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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Horror is Really Inside of You: Josephine Decker and the Powerful Ambiguity of ‘Shirley’ [Interview]

With everything going on in the world you might have missed the fact that one of the most fascinating movies of the year came out on Hulu a couple weeks ago. Shirley, an intriguing amalgam of biopic and fictional thriller, stars Elisabeth Moss (The Invisible Man) as author Shirley Jackson, one of the most important horror writers of the 20th century, who forms an strange, erotic and possibly horrifying relationship with a young tenant as she writes one of her most celebrated works in the 1950s.

Although not explicitly a horror movie, the film explores the social context in which classics like The Lottery and Hangsaman were created, and eventually steers into twisted territory as the story Jackson writes and the life of her and her tenant, Rose (Odessa Young) bleed together.

Shirley comes from acclaimed filmmaker Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), who spoke to Bloody-Disgusting shortly before the film’s release via Zoom.

A few SPOILERS lie ahead, but speaking of spoilers, the first scene in Shirley features Rose reading Shirley Jackson’s the-recently published The Lottery. The story has one of the most famous and controversial twists in horror history, and it’s a twist that Rose describes out loud, with nary a spoiler alert in sight.

Then again, according to Josephine Decker, the audience needs that information before the story can begin, and they probably know it anyway.

“I think it’s important that people know that going into the movie, and I think… I don’t know, I had to read The Lottery in middle school, high school, and I have a feeling that most American audiences will be familiar with that story,” Decker says. “So it’s probably a good memory jogger that that’s what Shirley writes about, and that’s the level of wild that her stories get to. So yeah, I think that that felt very organic.”

“And also that you get to see how The Lottery works on Rose. That feels like an important part of the storytelling that something so gruesome kind of turns her on,” Decker adds. ‘It’s a character trait.”

Rose’s married life is sexually rigorous for the first half of Shirley, but as the story continues her relationship with her husband becomes distant, and her relationship to Jackson becomes more intimate. Decker points out that although aspects of the film are fictional, the portrayal of Jackson and her muse as sexual beings adds to their complexity.

“In my mind it’s not a biopic because, well, partly because it takes place over such a short period of time, but also because it’s so invented,” Decker explains. “Many of the details of Shirley’s life are inaccurate, and kind of purposely, because we wanted to be like ‘this is fiction.’”

“But yeah, I wanted her to come across as a very complex human, which I think Sarah [Gubbins] did so beautifully in the script. And I think what Sarah did really well in the script and one of the reasons I was really excited by it is that there is a sensuality and a kind of seduction of the muse, in a way. But it’s between two women and I don’t know that we’ve seen that story all that much,” Decker says. “I mean there’s a subtle lesbian romance, basically.”

The romance between Jackson and her tenant peaks in a scene on their front porch, where their personal connection turns physical for the first time. It’s one of the most striking scenes in the film, and Decker says it evolved in the editing room.

“That scene actually had a lot of dialogue and then at some point one of our editors was like, let’s try taking out the dialogue and see what happens? And then it became this kind of silent eye contact sex scene, basically,” Decker laughs. “I mean it was really funny to shoot in person too, because we shot it I think towards the end of our shoot and so everyone was pretty comfortable with each other, and I think… they’re just such great actors and they were just really locked in.”

“I just love the way that Lizzy, as Shirley, looks at Rose, and I love the way that Odessa, as Rose, feels so almost blindsided and sort of like… wait, are we here? And are we there? And if we’re THERE I’ve been ready for this!” Decker recalls. “There’s so many layers to what happens throughout the scene. Yeah, it was a fun one to shoot.”

Rose’s questioning of her reality in that scene reflects much of the film, as Rose finds herself blurring fiction and reality, and possibly becoming a character in Shirley Jackson’s latest mind-bending story. Decker says that ambiguity was in keeping with Jackson’s work, and intentionally incorporated into Shirley.

“Even just reading the script I remember thinking I had wanted to shoot in the ending in a way that the audience would be questioning what they had seen. I think Shirley does that so well in her writing. You kind of fall between worlds in a really beautiful way. You’re inside of a world that seems very stable and then all of a sudden it’s very unstable and then all of a sudden you’re questioning the last 20 pages that you just read,” Decker explains.

“I think that’s something that’s really exciting about the way she writes,” Decker says. “And also that the horror is really inside of you. When I think of The Haunting of Hill House, it’s sort of like the house becomes an expression of this girl’s loneliness in a way, and that loneliness gets exaggerated to such a degree that it’s really, really destructive.”

