myself fully to it. She was like this tragic figure, and I needed her to be more full, and alive, and like have flaws and agency and so, I was like, I have to let myself be her to be able to write this character. And our process was that we worked together with the right actress for about 6 months and then I went away and wrote for about a year on my own. And the other transformation was the biggest one was probably Miranda July, like what she brought to the mom, I mean I thought the mom would be the villain of this movie, I was like, I thought she was way worse than Evangeline's character, and then when Miranda played her, you fall in love with the mom. She's such, there's a tenderness and gentleness to her, and I felt suddenly the empathy and the horror of being a mum, when you feel that your child is unsafe, you'll do anything, even if the thing that you're doing to 'help her' is maybe making her more unsafe, and more dependent on you, I'm sure in the moment that's what feels right, you want to keep your kid safe, so the tern anxiety of the mum, I just, that was a total transformation.

BW: Yeah, it's such a luminous performance from Miranda, I love it. And then your relationship together, I feel like you must have such a strong bond to be able to bring Josephine's vision to the screen in a way that you do. You've collaborated on all of Josephine's films now, I'd love to know how the initial conversations go, when you first come together and you start this journey together on a new project, like how did these conversations come about, what do you talk about?

Ashley Connor:  I think when we first started collaborating with 'Me, The Terrible' which was our first collaboration, I just graduated from college and we happened to meet, but fore 'Butter on a Latch' I think we were making low budget films, it's such a low budget where it was truly Josephine, me, and the sound person going into the woods for 7 days to make a project. That was it. And so I was doing lighting, whatever, there was no money involved, there was no producer involved, there was no weight on us to deliver a product, and I think that the collaboration being born out of that process is very inherent to the way that we work, and so all the films were kind of born out of this circumstance and I think it's a beautiful testament to Claire Denis and Agnes Godard, whose way of working never worked with a monitor, and when we started collaborating there was no monitor, there was no structure, it was very open, it was very trusting, it was very much about experimentation, and Josephine letting me kind of follow my intuition, and I think Madeline's Madeline is the culmination of that process where we really were able to see what we had done on her previous films, and kind of hone in on certain theoretical concepts that we had started focused on, or abstractions and ways of degrading the image. And Madeline's Madeline felt like the appropriate way to use that tool for Madeline's perspective. and so it was a very special collaboration where we did a lot of body work, I was part of the process of acting, and I don't like to do that, but it was really a lot about positioning yourself with Madeline and what she was feeling and just these films aren't about the narrative, they're about the experience and as an audience member you're asked to come to the table as a participating member and really feel the same journey, and so I think that that's where conversations always start, how do we make an audience feel.

JD: And what was really amazing was when we worked on Butter on a Latch which was like for me, my first feature and it was sort of a logistical nightmare in the woods, it's a film set in a Balkan folk song and dance camp, and there are like 200 people who attend the camp, and the only crew was really, outside of the DP and the sound person is me, so I had just forgotten that there is this whole other job that needs to get done, especially when there's that many people around, of just people walking up while you're shooting and being like 'What are you guys working on', you know, which was like 90% of my job as a director was to kind of kindly, because we were on the camp thanks to the goodwill of the camp, kindly somehow get them to leave so we could keep shooting. And we were improvising the film, so I was just thinking so much about the writing, and the work of the actors who had never acted before, so I feel like I don't think I gave any input on the camera on that shoot, and I just remember being like, at the end of the night, I was also in charge of downloading all the footage into like 3 in the morning, but I would look at it and be like wow, Ashley is so cool, and I think DPs really make or break movies, and especially early work, I think there's just ways of seeing that have been done a million times, and I think there's something about Ashley's way of seeing that I saw so clearly when we made our first projects together, which was that she has a ton of restraint, and she doesn't care if half of the images are missing, I had worked in documentary previously and you know, if you're shooting something here and then something exciting happens over there, you just throw the camera over there and you shoot the person talking over there. And we improvised 'Butter on a Latch' so sometimes that would happen, so we'd have something over here and then something interesting happens over here. Ashley will be here and shoot is lowly by the camera, and there would be this time where you could hear something and you can't see it yet, and it was like, for me, it was amazing and I really think like a lot of my work kind of rests, to be perfectly honest, on your shoulders in a way, because people would not have paid attention to those films I think, in the same way if that way of seeing wasn't so unique or felt so restrained. It was a good collaboration, and this one was really special, we had spent some time with the actors and with the material before we started, that it really became, I think Ashley just knew really clearly what movie and really everyone that was part of the process knew like what movie we were making, and then, by that time we started talking about the image, it was just very clear what needed to happen, we needed to be inside her mind, a mirror inside her mind, that needed to feel completely different from the rest of the film, and Ashley built a very special rig to make that possible.

