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Madeline's Madeline 2018

Madeline's Madeline

Madeline's Madeline

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About Madeline's Madeline 💬

Madeline got the part! She's going to play the lead in a theater piece! Except the lead wears sweatpants like Madeline's. And has a cat like Madeline's. And is holding a steaming hot iron next to her mother's face - like Madeline is.

  • What you are experiencing is just a metaphor.

Madeline (Helena Howard) has become an integral part of a prestigious physical theater troupe. When the workshop's ambitious director (Molly Parker) pushes the teenager to weave her rich interior world and troubled history with her mother (Miranda July) into their collective art, the lines between performance and reality begin to blur. The resulting battle between imagination and appropriation rips out of the rehearsal space and through all three women's lives. In Josephine Decker's third feature.


One day in the spring of 2014, Decker found herself crammed into a room with forty teenaged students at Union County Teen Arts Festival in Cranford, N.J., judging a showcase competition for young actors. ''All the students were doing a scene from FROZEN, or cheesy but sweet sketch things,'' Decker recalls. ''I had about 30-60 seconds after each act to give notes.'' But, then, someone got onstage and did something different - and blew the filmmaker's mind. Helena Howard performed a monologue from the Broadway show BLACKBIRD, about a woman who stands up to the man who sexually abused her as a child. ''I was speechless,'' Decker says. ''I think I said it was the best performance I'd seen in my life and I burst into tears! I really didn't have a note because I was so profoundly stunned.''

Howard has a likewise intense memory of the encounter. ''I didn't even know what she was doing in New Jersey,'' the performer says. ''She had me crying and there were other kids there who had yet to perform. As I was getting ready to leave she said 'waaaaaaitttt!' and chases me down. She said she was making a new film and she wanted me to be part of it.''

Howard agreed but remained curious about her new acquaintance and her surprising invitation. Her friends were dubious. ''So, after I got back to school, I was working on a musical at the time, and I and my friend looked her up, and he said, 'This lady is a fucking weirdo.'... ''I'm so glad I didn't listen to those people.''


Inspired by Howard and Decker's own life experiences, the film came alive through Decker's work with the performer to develop a story. ''It's obvious that Madeline is experiencing some sort of mental health issue,'' Howard says, ''and dealing with things that are emotional and beyond anyone's control but hers, and she doesn't even know how to deal with it, and other people are trying to take control of her life.

''In any circumstance where it may seem like life, situations, and things are chaotic, I can tell you it doesn't help when people try to take control,'' Howard continues. ''You have to figure it out yourself.'' Decker never labels a diagnosis for Madeline, instead leaving it to Howard to portray it. ''As the audience, you get to put that in your own head.''

The scenario led to a dramatic exploration of the tensions faced by many families and to a question Decker had been pondering in her own life. ''To me, nature/nurture question around mental illness is really confusing,'' Decker says. ''As a parent, are you contributing to your child's mental illness, or are you mentally ill and creating an illness within the child? When a child is mentally ill, it can bring out some of the more destructive habits of the parent, so there's something there.''

Howard's electric performance as Madeline was so fully committed it could shake up close observers. ''I was in a different state of being that is not my own portraying someone else's story (Madeline's for instance),'' she says. ''That was who I was for that time. I know the difference between me and Madeline, and whoever I am being, but it sort of carries through you. I tend to carry that with me even after we are done for the day until the project is done so that I don't lose the intensity or energy. I would have people ask me when I would go out if I was okay and I wouldn't even notice that there was something wrong, but when filming was over I was back to 'myself.' This is true for anything that I have worked on, it's a character analysis of their psychological and mental state that I manifest and externalize/internalize. Obviously, I'm not going to go around burning my mother's hand with iron or pulling people's hair out or acting like homeless people.''

Adds Decker, ''I think you feel it when Helena walks into a room, that she has this power.''

Making use of what she learned working and studying with Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Company and The School of Making Thinking, an experimental college and residency program in upstate New York, Decker put together a troupe of actors and began the workshop process that is restaged in the film. ''This hodge-podge of everywhere I've learned to make anything is all in this movie,'' says Decker, who worked with the MADELINE'S MADELINE ensemble periodically from Fall 2014 through Fall 2015. ''It was like this wonderful cocoon that we held for the actors,'' recounts producer Elizabeth Rao. ''Josephine extended this radical invitation to create, and we brought together an incredibly talented group of performers including Lisa Tharps, Jorge Torres-Torres, Charlotte Hornsby, Eva Steinmetz, Felipe Bonilla, Dana Eskelson, and Lolo Haha, later joined by Okwui Okpokwasili and Sunita Mani. They're filmmakers and creators themselves. Every person in the room was 100% committed to discovery and pushing the boundaries of behavior and performance, and as a result... we started to hit real conflicts about what are the rules here, what is fair game in the act of creating, and Josephine took this core conflict and ran with that in the writing process. We returned to that core over and over again throughout the shooting and editing.

''The troupe in the film was so full and alive,'' she says. ''They bring a lot to the film because we had a lot of shared history at that point.''

Sessions of improvisation yielded ''a giant mess of material,'' Decker says, but she needed to gain focus on the story. ''I tried to get back to centering the film on Helena. The film that was brewing was a film about our process, but also the process of trying to make a work about anyone. I am an adult white woman and she is a biracial teenager who has no experience in film. We're collaborating, and how do you respect the boundaries? We created a team, and that team is the center of this film. They turned me inside out and gave their own insides over. The honest, frank discussions we had together about responsibility in artmaking, about responsibility in this art we are making right now, were life-changing. They were honestly my favorite parts of the process, and that's why they became a climax of the film.''

When Decker began production in summer 2016, she embarked on the riskiest adventure yet in an artistic career consistently defined by path-breaking choices. She had to face down a huge, and specific, anxiety. ''If I'm going to make this movie this way, people are not going to like me,'' she says. ''My therapist said to me, 'So you want to make your art, and you feel inspired by real people, taking real stories and translating them into a fiction that you control, and you want no one to be mad at you?' And I was like, 'YES!' She said, 'You're delusional. If you're going to make art this way, people are going to be mad. And that's something you better get comfortable with.' Obviously, not to say you want to exploit anyone or manipulate anyone, but you have to take the brutal life lessons that that offers.''

Rao adds, ''the feeling of playing with fire was tangible throughout the making. I kept telling Josephine as well as myself, 'hey look at how much the creative process here is transforming the lives of everyone involved. There's something truly worthwhile that we’re exploring here.' Josephine led the cast and crew in really staring deep into that dangerous dark place of how to create without conforming to rigid, pre-packaged notions of where you're headed. And we emerged from that abyss, creatively invigorated and alive!''

Madeline's Madeline Movie Details 🎥

Directed by

Josephine Decker

Writing Credits

Josephine Decker

Donna di Novelli (Co-written by)

Gail Segal (Story consultant)

Sharon Mashihi (Story editor)

Alexandra Tatarsky (Dramaturg)


Helena Howard

Molly Parker

Miranda July

Okwui Okpokwasili

Sunita Mani

Music by

Caroline Shaw

Cinematography by

Ashley Connor

Genres: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Country: United States

Madeline's Madeline Official Trailer

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