“I think stuff like that we were kind of playing with in our film too,” she adds. “How do you take something that’s very personal and that’s a character trait and then exaggerate, exaggerate so that it kind of explodes into a bigger encounter?”

Ambiguous endings often give audiences an opportunity to decide for themselves what “really” happened, but according to Decker, the end of Shirley doesn’t work that way. Rather than ground her storytelling in what actually happened, the filmmaker decided to keep the story poetically ambiguous even for herself.

“I try to keep that ambiguity. I always like, and it’s not just in this film,” Decker says. “I think in a lot of the films that I make, I like to make films where there’s maybe an ambiguous ending and I feel like if I knew what the ending meant then the audience would feel it too, you know? And I kind of think it’s important to me to sort of let there be that ambiguity, also for myself, so that I can interpret it multiple ways also.”

“Because yeah, I think if I was like ‘Well it’s like this, we’ll see if they get it’ it just feels like it might be a little more contrived,” Decker explains. “I come from a poetic [background], my family, my dad is a poet and so ambiguity and letting things be open for interpretation feels really natural to me I guess.”

Shirley may be steeped in Shirley Jackson’s life and stories and style, but how necessary is it for the audience to be familiar with the author’s work in order to pick up on those cues?

“I don’t think that it’s necessary to read any Shirley before you see the film,” Decker says. “I think it’s certainly fun if you HAVE read Shirley. I think there’s a lot of little things that are fun tributes to her in it.”

“But I think part of the thing that drove us to want to make it was that we felt that Shirley is, as famous as she is, she’s not necessarily a household name in a way that other horror writers are, and just really wanting to feel like we were allowing a space for Shirley to be this magician of darkness,” Decker laughs. “And that you could meet her there and then discover her in our film.”

“But yeah, there’s a lot of little fun odes to Shirley throughout the film that are fun to find,” Decker hints.

Whether you pick up on the Easter eggs or not, Shirley still dramatizes the way Jackson used her writing to react to the patriarchal society she lived in. Her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), is a philandering college professor and their relationship is not always viewed as even-handed or healthy.

“My sense is that Shirley’s writing was a great love of hers, that it was a place that was safe and that she could go and have adventures. It brought her love from the outside world. It brought her Stanley’s love in some ways,” Decker says.

“And I think just happenstance, she was not always in the most supportive emotional environments,” the filmmaker explains. “In real life her mom, she had a fairly emotionally abusive relationship with her mom, her mom being the abuser. And then she kind of chose a husband who maybe was an extension of that kind of relationship.”

“So I think it’s not… you know, it’s so funny because all I can do is project,” Decker considers. “I know that possibly choosing to be an artist allows you to speak in a language that gets praise when the language that you maybe are trying to speak in is unheard otherwise? So I don’t know.”

“I think that that maybe, that’s again totally my projection, but I don’t think you have to be mad to create art. I just think that if you don’t have to create art, and if you could go make money doing something that actually is a little bit easier, you probably end up choosing that,” Decker laughs. “So I think people who create art, I feel like maybe they’re relying on it for survival in a certain way, because otherwise… yeah, you wouldn’t put yourself through it? I don’t know. But I do think you can make art and be a very happy person as well.”

“And then the patriarchy thing, I think she in a way had a very unorthodox, ahead of its time relationship. I mean they had an open relationship, although obviously that was kind of troubled and troubling, but they also… you know, she was the breadwinner of their household,” Decker reminds us. “And that said, that may have sparked some of the conflict between her and her husband, and I think we kind of played with that a little bit in our film.”

“But it’s definitely, I think some of the questions of Shirley’s life are questions that are still in play today,” Decker says. “You know, how does a female artist upset gender roles without upsetting, maybe, their household? And how could a famous female artist… you know, I think the time of her life when we were showing her, which is right after The Lottery came out, she was really kind of… there was such a reaction to The Lottery, and her own town felt like accused by The Lottery and so she kind of shut herself in for a while.”

“I guess what I’m trying to say is the exposure, exposure can be terrifying in any time period, and I think in that time period there was her working against the way that her writing was perceived maybe in her own community is, but I think now there’s exposure obviously on a different level,” Decker continues. “There’s young people who are artists, are super world famous stars at the age of 13 and 16. So I don’t know.”

“I think it’s complicated in any time period but the patriarchy never helps,” Decker laughs.

Shirley is now available on Hulu and On Demand.


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