How They Did It: Editing is “Spelunking Into the Soul,” Say Madeline’s Madeline‘s Josephine Decker and Harrison Atkins

By the time indie darling Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline emerged as a top pick of the litter at Sundance 2018’s low-key market, it had already been subjected to a dizzying amount of test screenings, cut and re-cut countless times.

An experiential whirlwind nearly impossible to summarize, the film follows Madeline (newcomer Helena Howard), a young drama student struggling with typical teen issues such as an overbearing mother (Miranda July), as well as heavier burdens tied to race and mental illness.

To explore how their inventive editing scheme guides viewers through the film’s dark and jubilant terrain, we asked Decker and co-editor Harrison Atkins to share a conversation on how each of them grew to trust the other’s unique perspective, and how they lost, then found, the film again with each new piece of feedback. Along the way, they decided to build a list of the “top 10” things to know when editing your feature. (They only get to eight, however. Like their cutting process, everything is subject to change.)

Josephine Decker (JD): So, Harrison Atkins… What did you learn most from editing Madeline’s Madeline?

Harrison Atkins (HA): One thing that was useful—though at first you were incredulous about—was to make a first assembly that’s linear.

JD: I remember fighting very hard about that!

HA: Initially, you totally didn’t want me to do that, but we went back to it quite a bit.

JD: That’s true. The first assembly is important, because that’s all the scenes you’ve shot. You’ll think, “What if there’s a secret scene that I don’t remember?”

HA: Especially in this movie, which became so structurally malleable, it seemed like a first assembly that adheres to some scripted structure could at least help us solve tiny structural problems.

JD: The reason we argued about that is that I knew the script well and I said, “I just want to see a whole new film!” That’s how I wanted to work. But it was helpful for you, coming in as an editor for a project you didn’t write.

HA: Having that first iteration, it was in no way how I wanted the movie to eventually end up. But it was a useful way to understand the shapes of the structures in the movie—the base level, elemental aspects of the movie. So we could start to explode it out together.

JD: I love that we worked together because we’re such opposites. If we had like a top 10 list of things to do, my top thing would be to throw the entire structure away and start from zero. There were months when I didn’t have you to bounce ideas with, and I was lost, alone with my own misery. But one of the biggest advances I made when I was editing solo was that there was some structure.

I’d been working with for a long time. Then we’d do a feedback screening, and I’d be like, “This is a pile of poo!,” then re-approach the material in a different way.

At the end of the summer, I’d been editing for a year, and we kept circling back to the cut that you and I finished in February. We had a weird feedback screening at the Soho House. I noticed that after that screening, each feedback screening kept getting worse and people started to like the film less and less. I thought, “Why did I keep editing beyond this point? What did I want from this version of the film I thought it was missing? Can’t we just lock the cut that was done at the end of February?” Then I realized, “Oh, Madeline’s character in the first 30 minutes was pretty oppressed and lacked agency. Although our idea behind the first 30 minutes was to pull viewers in, those 30 minutes are actually the most complex of the whole movie.

HA: Because audiences are also being introduced to the language the movie is operating in.

JD: I remember thinking, “I can’t just introduce you to her misery. I have to introduce you to her ecstasy.” And then I had this whole thing where I was like, “I have to make the whole film about ecstasy!” Then I put all this weird POV shit in the beginning, put the nurse character back in the beginning, and in a weird way those choices helped the opening of the film prepare the audience as the film moves along, as it becomes more ecstatic.

All hands on deck: Physical theater troupe members touch the sky in a scene from writer-director Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline. Photograph by Jocelyn Chuang, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

HA: That gives me an idea for an addition to our top 10 list: A movie like this one came so much from your soul, so it felt like my process as an editor is to spelunk into your soul. Ultimately, you were trying to make an artistic experience that’s indescribable. It was important to me to be unified with your vision. You have to have a singular source or voice, and really trust that intuition, go as deep as that rabbit hole goes, no matter what.

JD: That’s very cool!

HA: It’s as if you’re in the jungle with a machete for a long time, but then slowly you excavate these corners…

JD: That leads me to another top 10: Show your film to people! I remember editing and after two months saying, “I’m not ready for a feedback screening!” Then I showed people in December for the first time and it screened so much better than I thought it would! Over the course of production I did around 10 screenings, and I wonder if that was too many—even though the last three were very small, for one or two people. But after that first feedback screening in my bedroom, for six people…

HA: Rave reviews.

JD: I still worked on the film for about another year, but after that, at every other feedback screening, I would have a crisis of the soul and melt into a puddle of goop for two days and not know what to do. There was a lot of not knowing what to do for the six months that I was editing when you were gone. It’s so much easier when you have a fucking co-editor! Here’s another one: Have an editor the entire time. Do not edit it alone! Put that on the top of the list.

HA: Having another entity with whom to spitball ideas is useful. I’ve come around to feedback screenings, but during the process, when you were doing all these screenings, I was incredulous about that part of the process. I saw the movie as this specific document that was operating in its own language, and so the idea of feedback screenings was moot. My fear was that feedback would dilute the things about it that were special. But I’m so happy with the final version, I now admit that whatever process it took to get there worked.

JD: Part of the reason I relied on feedback is because when I was editing alone, I would lose track of the movie. It was also helpful for a film that deals with very personal, sensitive issues—race, appropriation, mental illness. The most useful thing in those screenings is discovering how you feel physically in the room. You can feel the energy.

HA: It’s not about what people say—it’s the feeling as people are watching.

JD: You discover: “People didn’t laugh at that, the joke landed boringly.” I make films that aren’t exactly commercial, but I still really care about the audience having an amazing ride, a visceral experience. When you feel that the audience isn’t with the movie, you can change it, make it even more intense. One of the things I got out of what people said in the screenings, was that they pointed to the way the characters handled the issues of race or appropriation in the edit. From that came the most insightful comments that allowed us to make the film, hopefully, for not just one kind of audience.