BW: It just feels seamless, it's almost dangerous how seamless it is between when you flip between reality and the state of mind that Madeline's in. I'm going to open it out to other people after just one more question, which is quite specific to your journey as a filmmaker because I find a lot of filmmakers can usually pinpoint where their journey in filmmaking started to a very specific moment in time. I was wondering if there was a specific moment, almost like a lightbulb moment where you were like 'I want to start making films', do you remember what that was like? 

JD: I do, it's sort of an embarrassing story, I mean I grew up, actually I should just say that my Dad is here in the audience.

BW: Oh, yes

JD: Hi Dad! 

BW: Michael Decker is here

JD: And he has contributed to this movie in many ways, maybe most importantly is giving birth to me so thanks, Dad


JD: But also he served as one of our executive producers, so thanks. And you guys can ask him questions too, we'll open it to the audience, I'd be very interested in what people would ask. Wait, I totally got lost on what was the, oh, yes, what was the exciting incident, right, for the

BW: Like your lightbulb moment

JD: Yeah. I grew up with a father, he's a poet and also a businessman, so I grew up around a lot of poetry and really like world cinema, I feel like I was exposed to a lot when I was young, but I hadn't thought about being a filmmaker and really thought a lot about being a writer and I was a pretty serious musician when I was a kid. Then got into college and really had no idea what I was going to do after, I was very panicked because school, I was really, I felt like I was good at school and then when it was ending, I really didn't know what to do next and I was, my roommate of all four years of college, we were watching, towards the end of our senior year, I think, I never got to do during much college, but in the senior year you sort of get to do what you want, so we were watching Monsters Inc in her dorm room, and I love Pixar and I was just laughing like a 4 year old would love at that movie, and she just paused the movie and she was like, 'this is what you need to do with your life, you love this so much' and I was like 'that is what I need to do with my life'. It was kind of really dawned on me, I was like, I should really make Pixar movies. So that's obviously what I have been doing. But it really did turn into exploring films and film is the combination of everything I had been interested in, photography, costume design I had done a lot in college, performance in different ways and also writing and music, so it's amazing you get to do everything, but you sort of don't have to be that, as a director you don't have to be good at any of them, so you just have to have good taste and collaborators.

BW: Well thanks to Mike and Sully. Right, let's have some questions please.

Q1: Josephine, I was just wondering, it sounds like this was a really personal project for you, but I was wondering where the kind of idea for the film came from? And what you were trying to achieve with it? And then for Ashley, you mentioned about acting as a DP, and I was really interested to hear a bit more about that.

JD: Okay, so it's funny because in some ways, because the early ideas for this project were a little too unformed, which was one of the things I think I also critiqued in a way in the movie, which is just that Evangeline is a little lost, you know, and I went into it with this super idealistic notions about collaborating, we are all going to make this together and we will just find it, you know, together when we get all these people in this room, and there were a few things that I did know, that I wanted to make work about, one was obviously, having had this close person institutionalised for mental illness, I was really digesting that, but also I was really curious about family dynamics, I had taken the moment that inspired wanting to make this film at all, was there's this Lecoq style of theatre, of physical theatre. It's a theatre that's sort of built out of gestures and physicality and the whole idea is to create theatre out of movement instead of relying on dialogue or script, and also to gestate a work with actors, to kind of devise theatre and left the actors be writers. The hub of that whole Lecoq training in the United States is this group, Pig Iron Theatre, and they have a school and I had worked with them in college, so we spent, I worked with them actually on a bunch of different productions doing important things like playing a worm puppet, that was my big starring role, but also I was an assistant writer, I had seen their process. They had a 3-week summer intensive that climaxed in a week of clowning, and I felt that even though the first three weeks had been really remarkable and you're with these other actors, 8-10 hours a day, the clowning week, something happened, something changed. Clowning is so challenging, it's not exactly, at least in America we have a very specific idea about clowning, you Europeans probably know how complex and amazing clown is, but breaking that fourth wall to the audience is so terrifying, I guess that's really the main meaning of clown, is that you're talking directly to the audience. What happened when people would perform and when they would be finding their clowns, I just felt like the people I had met and then worked with for 10 hours a day for two weeks, they disappeared and the real them emerged on stage while they were clowning. I was so taken by that and I felt like there were sides to people that I don't think they even knew that they had inside themselves, that were so gripping and intense and beautiful or angry or embracing your own wretchedness, it's something really scary and enlightening, I think about that kind of work, so I just go obsessed with performance as this passageway to truth, and to your inner truth. It might be that when you're in performance maybe something that you're accessing is more real than yourself that you're projecting in daily life, I started really thinking about how would the camera move between, could you be in the room with the actors and then the camera could kind of become something that was outside that room, I started really thinking about the opening of this film, of like being a sea turtle in the ocean, and then you realise you're a woman wearing a sea turtle costume in the ocean, then it's like a woman pretending to be a sea turtle in a theatre room, so that kind of image came to me, and then the movie fell around it.

