Josephine Decker in Conversation with Sarah Gubbins - Believer Magazine
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Josephine Decker in Conversation with Sarah Gubbins

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Josephine Decker in Conversation with Sarah Gubbins

Josephine Decker in Conversation with Sarah Gubbins

Ela Bittencourt
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Shirley Jackson “disinterred the wickedness in normality, cataloguing the ways conformity and repression tip into psychosis,” Jonathan Lethem writes in his afterword to Jackson’s magnificent, crisply dark last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Jackson, whose fiction swoons with a Hitchcockian vertigo, is today remembered mostly as a writer of psychological terror fables. Whether her action is set in a small, provincial town, as in this and another, early novel, Hangsaman, or in a big, boisterous city like New York, as in some of her vigorous, sly short stories, Jackson had an uncanny eye for rooting descriptions of psychosis in the mundane. One can easily see how her angsty, noirish tales lend themselves to cinema, though her protagonists’ worlds often feel inward, even claustrophobic. Her main interest is in the malice that brims under the surface of civility, an anxious state of mind, a latent horror threatening to break loose.

In Shirley, a feature film by Josephine Decker, loosely inspired by Jackson’s life and work, the writer, as played by Elisabeth Moss, is fierce, skeweringly funny, and also a bit wicked, prone to depression, and manipulative. Shirley’s mood swings prove her fickleness, but if there’s one constant, it’s her undying devotion to writing. Even when she’s not producing, instead fending off her husband’s gripes about her drinking, Shirley is defined by her love for and anguish over her craft.

Daringly, Decker and scriptwriter Sarah Gubbins combined scenes of the sizzling atmosphere in the Jackson household—once it welcomes a younger, more earnest and idealistic couple that must come to terms with Shirley’s bristling genius—with dizzying scenes of fabulation. When the edge of fantasy blurs, invention strains reality.

Decker and Gubbins conceived of Shirley as a story that is not only about but also directly embodies the creative process, informed by the wealth of their own experiences. Decker’s affinity for performance art led her to perform for Marina Abramović at the Museum of Modern Art; also, she is interested in experimental film and made forays into experiential, genre-inflected cinema, such as her critically acclaimed indie film Madeline’s Madeline. For Gubbins, the path to Shirley came out of her passionate engagement in Chicago’s repertory theater community and her career as a dramaturge and playwright, as well as from her experience screenwriting for television, including for the acclaimed series I Love Dick.

One crisp afternoon last year, shortly after Shirley had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, I met Decker and Gubbins in Park City, at a wooden lodge overlooking the mountains. Dressed in casual, comfy gear, as is de rigueur at the festival, where ardent cinemagoers must brave low temperatures and snow, and maybe even hit the slopes, Decker and Gubbins greeted me in the lodge’s cozy kitchen, away from the buzz of people coming and going, including the other journalists eagerly lining up to interview them. The atmosphere lent itself to a more intimate banter than the usual festival press junket allows. We discussed their vision of a writer in the throes of a creative process and the fascinating dark tales that sprung from Jackson’s lacerating mind. I followed up with both women after the festival had faded from my memory, during the pandemic, as we were coming to terms with the psychological burdens of isolation that could feel, at times, as perilous and oppressive as Jackson’s vertiginous portrayals of frail minds.

—Ela Bittencourt

I. “THE LANDSCAPE OF SHIRLEY’S HORROR WAS ALWAYS
WOMEN’S MINDS”

THE BELIEVER: Shirley is a film about Shirley Jackson’s life and passions as much as it is about the writing process. I wonder how you came to Jackson’s work. Had you been reading it for some time, or was it a sudden fascination? Or fate?

JOSEPHINE DECKER: It did feel like fate. I had just read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is still one of my favorite of Jackson’s novels. And I couldn’t believe I didn’t know that the Shirley Jackson who wrote “The Lottery” was also an incredible novelist. I then read everything she wrote, because it was so much up my alley. And then, some two weeks later, when I got the script, I knew I wanted to pitch this project. The script was incredibly good.