HA: That gives me an idea for a top 10: Be prepared to suffer.

JD: That should be number one, number two being have an editor the whole time.

HA: Throughout the process, you’re in the dark with a flashlight, but that doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong track. You’re in uncharted territory, but slowly things that need to be found are found.

JD: That’s a great way of putting it. You’re always going to get feedback that makes you think, “Oh my God, that is the trick that changes everything.” Sundance Feature Film Program Director Michelle Satter gave notes in early September, and she said, “It’s such a vision, it’s working, and I don’t understand why. It doesn’t follow any narrative.” At that point, the film was even less structured, and her main question was about the ending. We’d been suffering over the beginning for eight months and the ending seemed to be working. I wasn’t worrying about it. But she said, “I feel like the beginning doesn’t lead up to the ending, so the ending doesn’t pay off as much.” I said, “Oh my God, why didn’t I get this note from you two months ago? I have to submit to Sundance in two weeks!” That note was what we focused on in the last couple of weeks. I remember the horror of thinking that it was such a big note, and we didn’t have time, but I had to rally the emotional troops. That’s part of being prepared to suffer. Being prepared to suffer is connected to experiencing the input you’re getting. Trust your own response to it, though. Sometimes you get a note that doesn’t seem relevant to you, and sometimes you get a note that makes you go, “Fuck!”

Decker sets up shots of Madeline’s Madeline with DP Ashley Connor. Photograph by Jocelyn Chuang, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

HA: The more things I work on, the more I learn this lesson: I’ll get a cut of something and think, “This is done!,” then show it to someone and realize it’s far from done. It feels never-ending, but eventually you arrive at this diamond—this polished thing that’s been pressure-formed. That might just be part of being prepared to suffer.
One way we worked well together was by giving each other notes, then fucking with each others’ notes. To distill that into a piece of actionable advice: Allow space in the process for free-associative iterating or sketching. Make mysterious components out of disparate meanings.

JD: Yes! When Marie Ellen would share phone calls with us, she would say, “The end of the first act doesn’t work. I don’t know why! There are 10 minutes where I lose the movie.” In a weird way, the lack of a solution when presenting a question can be really helpful. She would say one thing, and I would say, “I wish we could feel X earlier,” and you would say, “Why don’t we take the homeless guy scene and move it 30 minutes up in the movie?”

HA: That’s the most euphoric element of any feedback process. What would trip me out about feedback screenings is we’d have all these smart people making suggestions, and I would be so resistant. My ideal feedback is to receive symptoms: “This part felt this way.” It feels like we’re the only ones who know the language of the movie.

JD: When I edited Thou Wast Mild and Lovely with David Barker he always said, “You can make anything out of the footage you have.” That was a huge blessing to know, and also a huge curse. The writing process is so hard because it has infinite possibilities, so when the editing process started to gain infinite possibilities I thought “Oh shit, this is really hard.” Scenes were Frankenstein-ed with dialogue from the beginning of the scene and from the end of the scene stitched together, and David said, “Even if it wasn’t the best take, we want to be with these characters in their time and place, not manipulated.” He helped me undo the manipulation of editing to create more space for the movie to breathe.

HA: That plays into rhythm. Music is key for unlocking scenes, but hitting those sweet spots of rhythmic duration is especially important. There are parts of Madeline’s Madeline, even now, that hinge on having the right durational rhythm. That’s stuff you have to feel in your gut.

JD: Like a good salsa dancer.

HA: To put another thing on our top ten list, it would be that you have to have both macro and micro editing structures. In macro structures larger meanings are going to fit together, and micro structures are about tiny truths—about the way the movie is washing over the viewer, experientially. It has to feel right in both ways. That process often feels like cleaning—not that it’s tedious, but you have to combine big and small ideas to keep everything smooth.

Decker cuts loose with cast members, with whom she conducted free-form exercises to shape the performance art of Madeline’s Madeline. Photograph by Jocelyn Chuang, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

JD: At one point I felt like the structure was working, but you were like “Josephine, I can hear the edit at every piece of dialogue. Do not show an audience this. All they’re going to hear is bumps.” You were right! You have to hold the whole structure in your hand, but it comes down to, “Is there a nice enough fade in this scene?” That seems ridiculous, but it’s super important for showing the film to people who haven’t seen it before. Having strong transitions from one moment to the next is like making a symphony.

HA: One way in which I felt creatively free working with you was that we were vulnerable with each other. We committed to an intellectual intimacy in the process of making the thing. I felt safe taking weird artistic risks and experimenting because we paved this terrain in our process where everything was allowed.

JD: It’s funny, we were both going through hard times in our personal lives while making the movie, and the movie became a place where that was safe: “I can go to this editing room and cry!” You talk about respecting the rhythm of the movie, but it’s also about respecting the rhythm of your own humanity. You held space for me to have a breakdown [laughs]. Editing in Los Angeles, we’d take a walk before a watch, to establish a rhythm of being human. You can put so much stress and pain into that.

HA: Put that on the list! Respect your own humanity. Nurture yourself.

Josephine and Harrison’s “Top 10” (Actually Eight) Editing Tips

1. Throw the entire structure away and start from zero.
2. The process of an editor is to spelunk into the soul.
3. Show your film to people!
4. Have an editor the entire time. Do not edit it alone!
5. Be prepared to suffer.
6. Allow space in the process for free-associative iterating or sketching.
7. Have both macro and micro editing structures.
8. Respect your own humanity. MM

Madeline’s Madeline opens in theaters August 10, 2018, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2018 issueFeatured image courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. 

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