Ashley: Me and acting, um... I was forced to go to clown camp. [Laughs] I don't like performing in front of people, it's not something that I get off on, I don't like, I'll be looked at here and that's fine, but I don't like an audience looking at me, so it was deeply painful. Clown is like a misnomer, it as not fun. Lots of tears of everybody, but basically as a cinematographer my greatest pleasure is bearing witness to group performances, and really speaking truth to their performance and really listening, and that has been something that I'm deeply invested in and for me, to be part of the rehearsal process, creating different element and a different level of intimacy with the performers because as somebody with a camera, with a barrier, you really want to be open and feel like you're listening, and that to me, is really important. I studied experimental film, my background comes from that, I like creating in-camera effects and Josephine is kind of the only director I worked with who lets me feel my bliss in that kind of way. At the end of the day, you really want to speak truth to whatever somebody gives you, and so working with Helena and working with Molly and working with Miranda, they're very different performers, you really want to treat them nicely and kindly so that they open up to you. Being behind the camera I really want to be a present force and reinforcement to them, and let them know that I'm there with them, and I think that that's sort of what this film speaks to, being with people and the perspective might be Madeline for most of the film, but I think for all the performers we kind of created this different kind of community that we could all speak to each other subconsciously and through emotions and through touch, and it's a very different process than say, different films that I've worked on, and a different style and so you really want to honour that when performers give this much of themselves, and especially through improvisation, where you're really having people open up in a different way, you want to be there and listen.

Q2: [Inaudible]

JD: So the question was, 'there's a lot of unhealthy obsessive behaviour that was in the film that was derailing the creative process, and he wondered if that was related to my own experience or our own experience in making the film, which is a great question. Also why I've never had that question, I'm very excited to see what happens. I mean, I don't even, it's like where do you even start, there's so many things... [Laughter] 

Let's just say, maybe like without pointing to or throwing anyone under the bus, the film is deeply inspired in some ways by both our work together with the actors but also when I went away, you have to kind of make something really personal to make it work, or you know, access a truth that is a part of your truth. Some of the behaviour of the two women or three women really, definitely echoed experiences that I'd had I my own life or even interactions that I'd had. I would love to find a creative process that isn't unhealthy or obsessive, but I think that it eats you a little bit, making art, and I sometimes wonder why I do because it's so painful, this movie was painful in a particularly good way I think, this is all being recorded, how honest can I be, I just realised that when a movie is painful because you're growing, and you're learning so much, and growing is obviously incredibly painful, there were a lot of moments in this film where I felt like I was letting people down, where my focus on the art was so strong and I had overlooked or had not gotten to necessarily focus on the people in the way that I wanted, that I intended to, or that like a fear of doing something wrong, and then wanting so badly to fix that, sometimes also clouded having a more honest open interaction with the people that I was working with, so.... But honestly the most obsessive part, for me, comes out in the edit also, I just feel this resilience, there's a million noises, especially with a movie like this, you could turn this movie into anything, that gets very obsessive for me, but the more growth oriented letting go of obsession was really in learning how to let myself disappoint people and be present to their reactions to that. To me, it's kind of what's missing in a filmmaking process, because you don't have time to deal with people, when you're making a movie you are all these insane schedules where you're shooting these really long days, and I think that in itself was disappoint for me in the actors after having this really process-oriented rehearsal section, it's also just incredibly scary to open yourself up to that level of feedback but I think that was why it's also grown-oriented so... Very unhealthy, obsessive, thank you for asking [Laughter]

But also when you make work that's so personal, and deals with people's stories, and people offering themselves up, it's always going to be deeply complicated, it's never not. I think that that was something that was like a release to everyone that was separation of self, of art, of what we were making and I think that that's also why this film was so difficult for everybody who collaborated on it, because everyone came to the table with a lot of themselves and it's deeply personal for everybody, this is like reading a diary entry for a summer, for a year and a half, two years of all of us collaborating and talking and growing with each other, and there is always going to be hurt feelings in that process.

