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Film follows life of Shirley Jackson, explores characters in extreme moments

The cast and crew of “Shirley” attended the film’s premiere at Sundance. (Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)

By Kristin Snyder

Feb. 2, 2020 10:27 p.m.

Shirley Jackson is now known as one of the great horror writers of the 20th century – but the author was overlooked during her lifetime.

Now, director Josephine Decker brings the writer to the screen in “Shirley,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25. The film follows the young couple Fred and Rose, who are offered free room and board from Jackson’s husband Stanley Hyman in exchange for Rose caring for Jackson. The titular character, portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, is experiencing a deep creative crisis, and Rose is tasked with guiding her toward finishing her novel. In the fictional biography, Decker ties the two couples together in various macabre and thrilling ways.

Alumnus Michael Stuhlbarg, who portrays Stanley, said he found the basis of his character in his real-life background as a respected literary critic. The couple had a tumultuous relationship, as Stanley refused to commit to a monogamous relationship. But while the film draws from Jackson and her husband’s history, Stuhlbarg said the narrative takes their lives to the extreme.

“We throw them in fictitious circumstances and then we go even further,” he said. “It’s a real explosion of who these people might have been under these circumstances.”

[Related: Documentary takes candid look at life of daring political reporter Molly Ivins]

Working with Stuhlbarg is what drew Logan Lerman to the film, as most of his scenes are with the alumnus. His character Fred, who works as Stanley’s research assistant, grows to love the eccentric household as his relationship with the elder man deepens. Supporting Decker’s vision while exploring the writer Sarah Gubbins’ script allowed for him to delve into the depths of his character, he said.

“There was a freedom on set to explore where the scene takes you and takes the camera,” Lerman said. “That was a challenge for everyone in the cast – just finding those moments.”

The author’s work was often characterized by such moments of freedom, Decker said. Jackson is best known for her novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” and often explored ghosts and the occult in her work. While the author was able to reach paranormal, extreme moments, Decker said she would initially reign them in, eventually allowing them to subversively explode.

Decker said she aimed to replicate such explosions as she directed the cast and crew, allowing the actors to reach their depths and pop off the screen as they inhabited the iconic figures.

“I think as a director, part of my work is holding space so people can follow their instincts and make the biggest, strongest choices,” Decker said.

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Kristin Snyder | Alumna
Snyder was previously the 2019-2020 Arts editor as well as the 2018-2019 Theater | Film | Television editor.
Snyder was previously the 2019-2020 Arts editor as well as the 2018-2019 Theater | Film | Television editor.
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