BLVR: What drew you to Jackson’s life story?

SARAH GUBBINS: The first thing that struck me is that she was hated and reviled. Her experience as a writer was torturous in many ways. I think I was attracted to her work and also to the ways she showed up to her writing. I kind of wanted to dispel this myth that she was just this literary genius that went into a garret and emerged successful. It was her relationship to fame and infamy, and what she had to do to persevere, that drew me into Jackson’s story. 

JD: A self-destructive writer. I can’t imagine you’d have anything in common! [Both chuckle.]

SG: That’s why I got interested in her at first. And then when I read Shirley, the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, the idea of having this couple come and meet this writer felt like a great way into the movie. But especially with us working on it, it ultimately became a film about what it’s like to make things. 

JD: Shirley’s desperation [about her novel in progress], her saying, “I don’t think it’s ever going to be done,” mirrored the way we felt about the movie. Nothing is ever done. If you’re not feeling that, then you’re probably not writing or making something that’s meaningful. And yet to do that to yourself, even though you know you’re doing it, is a singular brand of self-torture.

BLVR: Are you both as meticulous in your approach to writing as Jackson was?

JD: I don’t necessarily think of myself as a very structured writer, but I do care a lot about structure in cinema. It’s important to have tension. I don’t want viewers to ever be bored, or to not have a question they’re pursuing in a film. Even with films that may be more character-driven, I tend to turn them into emotional horror movies. It’s not necessarily that I’m making emotional thrillers, but that there is a strong emotional arc and tension, and you kind of can’t stop watching. 

BLVR: By this do you mean classical storytelling with careful plotting?

JD: Yes, and Shirley was a structured writer in that sense. She didn’t like to sit down and doodle. She needed to know where she was going. The wonder of that was she would have clear outlines of her stories, but then they would descend into madness—or maybe madness isn’t the right word; it’s more of an inevitable, unpredictable chaos. It’s some kind of magical place that the consciousness of the story falls into, and that does feel inevitable, based on where the story started, but then it is also surprising. That’s definitely what I try to do in my films. There’s also, at times, a definite dream logic to Shirley’s work, especially in the novels. The stories are structured, but the novels definitely tend to be looser. I really related to that. 

SG: I love the confines of structure. I find them calming! [Both laugh.] I like delineating the different worlds and rules. Part of figuring out the script was sorting the different formal arenas, if you will. I come from a dramaturgical background, so I did a lot of text analysis on Jackson’s stories, and it was helpful just to know that Hangsaman was the novel that really started her off on her trajectory of being comfortable in the novel landscape.

I read Hangsaman and tried to find the different tiers within it. The book is formally complex. The narrator speaks with an interiority that, in certain moments, feels like that of an omnipotent narrator, so it is constantly shifting. At the end, there’s a duality of consciousness. In fact, there’s an entire character that you’re not entirely sure really exists. The ending is equally open to interpretation and terrifying. With those kinds of things, the talent studio was like, “OK, how do we do all that in a script about Shirley Jackson?”

Josephine came on with her full embodiment, not just her emotional but also her psychological… terrorism. In a way. [To Decker] Is that fair? [Decker laughs.] Josephine is not afraid of big feelings and of chaos; she is not fearful of the unknown. She’ll just go into it, blindly, in a way that I don’t. I need to cling to my structure. She’ll throw it out at times. And it was so helpful to be able to enrich the script with psychological terrorism, while focusing on Shirley in the moments of trying to birth this novel.

JD: Also, the landscape of Shirley’s horror was always women’s minds. 

II. PLUNGING INTO A QUESTION MARK

BLVR: Speaking of women’s minds, you both had fascinating journeys to Shirley. Josephine, yours, in a way, starts with Marina Abramović and your performance at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. In one of her straining, long-durational performances, Abramović sat for hours in a chair in the museum’s atrium, allowing anyone to come and sit in front of her for a few minutes. You then decided to join her performance by undressing before her. Can you talk about that moment?

