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Josephine Decker Releases A New Film About The Horror Writer Shirley Jackson

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The new movie "Shirley" starts after the author Shirley Jackson has published her most famous short story. It's called "The Lottery." You might have read it in high school.

JOSEPHINE DECKER: The town annually stones to death one of its members because that's just what's done. You know, I think there's a reason that that has stayed in our canon. It's incredibly intense to talk about institutionalized oppression.

SHAPIRO: That's the movie's director Josephine Decker. Her film "Shirley" is a fictional story about a real person. And so I asked Decker how she compares the author, who died in 1965, to the character Shirley Jackson that Elisabeth Moss plays in the movie.

DECKER: It was a tricky challenge I guess you could say. But our MO was really just to prioritize making the audience feel like they were inside of a Shirley Jackson story. We put that above all else. So we were always adventuring into her fiction as the primary source for our inspiration of how to approach the film. We were very clear that we wanted to make a film that wouldn't be mistaken for a biopic, even though I think it totally (laughter) has. It's hard - when you call a film "Shirley," I guess people get confused.

SHAPIRO: Right (laughter).

DECKER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: When you say you wanted the audience to feel like they were in a Shirley Jackson book or story, what does that feel like? What were the qualities you were looking for?

DECKER: You know, her biographer Ruth Franklin talks a lot about how Shirley wrote sort of this fractured consciousness into her work. She would often have this duality of female characters, like one female character who really excels at conforming to the times. Like, she's an excellent baker and, like, a generous, loving mother. And then there's another character, like her best friend or sister in some of her books, who is misanthropic, a little bit wicked, has a terrific sense of humor.

SHAPIRO: I'm seeing how this overlays onto the film.

DECKER: Yes (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Go on.

DECKER: And these two women - at times, they're put against each other. But often, they're really interconnected as close, deep, spiritual friends.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DECKER: And the biographer talks about Shirley really, in a way, maybe working out two aspects of her own self. She was a very dedicated mother, and then in her work - you know, sort of darker side. I think reconciling these two women, in a way, is sort of like reconciling this one woman, the writer.

SHAPIRO: Interesting. At the center of this film there are two married couples, Shirley and her husband and then a younger, pregnant woman named Rose arrives with her husband in a small town in Vermont, where Shirley's husband is a college professor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHIRLEY")

ODESSA YOUNG: (As Rose Nemser) Excuse me. I'm Rose - Rose Nemser.

ELISABETH MOSS: (As Shirley Jackson) Betty, Debbie, Cathy - you're all the same to me.

YOUNG: (As Rose Nemser) No. No. I'm Fred's wife. Fred Nemser - he's helping Professor Hyman with this semester.

SHAPIRO: The relationship between Shirley and Rose is central to the movie, and it almost seems to be one of artist and muse. Is that a relationship that you are particularly interested in exploring - the artist-muse dynamic?

DECKER: Yeah, I think so. I was drawn to the script for many, many reasons, you know, partly just the incredible characters, well-drawn characters. But also, my previous film was called "Madeline's Madeline," which is actually all about an artist-muse exploitation (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DECKER: And so I love the way that Shirley and Rose's relationship evolves. You know, it moves from, like, a real artist-muse relationship into a real collaboration.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHIRLEY")

MOSS: (As Shirley Jackson) This book, it's - it might kill me. I can't figure out this girl.

YOUNG: (As Rose Nemser) Maybe disappearing was the only way anyone would notice her.

DECKER: And then the power dynamic starts to get more complicated. There's an erotic element that emerges.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHIRLEY")

MOSS: (As Shirley Jackson) I like you, Rosie. Why would I want to harm you? You could run - run fast away from me, but you don't. Why don't you?

DECKER: So I think the way that the relationship constantly evolves through the film is one of the things that drew me to it the most and, I hope, is one of the things that makes it the most exciting for an audience.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about what Rose gains from Shirley. It feels like over the time they spend together, Shirley models for Rose how to take up space and how to express anger in ways that maybe Rose was afraid to do at the start of the film. Does that sound right to you?

DECKER: Yes, 100% (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So - I mean, in the film, we see female anger as both a source of power and kind of a self-destructive force. How do you think about that push-pull?

DECKER: Well, it's both personal and societal. I have definitely been reckoning with maybe the ways that I haven't been able to express anger in my own life. And my mom is really outspoken. But in general, I grew up in an environment that wasn't necessarily supportive of women's voices. I think, in fact, like, one of my father's employers told him, like, you need to shut your wife up, you know? And she - which is...

SHAPIRO: Wow. And that stuck with you from childhood to today.

DECKER: Yeah. There was always a dynamic, I think, of feeling that women were a little bit silenced or that their work was not as important. There was a lot of, like - you go to college to get your MRS degree kind of thing growing up. You know, I think a lot of women have felt like they can't fully express their anger, rage, frustration and that there are consequences to speaking out, and I'm so grateful. I honestly think, you know, part of this - the #MeToo movement and all of these women speaking out about their need for more women at the helm of big productions is a big reason that I got this job.

SHAPIRO: The movie made me think a lot about who gets called a difficult woman. I mean, as a country, it feels like we're reassessing where that label comes from and how often it is used to diminish or silence people who experience abuse or demand equality. And Shirley Jackson in this film comes across as a quintessentially "difficult woman," quote-unquote.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHIRLEY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So Shirley, what are you writing now?

MOSS: (As Shirley Jackson) A little novella I'm calling "None Of Your Damn Business" (ph).

SHAPIRO: So as you were drawing this portrait of her, did you have any insights into where that label comes from and what it means?

DECKER: So I can't speak for women, you know, all over the country. But I do think that speaking your voice should not have to be labeled as being difficult. There are many ways of speaking your voice, and I think it's interesting. I've been having really interesting conversations with friends about kind of, like, call-out culture and how there's obviously a lot of mixed feelings about it on, you know, Twitter, Instagram, but how call-out culture was also really the first way that a lot of women of color were able to express their voices and have a place to sort of say, hey; like, this is not OK with us. You know, women's voices need to be raised. And I think the more that they are raised and the more that they are shared and the more safe places there are for those voices, then, you know, the voices may eventually sound less angry. But I think coming out of a long history of silence, there's a reason that women, when they get to a chance to express themselves, sometimes, they appear to be angry and maybe are labeled difficult.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Your films often explore the relationship between art and mental health. And this movie certainly raises the question of whether genius demands madness. Do you think you can't have one without the other? Do you think the two go hand in hand?

DECKER: Oh, I don't think so. No, I really hope not (laughter).

SHAPIRO: You're a happy genius.

DECKER: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, yeah, probably yes. I think, you know - I think art comes out of so many things. And actually as I get older, the more and more I think art comes out of joy. But I think it can come from a lot of pain. And for me, it definitely, you know, did for a while. And so I think there's - you know, people have something that they really want to say. And I think the really personal stories that are really meaty come from that place. And that can be a mental illness. That can also just be that kind of, like, insight flash of something really powerful and amazing. And hopefully, that doesn't always have to come out of suffering.

SHAPIRO: Josephine Decker is the director of the new movie "Shirley," which is available now on streaming platforms.

Thank you for talking with us about it.

DECKER: Thank you, Ari. Thank you so incredibly much - really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.