Q3: Sorry this is a really boring question, you two have got really interesting perspectives and aesthetic, and I just wonder what are your favourite films and what films have inspired you because it's, I can't pinpoint something that's anything like this, so I just wondered what stuff inspires you basically?

AC: For me, having studied experimental film, you know, Maya Deren is somebody who I deeply loved, Hollis Frampton, Bruce Conner, those are kind of like my people who I turn to and then I sort of have more narrative people, I love Lynch, obviously, Claire Denis. My favourite, I tried getting Josephine to get into when we made 'Thou Wast Mild and Lovely' was Carlos Reygadas, who I think feels the hardest of any filmmaker working, but also succeeds the best, and his work is so exciting to me because it's so f*cking awful. [Laughter]. I find him really inspiring, especially when budgets get involved and people start controlling you and producers start talking over your shoulder and telling you that you're doing something wrong, it's a fear-based system, and it's very scary to experiment beyond that, especially when you're hearing notes, and so he's somebody who I think, he's rich enough to not care, but also he creates important films that fail a lot, and I think that that's something that's I've always celebrated by Josephine, is that she's not fearful of failing, and I think that's what makes these films have such friction attached to them because they don't always work, and they will never always work, and that's what beautiful about them. It's interesting because I was thinking when I'm making a film, I always, I get very afraid of watching too many movies, especially things that could be likened and I absorb a lot, I get scared that I'm going to turn into that artist and not be my own artist anymore. But if there are two artists that I would like be very happy if I just magically transformed and turned into them, Andrea Arnold is one of them, and Chloe Zhao, actually the only movie that I think came up when we were preparing for this film, because I'm always very hesitant to even put pictures from another movie into a pitchbook, it is funny how I love paintings, or photography, but sometimes talking about other movies, I don't know, I have like a superstition I guess. But with 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly', because I think that that immersion and the way of seeing and this like strong, subjective perspective, felt like something that I was super excited by and interested in. But Babe, that little pig, is my favourite movie of all time.

BW: Right, we've got one more question, we haven't really heard from the back...

Q4: Hi, this might be a bit ridiculous, but I was quite taken by the hair pulling and I just wondered if either of you had ever pulled anyone's hair out? 


JD: That's a very good question

AC: You gotta ask the people I've had sex with, but you know [Laughter].


JD: I've been working here, this is my one day off, so.. I've had like a couple of beers, it's fine [Laughter]. I don't know, my answer is boring, her answer is definitely better, but I remember in eighth grade, this sixth grader who had been harassing my little sister was being really mean to her, and we walked by.. I'm from Texas, so American football is the, you know, you have to go every Friday, it's like the only place to be, it's so stupid, and so everyone goes to football from when you're like 7, even though it's a high school football team. Anyway we were walking through this crowd, and this girl tripped my sister over walking by her, and I ended up getting into a, part of what's so embarrassing is that I was probably 5'7 or something, and this girl was maybe 4'10, she was so small, but she was so angry and mean, and so scary, she was really scary, I was like 'don't mess with my sister'. We ended up in this hair pulling cat fight, then I was like, all of my non-violent peaceful instincts are not, but you know, you have to defend your sister, anyway, I don't know if either one of us really won that fight, we just sort of realised it was a really ridiculous thing to be doing in public, and then we wandered off, but that was the only time I've put someone's hair that I'm willing to talk about in public


BW: What a joyful last question to end on. Please give us a massive round of applause to Josephine Decker and Ashley Connor, thank you


EEJ: Thanks for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk with writer-director Josephine Decker and cinematographer Ashley Connor. Join us next time to hear more great filmmakers answering thoughtful questions in unexpected ways. In the meantime, please rate and subscribe to ScreenTalks on Apple Podcast, Acast or your usual podcast provider, or by visiting

And we're always keen to hear your thoughts, you'll find us on social media on @barbicancentre.

Barbican ScreenTalks Archive is presented by me, Ellen E Jones, and produced by Jane Long from Loftus Media. We'll be back next week with Armando Ianucci and producer Kevin Loader discussing The Personal History of David Copperfield. Until then, be well and goodbye.

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