JD: It was life-changing. When you feel afraid of failure as an artist, that fear can really hold you back. Abramović’s work is stunning because all her pieces are moving toward that instant when your body physically fails. In that moment the piece becomes transcendent. I was obsessed with this notion and with embracing danger in art-making. I wanted to thank her for being so vulnerable, but I wasn’t allowed to give her anything or touch her. I thought that sitting with her naked would be a nice offering. I assumed many people had already done it, because it seemed like such an obvious ode to Marina. I didn’t realize I was the only one. [Laughs] I think someone had exposed a boob. But my performance didn’t go very far. Security guards escorted me from the building.

BLVR: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you had a pretty conservative upbringing in Texas. Was that MoMa performance the first moment you opened up?

JD: Texas is an amazing place to grow up. I’m sort of grateful I grew up there, because I had a lot of repression to work through in my art. It’s not like there’s one moment of opening up. I’d made this movie, Bi the Way, with my best friend from college. It was an unsuccessful, kind of bad documentary, but making it was eye-opening. We did all this research about the evolution of sexuality. The idea that monogamy is not biologically natural to humans was a transformative thing for me to learn, coming from a religious upbringing. [Other moments of opening up included] going to college in the Northeast, meeting people, and working with Joe Swanberg. I realized I could make movies with very little money and approach dangerous, edgy subject matter.

When I was younger, I wanted to be a writer and maybe own a bookstore or work in one. I was obsessed with literature and images, and I also played music pretty seriously. Part of the reason I wanted to be an artist was that there were so many works of art that had transformed my life. For example, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude when I was in high school. The discovery of Latin American magical realism was also essential to the way I ended up becoming an artist and thinking about the possibilities of art. 

BLVR: By the time you made Madeline’s Madeline, you had your own immersive style of filmmaking in place. I wonder how you see this particular film as your breakthrough and what led up to it.

JD: I think because I was coming from a documentary background, that style of sensory filmmaking felt organic. You could make something visceral without needing a ton of money. I got interested in immersive filmmaking and in the work of Darren Aronofsky and Andrea Arnold. I also started meditating and practicing Zen Buddhism, and that got me interested in the sensorial, visceral experience. Ashley Connor, the cinematographer for Madeline’s Madeline [and for Decker’s earlier films Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch], and David Parker were my two masters in cinema. Ashley has an experimental background, so she approaches the image in ways that are revolutionary. David was teaching cinema at Brown University when I met him. He taught me about the infinite possibilities that you could find in the editing room. How you create tension not by resolving scenes but by making sure that the end of the scene plunges you into a question mark that starts the next scene, so the audience has a sense of forward momentum.

Along the way of making Madeline’s Madeline, I thought, Only four people are going to see this movie. It’s about experimental theater, so I had very low expectations. One thing that helped us was that we did tons of test screenings. The film was built after a year of rehearsal process and then a year and change of editing. And it was the right moment for that movie because it was built from this deep process with actors who were all struggling with the issues of the day—exploitation and privilege and race as they play out in the creative process. A lot of questions we were having as a group touched on broader cultural conversations about exploitation. The #MeToo movement had just happened. Our movie wasn’t about that, but it was about the other ways exploitation can suddenly happen in art-making processes. 

BLVR: Sarah, you had been working in theater before coming to screenwriting for television and cinema. Where would you say it all started for you, and how did your getting an MFA fit into your development as a writer?

SG: My journey into writing took a little longer than for a lot of other people. Or not. I graduated from college with a theater degree and spent almost ten years as a literary manager and a dramaturge at various theaters. I wound up getting an MFA to pursue an academic career and to concentrate more fully on my writing. I’m not entirely certain how much you learn to write [in an MFA program], but I do know you can really learn about your process as a writer, where it needs feeding, discipline, revision, and how to find where your curiosity lies for future projects. 

