SXSW Interview: Filmmaker Josephine Decker


SXSW may be over but that won’t stop us from giving you coverage with some great interviews. This time we talk with Josephine Decker, co-writer and director of the music video Where Are You Going, Elena?

The video for Charlie Hewson’s Where Are You Going, Elena? is a hyper-stylized love story between a waitress and the world she works in. As Decker explains, “When Elena, a middle-aged waitress with love-lorn love handles, can’t take dishing up another plate of tater tots, she leaves her diner life forever. Or so she thinks. But the silverware has another plan. As plate after spatula after utensil hop after her, a new fate unfolds – Will she escape forever, or will the utensils win her back?” It’s a charming and memorable video that keeps both Hewson’s song and Decker’s vision and skills in your head long after the video is over.

Some of our favorite filmmakers have started getting their hands dirty by making music videos, David Fincher, Mark Romanek, Spike Jonze being a few on the rap sheet of those criminally genius directors. The art of making a music video is in some way more challenging and liberating than creating a feature length film. Josephine Decker, who also had her documentary Bi the Way screen at SXSW in 2008, understands this. Decker also understands the challenges of working in an environment that has for some time favored men. We talked about her latest music video, Where Are You Going, Elena? and got her thoughts on the song’s story, how filmmaking is a medium for feminism and the ups and downs of being a talented female filmmaker in the industry today.

Adam Sweeney: What made you take on this song? In terms of graphic images and conceptualization, what made you gravitate towards making the type of music video Where Are You Going, Elena? is?

Josephine Decker: I have been working for documentaries for five years pretty much since I was right out of college. When we finished the feature doc and were making our rounds at SXSW last year, I really wanted to do something more creative that broadcast my imagination more. Docs are great but reality is reality and you’re not supposed to change it hopefully. (Laughs.) So making Where Are You Going, Elena? is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. My friend, Charlie Hewson, does a lot of quirky songs on his Myspace,, that are sad songs for happy people who like sad songs. (AS and JD laugh.) He has a very strange aesthetic.

So this song is about a waitress who runs away from her diner life. She is sick of it. It features some really funny imagery and lyrics, like, ‘She spreads her egg white wings to fly,” and you can tell in the song he is very much in love with this waitress. The waitress is actually a real waitress. She’s this sixty-year-old woman that works at the diner down our street. She’s not very attractive, she is tiny and has a hunchback. But she has a beautiful heart and is always giving us free orange juices. (Laughs.) But the video is wacky and has that diner feel, the real 50’s feel of everyone knowing your name. When we were conceiving the idea for it we decided that all the plates, forks and utensils in the diner that have this infatuation with her would chase after her through the streets of Brooklyn.

So part one of the video happens by the diner. We used stop motion animation to show the utensils paying attention to her. When she leaves all of the utensils go crazy and three especially intrepid silverware items run after her. A spatula, a pepper shaker and a plate. When they leave they transform into giant people in silverware costumes. In terms of the aesthetic, that is kind of a genre I am interested in working in. My favorite movie is Babe. I’d love to make films like that, something that is live action but integrates a really hyper-aesthetic animation. That is the style I went for with the video. It’s all live action with a bit of stop motion and surreal costumes. The utensils eventually do win her back after pursuing her, so Elena does return to the diner because she now feels appreciated and respected.

I think that’s all waitresses are really asking for. That and a good tip. I have always been fascinated with the idea of bringing life to inanimate objects or to speechless animals. It is an extension of real life. The relationship you build with a waiter or waitress at a restaurant directly impacts your mood there. So it makes sense that you would see these condiments and utensils have built a relationship with Elena. You mention a love for the hyper-aesthetic. What were you trying to achieve with the video? It’s a quirky video but is charming in its effort to show attention to a person, the waitress, who is so often passed over and disregarded. What do you think the message is?

That is something I have been going through in my life as I move away from documentaries. I am still pretty young, I’m twenty-seven, but it feels like I am late in the game to be making this change. That is what I love about the song. You have this middle-aged waitress who says, “You know what? I demand more from my life, my work and my utensils.” (Laughs.) To me, that is a call for a new type of feminism.

Growing up in Texas, I have learned a lot about women’s issues, how we are perceived next to men and where our careers go in comparison to them. How much do we make, how much do they make? I think we have come so far. I do feel like I am in a world where some of these issues aren’t my issues but there are still tons of issues for women, like whether we like it or not we have to look for help to do what we want to do. To have a good job or family you actually need a hand. That can come from different places. For Elena, I think she is feeling, “I have just worked so hard and I want to be respected and admired for what I do. I don’t want to feel degraded or beaten down. So her salvation comes from these utensils who care about her, love her and want to work for her. In some ways, Beyonce singing Single Ladies is a call to say we want men who will work for us. Men we can come home to at the end of the day. It’s not just about men who give us independence. It’s also about men who give us support. It’s funny that it translates into a video about silverware but I do think of the silverware as lovers or admirers at least.

