In conjunction with the online release of Chinonye Chukwu’s CLEMENCY—now streaming free across multiple platforms—the film’s star Alfre Woodard will join Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors for a conversation about race, criminal injustice, and incarceration.
This virtual conversation is presented by the Screen Actors Guild. See links below for details.
SHIRLEY—a speculative take on the last years of Shirley Jackson (played by Elisabeth Moss) in North Bennington—was directed by Josephine Decker, from a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins. The filmmakers recently talked about Jackson and their new film, now streaming on Hulu.
Sarah Gubbins: I first read Shirley Jackson probably like most people who encounter her work: in high school American literature class I read “The Lottery” and that was the beginning. I mean that thing stays with you, like a sharp blunt object to the head.
Josephine Decker: I also read “The Lottery” in high school and that was the first time… then I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle right before I read Sarah’s script. I had never read any of Shirley’s longer work before that and that was pretty life changing, with this “what is this!? I have to read every single thing by this author…oh, it’s Shirley Jackson who wrote ‘The Lottery’!?” And then I get the script, it’s a lot of things happened at once so.
Sarah: I’ve been a long time Shirley Jackson reader and really loved her work and loved returning to her work, but I had never really thought to do anything that portrayed Jackson herself. Then I read the book Shirley and I had all these preconceived ideas of about who Jackson was and what it might be like to go and live with her and how amusement park-esque it would be to spend some time with her… and hopefully she would want to become my friend!
But that led to my deeper investigation of her life and that was a more unexpected journey. I read through all of her books and “met” her through her work first and then read a lot of the saved correspondence between her and her husband, Stanley. The more I learned about her and how expansive her writing was, I felt like I wanted to create a character that we thought we might know only to find out, we really didn’t. And I think in the archetype of the “hysterical female artist,” Shirley is completely unexpected. So in our portrayal, we could shatter a little bit that and find her humor and her really big empathetic heart. Shirley is a really great chronicler of human psychology and of also some deep seeded societal traumas.
Question:Knowing there isn’t much of Shirley’s life on public record, did you find researching for this project difficult?
Sarah: I love to tell these stories because it sounds like I have my shit together and I absolutely had no idea what kind of adventure I was going to be on. I could never have conceived that the way I’d meet Shirley, by excavating through her work, is similarly to the way in which I would meet Josephine. I met Josephine through Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and there was just something “Shirley,” or a Shirley-like madness to the worldview that was in that movie, that I thought whoever has this kind of imagination would really understand the Shirley Jackson that I was coming to know. I had no clue who Shirley was until it was like chasing a wild hare. I think that’s true for most aspects of this production too.
Josephine: You chase a wild hare and then you end up in a hole and then you start falling and then you’re not really falling and then you try and get a larger key in the bigger key and then you get bigger then get smaller. [Laughter]
Question:Were there storyboards, and how descriptive did you get while writing before going into the shooting process? Because with the set design, art direction, cinematography, it looks and feels like a world was being built for this story.
Josephine: There were no storyboards. I really love collaborating and I feel like in a way I was really grateful to have one or two weeks of doing that with the actors and with the department heads. I think we all work well together when we all feel extremely invested in one another’s work…and that they see their work, their ideas comes to life on screen. I love other peoples’ ideas, that’s why I’m a filmmaker. I love having all these different departments and having actors come with visions and ideas and Michael Stuhlbarg has just, like, a bazillion ideas always and he’s a genius. Like the crumbs in his beard! Michael just was like, “Hold on, I’m not ready,” and shoved crumbs all over his beard before he goes to kiss Rose.
We just had a great cast who really invested their time and focus on our choices in the staging process. I wanted to work with the cast to develop those choices. It’s a lot of nuance and you want to let the actors make the physical choices that grow from such a dialogue heavy film. I took too long every morning letting everyone make these choices but it was one of the strengths of the film; it makes the film feel really differently from a lot of other dialogue driven movies or just movies, maybe all movies. It has a feeling of presence which feels exciting.
Question: What was the process like with the cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen to film the shots—since it was all done on handheld, was there structure or it was more free flowing?