I’m also part of the Chicago theater community, and it’s really where I grew up. It’s a great place to be brave with your work. You’re not looking for accolades or a spotlight. The theater is so rich with set designers, light designers, and artistic spirits who have a real vision. When I was out of graduate school, I already had a rich community that I had cultivated and that was incredibly supportive of my work. 

BLVR: Your past experience also includes moving to LA and working in television, particularly on the acclaimed show I Love Dick. How did that come about?

SG: I had a couple of years of nonstop playwriting, then a teaching fellowship and a writing fellowship, and then I was out in LA. I learned about the Chris Kraus revival when I Love Dick was reissued by a UK press. I read Leslie Jamison in The New Yorker saying something like I missed the Chris Kraus boat, but she’s amazing and you all know that and I didn’t. And I also didn’t. And then I read I Love Dick, and, to be honest, I had absolutely no idea how to adapt it, but I knew there was something in its drive to proclaim desire and full agency that I wanted to try to do. I wanted to be able to be in Chris’s libido and her brain [Chris is played in the series by Kathryn Hahn], her self-awareness and self-delusion. I wrote the pilot and then we put together this incredible writers’ room—mostly playwrights—who really emboldened the series while staying true to the book’s love triangle. In the TV series more than in the book, there is an insertion of our collective experience as women and non-cis men, and that made the show distinct, more of its own thing. The show was originally going to be set in upstate New York, but when it was moved, Marfa, Texas, became a new character. The town held the mythos of Dick (Kevin Bacon) as a cowboy, Dick as iconic, Dick as the Marlboro Man, Dick as the masculinity that’s both reviled and sought after. The landscape became a present thing for both Chris and Sylvère (Griffin Dunne) to either embrace or reject, and I think that helped bring back the shared memory of their marriage. Something that was almost a passive nostalgic voice in the novel became a present exploration.

BLVR: This intricate way of fleshing out the complexity of marriage is what you and Josephine also brought to Shirley.

JD: True. I had never thought about that.

BLVR: Coming back to Shirley, your collaborative process seems to have been doubly, triply complex, because you were working with Jackson’s Hangsaman and also with Shirley, the book by Susan Scarf Merrell, inspired by Jackson’s life.

SG: Yes, and Jackson’s biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. We both read Shirley’s work as well. And we found there was a lengthy correspondence in the Library of Congress between Shirley and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. Their exchange began when they met. This last discovery was very helpful in finding Shirley’s voice.

BLVR: Did you talk about the dynamics in Shirley’s house, the jealousy, the cheating, the many tensions around gender roles? Or the trope of a tormented woman writer, à la Virginia Woolf?

JD: What’s so nice about Shirley is that because we were inspired by a real person, it didn’t feel like we were writing an archetype or a trope. She was so wonderfully complex in her real life. And again, this is a work of fiction, but obviously inspired by real life. She was in an open relationship in the 1940s with a husband who was telling her about his infidelity. They were living in rural Vermont. I guess it’s definitely a white community, but they were trying hard to bring in her artistic friends from New York and to maintain the edginess of the city. But Shirley was in a community where she felt the pressure to be a good mom, to take care of her kids. I think that’s probably why her most financially successful works were these comedies she would write about being terrible at raising children. I don’t know that anyone was really making fun [of motherhood] in that kind of voice: Oh my god, I fucked up my kids. Whereas the dominant narrative of the 1940s was And you can buy this soap! And this dishwasher! It was the advent of all this ridiculous machinery to make you the perfect housewife. The reality of Shirley’s life was so wonderfully complex that I don’t think we’ve seen a character like her.

III. “WE FOUND A PROPER HAUNTED HOUSE”

BLVR: What’s remarkable in the film is how much two realms—the real world and the imaginary one in Shirley’s head—start to blur. Even a mundane scene becomes somehow eerie and surreal. I wonder what conversations you had with Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, your cinematographer, and with your cameramen, about how you were going to create this fluidity between Shirley’s real world and Paula’s fictive one.