What I see in a world where equality is happening is the need to band together, whether it is women sticking together or finding partners to accomplish the goal. That is something that has really changed. We don’t really need each other in a physical sense. You can contact everyone you know through your phone or computer. You’re not around people anymore. I think that hands on approach is something that is being called for in the new feminism.

As we get closer in social networking, we are actually moving away from each other. We’re killing the means of interpersonal communication. Everyone is focused on themselves. One hundred years ago, that would be impossible. You make an excellent point that feminism is about equality and women asserting their right to be treated the same, but it is also important for males to understand their role in the scheme of things. There has been progress but if someone were to come to me and say, “Minorities, in regards of sex or race, are on an even playing field,” I would have to say that is clearly false. We’re making progress but there’s a long way to go. You use media to discuss that.

You mention your role as a documentarian. Can you talk a bit about that?

It’s funny. You were mentioning community and that is why I love the SXSW film festival. You get this amazing conglomeration of every type of person. It’s an interactive, music and film festival. You’re meeting press and distributors, people you can collaborate across these divides of media. To finish the last point, the loss of community as a whole can be changed by film festivals. You can meet people face to face. It’s so hard to get your film seen if you’re sending it through the internet or in a box. Someone maybe will see it or won’t. So these things actually build the community of filmmakers. That is super important, particularly for female filmmakers that aren’t featured as prominently as they should be.

Bi the Way was a film that I co-directed with Britney Blockman and out producer was Martha Shane. It was based in New York and it was an amazing time to get a film off the ground. It’s airing on the Logo Network, which is MTV’s gay and lesbian network. If you have basic cable you can watch it. It will be on mid-July or early August, so keep your eye out for that. We have an amazing soundtrack. We went through all the hoops to make that happen. All our films have been through Brooklyn and friends know lots of independent musicians. They gave us very reduced prices. We have The Department of Eagles, The Submarines, The Weepies, Four Tet, MGMT. I could go on and on. It’s a super soundtrack. It’s an example of how community can really make our artists’ life a lot easier.

What do you think could be a reason there aren’t more female filmmakers being recognized. Why aren’t we seeing an outreach to lift up female filmmakers. If someone said, “Name famous female filmmakers,” most people would say Sofia Coppola and then there’s … does Penny Marshall count? (AS and JD laugh.)

I have thought a lot about that. American Psycho was directed by a female. That’s such an interesting, creepy movie. Females are addressing films in a very unique and comedic way. I do agree that you just don’t hear about them as often. I think for any filmmaker it takes time to build to their masterpiece. It may take one movie, it might take ten, but eventually you’re going to make a great film. I think for most people that is when they are in their thirties or forties, after they’ve made their mistakes. With women I think they get at that age and want to have a family. That is incredibly hard to do when making films. I know lots of female doc makers but not many female narrative ones. With a narrative you really have to dedicate your whole life for a couple of months. It is hard to find balance with that world. I think possibly, I don’t know, docs are almost more stable because you’re dealing with reality. You know if you think you can make your money back. Narrative films require more risk and require a bigger budget, although recently doc budgets have gone up. I think that is going to go back down though since docs aren’t selling like they were.

There are great female filmmakers working but they are few and far between. Even here at the festival I look around, I was at the music video panel, which I suggest you see all twenty of them. They’re amazing. But I was the only female director, which I didn’t expect. I was sort of surprised. I have met a few female filmmakers here but we have some obstacles in our way. One of the obstacles probably is that there aren’t enough role models saying you can do this.

I think female filmmakers are unfortunately looked at by some people as a novelty. I think there is less room for error.

That is a really good point. I hadn’t even thought about that. It’s like if a girl messes up, someone goes, “Oh, see. Girls aren’t good filmmakers.”

Right! Going back to Sofia Coppola, you look at Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. Everyone was holding her up. Then she makes Marie Antoinette and people are like, “Eh, I am done with that.” But George Lucas is allowed to make Howard the Duck? (AS and JD laugh.) I mean it’s funny but I don’t think it’s meant to be funny. But because he has money and because he, let’s be honest, is a man he is allowed to have that voice. Sofia has to work her way back up the ladder.


Well next time we talk, hopefully when Bi the Way airs, we hope more female filmmakers are getting the credit they deserve. Thanks a lot for the interview.


For more of the best damn coverage of the 2009 SXSW Film Festival, check out our SXSW ’09 Homepage.

Adam Sweeney has a background in journalism, having spent 4 years on the Lone Star Lutheran as an Opinions and Arts & Entertainment columnist. He graduated in May 2008 from Texas Lutheran University with a Dramatic Media degree and hopes to become a filmmaker/journalist/radio host/actor extraordinaire. He also writes film and play scripts and figures if Good Luck Chuck can make it to the big screen then why can't he? He can also be read at as a feature writer on all things basketball, and his personal blog covers everything from politics to why Keira Knightley is looking more like Jack Skellington every day. (

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