It's hard to imagine an engaging movie about a writer.
While the text the author may prepare could be vital and enthralling, watching him or her create it makes for a dull visual. I broke my hip a month ago, and a movie about my work life would simply consist of me sitting at a keyboard regardless of whether it was set before or after the accident.
Thankfully, British-born, Texas-raised director Josephine Decker has managed to create a film about Shirley Jackson, the author of chilling tales like "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House, that is enthralling and creepy, like the writer's own stories.
If RottenTomatoes.com and our critic Philip Martin are to be trusted, she and her collaborators have succeeded. Its current rating is 88%, and Martin says, "Shirley is a triumph of period re-creation; it has the feel of a toxic relationship, and all the performances seem tuned just sharp of naturalism."
Off the Page
When asked how she avoided making a dull film about a darkly gifted writer, Decker replies by phone, "I think Sarah (Gubbins) when she was writing the script was really interested in making you feel as if you were in a Shirley Jackson story. It wasn't really about trying to be true to Shirley Jackson's real life. We were actually adapting a fictional book about Shirley (by Susan Scarf Merrel), so we were always trying to get at the experience of being inside of one of the stories. So that gave us a little more room than 'writer sits down to write,' 'writer starts to write' and 'writer is writing hard.'
"That said we wanted to include some of the tools that are part of Shirley Jackson's work, like the duality of female characters. We have a character (Rose Nemser, played by Odessa Young) who was functional, and good at life, who gets along with men and children and can cook. The other one (Jackson, played by Elisabeth Moss from The Handmaid's Tale) is very misanthropic and witty, but kind of a mess. That dynamic is in a lot of her fiction."
If the film tries to capture the tone and spirit of Jackson's work, it also assumes that readers might not have read her work. "Hopefully, the film stands on its own whether or not you are familiar with Shirley's work. Hopefully, it's an interesting introduction to her work. We assumed that people who were watching this film were not Shirley aficionados. I knew hardly anything about her real life before I started working on the film. It was exciting to get to know her."
In Shirley, Rose begins a tentative friendship with the temperamental author and a witness to both what is happening on the page and, to some extent, in Jackson's head. As the wife of a beginning literature professor (Logan Lerman), Rose gets to see both the author's flaws but also comes to understand her in ways that her prolifically philandering husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) may not. Jackson may also be freeing Rose from a stifling existence as the spouse of someone whose sole ambition is to be a clone of Stanley.
"Honestly, one of the discoveries in terms of really feeling the writing of the book is that the book and the script are about this friendship between Shirley and Rose. So when we were editing the film, we felt it was so important that you understood Shirley and (her latest) book and how important it was to her and where Shirley was in relationship to her book throughout the movie and also how the writing was going and where Rose is throughout the writing," Decker says.
"A lot of the film is exploring the different cages that people find themselves. Some of those are self-imposed, and some of those are imposed by society, with their husbands standing in for society at large. Shirley is defying convention in a lot of ways. The most financially successful work during her life were these comedy short stories about raising of children (she had four). She wasn't terrible at it. She was a terrific mother, but the messiness and the disastrous complicatedness of trying to take care of children was so much fun in her writing. It gave women of that time a freedom in not being alone."
Speaking of being alone, if Jackson was shy and borderline reclusive, she had an excellent reason. While "The Lottery" is now an omnipresent story and considered a substantial piece of literature, The New Yorker received a uniquely savage public response to the story when it debuted in the pages of the magazine.
Decker says, "The movie begins shortly after 'The Lottery' had come out, and she was getting a ton of hate mail at that time and would not leave her house for like a year. Our film shows what it was like when she was closing herself and really turning off the rest of the world. It's ironic that she wrote about malevolent towns because she was really furious. She shut herself because she felt like she wasn't wanted or understood by the people around her after that story came out."
If the movie does follow the facts of Jackson's life, its depiction of her relationship with Hyman does reflect how their life unfolded. He constantly pressured her to churn out new material and even made an allowance of the cash she brought in. While Hyman is remembered as a respected critic (despite having slept with his students during the '50s) and for having a more public profile, he still depended on her dark visions. While he might have had the power, she was the real breadwinner.
"The power dynamic ... is that while this may be the way the family works, not everyone may be comfortable with that, which may have contributed to his dalliances outside the marriage," Decker says. "There was so much tension between them but also so much spark inside that tension, so it's exciting. I think Michael did an incredible job of being Stanley and doing his dark dance around Shirley. Elisabeth Moss is beyond a wonderful actress and had this sort of glowing insight that I think really comes through in this role."
Jackson's reluctance to mingle also allowed Hyman to sell the official story of their lives to the public.
"She's not the party girl," says Decker. "She'd much prefer to be on her own at this stage in her life, but that's what's so much fun about having Shirley at the party is how little it feels like she should be there."
Decker's previous film probably helped her prepare for her current offering because Madeline's Madeline concerns the relationship between a theater director and a performer who's trying a little too hard to emulate her mentor.
"I think as an artist, I'm usually in one of those positions," she laughs. "I'm either the storyteller who's trying to make work or trying to find inspiration. A lot of the way I try to find inspiration is through collaboration with other, brilliant people. At times, those collaborations can be complicated or tricky," she explains.
Winning the Lottery
Decker won a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Auteur Filmmaking at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and Shirley has found an audience, in part, because it reflects some of the anxieties that viewers have felt in living though covid-19 quarantines.
"I hope people are seeing it," Decker says. "They had to make a call when theaters are going to open, and when they do there's going to be a huge backlog of movies that are going to come out. The market will be saturated. We originally planned on doing a theatrical release at the end of April, but when covid hit, it became obvious that no one was going to see it. By going interactive, we felt like this was a good time to share our artistic, cinematic film because there's not that much going on. There's a lot of new content coming out, so I feel blessed we got to release the film this way."