Josephine: We had specific ideas of shots that we had set up and that we had sculpted to go a certain way. One of the things I love about Sturla and what he did so masterfully was he really used the space. He used the actors in the space and he was able to capture these small, powerful shots. For example, early on in the film, Stanley sits down in the bed while talking to Shirley, and he is reflected in three mirrors… it’s a stunning, gorgeous shot and we achieved those because Sturla was so in tuned with the actors. He is in the right place to shoot those moments and you feel the performance more because the camera is so intimate with them. And because the camera is so alive to the surroundings. I think there is something really alive when you are shooting on hand held and the camera can really be breathing with the performers.
Question:Did you always know you wanted this to take place after she published “The Lottery”?
Sarah: Yes, because I knew that the reception of “The Lottery” and I thought “that must have been her golden ticket!” And, in fact, found that was not her experience and even though it’s the most anthologized short story in American literature, she also received bags and bags and pounds and pounds of hate mail for having written it. And The New Yorker had its greatest cancellation of subscriptions after they published “The Lottery.” So what was the thing that she is most remembered for, living through that moment and then to go on and write what she wrote afterwards must’ve been excruciating. It’s audacious to think that you could portray Shirley Jackson, or to co-opt her for our vision and Elisabeth Moss‘ vision, for all of our visions of Shirley to live out there. But in some ways, I think it’s the biggest form of homage that we can do; a resuscitation in some ways….
Josephine: Is there any project that you have been wanting to make that you would be worried you would get bags and bags of hate mail for?
Sarah: Do you want to know something, and it’s going to sound glib, I want people to either love or hate what I’m doing. I want them to revile or adore. But I don’t want to make work that just sits in a comfortable middle. If you’re not doing something that’s terrifying and audacious and just totally presumptuous then it has no ambition behind it. Then what am I doing? Everyone’s like, “What’s your process?” I always go into something thinking I know what I’m doing, I always go in saying “Well, I’ve written something before so I surely can write something again”, but then you’re in it and then you’re like, “No, this is the one that’s going to kill me and I won’t be able to do it.” And if you don’t feel that way, if you don’t feel that fear, it usually means that you’re not wading in dangerous enough waters.
Question:What’s most impactful about this process that you want others to feel impacted by?
Josephine Decker: Getting to deeply encounter all of Shirley’s work was one of the biggest, most exciting takeaways because her work is so singular. We did our best to try and make an experience that feels like a Shirley Jackson story, but the wonderful thing is that you almost can’t. She was doing something that was so unique… and unique is such an overused word, but it is unique. Shirley was so exciting for me because I think that I have a lot of interest in making stories where there is an unreliable narrator or the ground that you’re standing on, you suddenly realize has shifted from stable ground to a lake…. I have always been curious about storytelling in that way so learning from Shirley herself was a really exciting part of this process and something that I hope our audiences take away from the film. And I am very grateful to have gotten to work with this human right here, Sarah Gubbins. Every single person on this film, I feel grateful I got to work with but Sarah and I probably spent the most time working together because we spent a whole year preparing and she was there for the shoot and she was there for editing and she was a real partner on this whole journey. And we had so many other incredible partners along the way that I feel incredibly indebted to for making this film. Our cast, Lizzie and Odessa, really owned it—they let themselves go to really intense places together and with us, and so I feel really grateful for that and all of our department heads, so those are my takeaways I guess.
Sarah: That’s good. Do I have to have one too? Because that was really good. I say ditto. There was something about this movie that we were attempting to portray… both the psychic toll and the psychic myth, or the kind of ecstasy of somebody who is a writer like Shirley Jackson, and I think that we really tried in all facets—the writing of the script and in the creation and the art, and the way that was shot and performed—to take people on a journey of an artist. And it’s not necessarily predictable and it’s not polite and it’s definitely not respectable, but what comes out of it is something that can be lasting and I think make people really feel seen.
And for me, working with Josephine was the biggest trust fall that I’ve ever had. She challenged me to think differently, to envision things differently, and she made what I wanted to make, my vision, so much better. And I think that that’s really what a true collaborator can do, it is not one plus one and then you suddenly become exponentially larger. And you can do more and dream bigger and I think that’s the thing about working with Josephine. It’s going to be tough when she’s not by my side every day.