I would imagine tackling the famed and reclusive horror author, Shirley Jackson, would be no easy feat, but in the hands of filmmaker Josephine Decker, she more than succeeds. In SHIRLEY, which stars Elisabeth Moss as the famed author, and is based on the novel by Susan Merrell, audiences get a semi-fictionalized biography of the horror writer through the eyes of a young couple staying with her.
For the release of the film, I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Josephine Decker. During the interview, we discussed everything from how the film came together finding the right location to tell the story, and working with the talented cast.
Hello Josephine! Thank you so much for speaking with me today, I absolutely loved SHIRLEY. To start things off, can you talk a bit about the film and how you got involved?
Josephine Decker: It was a script written by Sarah Gubbins and I was invited to pitch on it so I did. I made a great pitch, which was absolutely unique and visionary – just kidding, just kidding (laughs). Sarah and I had an exciting connection and there were so many things about this script… it was almost eerie the crossovers it had with the things that I had studied and the worlds that I was excited to explore with it.
One of the things that I loved about this film was the use of practical sets and how they reflected the time period. It allowed me to immerse myself in who Shirley was through the designs of the house. What was it like, from your vision, re-creating the look and feel of the time period and her life?
Josephine Decker: Oh yeah, great question! I got really obsessed with these post-war abstraction female artists and it was a big part of me putting together my thoughts on the film. I melded images that were happening around the time that Shirley was writing her book, which was so exciting. There was a real kind of kismet between these fine artists and also Shirley’s actual writing. It’s fun to think about that. Obviously, when we were inventing the world, the house was such an important part, it was a character on its own. Shirley has this history of these houses that are very meaningful in her work. I think she had an Uncle that was an architect and so she was really obsessed with architecture and grew up around it. She ended up really sculpting these incredible, weird environments. In a lot of her work, architecture does almost play a character, like in The Haunting of Hill House and the short stories The Visit and The Bus, the house is its own personality. Same with We’ve Always Lived in the Castle. It was really important for us that the house felt very Shirley. In her bio they talked about how she had so many books, they had like thousands and thousands of books, she and Stanley. I guess upstairs, near the kid’s room, to walk down the hallway they had bookshelves on both sides of the hallway and you had to walk sideways to be able to get through all the books. It was fun to try and recreate that level of lived-in-ness in a house. We just had the dream team – our incredible Production Designer, Sue Chan, and our wonderful Art Director, Kirby Feagan, they just killed it. They did a great job on making this movie feel like you had very much fallen down the Shirley rabbit hole.
The framing techniques of a lot of the scenes seemed to have this voyeuristic quality to them that was really interesting. I also noticed that certain sounds, such as moaning or mosquitos, were amplified. Can you elaborate on the use of those techniques?
Josephine Decker: It was really important to us to feel like you were really seeing Shirley through Rose’s eyes. You meet Shirley through Rose at the beginning of the film and so we sort of framed a lot of it as if we are seeing Shirley through Rose; for example, if you are across the room you would see Shirley through a bunch of bodies, that’s how we shot it. The sound – eventually you see both of their [Shirley/Rose] perspectives and are really seeing the world through both of their eyes. It was important to us that the sound really supported that and help us distinguish when we are in reality and when are we in someone’s mind. We got to go into Shirley’s mind a bit with the sound design.
How was it working with the cast to bring SHIRLEY to life?
Josephine Decker: It was incredible working with them! I think all four of them are some of the greatest actors – I couldn’t believe I got to work with them, it was just such a blessing. Michael Stuhlbarg (Stanley Hyman) is a total genius and has a whole wonderful career under his belt of theater and film work. Elisabeth Moss also has so much experience and it was so much fun to see the two of them get to play together. They had such different processes and they really balanced each other and, I think, had a great time together. Odessa Young (Rose Nemser) just holds down – she’s a rock. Well, Shirley’s maybe the rock around which everyone revolves but Odessa did such a great job – we see through her eyes, we see the movie really through her eyes. It’s a big thing to ask of a character, especially so young. She was 20 when we shot the film and she’s so mature as a performer. I really thought she did an epic job. Obviously, Lizzie kind of transcends – she can just pull galaxies out of her eyes, it’s incredible! Then Logan Lerman (Fred Nemser) was such a wonderful collaborator, too, and so game and so supportive. He really helped Odessa get to go where she needed to go. I feel really blessed that was our cast.
Lastly, what are you hoping people take away from the film after seeing it?
Josephine Decker: I always want people to take away their own interpretation. I think it’s a film that has an ending that hopefully sparks a conversation that people continue to have after the film. I also hope people feel called to experience Shirley’s writing. I think we tried to make almost an ode to Shirley and make the film really feel like you were going into one of her stories. If you enjoy the film and haven’t read her stories then its an invitation to hopefully go down one of Shirley’s very own rabbit holes, which are many and invitingly dangerous.