U.S. indie actor-director talks to Variety about directing, crowdfunding and Berlin adventures
U.S. indie actor-director Josephine Decker has two hotly anticipated films screening in the Berlinale’s Forum section. Her directorial debut, “Butter on the Latch,” is a sinister folktale set in the Californian forest of Mendocino. Sophomore feature “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” which is world premiering in Berlin and is being sold by New Europe, is a sensual thriller inspired by “East of Eden,” set on a farm in Kentucky. Pic, which stars Sophie Traub, Joe Swanberg and Robert Longstreet, raised funds for its post-production through KickStarter. Variety gets an exclusive first look at the films’ teasers and talks to Decker about her work as she prepares for the Berlinale premieres (see below).
Variety: Have you been to Berlin before?
Decker: I went to Berlin once in middle school on a school trip, and I managed to dye my hair red, and almost get sent home early because a skateboarder I had a crush on wanted me to smuggle his butterfly knife home with me to Texas.
I also went three years ago for the world premiere of Joe Swanberg’s “Art History,” in which I played a lead. That trip was eventful as well, but the daring things I did during that trip are less publicize-able…
Variety: What are your expectations and hopes for the festival and market?
Decker: I said recently in a Film Fatales (female filmmaker collective in NYC run by Leah Meyerhoff) meeting that my biggest hope for this festival is that everyone who sees “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” has at least two moments of awe and wonder, in which they feel like they’re experiencing something they’ve never experienced before.
The film is immersive in a deeply visceral way — and takes you places inside yourself. That is ultimately why I want to make films at all: to give a new experience. And if that happens, I imagine all my dreams for sales and distribution will follow.
Variety: What do you see as the main strengths of “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” from the perspective of international distributors?
Decker: If I could think like a distributor, I would probably have an easier time. With “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” I have been pouring my heart into it for a while, and it’s full of bold choices with a story that just gets more gripping as the film goes along, so I am hoping that distributors see that and bite.
A sort of terror permeates the film, reinforced by incredible performances and a mind-blowing sound design by Martin Hernandez, who sound designed “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “21 Grams” and “Amores Perros,” among others. It’s incredible to collaborate with such an experienced and brilliant artist and really feel the film through its sound.
And Sophie Traub is just electric in her role. I can’t believe I cast her thinking she was a performance artist, and found out later that she had been in movies with Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman.
Variety: What has been the most challenging aspect of the directing and producing process so far?
Decker: Editing is always hard. You write a script and think you know what you’ve made, and then you get into the editing room, and things take an entirely new shape.
We spent a very long time crafting this film, and I am so proud of what we did, but phew — I am exhausted and need to go ride horses for a while. Many hours in a dark room is kind of crazy-making… though I’m incredibly lucky to have gotten to work with David Barker, who is truly a genius with story and tension. He pushed me to never second-guess my own vision and helped me let the film be deeply personal and yet also leave room for the audience to stew and wonder. I grew so much as a filmmaker through my collaboration with him.
Variety: How successful was the crowdfunding process? Were there other benefits in terms of building a community of supporters?
Decker: Crowdfunding was incredible. It was such a life lesson. I make these movies for low budgets because I’m just terrified of big ones and all the sucking up and accommodating that those enforce, but crowdfunding helped me realize that you can fundraise from people who believe in you, and want you to realize exactly the thing you want to make. It definitely helped my film reach a broader audience, and through that experience, I met my now-producer Laura Heberton, who’s been a huge help in getting the film through its final stages.
Variety: What has been the response from international distributors to “Butter on the Latch”?
Decker: I’ve really held “Butter” close because I knew I couldn’t show it widely until it premiered in Berlin — so — we’ll see. I will have a better answer for this in a week or so, I assume.
Variety: What project are you working on now? Decker: I’m certainly dreaming about the next one, though I think I have a long way to go with these yet.
I want to do something in Mexico City with clowning and these pig masks, made by my very versatile friend Isolde, who plays a lead in “Butter on the Latch,” and puppeteers and designs on the side.
I’m also developing a project with producers Lacey Leavitt and Mel Eslyn — a really wildly ambitious fantasy/horror film set in Washington State and inspired by the accordion-playing ladies of the Main Squeeze Orchestra.
Though my project right after Berlin might be to sleep. And eat. And breathe. I haven’t done those things in a while.