Beautiful Josephine Decker's second film, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, made through the support of Kickstarter, is a strange masterpiece to the viewer's eyes.
According to the director, a character from John Steinbeck’s book East of Eden served as an inspiration for this film. Characters connecting while acting on their darkest impulses in this thriller-drama tension filled world.
The story surrounds around Akin (Joe Swanberg), a quiet and shy man that decides to leave his family behind to work as a handyman during the summer at Jeremiah's (Robert Longstreet) house in the countryside. In this house lives a man and a daughter which displays a strange and dependent relationship. With Akin's arrival to their daily routine, the dynamic between characters start to go to a deeper level while exploring their innocent sexual fantasies and their escalation into nightmarish territories.
With a beautiful voyeuristic cinematography, in a Terrence Malick-esque way to explore the rural world, the story mixes drama and horror with a touch of signs of madness and a haunting score. We explore this seductive sedation in a repressed world of sexual desires while bringing them to boil right in front of our eyes with characters portraying their good and evil sides and not letting it hold them back.
Josephine Decker and I talk about Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, her latest film that was screened at Berlinale and now at HKIFF.
Gomes: How was the idea of making this film and why did you decide to go to Kickstarter to accomplish your project?
Decker: Some moments in life are question marks. You do not know if you will do the thing or not do the thing. Making this movie was never a question mark. When I realized I wasn’t going to get a million dollars to make my first feature – this crazy fantasy accordion witch movie -- I was like: what do I have that I can make right now? And I had this short story I had been building for months and felt very passionate about, so I wrote it into a script. Very quickly and viscerally and terrifyingly. It was – really really fun. So nice to make a movie while all the energy is still in it: before you have to wait three years and sign over your life blood and youngest son and lamb feast to the devils who are going to be the ones making all of your money in the end… I got to make it right away: with all the love and imperfections and passion still intact.
Gomes: In your film, we have complex characters and the story relies on building a strong relationship between them to make it work. How was the casting process?
Decker: I had originally intended to improvise the entire film, with Joe Swanberg, Robert Longstreet and a good friend of mine as the female lead. But Robert really wanted me to write it (even though he’s a terrific improviser), so – I wrote it. And whoa. I realized I had been avoiding writing because I was scared of what might come out of me. It was – so intense and pure. I had also avoided writing because I was concerned about getting too hung up on a script. I don’t believe the best films come from scripts. I think the best films are a collection of images, and a script is all about making a plot and a narrative and turning points instead of listening to mood and tone and instinct. I am so happy I kept this film part script, part poem, part short story, because we had a lot more freedom in the shoot to follow our intuitions about a scene instead of having didactic ideas of how they should go.
That’s a long-winded way of saying:
I wrote something for Robert --- and it ended up being much more sexual and disturbing than what I originally thought, so my lead actress, about six weeks before the shoot, decided she couldn’t handle it. Panicking and so close to the shoot, I held a bunch of long-distance video auditions (I was already location scouting), and wow, Sophie’s blew me away. Her presence was just mesmerizing. She really didn’t care about the other person who was in the scene with her – Her performance was so electric and magnetic and also the perfect amount of aloof. I didn’t find out until after I cast her that she had acted in films with Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman! And having previous relationships with Joe and Robert made working with them wonderfully easy – we were all trying very hard to make the same movie. It is a gift to work with collaborators who want to do exactly what you want to do.
Gomes: Being a woman and addressing sex in your films can bring discussions about female filmmakers using sexuality in their work. I understand that is a subject that you have no problems dealing with in your films. How is for you to talk about sex and desire? What do you have in mind when talking about these subjects?
Decker: I have in mind honesty. Sex is something so veiled in obscurity and fear – and “ideas.” I mean: every single person on this planet has his or her own unique sexuality. We pretend that with the labels gay, straight, bi, we can categorize almost anyone, and the truth is – what turns each person on is utterly distinct. I think my movies are a way of embracing that for myself – of saying out loud: this is just about me. And something I am exploring. I don’t think my films are about the female sexual experience, I think they’re about my sexual experience and the experiences I am curious to know about. Just like a boxing ring is a safe place to fight, a movie is a safe place to explore. When I was a kid, I had a secret notebook I kept in my sock drawer with these little sexy stories I would write that turned me on, but they never left the sock drawer. Well, now, they put on ball gowns and are strutting around the house like they own it.
Gomes: Nature, hysteria and relationships are common themes in your work. What fascinates you about these subjects?
Decker: I think women are deeply powerful, spiritual, intuitive creatures, and sometimes, that intuition is used for good, and sometimes, that is used for – not good. I think in both these films, I was interested in exploring the darker side of that power. I’m a very upbeat person in regular life, so if I want to be insane, dark, cunning, mischievous, disgusting, I have to do that in my film work. These works are a way for me to integrate the darkness with the light – to embrace my powerful yearning to be everything a woman is. And not be afraid of those deeper needs, desires, connections.
Gomes: What is also admirable about your films is that the more times you watch it, the more you get exposed to different images and feelings that portray the character’s emotions. A lot of work was put towards the editing, how was this process to you?
Decker: I wanted very much to be the kind of person who churns out a film a year, and is only in the edit room for like two months, but – while I am very free-form and improvise a lot on-set, I really get intense in the editing space. I want to try everything and I am specific down to the frame. With Mild and Lovely, I really think we tried every possible way that movie could be constructed. I don’t know that I would ever feel finished if I didn’t do that. And the process really changed about halfway through. At first, I was trying to build the film from the script, but editor David Barker pushed me to be very honest and real and exploratory. He let me follow the film into its dream space, and I think that makes it.
Gomes: Movie fan to movie fan, who or what inspired (or inspires) you to keep creating and making movies? Any recent movie you watched that you would like to suggest to movie fans out there?
Decker: You know, I think you have to follow your passions. I love weirdo art movies, but I also love animated films. Monsters Inc and Babe are two of my favorite films. I think now, though, I make films because I’m interested in holding something – There’s a tension or a question I want to pick up and not put down for two full hours. That is why I’m making movies now – I want to be held in an experience and not let go.
I saw Kuzu in Berlin and was blown away – the children are heartbreaking and hilarious, and the film deals with a simple story in such surprising and dramatic ways. It’s both dark and clear at once. I hope to some day be that clear with my films!
Darren Aronofsky and Lars von Trier teach me something new every day, and in the indie world, I am very excited to see Anja Marquardt’s film She’s Lost Control and Dustin Defa’s short Person to Person.
Gomes: What's next for you now?
Decker: A few things:
1) I’m dreaming of a bunch of farm-film events for Mild and Lovely. Farm slumber parties with screenings of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely along with Steinbeck readings – and a residency so that collaborators workshop scripts and gardens side by side. Anybody know an artist-friendly goat farm 1-3 hours from NYC?
2) The Zen teacher says: May we exist in muddy water with clarity like the lotus. So, I’ll be pulling my next film out of some churning place – prisons, Mexico, orphanages, a clown school – and will concoct a film out of that. Somehow. I’m not so interested in writing the next movie. I want to find it on the pavement.
3) I really want to make a sci fi series for National Geographic from the perspective of different endangered species.
4) Acting! I’ll be doing a few projects this spring and summer and am very keen to be back in the present after living in the future for so long.