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How Elisabeth Moss and director Josephine Decker brought Shirley Jackson to life

They didn’t want to craft a “relatable” character.

Elisabeth Moss plays author Shirley Jackson in Shirley.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Shirley is not a biopic, in any meaningful sense of the word. Based on a novel of the same name that draws on the biography of Shirley Jackson but mixes Jackson’s life story with tropes and moods from her writing, the film evokes the work of Shirley Jackson rather than informing the audience about who the great, still underrated author of horror and dread really was. But that means you might come away with a better sense of Jackson’s allure than any straight-ahead biographical portrait could impart.

Elisabeth Moss plays the author in the film, which is set in 1950 just after the publication of Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery,” which gained her both fame and notoriety (the New Yorker still has never received more mail about a work of fiction). But at the time, Shirley and her husband Stanley Hyman were living in Vermont, where he taught at Bennington College. And in the film’s version of events, Shirley is beset by anxiety and agoraphobia while also trying to write her novel Hangsaman.

Her tenuous quiet at home is broken when Stanley’s new assistant, Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), shows up with his wife, Rose (Odessa Young), and they move into the guest room while looking for a home. Rose is drawn to the prickly Shirley, and their fates become intertwined.

The film is directed by Josephine Decker, who in movies like 2014’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline has established a reputation as having a keen eye for the complicated inner lives of women. She often blurs fantasy and reality in a way that disorients, making you feel as if you’re inside the protagonist’s head instead of an objective observer. She’s a perfect match for the kind of creeping dread that Shirley Jackson managed to evoke in her fiction, which often focused on women trapped between the expectations of other people and their own minds.

I recently spoke to both Moss and Decker via Zoom, in separate conversations, but the themes of both discussions were similar: what makes Shirley Jackson so fascinating as a person and a writer, what it’s like to craft a movie with an “unlikable” character, how the real Shirley and the movie’s Shirley diverge, and why her story still matters today. Below, I’ve compiled our chats into one look at an engrossing movie with a complicated, brilliant woman at its center.

On crafting a fictional Shirley Jackson

Elisabeth Moss

The timeline was interesting, because [Shirley] had to be writing Hangsaman, which came out in 1951. And then we also needed it to be after “The Lottery” [was published], which would have put her in a place where she definitely would have had her children in her life. Our movie is based on another book called Shirley, and for the purpose of adapting that particular book, we had to exclude her children from the story. Which was very funny when I met her son because I was like, “Yeah, sorry about that.” She was an incredible mother. Despite her quirks, she was a really wonderful, kind, loving, fun mom. But for the purposes of our story, we had to cut that out.

A middle-aged couple sits in bed.
Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in Shirley.

Josephine Decker

[Screenwriter] Sarah [Gubbins] was very clear that she was adapting a novel, Shirley, which is fictionalized. So we already were a degree removed from reality. And then in adapting the novel, we had to make a bunch of changes. Having the kids was very complicated, so we took out her children. Sarah and I were very clear that it was a fictionalized version of Shirley that we were capturing.

Elisabeth Moss

So she’s at a place where “The Lottery” has come out, and she’s dealing with this newfound fame. She’s not the most social person in the world. It’s very hard and confusing for her. And then she also has her relationship with Stanley; they were very competitive. She’s just become this really famous author, and he’s not so famous. He’s not doing as well. That’s a really interesting dynamic in a male/female relationship.

I think we’ve all had that experience where we’ve had a success, and then pressure comes from that: Can you do it again? What will the next thing be like? Are they gonna like it as much? All of that. For me, the story is really so much about being a writer. I have so much respect for writers, because I can’t do it. I have so much respect for the dedication and the concentration that it takes. I was really just trying to capture that process, how fucking maddening it can be. I know a lot of writers, and they know it’s really difficult. No writer will ever tell you that it is fun to write. It’s not! It’s fun to get your story down, and when you figure it out, it’s great. But no one is like, Oh, my god, I cannot wait to sit down and write.

On the challenge of crafting “relatable” characters — and whether they’re really desirable in the first place

Elisabeth Moss

It’s okay to care whether or not people like your work. It’s okay to be hurt by someone saying something negative about what you do. That’s very human. I know that a lot of the most successful people — they care. It’s a myth that you don’t care whether or not your movie does well, or anyone’s watching your show, or you get a bad review. We all care. It doesn’t matter how big you get.

I think exploring that with Shirley Jackson was really interesting. People tend to think a character like her isn’t going to care and is just like, “Whatever, I’m just existing in my own world, and I don’t give a fuck about anyone else.” That wasn’t true. Those letters about “The Lottery” affected her deeply. They were at once gratifying and flattering and, at the same time, some of the things that were said were very hurtful. It really affected her.

... To Shirley, [Rose] represented Shirley at a younger age. She represented Shirley not just as a writer, but as a woman at a younger age. Shirley admires Rose, and also is jealous and also wants her to succeed, at the same time. I think she wants her not to make the same mistake that she made. [The movie is] set in 1950, when marriages were, well, you know what they were. I think she sees Rose and just is like, please don’t go down the path that I did. Please make your own way. Please don’t feel like you have to answer to your husband.

I think that Shirley at a certain point isn’t sure whether or not she should kill Rose or teach her how to live. It is very complicated, and a fascinating, cruel part of her personality. But I think ultimately, Shirley looks at this woman and has a lot of respect for her, and goes, Don’t do what I did.

Josephine Decker

I feel an internal pressure to be likable as a human in regular life. I think I’m pretty nice! When Thou Wast Mild and Lovely was going around the festival circuit, I would make friends on the festival circuit, and then they would see the movie maybe four days into the festival and say, “You made that? You wrote that?” It doesn’t really look or feel like me as a person — which I think is why I like to write that stuff.

For Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, I was interested in a cruel or manipulative female main character, who didn’t care so much about other people’s needs as she did about her own. I struggled with the script for Madeline’s Madeline because when you’re writing a character who’s different from yourself, sometimes you can accidentally make them more likable, because you’re like, Well, I need to make sure this is the hero of my movie. It was a big breakthrough when I realized that the only way Madeline was going to work as a character is if I let her make some cruel choices and be unlikable too. That made her more interesting and also made her come alive to me, and I could write her more easily because she was a real human being.

That’s the thing: Nobody’s all the way likable. Everyone has some darkness. So a big goal for me, making characters in cinema, is to be honest with them. That usually means the cruel characters are sometimes fairly likable, and likable ones are cruel.

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in Shirley.

How do you make a movie that blurs “reality” and imagination without confusing your audience?

Josephine Decker

I would love for everyone to misinterpret the things that I do!

I had a really funny conversation with my partner when we were working on Madeline’s Madeline. I was like, “I gotta just figure this out.” And he said, “Well, what do you want people to come out of the theater feeling?” And I was like, “Oh, that’s so didactic! What a male question!” I don’t want them to come out feeling anything. I want them to come out feeling that they’ve had this explosive experience of wonder and that they don’t know what to think, and then they have to go complete the story on their own.

I’m a successful artist if 10 people have 10 very different experiences of a film. If the film allows them into their own world, then their interpretation of the characters is just as true as someone else’s because I’ve invited them to participate in the process of the film. That’s the way that I’ve been trying to do my storytelling: to have the audience feel like they are completing the story with me.

... [Shirley Jackson] uses a lot of repeating imagery and character development to help you go from a space that is very clearly real to a space that is in a character’s imagination. So for instance, in The Haunting of Hill House, everything seems to be happening in reality. And there are these haunting knocks on the door, and you think it’s a ghost. But then you start to wonder, is the ghost [the protagonist]? Is she the one doing the haunting?

I don’t know how [Jackson] does that — it’s a poetic thing. At one point, she’s following something up to the roof, and suddenly there are people below her who are afraid for her, but also a little bit afraid of her. You then realize that you haven’t been inside of a reliable narrator. Jackson does a lot with the unreliable narrator, and I think that’s something I’ve been really interested in for a long time: how to have an unreliable narrator who you don’t realize is unreliable until you’re a ways in.

Elisabeth Moss

I treat [both “reality” and imagination] all the same as an actor. I think that’s the only thing you can do. In Shirley’s head, it’s really happening. And so it doesn’t really matter what the filmmaker’s idea is. When she sees Rose come into her bathtub, it doesn’t matter if she’s really there. When she has that porch scene with Rose — we called it a love scene — it might be really happening. It might not. Part of it might be happening. It doesn’t matter. We played it as if it was [happening], because that’s the only way to actually make it feel as real as it would be in Shirley’s head.

2020 Sundance Film Festival - “Shirley” Premiere
Josephine Decker and Elisabeth Moss at the Shirley premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020.
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

On what makes Shirley Jackson timeless

Josephine Decker

What’s exciting about her is that what she’s doing in storytelling is what I’m also trying to do in storytelling: to collapse the boundaries between the real and the imagined. And she slips you into that imagined space — not abruptly, but very seamlessly, so you don’t really realize that you’ve gone there — and I think that’s very hard to do. It’s exciting. You’re always trying to find things that are like the thing that you want to do so that you can figure out how to do the thing you want to do. With Shirley, I had a bit more of a pathway.

... One of the things that excited me about the real Shirley and Stanley was how well-read they were, how their house was just full of books. Supposedly there were thousands of books, so many bookshelves that in the main hallway between a lot of their rooms, you had to walk sideways to fit between the bookshelves. I love books too. They’re the thing I compulsively buy.

Also, Shirley and Stanley were really interested in music, and music as storyteller. I think that was something else that made its way into the film. Stanley was a big fan of the Delta Blues, and Shirley had memories of all these English ballads. That feeling that the music has its own story was something that also made its way in.

Elisabeth Moss

Part of Shirley Jackson’s magic was her imagination. She had an incredible imagination — most good writers do — and it was very, very vivid. And so it doesn’t really matter if it was real or not. It was real to her, and so that’s all that matters.

[What attracts me to Jackson’s work is] her bravery. I love doing work that doesn’t care whether or not somebody is likable. I prefer to just be honest. The thing that was so shocking about “The Lottery” was people felt affronted by it because it was so honest. It was so brutally honest, and people didn’t want to look at that. People didn’t want to look at themselves like that — as the monsters that they could be. They didn’t want to look at themselves as being capable of being so cruel.

That bravery is in a lot of her work. She doesn’t worry about whether or not a character is likable, or difficult, or a hero or a heroine. She’s only worried about honesty and entertainment and all of that. I really appreciate that.

I also think she’s one of those writers that’s so impossible to put in a genre. We naturally put her in the horror genre, but she’s not really strictly a horror writer. As a woman and an author at that time, I think people didn’t know what the fuck to do with her. [Her stories are] scary, but they’re scary because they’re real. So we put her in the horror genre, because we’re like, I don’t know what to do with her.

But to me, they’re domestic character stories. They’re dramas. They’re incredibly rich and honest. And she has an incredible sense of humor. She has that biting sense of humor, very similar to [The Handmaid’s Tale author] Margaret Atwood — that slicing sense of humor. I just love it.

Shirley is streaming on Hulu and is available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and on-demand providers. If you’d like to support a local theater, you can also watch it through a “virtual theatrical” release at theaters around the country — see the Neon website for more details. (You will receive a link to watch the movie after buying a virtual ticket.)