It’s always a challenge to bring a real person to cinematic life. But it’s an especially tricky thing to nail down when said real person is projected through a layer of fiction about the nature of fiction itself. But that’s the brilliance of Shirley, the new film from director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins about the life of American horror author Shirley Jackson.
The film is based on a novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, which serves as a loose basis for the plot. In the movie, a (fictional) young couple move into the home of Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman in Bennington, Vermont. While husband Fred works at the local university, his pregnant wife Rose stays home to assist the begotten and near-mad Shirley Jackson as she works on her new novel, Hangsaman. At first morally straight-laced, Rose eventually falls under Shirley’s unique and mystifying personal spell. It’s a ripe, raw, and non-traditional biopic that feels more like a tone-poem about the nature and burden of feminine creation.
Nerdist recently chatted with the team behind Shirley—Decker and Gubbins, along with Elisabeth Moss (Shirley), Michael Stuhlbarg (Stanley), and Odessa Young (Rose)—about bringing such a unique story to the screen, the challenges that come with playing real people, and the research done to root the audience in Shirley Jackson’s magical, acerbic reality.
Like most Americans, Decker and Gubbins were first introduced to the work of Shirley Jackson when they read her mesmerizing and horrific 1948 short story “The Lottery” in school. But it was another piece that got both women even more interested in the author: her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Gubbins adapted the book for the stage for a performance studies course at Northwestern, and Decker first found it at an airport bookshop, enamored at the whimsical cover and description on the dust jacket.
“I [grew] obsessed with her and fell into that magical world that she conjures,” Decker said of those early days spent infatuated with Jackson’s lyrical, intensely cynical worldview.
Jackson’s words also stuck with Gubbins in a profound way after her course. “She’s just such an unusual, complicated voice with a wicked, wicked sense of humor,” she explained. “I think one of the things I was drawn to was [that] I find her to be very satirical and a great observer of character. But also, she doesn’t let her characters off [the hook]. They’re vain, they’re petty, they’re conniving, they’re delusional.”
Shirley herself comes off that way in the film. Gubbins adapted the story from Merrell’s book, but added her own twist: In this version, we find the author in the intense early phase of writing her mystery novel, Hangsaman. Obsessed with nailing the cadence of the book, Shirley starts confusing her protagonist with Rose, blurring their faces in her mind, fiction seeping into her reality much like the film itself blurs the real Shirley Jackson with myth.
To prepare for the task of adapting, Gubbins went to the Library of Congress, where many of Shirley Jackson’s papers are preserved and available to the public. (Ruth Franklin, Jackson’s biographer, used many of the same papers for her tremendous 2016 tome on the author, called A Rather Haunted Life.) The papers contained Jackson’s letters of correspondence with her husband, literary critic and professor at Bennington College, Stanley Hyman.
“[They’re] terrifically funny but also really emotional,” Gubbins said of the correspondence. “She’s just so vulnerable in those letters. And also incredibly smart and witty and misanthropic, too.”
For his part, Michael Stuhlbarg contacted people who knew the real Stanley Hyman to get a feel for the character. “I spoke with Walter Bernstein who was a very close friend of Stanley’s when they were growing up together in New York,” Stuhlbarg explained. “He’s a renowned screenwriter in our business, and he generously agreed to speak with me about what he knew about Stanley and the time they spent together.”
Stuhlbarg also chatted with a former student and babysitter of the family’s who spent time in their Vermont home, bearing witness to the real-life madness that we see onscreen.
Elisabeth Moss said she read Shirley and Stanley’s letters, as well as Franklin’s biography, to learn as much as she could about the author. “Even though so much of the story is fictional, it was important to me to capture an essence of her, which you can definitely get an idea from with her work,” Moss explained.
Real people rendered through fiction
That blend of reality and fiction offered space for research, but also for play. The film omits the presence of Jackson’s real-life children, instead centering the plot on her complicated relationship with her husband—whose extramarital affairs are portrayed in the film, with Shirley’s knowledge and approval. Their connection is one of two beating hearts of the film (the other being the intense relationship between Shirley and Rose), and allowed for a rollicking playground for Moss and Stuhlbarg to play and explore.
“Michael has a very different process than Elisabeth Moss does, but at the end of the day, they really delighted, terrified, and fascinated each other both as actors and as characters,” Gubbins said of the pair’s on-set dynamic. “Every time they were in a scene together, I loved just watching them duke it out because they were always trying to steal the scene from the other person in the most lovely and genius way.”
“Elisabeth would sneak up on you in terms of what Shirley was going to do,” Stuhlbarg explained of his scene partner. “She was absolutely masterful in terms of allowing [anything] to happen in the moment as opposed to thinking it through.” That sounds an awful lot like the real-life Shirley Jackson, who was known for her sarcasm, wit, and total unpredictability in social settings.
“Stanley is probably the only person she loves just as much as her work—but I don’t know if she loves him more than her work,” Moss said of Shirley’s relationship with her husband, and the unique romance they conjured together.
The duality of the feminine
The entire project was very different for Odessa Young than it was for Moss and Stuhlbarg. Not in terms of the set, but in terms of character. Unlike the others, Rose is entirely fictional, so finding her presented a different sort of challenge. And though she did her research of the time period, she approached the role more in terms of her character’s function within the story.
“When you consider the movie as a whole and these characters as a unit, Rose’s purpose in the film is to fit seamlessly between Shirley and her extreme energy and creative aggression, and Stanley, the wood sprite with an evil glint in his eye,” Young explained.
That precarious place between the two is also witnessed in Rose’s inner life; we see her as both a buttoned-up lady of society and manners, as well as a woman with a voracious sexual appetite and darkness. If Shirley begins the story as a madwoman and slowly finds her way back, Rose is the inverse of that. The film details her breakdown and complicated relationship with motherhood, all elements that Shirley nurses from within this new companion with hungry delight.
These characters represent something Decker refers to as the “duality of the feminine,” a storytelling device that pops up frequently in Jackson’s work. Her fiction often features two women in lead roles; one of the fringe of society and the other doing quite well for herself.
“[Ruth Franklin, Jackson’s biographer] often talks about how maybe these are two sides of Shirley that she’s always trying to integrate,” Decker explained. “That was something we were looking at in the film: How do these two women cross paths? How do we make sure that they’re fully fleshed out as their own individual characters with their own clear wants? And then how do we help them come together in a way that is unpredictable and yet inevitable?”
The answer, it would appear, was to allow a confrontation of morales and perspectives that blend together in a story unconcerned with straightforward logic or narrative. A film that uses the same dream logic and mystic energy that populates Jackson’s stories. It’s the perfect way to honor a woman we’ll never quite understand—and quite purposely, we have to assume.
Featured Image: NEON