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Dancing Through the Unease: An Interview with ‘Madeline’s Madeline’ Cinematographer Ashley Connor

Filming Madeline’s Madeline, the extraordinary recent feature by director Josephine Decker, was not easy. All movies have demands, but this particular film opened up the doors to an exhilarating and challenging experience for the crew. Decker had the idea of tackling a complex subject such as mental illness by portraying the anxieties of an adolescent, but she also wanted to open up her own creative concerns as a storyteller and artist in the process.

The film follows Madeline (Helena Howard) and her theatre group while she copes with the demanding relationships that she has with both her teacher (Molly Parker) and mother (Miranda July). Portraying the behind-the-scenes exercises of the company and the protagonist’s personal life led to a non-traditional shoot, with open rehearsals, improvisation and even some clowning being part of Decker’s daily routine. 

The person in charge of capturing the action was Ashley Connor. The cinematographer, who worked with Decker in her previous features Flames and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, played a crucial role in what Madeline’s Madeline became: one of the most unique American films of recent years.  

As a viewer, one may sympathize with Madeline, as the editing, camera movements and sound design get disruptive while the youngster deals with her mental disorder. Connor, who recently shot The Miseducation of Cameron Post as well as the last season of Broad City, challenged herself by going back to her experimental roots and playing with some technical tropes that audiences may now take for granted, such as the depth focus of a film.

Connor, who received a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Madeline’s Madeline, took some time to answer some of Vague Visages’ questions via email about the making of the independent drama. 

You and Josephine Decker knew each other for some years and even worked together before Madeline’s Madeline. When was it that you first heard about the project? What were your first impressions?

Josephine wanted to open up her creative process to develop a movie she had been referring to as “Movie No. 1.” She gathered a group of actors and I together to do workshops with an acting coach centered around the idea of clowning. She wanted to explore certain concepts related to bipolar disorder. A lot of what ended up in Madeline’s Madeline was discovered and discussed in those rehearsals. 

There is some rehearsal footage on YouTube. Were you part of that process as well?

Definitely. When we were shooting Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, there was a whole sequence in the film where a cow talks, and we were supposed to follow the cow through this journey. I don’t know if you’ve ever met a cow, but trying to get them to “act” doesn’t really work. So, I had this idea to sort of become the cow and pretended to amble around in a field. We really loved how that turned out, so when Josephine talked about the rehearsals for “Movie No.1,” she really wanted me to join them — just to get into the mind set of inhabiting different perspectives. 

Did you operate the camera throughout the shoot? How would you describe the whole experience?

I operated, yes. There’s no other way to do it on a film like Madeline’s Madeline. Josephine wanted to push the first person perspective that we had previously played with, so it turned into a sort of dance between me and Helena. Me watching her, then trying to “perform” her. Getting to inhabit her headspace and really react off her performance was both emotionally and physically exhausting, but she was so fun to shoot. Helena takes risks in her performance, so I felt we were given a lot of creative freedom to take risks in the camera work.

I’ve read that you built a new set-up for the camera. What were you trying to achieve with it?

Josephine’s first two films were shot, by necessity of budget, on DSLRs, and instead of shying away from that camera’s shallow depth of field, we wanted to exploit it. Following up on those principals, we wanted to push the general concept of focus further. I had been developing this way of abstracting the image since the experimental films I made in college and had this idea of a rig I could make. Basically, I sat on it for years, waiting for the right project to come along to use it on, and Josephine is a director who really gets excited by experimentation, so she was game to let me do it. At the end of the day, it’s about how Madeline sees the world, and we wanted the image to reflect that sense of romanticism and fragmentation.

It seems to me audiences are now really used to have everything in a frame in such a clear focus. Why did you and the team decide to “play” with this tool?

I think audiences are hungry for a challenge — too many movies are like candy. In this way, Josephine’s films really need to be experienced and not just watched, so part of that process is bringing the audience into a visceral environment. The frame never allows you to fully settle, which makes for an active viewing experience. 

The editing of Madeline’s Madeline is a complex thing by itself. How much of the post-production work did you have in mind while shooting?

This was our fourth film together, so we kind of understood the process at this point and that nothing happens in a linear fashion. We cover scenes in a nontraditional way, so I try to build ins and outs into the footage while I’m shooting, but again, so much of this film is created in the edit — you can’t have one without the other, and this film in the hands of a bad editor would be terrible. So much of Josephine’s work relies on poeticism and feeling, it’s more of an emotional map than a straightforward narrative. 

Getting such movement from the camera and characters must have demanded a certain type of lighting. What type of illumination did you need from the gaffer during the interior shots?

My gaffer, Danny April, and I have worked on a lot of things together, and we have built a very strong shorthand. For this movie, we didn’t want the lighting setups to inhibit the movement of the actors, so it was a good combination between great production design by Charlotte Royer, who brought practicals into the spaces, and smart lighting design by Danny and I. We used units outside a lot to give the most amount of freedom for movement. 

How did you feel when you saw the final cut of the movie?

I was very pleased — it’s a huge testament to everyone involved. When a movie’s process requires so much from the personal lives of people working on the film, it can create a complicated situation. The shoot was very difficult, so it felt validating to see it all come together. 

What have you been working on recently?

I’ve been taking a break from independent film to recalibrate my relationship to it. I shot some TV (including the final season of Broad City) and worked second unit on a larger film — I have a film premiering at Sundance this year called The Death of Dick Long, but I shot that two summers ago. I’m looking forward to getting back to film, it’s what I love most, but the structure of most independent films makes it difficult to make a living. 

Pablo Staricco Cadenazzi (@pstaricco) is a France-based Uruguayan journalist, film critic and member of FIPRESCI. He worked as a staff member for the newspapers El País and El Observador, and he is currently part of the the movie podcast Santas Listas (from @polentapodcast) and the comics publisher Pantano Editorial.

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