‘The Sky Is Everywhere’ Director Josephine Decker Breaks Down That Breathtaking Flower Dance: “It Was A Really Special Win”
The Sky is Everywhere is not your typical YA coming-of-age story. When protagonist Lennie Walker (played by Grace Kaufman)—a high school girl working through the grief of the sudden death of her sister—falls for a cute, talented boy in honors bands, she is quite literally blown over by CGI music notes that emerge from his trumpet. When she feels her world crashing down around her, huge pieces of furniture start crashing down out of the sky. And when she falls in love with a boy over music, she finds herself surrounded by interpretative dancers in mesh bodysuits, covered in roses—the film’s most breathtaking scene.
“This movie is very much in Lennie’s subjective space,” director Josephine Decker told Decider over a Zoom interview. “We clued you into that because it’s a very heightened reality. It’s a little bit more colorful, the performances are a little bit bigger.”
This theatrical space is where Decker—best known for her critically-acclaimed, experimental coming-of-age film, Madeline’s Madeline, and her non-traditional, Shirley Jackson biopic, Shirley—feels most at home as a filmmaker. She had a chance to bring her style to The Sky is Everywhere, a 2010 New York Times bestseller which was adapted for the screen by the novel’s author, Jandy Nelson. Decker spoke to Decider about working with Nelson to bring the magical realism elements to the forefront of the story, how she pulled off that dancing flowers scene, and creating the new The Sky Is Everywhere ending.
Decider: When did you first connect with Jandy Nelson about bringing her book to the screen?
Josephine Decker: It was maybe 2017, 2018. It came to me as a script from my agent. Ironically, that’s not usually how I find projects, but she was like, “Check this one out!” I read it and I loved it. I was literally banging on the door for a year, I was like, “I gotta make this! What’s going on with The Sky is Everywhere? How do I get involved?” Finally, I met with Jandy and she said, “Okay, we can get married.” And then we got to raise the money and thankfully Apple and A24 were so supportive of the project.
You have such a distinct style as a director. What made you connect to the script and feel like it would be a good mesh with your directing style?
I’m really drawn to films that have a strong subjectivity or interiority. It’s not that often that something on the page clearly fits my directing style because I do like a kind of messier, non-linear reality, and not everything plays out like that. I was really drawn to it because there’s this magical, classical music element and I’m kind of a geek for classical music. Also, I’m a teenager at heart who is still working out their teen stuff. I think I just felt like this is the kind of movie I would’ve really wanted to see when I was a teenager. It’s a movie I want to see now! At the time actually, when I first read it, I was like, “This is such a happy teen movie!” I love YA in general, as a genre. Then, a year later, I had gone through some pretty rough loss. I was like, “God I really need a grief movie, I need to process all of this, I need something that holds that.” So the fact that this project could hold both, while also having these magical realist elements, was just very inviting.
I love the magical realist element of the movie. How much of that came with the script? How did you work with Jandy to build those elements out?
Certainly, all of these magical subjective spaces were in the script. The thing that Jandy and I worked on was that I really wanted to use practical effects. I wanted to do everything in-camera. So, there was a lot of rewriting these sections—redoing the voiceover to hold a dance sequence, instead of flowers just journeying on their own. It was like, “How can the flowers become dancers? And then how can the actors dance?” We rewrote a voiceover section—that poem that Lennie writes towards the beginning of the film that’s like, “I’ve always wanted a heart like Bailey’s instead.” It was written to end with this scene of Bailey walking down the street, and then the sky changed colors. I was like, “Does Bailey just walk down the street? I feel like Bailey dances down the street. And what if it’s a dance number because it’s just so much more. This girl’s so perfect!” So, we had a lot of fun moving those magical moments into a more magical space that is physical and embodied as well.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Lennie and Jo are listening to Bach, and dancers wearing these mesh suits with flowers come out and surround them. Can you talk about that scene, from conceptualizing it to filming it?
It’s funny because like I said, it was originally written to be just roses exploding in CGI. I listened to “Air on G” while reading the script and I was like, “This is such a beautiful song, I would really love to let this play out I don’t know how to make CGI animation interesting for two full minutes. How can this be a dance sequence?” We started talking to our production designer and our costume designer about it. I was like, “What if the flowers are dancers actually dancing?” Our costume designer started designing this beautiful outfit with sleeves covered in flowers. We ended up rethinking the whole thing as these flower dancers. We worked with our choreographer, Faye Driscoll, on that.
