Berlin Film Journal spoke to the director Josephine Decker, who has two films screening in the Forum section at this year’s Berlinale: Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on The Latch.
How did you get into filmmaking, from your background in literature?
I think, at first, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer and photographer. I loved National Geographic. I also loved music, and I thought I would be a conductor, but write on the side and maybe take photos. And then, at a certain point, I realised that maybe I wasn’t good enough in any of those things – which is a really weird way of saying it! I hated the smell of photography printing! And my creative writing teacher just ripped my work to shreds! And with the music, I had the revelation in college that to be a pianist, people have to practice over five hours every day and that people who are conductors have been in orchestras since they were seven and know all the instruments like the back of their hands! Film wasn’t a backup though, but more a mellowing of all my interests.
In both films, you’re the writer, director, and editor. Do you prefer one over the other?
I think I prefer directing most, and then editing. I used to prefer writing but then real life is so good and the things that people say are so of them. I would record people speaking so I could write in exactly their voice and for my fiction works, I like to make short documentaries about the people who will be the basis of the film. I’d love to write for someone else and direct someone else’s story. But editing is really hard on your body, it’s an obsessive thing and you’re just tied to the computer.
Butter on the Latch is entirely unscripted, improvised dialogue, whereas Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is scripted. Which did you prefer, or find less daunting?
Well, my process is somewhere in the middle actually. I would love to spend a really long time improvising and then craft a story from that. Because I think, ultimately, what frustrates me about improv. is that the little “beep” that you’re waiting for to get there takes way too long. You have to wait for the person to say whatever you’re trying to get to. So I prefer the control that writing allows. Improv. is more fun but you have to be way more creative, especially in editing.
How personal is the subject matter of your films? Are you exploring your own sexuality through making films?
That’s a good question … that’s a little bit personal, isn’t it! But yeah, of course I’m exploring my own sexuality. Imagination is a huge part of your sexuality. I’m exploring things I’m interested in, in terms of relations, power dynamics, or just the way that nature can be a part of romance and sexuality.
How important was it for both these films to be set in the idyllic yet sinister surroundings of the forest and a farm?
I kind of surprised myself with the way that nature came across in the movie, because I love the woods, the feeling of being immersed and not seeing your way out, stuck in there. What was really fascinating to me was that the characters’ (in Butter on the Latch) inner experiences became externalized. The scene is the woods is actually a lot scarier than I imagined it.
Does the finished film end up how you imagined it? Were there any dramatic changes in the storyline that took place whilst filming?
Butter on the Latch: we rewrote the ending. We shifted it and decided to let it be a little more unclear with how things turned out. And the first half of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely was entirely rewritten with some scenes from the second half being put into the first half. And I’m really happy with how it’s turned out – it’s in the right order!
‘Thou Wast Mild and Lovely’ and ‘Butter on the Latch’ are screening as part of the FORUM section at Berlinale.