JD: We were careful to make sure that when we filmed Paula, the character you see in Shirley’s mind, we used a specific lens. It’s called a Lensbaby, and it allows for the image to be much softer and more fluid, more out-of-focus. It feels almost like a glob of goo that you put on the end of the camera, a fuzzy thing on the end. We definitely did talk a lot about techniques we could use to bring out different aspects of the relationships in the film. Sarah and I were lucky, actually. We had hardly any prep with the actors. We had one day of rehearsal, which was a bummer, but we had a good amount of time shot-listing on location and in that old house, which was wonderful. The house infuses the film with its own energy. 

We ended up with five concepts for the film, and then threw two of them away because they felt like they belonged to a different movie. When depicting the unsteadiness in the household, we wanted to have the camera be handheld, so it bounced between Shirley and Stanley, as a witness to the fast energy between them. Then, when Rose and Shirley are conjuring their sorcery together, or when Shirley is in her mind and excited about something—so the creative process is borne into the movie—we had the idea of this “creature-camera” that’s almost like a child in your arms. It’s really close to you, close to the body, and it hovers on surfaces. It can’t get to something just through the air; it has to get to something through a surface, to physically arrive on someone. That was so much fun. It’s almost like a “rodent POV.” [Laughs] 

BLVR: It does feel like psychological horror at times, like a classic horror movie—for example, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

JD: Oh yes. That moment when Rose and Fred have sex and suddenly the camera ends up all alone, on the porch, looking in from outside. 

BLVR: That scene is pure gothic. You built that language so carefully.

JD: We had a lot of ideas about the camera. The other ideas were to have a specific look for the town, since Shirley never goes there, and you could read this film, in a way, by asking how much of it is happening in Shirley’s mind. There’s the reality of the house in which Shirley is living, and then the town almost doesn’t feel real. It’s too perfect, dreamlike. That’s because the way Shirley writes about it, it’s almost like—

BLVR: A Greek chorus.

JD: Yeah. And she had this way of writing about towns where everyone felt so pristine and perfect, and underneath, there’s the dark reality. 

BLVR: We see this so clearly in “The Lottery,” in which she depicts small-town folks as seemingly full of moral probity and fastidiously adhering to rules, but dark forces are brewing underneath. The sudden grim fall off the precipice at the end, after such a minute, seemingly placid depiction of all the procedurals, really stunned her readers.

JD: I think it says a lot about her own discomfort and her feeling not welcome, like an outsider. The townsfolk have a whole way of being in the society that she can’t access.

BLVR: Which ideas did you throw out?

JD: There was another horror-movie trope, to put the camera high with wide angles, but we felt like it had been done before. We tried it for the first week, but it didn’t feel like our movie anymore. We also had a whole dolly-grip team that barely got to shoot anything. It was more like the house’s POV, which at times we did actually use—when the things are falling apart between the two women, and suddenly the person holding the story is not necessarily an individual character. The house is witnessing the conflict, so we shot through its different parts to show how this space is participating in the crumbling of the relationship. 

BLVR: The house does feel like a living creature, thanks to the sound design.

JD: I’d had such a good experience with my sound designer that I didn’t worry about this aspect too much at the outset, but we did try to record creaks in the house. The house was on a road that we had to shut down a lot for the shooting, but we tried to get the house’s essence. Cracks in the ceiling felt like the obvious place to put sound design, thinking that’s the sound of the house breathing, because the house was definitely its own character.

BLVR: When you found the house, was it how you imagined Shirley’s world?

SG: It was nice that we found a proper haunted house. 

JD: [Surprised] Was it really haunted? 

SG: I thought so. We brought the house offerings, remember? We gave it bread and eggs. 

JD: [Laughing] Oh yeah! We put them in the yard. When we walked in, we thought, This is the house. The furniture was already there. It had a very old owner who had just died. 

SG: Yeah, remember that lamp? You walked in, and I was sitting down by the lamp, and our location guy said, “That lamp has been on since the owner died.” And it flickered, flickered, flickered. There was a spirit in the house.

