"There's A Part of Us That's Animal": Meeting Josephine Decker and Helena Howard
To dive deeper into Madeline’s Madeline, Ella Kemp spoke to director Josephine Decker and lead actor Helena Howard in Berlin last year. Conversations about filmmaking turned into confessions about movies and mothers, revealing the raw and frenzied emotional impact of such an exciting new film.
When I met Josephine Decker and Helena Howard, we all cried. I had seen Madeline’s Madeline a couple of days before, and tried to thoroughly plan what I was going to ask the director and lead actor about their intoxicating film.
There’s so much to process in the film about the knotty ideas of performance, art, loyalty, manipulation, teenage girlhood and strained relationships. I was going to ask them about storytelling, about the technicalities of filming a person’s mind, and about the experience of touring your baby creative project around the world to celebrate it.
But then we went deeper, things got more personal, and it felt really right. Madeline’s Madeline is a slippery film, audacious and often confusing, but one with the most white-hot beating heart I’ve experienced in a cinema in a long time. It felt urgent to talk about our homes, our loves, our mothers. The things that keep us afloat beyond the stories we tell ourselves to hide them.
Ella Kemp Josephine, where did the idea for Madeline’s Madeline stem from? And how does the cat play a part in that?
Josephine In really early drafts of the scripts, we’d been improvising with a group of actors. We made all this amazing material and it didn’t fit together in an obvious way. It started as an Alice in Wonderland-ish journey, led by the cat. The cat always felt like a signature, like the white rabbit, running Alice from one space to another. It felt like the cat was an important pathway to the beyond.
The cat would move us between the conscious and the subconscious mind, between spaces that were real and spaces that were not real. The film has a much more “real” reality than I ever anticipated it having. There’s a cat in Kafka on the Shore, always leading people places. I think I read that after we made the movie. I love animals, and I think there’s a part of us that is animal. It felt good to have a driving force. The pigs were Evangeline’s thing and we needed the spirit animal for Madeline. I think the cat was the spirit animal.
Ella Helena, When you’re not acting, like Madeline, like ever - what do you enjoy doing that keeps you grounded?
Helena Howard Writing poetry, dancing, being with people I like, watching films, reading, smoking (cigarettes).
Ella Are there any films in particular that keep you feeling balanced?
Helena Black Swan. Sophie’s Choice. Requiem for a Dream. Now Call Me By Your Name. Amélie. Streetcar Named Desire, I love Vivian Leigh.
Ella Josephine, you’ve also mentioned Black Swan as an inspiration for Madeline’s Madeline.
Josephine I love Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky is one of the few filmmakers who does the things I’m most interested in, which is turning the audience into a character. It’s not that easy and he does it really well. He puts you so up in a character’s experience that you feel like you are them. It can feel very claustrophobic and it can be really annoying, but I really like his work for that.
Ella Why was it important for this film to take place in New York? How did the city influence the performances?
Josephine I was so adamant for Madeline’s Madeline to be set in New York. I love the fractured consciousness of the city, this way that you’re in one place and in another place at the same time. But truthfully shooting a movie in New York is so hard. It was such a beautiful, dream experience on my previous two films, staying in the place that you’re shooting and every night having a bonfire because there’s no cell service, and on this film everyone was trekking two hours up to Queens every day to shoot, and had to get back on the subway at the end of a 12-hour day to go home for two hours, so people were really exhausted by it all. It was harder than I realised to shoot in the city. Just a weird kind of unexpected experience.
Ella What do you like most about New York?
Helena There’s so much. I love how you think you’ve seen it all and then, nope, here’s something new that you just never know what you’re going to get or see. So many people don’t know how to walk, I call it people traffic. It’s annoying sometimes, but it’s because they’re looking at all the buildings they’ve never seen before, because they don’t have buildings where they’re from. New York is just a wonderful, dirty, disgusting, lovely place.
Josephine I lived in New York for 13 years, I just moved to Los Angeles last year. I really love it and miss it a lot. New York has felt like a character in my life, that was why it was in the film. The thing I love most about New York is that because everyone is living in a place that’s too small, and we’re living in a place that is not natural at all, people are driven into community.
There’s such strong amazing communities there. I loved my zen temple I’d go meditate at, there was a group called The School of Making Thinking that I would go on residencies with every Summer. I loved the community of baby filmmakers I have there, I love my little weird church I would go to. I think the communities in New York are really special, and the life of New York is the people. That’s the reason you’re there. I think people really prioritize spending time together, whereas in LA, you have a nice house, you want to spend time there, you might want to go to the beach, it’s a little less focused on community. I miss New York. I miss those people, my friends.
Ella Watching Madeline’s Madeline and experiencing the astonishing monologue at the end, I started thinking about conversations with my own mum, ones I have and haven’t had, ones I maybe should. Is there anything that you wish you’d told your mum that you haven’t?
Josephine I think my understanding of my mum is so distorted by the weird way that you process the memory of your own past. I thought the mum was going to be the villain of the film, she’s responsible for all this girl’s problems. But when Miranda July played her, she brought such humanity, sincerity and empathy to that character. You felt she was really trapped in her situation. What I started to learn is that by allowing her to have responses that make sense to her, she really is concerned about her child and she wants her child to be safe. I think I just saw how it’s just super hard to be a mum. I’d say to my mum, “You did a great job”.
Helena I’d say thank you.
Josephine [to Ella] What about you?
Ella I’d tell her that I try to listen. That I am trying, even if it doesn’t always come across. I might tell her now.
Josephine It takes a lot of trying.
Ella (@efekemp) is a freelance film journalist based in London. She writes for Culture Whisper, Empire, Little White Lies and Sight & Sound, and edits for Girls on Tops. At any given moment in time, she is always suitably verklempt.