One would be hard-pressed to find an American filmmaker better suited than Josephine Decker for zeroing in on the innate power dynamics of Shirley, an adaptation of the Susan Scarf Merrell’s fictionalized account of the period in Shirley Jackson’s life in which she wrote Hangsaman. Decker has, for most of her career, made a study of the power dynamics between women, whether in Butter on the Latch or 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline, making occasional pit stops to explore sexual depravity in films like Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. In bits and pieces, these are the things that Shirley is made of, both on the page (whether Merrell’s or screenwriter Sarah Gubbins’) and on screen.
Shirley is a trip into psychosexual darkness, befitting of a Jackson story, with Elisabeth Moss playing the great writer herself and Odessa Young playing Rosie, the girl and pregnant mother-to-be staying in her home for a couple seasons with her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), and Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Games of intolerable cruelty commence, between Shirley and Rosie and between Fred and Stanley, though Decker’s focus is the former rather than the latter.
In a discussion with Paste, Decker elaborated on the mechanics of the film and how the performances of Moss and Young provide Shirley’s heart and soul.
Paste Magazine: So this is a bit of a Russian nesting doll movie. You directed the movie, written by Sarah Gubbins, that’s based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, that’s based on the time in Shirley Jackson’s life when she wrote Hangsaman, which is based on the disappearance of Paula Jean Welden. Reading the screenplay and knowing the story, how did you figure out how you’re going to fit your movie into that nesting doll?
Josephine Decker: I just tried to focus on the script that Sarah had written, and really look at that as its own piece, its own story, as much as we were trying to do an adaptation and also trying to be inspired by Shirley’s work and her life. We did a ton of research, obviously, to prepare, but the most important thing was staying connected to the story that we’re telling for these 90 to 100 minutes, and making sure that that story really sings. Sarah and I spent about a year working on the script, just kind of playing with it a bit together and trying to make even more cohesion and connection between our main characters.
There’s so much to play with, and there’s so much in Susan’s novel about this connection between these two women that is also so apparent in all of Shirley’s writing. There’s always this one woman who’s good at life, and one woman who’s maybe not so good as life [laughs], and they became very close friends. Playing with that—these two sides of one single consciousness almost—was really fun.
Paste: I’m reading the novel and in it there’s this undercurrent of love that Rosie has for Natalie, and a more expressed love I think for Shirley. This is complimentary, but I feel like that’s been voided in the movie and replaced almost by a latent eroticism. Rosie reads “The Lottery” at the beginning and then goes, “I want to have sex with my husband on a train.” It feels like you wanted to get more explicit about how Rosie and Shirley connect outside of other relationships in the movie?
Decker: Sarah’s vision for this movie was that there would be some of this unexplored eroticism that is hinted at in a lot of Shirley’s novels and in her real life, that we would feel this sexual connection between Shirley and Rose more explicitly, and that dominance, and maybe the enjoyment of the dominance and submission play. It climaxes in our swing scene—these two women know how to mess with each other.
Paste: I feel like that dynamic, that power dynamic between women, is a recurring theme throughout your work. I thought a lot about Madeline’s Madeline while I was watching Shirley.
Decker: Oh yeah!
Paste: Did you bring elements and experiences from that movie to this one consciously? Or do you feel like that bled into what you were doing with Shirley?
Decker: I think it was more subconsciously. Obviously, with the theme of an older woman manipulating or using a younger woman for her art, I was kind of shocked at how similar the themes were. It wasn’t even until I was so excited about Shirley, and pitched on it and got the project, that I really realized how similar these projects were in that way. [laughs] The questions of how does an artist make work, how do you collaborate with other people and make that work without using them, these are questions that I’ve really been grappling with as an artist myself. How can you be respectful and have principles in the way that you collaborate, when maybe inherently artistic collaboration is pretty messy?
Paste: That respectfulness you’re talking about cuts another way, because you’re talking about someone else’s work, which is based on the life and times of a real person. Did this pose another challenge for you while trying to do your own thing with this?
Decker: Knowing that there’s a real person, Shirley, behind you that we’re talking about?
Decker: We were really clear that we wanted to say that this is a work of fiction, that we’re not trying to make a real Shirley Jackson. The real Shirley Jackson?There’s a whole movie that should be dedicated to her—10 movies that should be dedicated to her. But this movie was more of a fictional experience. There were certain questions that were complicated: of timing, and her kids. Sarah took the right amount of liberty in the script to know that she’s working on a piece of fiction, and that this is her interpretation of the inspiration of Shirley Jackson. We tried to give ourselves that freedom.
Paste: Piggybacking on that: Elisabeth Moss strikes me as the kind of actor who would understand that thrust of creating a character instead of portraying Shirley Jackson as a real person. Was that creative process something that you worked on with her, or did she take it and run with it?
Decker: Both. We all did our research independently. We didn’t have a ton of rehearsal time, so we did a bit of discovery and rehearsals and finding physicality. She was like, “I don’t think Shirley moves very much,” which I think is very defining and very true. Truthfully, when you have that little rehearsal, you’re sort of using the shoot as rehearsal time, [laughs] and you’re finding the character together during the shoot. Just like with any of us, there are different versions of us for different experiences, and I feel like there are definitely very many versions of Shirley. There’s a Shirley who’s really outgoing and can hold a room’s attention at a party, and then there’s the Shirley who’s totally depressive and in bed and doesn’t want to be around anyone. [Moss] can be a larger-than-life character, and then at times she can make very subtle choices. She is such a genius at that.
I have to speak to Odessa, as well. Odessa is a genius, our young Rose. She was 20 when we shot that movie, and her maturity in her performance is so beyond her years. It was exciting to see the way the two of them played off each other, and I think Odessa held her own with that cast and centers the film. We see through her eyes. We experience Shirley very often through her eyes. I feel blessed that we got the cast that we did.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.