The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Shirley.
Elisabeth, I think this was the first time you’ve played a historically well-known person.
Elisabeth Moss: Yes, this is first time I’ve played a real-life person. It was a really good “dipping my toe in the water” experience with that because it’s an anti-bio pic… although grossly misrepresented by the title perhaps! We did a lot of research, Josephine, Michael [Stuhlbarg] and I, we read all of her work and the letters between her and Stanley and researched the era. We did all the good actor research that is done. But in the end, what was really liberating was being able to kind of throw it away. I always thought of this more as a Shirley Jackson story, one of her novels that she somehow ends up as a character in. And so that for me was a very freeing approach to playing a historical figure.
Given that Shirley Jackson did not do a lot of interviews, how did you develop her voice and body language?
EM: There’s only one recording of her voice! And there was no video representation at all. It was a mix of what Shirley looked like in photographs and how she held herself in the photos that we had, and the information that we did have that she had some physical problems and also some mental issues she was dealing with, so those lent itself to it as well. Just the fact that she couldn’t leave the house helped in formulating how she might move, and helped inform me how to move in the space. Some of it was made up based on our instincts. Josephine tells a great story about when we were working on movement rehearsal, and I said I don’t think Shirley moves very much. So I would just sit there while everyone else moved around me.
Josephine, can you speak a bit about that rehearsal process?
Josephine Decker: It’s so funny because when I was going into it, I thought we needed three weeks of rehearsal. Of course, we had like a day and a half! To some degree I think dialogue films can be really challenging because the sculpture of it, the dance of it is much more nuanced and subtle and more dependent on the actors and their choices. We got to spend a little time reading and talking through the script and I think that was really helpful for us all to get on the same page and talk through the gestating ideas. I’m really interested in ensemble so we did a few exercises to try and find the physicality of the characters. We also did some exercises where Lizzie, Michael, Odessa [Young], and Logan [Lerman] were all in a room against a wall and they had to make a piece without speaking and the only language they could use was moving backwards and forwards. They had to be completely neutral in their bodies. After a while everyone catches onto the idea that tuning into each other makes everything exciting and interesting. The movement of walking forward and backwards on your own is limiting; but when you get in step with the other actors and feel their presence and respond and move either with or away from them, faster or slower, then something powerful can emerge. It’s fun that these guys were able to play with me that way, and since it was such an ensemble piece with the four of them in that house for most of the movie, that was an exciting way to think in the group hive mind.
We also spent a lot of mornings digging into the scenes themselves. As a director, you’re on the least film sets of everyone there. The weird thing about being a director is that the DP, the lighting person, the actors are on sets every month of the year, and you’re on the set for a few months and then in the edit room the rest of the time. It’s kind of intimidating. But then it was wonderful because we had terrific collaborators and my style is to listen and learn from my collaborators. Lizzie and Michael have such different processes, but they would get into it and just go, and I could sit back and let them. It was such a blessing and relief to work with such talented and experienced actors because their instincts are never boring! One of the challenges for me was choosing from so many good options.
EM: I am not a rehearsal person. I have trouble with it; I want the camera to be rolling and I want to do it and be done with it. What I loved about our small tiny rehearsal process and what was most valuable was getting to spend time with Josephine and the other actors in a room. What I took out of it was getting to know people, getting to have those conversations and know how people work. It was interesting for me because I can then adapt my process to Michael, or to Odessa. I don’t really have a rigid process so then I can kind of help by leaning into their process.
I always thought of this more as a Shirley Jackson story, one of her novels that she somehow ends up as a character in.
How did you both work together to shoot that riveting last scene with the camera focused right on Shirley’s face?
EM: Josephine can speak to the editing decisions as well, but that night was our last night of filming in the house and I was getting on a plane at 6am the next morning to shoot Jordan’s Peele’s Us. So we were on a bit of a time crunch, to say the least. And we had a lot to do – shoot the whole end of the movie kind of thing! I remember we were like, well the close-up is important and we’ll have to get that. I was really quite nervous, which is usually a good thing for me because I work well under pressure. I was nervous because I knew what I wanted to do with that scene, I knew that I wanted her to experience the range of emotions that she does, and it’s a lot to do and I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to do it. It’s kind of one of those bottom-of-the-ninth moments and you think, all right this is what we’ve been training all year for, here we go! And I’m pretty sure I went home and said to myself, I wish I could’ve done that again. Which is usually what I do. But I was very honored and flattered once I saw the film and Jo had cut it the way that she cut it. I thought it was a great decision for the movie because you really do see that everything in the film has led to this moment when Stanley is reading her book, and that’s all that matters to Shirley. I thought it was a really beautiful decision to show it that way.
JD: I’ve shared this story before, but I was also really nervous. When you’ve been doing so many different things visually with the film, you think you have to do something really amazing at the end. And I was like, I don’t know what to do! I was also so stressed out because of the time limitations. I knew we had to do Lizzie’s close-up, that was the most important thing, and then I’ll figure out my brilliant whatever after we get the close-up. And then we sat down to watch the first take. It’s amazing to hear you talk about it, because I still get chills thinking about everything that happens. That really is the climax of the movie, and it really is the simplest shot in the entire film. But I think it’s also the most complex performance in the film, and it’s stunning. I just remember this wash of, thank god for Lizzie! It’s like a homerun at the end of the film. I couldn’t believe the things that were happening on screen and the story really felt complete.