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Making the Gorgeous Creep-Out That is “Shirley”

“When you’re in a Shirley Jackson story you sort of descend from a reality into a dream and you sort of don’t know when that happened.”

Ahead of her time in the 1940s and ’50s, American writer Shirley Jackson is the subject of Josephine Decker’s new movie Shirley.

“More of a biographical-literary fantasia” than a biopic, according to Justin Chang, the film follows Jackson and her literary critic husband Stanley Edgar Hyman, who was too scared to read his wife’s most successful novel The Haunting of Hill House.

In the manner of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hyman (Michael Stuhlberg) invites his new teaching assistant (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) to stay with them, pushing Rose into the role of Shirley’s caretaker.

Alissa Wilkinson calls the film’s expressionistic style “a perfect match for Jackson’s dreamy, blurry writing”, which director Josephine Decker acknowledges in an interview with Grant Hermanns: “Her work is pretty dreamy; when you’re in a Shirley Jackson story you sort of descend from a reality into a dream and you sort of don’t know when that happened.”

Read more: The Great Writer of Dread, Shirley Jackson, Finally Gets a Movie That Befits Her Legacy

Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen came up with shorthand for different camera movements to evoke this dreaminess. “We had “smush,” “spirit,” “float,” “creature” and “town.” “Smush” was also known as “Sturla jazz,” which is when our DP sort of dances with the characters and lets the action inform the camera move,” she tells Jonah Koslofsky. “So it really follows the action, which is actually a thing that a lot of Scorsese movies use, following the movement of a body into the movement of another body.

“And then for “town,” we would shoot in a more specific frame, and we’d make it feel kind of fake, make it feel almost like the town didn’t exist because Shirley never leaves the house to see the town [of Bennington] really, so it’s almost kind of like anytime someone’s in the town they can only be in Shirley’s mind,” she continues. “So is the town really there? Or is it just inside one of Shirley’s stories?”

Read more: Josephine Decker on the Dreamy Subjectivity of Shirley

She also praises the cohesiveness of the four actors: “The truth is, they worked great together, I think they all really got along super well. I think all of them smoke? I really felt left out, I thought, “I need to become a smoker.” They really bonded.”

Elisabeth Moss in “Shirley,” directed by Josephine Decked. Courtesy of NEON.

This sense of bonding was also key for the characters, Decker says to Emma Myers: “I’m interested in how women connect with each other, how they support or manipulate each other. That’s the juicy center of our film: the relationship between these two women who are in some way liberated by the other one’s presence.”

Read more: In Shirley, Josephine Decker Revisits Creative Vampirism Between Women

“Almost all my movies are about a woman who feels stuck in an identity that she has either given herself or that has been imposed upon her—and she has to free herself from that,” she continues. “It was exciting to have dual protagonists in this movie. It was such a challenge to figure out how to enter the story through Rose’s eyes, but then go into Shirley’s subconscious partway through the film.”

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young appear in “Shirley,” directed by Josephine Decker. Photo by Thatcher Keats. Courtesy of NEON.

“I was definitely not trying to make a biopic,” Decker tells Myers. “Honestly, and I remember being really upset that we were going to name her “Shirley.” I really tried to fight the title, because I was really like, “people are going to think it’s a biopic, and it’s not a biopic!” And everyone was like “no but it’s called Shirley!” and I was like “They’re going to think it’s a biopic!” So yes, it’s not a biopic.”

This is to the film’s benefit, Adam Chitwood says in his review: “Shirley is a welcome respite from cradle-to-the-grave biopics, and this fictional account offers an interesting pathway to understanding a bit more about Jackson’s somewhat tragic life.”