There’s a scene in Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell’s “Flames” so beautiful, it almost will make your eyes hurt. It’s in the Maldives where the two were vacationing and Throwell decided to pop the question to Decker, who’s on the phone with her mother in lonely phone booth shrouded by tropical groves. You wonder how any power can get to the booth to provide the white light from above, free-standing in the dirt, but even without the harsh fluorescent that beams down upon their foreheads at night, the electricity emanating between them is palpable enough, with tears flowing at first because of ecstatic joy and then in Decker’s case, almost instant regret as she realizes she fears calling her mom to tell her the news. The phone booth is left empty, the light still there in the dark, and not long after, the relationship between Decker and Throwell ended, at least romantically.
Combing through the embers of a torrid affair that burned brightly while it lasted, “Flames” is a mesmerizing film that is the product of the one passion that hasn’t let Decker and Throwell down – as daring artists. While you don’t see the origins of how they met in “Flames,” it no doubt came as a result of the shared quality of having — and being able to creatively convey — unique perspectives on the world that in the end were too unique to co-exist under one roof. But when Decker, the filmmaker behind the prismatic “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” and Throwell, a performance artist and experimental filmmaker, aligned for eight months between 2011 and 2012 and started filming themselves, they brought out the best in each other artistically, if not necessarily personally, for this exhilarating cinematic experience that kept the cameras rolling off and on for following five years.
Shot by Decker’s frequent (and exceptional) collaborator Ashley Connor, “Flames” immerses audiences in the ups and downs of the couple, jumping back and forth in time, shifting perspectives within the frame and transposing images on top of another or distorting them at times to take the temperature of their relationship. Though physically intertwined, you see Throwell and Decker keep each other at a distance – him hastily walking away from questions she needs answers for, while she can let antipathy build up as she keeps her discomfort with some his actions to herself – but in documenting their most intimate moments, the film gets at far larger issues that aren’t exclusive to them, particularly in how it articulates their different wants and desires and, quite poignantly, as a study of Decker’s fierce battle with what society expects of her as a woman and an artist. (Hence, accepting a proposal she knows has no right to pan out.)
“Flames” reaches great heights while refusing to wallow in the couple’s lows, energetic and intense whether the couple is making love or in the heat of a fight and sparkling with mischievous wit and dazzling imagery pried from difficult times and delivered unmediated from moments of happiness. As I found out, whether on screen or off, it’s a pleasure to spend time in Decker and Throwell’s company, not to mention Connor’s, and the trio took a beat during the Tribeca Film Festival where “Flames” premiered to talk about how the thought of one unexpected birth led to another, what it’s like to professionally collaborate after a personal break-up and finding out new things about each other.
Zefrey Throwell: I had a show at MoMA and I asked them, “What are the perimeters of the project? What can I do?” And they said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I tend to get a little bit crazy.” And they’re like, “Totally fine. Surprise us.”
Josephine and I had just started dating, and we’d had some turbulent times. We waited to have sex, which was a big deal. If you wait, you want it to be special. You want there to be this real connection. And there definitely was. The first time we have sex, the condom breaks, and [we think], “Holy Jesus. What’s going to happen?” [Then the next thought is] “This is how humans are made. She’s going to have a baby.” And [Josephine] had this strong feeling that she didn’t want to take the plan B, or anything like that. If she was going to get pregnant, she wanted to have the baby. I was like, “Whoa.” This is the first time we had sex. We just started dating a little while ago and this kind of passion blew me away. This is a serious arrow through the heart in the most beautiful, blissful, possible way. So we thought, “Shit. What if we were to film this, recreate this moment and start a film of our relationship?” We filmed for two weeks, and then we cut for a couple days, and we made short film called “Madonna Mia Violenta,” and showed it as MoMA, and we just kept filming for five years.
Josephine Decker: I thought Zefrey was an idiot [for making this]. Normally you break up with someone and you just never want to see them again. You want it to be over. We had a brutal break-up. It was very abrupt. He was overseas. We broke up over Skype eight months into our relationship. He was cutting a film that was very sexually explicit and he wouldn’t talk to me for a week.
Zefrey Throwell: We broke up in the middle of it. And there’s no nudity in the film, by the way.
Josephine Decker: Anyway, when you know that the end is coming, the end comes, and I could just tell that he didn’t want to talk to have anything else to do with me. He was like, “I want to take a break.” And [I thought] “Oh God. What does a break mean? Wait a week so that I can break up with you?” It was very abrupt, and I thought the movie was going to die in the water, which actually I was very grateful for because it’s extremely explicit movie. But Zefrey wanted to finish it, so the second act of the film is about Zefrey wanting me to finish the film for four years and me trying every way possible for him to not to.
Ashley, how do you get mixed up in this?
Ashley Connor: [laughs] What are you doing in this part of town? What are you doing here? That’s a question I ask myself a lot. We started in 2011. At that point we had shot “Butter [on the Latch], but not “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” yet.
Josephine Decker: “Mild and Lovely” was the direct response to dating Zefrey, I think.
Ashley Connor: “Break-up Island” is what I like to call that movie. I was hanging around [with Josephine]. She had a camera and she was like, “You want to come do this [project with Zefrey]. It’s going to play at MoMA.” I was like, “Yeah. Great. I want to play something in MoMA.” We just started doing it. I had met Zefrey – I’d seen his performance pieces online and it started from a place of us having the available time and being in this weird trifecta relationship together and it was like, “This is fun. This is exciting.”
