Horror author Shirley Jackson’s work has long captivated the minds of readers. In recent years, interest in her has risen with the release of the recent Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House” and the 2018 film, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It is no wonder then that the focus of interest has now shifted away from her fictional works to her actual life. While not entirely a biopic, Josephine Decker’s latest film SHIRLEY, written by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, explores the author under a more fictional lens in the film adaptation of Susan Merrell’s book of the same name.
Prior to the release of the film, I had the opportunity to chat with writer and producer Sarah Gubbins. During the interview, we discussed everything from her interest in dispelling the myth between madness and genius, the research that went into developing the film, and how haunted the house they filmed in actually was.
Hi Sarah, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I absolutely loved SHIRLEY and am excited to talk all about it with you. To start things off, how did this project come to be?
Sarah Gubbins: I’ve been a Shirley Jackson fan for a long time. She’s an author that, like many people, I encountered in high school reading The Lottery. If you’ve read it, it sticks with you, let’s put it that way (laughs). It’s such a perfect short story in so many ways and it’s so complicated, like so much of her work. I find she’s an author that I can go back to at various points in time and read something new. With the rollout of the film, I went back to reading The Haunting of Hill House, and even in the first 5 pages, I found stuff that I had forgotten and was able to be delighted by. So yeah, long time fan.
I was looking for a project with one of our producers, Sue Naegle, and we were reading different stuff and trying to think about what would be something fun to adapt. That’s where I encountered Susan Merrell’s book [Shirley]. The idea of doing a fictional, not a cradle-to-grave biopic, but really honing in on one fictionalized episode in Shirley’s life, all the sparks started flying and it felt like a really fun idea. In Susan Merrell’s book, there’s a young woman that comes to live with Shirley Jackson and so has that outsider perspective. It kind of also has all of these preconceived notions about what it would be like to live with the woman who wrote The Lottery. Some of them are inflated – in some ways, it was like an opportunity to play and dispel some of the myths of the “madwoman-writer-genius” person and make her a lot more human and a lot funnier and a lot more vulnerable than you might imagine. That’s where the idea was born.
Outside of Susan Merrell’s book, and being a fan of Shirley Jackson, what other types of research did you do to better understand the relationship between Shirley and her husband, Stanley?
Sarah Gubbins: The Library of Congress has all of the Stanley and Shirley’s correspondence and so that was really fantastic. It’s snooping, it’s almost like reading someone’s diary, well it is in fact (laughs). I really did feel like I got to know her well through that. I read all of her novels and short stories before writing and just got to know some of her reoccurring preoccupations, as it were. I started to identify her sense of humor, her sense of terror, her deep analysis of – her characters have really complicated psyches. The lovely way in which a writer will pull from their own subconscious and is also vampiric in the ways in which they really portrayed events from their own life or relationships they observed or kind of internalized actual biographical details – that became a fun puzzle to be working through the film.
How was it collaborating with director Josephine Decker?
Sarah Gubbins: It was a dream! It was kind of like being at summer camp although, mom and dad, don’t worry, I don’t hold this against you, I never went to summer camp, so it’s kind of what I imagined being at summer camp would be (laughs). Josephine has such an unexpected imagination. She’s so disciplined and rigorous and thoughtful and funny but also has this mirth about her. Even though we were in cramped locations and sticky hot vans, there was always joy. We didn’t actually start shooting for like almost a year so we got to know each other really, really well through the script [process].
When it came time to film, what were some of the challenges that were faced?
Sarah Gubbins: It’s a period piece, it’s an indie movie, you never have enough time (laughs). We were shooting in an actual haunted house. The house that we shot in, which we found, was one of these wonderful things – We were scouting all throughout upstate NY and one of the many houses we kind of just drove by we ended up stopping at and we all just couldn’t believe it. It was an old Captain’s house, I think it was built in the 1670s, really, really old. We were shooting the film and we actually, thankfully, had a Wiccan on our crew. We all knew that the house was haunted. In fact, there was a room in the house called the Birthing Room, where generations of kids had been born and what else happened there I don’t know. We gave the house an offering, we brought it bread, eggs, and flowers. The house also abutted to a cemetery. I’m sure you have more questions but can I tell you this one thing?
Yes, of course!
Sarah Gubbins: We were shooting and it was going well but it was one of the dinner scenes and there was a mirror in the background. The mirror, while we were between takes – when I say it just dropped off the wall, it dropped off the wall and did not shatter. The art department came in and rehung and re-wired it and really kind of got it [back in position]. It was this beautiful vintage mirror that was in the house and had, of course, been in a lot of the scenes at that point, for continuity. They got it back [on the wall] and I kid you not, four takes later, the mirror fell again. At the end of the day, we wrapped and the next day I realized that day had been Shirley Jackson’s birthday. I’m not into all of this [hauntings] but there was something about the fact that it dropped off the wall twice and it never shattered. There was also a day where we had this crazy rainstorm in the middle. There was never supposed to be thunder or whatever, it just dropped on the house in the midst of shooting and we had to scamper a bit. I definitely felt Shirley present on the set in many ways.
Lastly, what are you hoping viewers will take away from SHIRLEY after they see the film?
Sarah Gubbins: Number one, I hope that our movie can contribute to resuscitating a woman who’s reputation shouldn’t need resuscitation. I really hope people are moved to go back and read and think about Shirley’s work and see her as I do, as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th Century. She got pitted in both the woman camp in the genre camp. Also, I think Elisabeth Moss’s portrayal of her couldn’t be more enticing. You can’t write Shirley off after you see what Elisabeth has done with her.