The day of, we had to shoot another scene earlier in the day, so by the time we got to that scene, we were really running out of time and light. We had this whole storyboarded thing, it was gonna be a lot of locked-off shots. We got to the first one, which was just a big overhead and I was like, this looks really boring and wrong. This doesn’t look good at all, there’s no mystery! We were like, fuck. We have an hour and a half to get this. I was like, “What if the camera dances like the dancers? What if the camera kind of goes like this, everybody goes like this, and goes around them?” Then, when that started happening, it really all came together. I remember just weeping with relief into the shoulder of my AD, Nick, and being like, “I think it’s working!” It was a really special win, I guess you could say. Also, what a gorgeous way to spend the afternoon. I had an assistant at the time, Joe. The dancers were choreographing around the actors, but the actors had to act. So, Joe spent the afternoon with the dancers working on it, and he just laid down on the grass while they all danced around him. He was like, “I’ve been alone. It’s been a pandemic. I haven’t been touched in four months. And I just got to spend the whole day being caressed by women wearing rose outfits, I’m in a great mood! If you need anything, I’m game!”
The locations in this film are beautiful—especially the exterior of the Walker house, and the rose garden. Tell me about finding and building out that location.
We had a terrific guy, Ed McNicoll, who was in charge of our greens, found by our production designer Grace Yun. They worked so hard on that rose garden which was a combination of real roses and some fake rose bushes, but often it was a real rose bush enhanced with fake roses. And then we had that house. It was funny—we had a whole other house picked out and we’d been prepping it, and then we lost it two weeks before the shoot, so we were very strapped for time. Then we found that beautiful house owned by Chris and Gene Callahan. They became such partners for the film. When we saw it, I remember Ava, our DP, saying, “This is so storybook fairytale. We’re not gonna find anything like this.” The whole house had been literally hand-crafted. My whole goal for the movie was the whole thing to feel very hand-crafted. Gene Callahan is a carpenter, so he had like carefully gone through and made every window and the beautiful roof—it’s just unlike any other house.
There are several distinct camera styles in this film—can you talk about the intention behind that?
Ava Berofsky, our DP, they worked with the camera operator who was really terrific. Sometimes it would take us a while to figure out the emotion and how to really tune into the emotion in the scene with the camera, because it’s all so sensitive. Ava shot all of the scenes with Toby on handheld. We had a longer lens more closed-quality, shallower focus. With Joe, we used a much wider lens to create a happier vibe. Everything’s there, and everything’s available. That we all shot on steady cam, with our steady-cam operator, Kenny Niernberg. That was important to us, to differentiate these very grief-heavy, raw moments with Toby from these more joyous expansive moments with Joe. I’m really big on the camera being a dancer and a character in the spirit of the room. When Ava and I first met up, we talked a lot about how there are many elements in the film. There was like the earth—how the roses are coming up out of the earth to dance with these people. There’s the air—how Lennie and Joe are always floating on the air, and the poems are floating in the air throughout the movie. And then there’s this water energy that we created especially when Lennie and Joe first kiss. We tried to really create an almost underwater feeling for that environment. So, just being in touch with those very elemental qualities and playing as much as we could.
I haven’t read the novel I admit, but it’s my understanding that this is a new ending from the book in the film. What you think it signifies for Lennie’s journey—and is that an intentional nod to the Wizard of Oz in the hot air balloon?
Yes, it is. Jandy wrote a line like, “I think this is all very Wizard of Oz for a second” or something. Emotionally, I think the novel and the film ended the same way. They just have a slightly different setting. To me, it’s really thoughtful and smart that Jandy decided to bring so much of the film into the sky. It’s called The Sky is Everywhere and to literally finish the movie in the sky is definitely no accident. I love that she rejiggered Big to be a hot air balloon operator, it’s really funny. One thing I really respond to in terms of the end of the film is just that, Bailey has been a presence of the past, but I think in the end of the film, Bailey comes to the present of the movie. You see that there’s a reality that’s also shaped by this person who’s not there, but is there. And honestly, that always makes me cry. We can all think that we’ve lost someone, but in a way, their spirit is always with us. You know, even if it’s just with memories. I find that really moving.
Absolutely. Are any upcoming projects that you’re excited about and would like to share, before I let you go?
I’m going to Philadelphia soon to work with Pig Iron Theater Company, to work on a devised theater piece around pregnancy and motherhood. It’s something that has been in the works for a long time. We’re going to use a process similar to Madeline’s Madeline, one of my earlier films. It’s very hard to get paid to use that process in filmmaking—although anyone out there who wants to fund it, let me know! But it’s great, we got a really big grant to develop this piece with actors in Philadelphia. So, we’ll be improvising and creating and collaborating and going to some very intense places—just like in The Sky is Everywhere.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and quality.