Then you flash forward four years down the line and Zefrey would be, “We’re just going to do a shoot in the park.” I’m like, “Ugh…alright.” Then they’d be like, “Just a couple hours. We’re just going to talk.” Or like, “We’re going to go to therapy,” or like, “We’re going to do a screening of the movie and talk about it.” All these kind of things that happened and it’s funny to watch our work and our personalities evolve [over time]. I can tell when I was in prep on another movie because I was in prep on “Tramps” during the art therapy [scene] and was thinking about zooms a lot, so there’s suddenly these slow zooms that come. For me, it’s a real mile marker of us maturing as individuals and as a group.
Was the idea of perspective actually built into the way this was captured or is that something you could only suss out later in editing?
Zefrey Throwell: I come from an art background and I like to watch movies that don’t make any sense. If it’s just got a bunch of pretty pictures and some crazy sounds in the background I’m like, “Great movie,” so trying to blend that aesthetic with a narrative story arc, which Josephine is fantastic at, it was like this is what you get in the middle [from the] two of us working together with the madness and some great storytelling. Then of course, you get the most talented cinematographer in the world today, Ashley Connor – not joking.
Josephine Decker: It’s true.
Zefrey Throwell: You throw her master eye into it and then you get something exciting. I’m not trying to talk up my own film because I never want watch the damn thing again, but do you remember Hurricane Sandy? I remember on the news they were talking all the time about [how] this crazy trifecta has happened. Not only did they have a pressure dip and a barometric dip, and then a hurricane, but also some weird swell from the West and I feel like this happened for us. We got to do something wild for a few years and lo and behold, it got done.
Ashley Connor: We never set out to make a straight documentary. The conversations that we had prior to going in or approached scenes or filming, it was more about creating an art piece and a moment and a feeling. It wasn’t just about strict documentation, because if it was, I don’t do that. It was about finding these moments and feeling out these moments with you guys to create something that was like a doc, but not – an emotional documentary.
Zefrey Throwell: I like that. An emo doc.
Zefrey’s credited exclusively with the music, which is interesting since it seems like the strongest way to retroactively comment on what you were feeling at the time. Was Josephine in on the process of that?
Josephine Decker: We edited together for about six months during this time last year and then Zefrey finished the film on his own, which is a shit-ton of work, but I did give him notes along the way on the music. There’s still parts where I’m like, “Why is there music here at all? We could just feel it without the music.” But [Zefrey] has final cut, so that’s good, and at one point, I gave what I thought was a strong note which was there were 10 different music cues at one point and they were all from such different worlds and I [said], “This movie has to have a unified aesthetic musically because it’s so all over the place. Visually, it comes from a million time periods and you have to find the music to light up the movie.” Obviously, he did all the hard work of writing the music and putting it in there, but there was certain kinds of music that I was drawn to that I think I was like, “We gotta put this tuba in more. I love the tuba.”
Still, I really commend him…as much as I love to harp on Zefrey and be mean to him. I have this weird permission to do it with you because we did date and we did fight. I almost can’t be so honest with almost anyone else in the world, because you have to be that intimate with someone to be that real. Zefrey is good at everything. He is an amazing photographer – he has a great eye. He’s also amazing at capturing the moment of being there [and knowing the moment] to pull out his camera and be like, “Fuck, I’m going to catch this.” And he’s an amazing graphic designer. He screen-printed all of these T-shirts [that we’re wearing to promote the film]. His editing is amazing. One of the best parts of the film is the exciting decisions that he made as an editor, and I think this is the strength of having an art background is that [Zefrey] makes choices that a narrative filmmaker would never [do], like jump cut that much on the first 10 seconds of the film. There’s a ton of jump cuts and it’s awesome. You feel like you’re in good hands because you [think], “Oh, this is new and I love it.”
The fact that he did the music on top of that…that was actually a skill that when we were dating I don’t think I really knew that [he] had. I knew he had done some music, but that wasn’t a thing that he was doing so actively when we were together. A real Renaissance man, right here.
Josephine Decker: We had a crazy Q&A last night where we were essentially like, “No, that’s not how it went.”
Ashley Connor: I like that [Zefrey] mentioned [Michael Apted’s] “7 Up” series. We’re just going to keep on, once a year, going to therapy together.
Josephine Decker: [Sarah, Zefrey’s wife]’s like, “No.” [laughs]
Ashley Connor: Just watching you guys hash it out [was good]. That’s why the final shoot was so cathartic, which was, spoiler alert, Zefrey telling you why he felt like you guys actually broke up. Just having [Josephine] be in Times Square and [saying], “I don’t fucking care.” At the same time, we care the most. Walking around there and [Zefrey and Josephine both] being like, “We care. We don’t care. We’re still here. We’re still with it, but I don’t care anymore.” It touched on this nerve [about] ex-relationships. You keep telling yourself you’re fine, then you see something of an ex-romantic partner and you just [think] “I’m better than that.” You still have an opinion on them years later. That’s what the film touches on – when it gets to the romantic heart of everything, it’s being incapable of looking at an ex-partner and not having an emotional response to them – anger, extreme love, or anything. It’s a lot built into this one moment.
Zefrey Throwell: My ex-wife recently had a baby. We’re not the closest anymore, and I found out through Facebook. But I have this real moment looking at this young, perfect baby with my ex-wife and some other man happily holding it and [I had] all the joy in the world. I felt this strange mix of emotion that I had never felt before. Of course I was happy for her. She’s not with me anymore. I was a terrible husband. She’s with a man that loves her and treats her very well. And there’s this beautiful baby in the world that they’re going to raise together. Fantastic. But then there’s this bittersweet, beautiful moment when you’re like, “That should have been my baby.”
That’s something that I hope came across in a different way between Josephine and I – that moment where everyone has had love and then lost that love [and to think] you were continuing following that through-line. If we were to go into an alternate future somehow and you could continue to stay with them, this is that feeling of, “What if we ever got to the bottom of that?” We’re just really not to the bottom of anything. I guess I’ll see you in five years.