JD: Wow. I didn’t know that! But the wallpaper, for example, was period wallpaper. We didn’t change any of it. It was early nineteenth-century stuff, all crumbling.

SG: The stairs creaked. 

JD: They added a lot of effect. The original furniture worked; we just made it way messier. There were stacks of books. That was one of the things we wanted to bring out, because Shirley and Stanley were such literary people, and when you read about their real house, people explained that they couldn’t walk down the hallway because there were bookshelves on both sides. They had thousands of books, which is beautiful. I wish I could be reading as many books.

IV. AN EMOTIONAL AFFAIR WITH DOSTOYEVSKY

BLVR: You have both worked in cinema as well as in television. Given the growing prestige of TV series and the fact that screenwriters increasingly move fluidly between these two forms, I wonder how you see them being different.

SG: Television is in so many ways a more communal social arena, compared with the solitude of screenwriting. I really like both. I like the volatility of television in that it is so propulsive: It wants more and more and more. More characters, more story, more plot, more design, more style. The solitude of feature writing feels much more to me like writing a play, which can take years. I know people don’t watch movies necessarily all at once anymore, or as much, but I do think there’s a different contract you have with a viewer, and it feels very much akin to the way in which you’re in direct dialogue with a theater audience. The process of writing is similar. It’s the limitation of time in film that I really love. In a series you may have eight hours to get to something, and in a film probably ninety to one hundred and twenty minutes. You’re forcing an audience to have a visceral, psychological, emotional experience. It takes a much more surgical hand. 

BLVR: Writing for television, with its sprawl, must bring on its own anxieties, however.

SG: Yes, but I think it’s the most fulfilling. Not that the idea of a single author in television isn’t as impressive and rich, but even if there are multiple writers, you still have multiple episodes to craft a vision. I’ve been reading Dickens lately, and I think that, in novels, writers have the time to build, which I don’t think is the same in feature writing. 

JD: Working in television can be amazing, but it can also be challenging, because you’re not important at all as a director. You’re not very high in the hierarchy. I did an episode of Room 104 and an episode of Dare Me. Thankfully, those were unconventional, not very TV-ish experiences. For Room 104, the producers were interested in doing something sexual but playful. I got to star in, write, and direct my episode, so I could take control. With Dare Me, I worked with Megan Abbott [one of the show’s co-creators],
who was the most supportive boss you could ever have.

BLVR: You are now working on a new movie. Do you see it continuing your approach on Shirley or moving in a new direction?

JD: The new film, The Sky Is Everywhere, couldn’t be more opposite from Shirley. It’s about grief, but it’s also a joyous teen movie. I feel constantly out of my range, which is good. It’s definitely a different feel from anything I’ve made. I wanted to challenge myself, doing different things with the camera and performances, getting to be playful, trying a little bit of comedy. 

BLVR: Seems like working on novel adaptations allows both of you to feed your love for literature.

JD: That’s a nice way of thinking about it. On Shirley, it was a blessing having that whole world to work with, so, yes, I got to geek out on my literature.

SG: I really enjoy adaptations, not only because there’s a writer to be engaged with, but also because there’s a contemporary moment to be present in as that translation is happening. It’s less cerebral than I’m making it sound, but I like the timelessness of the ways literature can live in our contemporary moment. 

BLVR: Do you feel there’s also a sense of wanting to maybe not necessarily claim ownership but somehow own up to the material?

SG: Maybe. With Shirley, there was a desire to share with the world the kind of intimacy I felt reading Jackson’s work. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of John le Carré’s spy novels. There’s something I find so deeply engrossing about those books; they make me want to share my affection for them in some way. I think about the ways the sources of adaptation are relationships I have. I think that’s how many readers and writers feel. The ownership is more about revealing my own kind of emotional affair with Dostoyevsky than necessarily trying to do my own Dostoyevsky. 

 

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