Why Shirley Is Not Your Normal Biopic

Elisabeth Moss' experimental look at the life of author Shirley Jackson feels like one of her unsettling stories.

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in Shirley
Photo: Neon

Let’s get one thing clear right from the start: Shirley, the movie about acclaimed writer Shirley Jackson, is not a conventional biopic of the reclusive yet incisive author of The Haunting of Hill House and stories like “The Lottery.” The movie is based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, also called Shirley, and depicts a fictional battle of wills between Jackson, her husband Stanley Hyman, and the young couple who come to live with them when the husband takes a job as Hyman’s teaching assistant.

“The idea was to do a non-traditional biopic, because I didn’t really want to do a cradle to grave biopic at all,” says Sarah Gubbins, who wrote the screenplay. “But what was fascinating to me was the ways in which Shirley kind of has to endure the infamy of the success of ‘The Lottery’ and move into trying to write something else. Just living with an author while they’re trying to write something is beasty.”

The movie does incorporate many true details from Jackson’s life: She and Hyman lived in Bennington, Vermont where Hyman taught literary criticism at Bennington College while Jackson wrote her second novel, Hangsaman. They also had a bizarre yet toxic relationship, during which Hyman embarked on numerous affairs, mostly with students. And Jackson suffered from depression and other health issues that both fueled and blocked her writing.

Shirley is directed by indie filmmaker Josephine Decker, whose third feature, 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline, garnered considerable attention on the festival circuit with its surreal, experimental approach to the story of an actress whose life begins to blur together with the role she’s playing onstage. Elisabeth Moss (The Invisible Man) stars as Shirley, with Michael Stuhlbarg (The Looming Tower) as Hyman, plus Logan Lerman (Hunters) and Odessa Young (The Stand) as the couple caught in their psychological web.

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“It was definitely exciting and new to work on someone else’s script,” says Decker via Zoom about bringing Gubbins’ screenplay to life. “When I had written, it was an excuse to kind of get something on paper that I had visualized in my mind, so to go the other direction and sort of have something on paper and then try to visualize it was really exciting and fun.”

For Decker, Shirley represents a step forward in both budget and backing (the film is being distributed by Neon) while staying true to the director’s improvisational style and thematic concerns. “I think Madeline’s Madeline and Shirley have a lot of thematic similarities in terms of an older kind of mentor figure, maybe slightly abusing their relationship to a younger kind of figure, and using that story in a way that’s a little bit wicked or manipulative,” Decker concurs. “Madeline’s Madeline was kind of its own singular experience, but it feels thematically very connected to Shirley.”

The idea of one’s life becoming interchangeable with one’s art is very present in Shirley. The oppressive, claustrophobic interior of Jackson and Hyman’s house, along with the distrustful, whispering nature of their neighbors and colleagues, all seem to ooze out of the pages of one of her dark yet often acidly funny tales.

“That was the goal, exactly, to make it feel like you were inside of a Shirley Jackson story or novel,” says Decker. “Choosing that house felt like such an important part of it, choosing that character of the house. Then how you shoot it. How do you have that kind of liquid way of shooting that feels like the way that she moves through her stories?”

For Gubbins, the test of writing about Shirley Jackson was one faced by many screenwriters who have penned movies about authors: How does one make sitting alone for hours at a desk, tapping away at typewriter keys or scribbling in a notebook, a cinematic experience?

“That was the challenge of it,” Gubbins agrees. “Yet at the same time, there was something so fascinating to me about Shirley’s imagination. I did read through all of her work before starting to write. Writers have these… preoccupations. They become preoccupied with certain things. So it was fun to, in almost a detective way, use the novel Hangsaman and a lot of her other work to try to decipher where some of those inspirations might have come from.”

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In the film, Jackson’s inspiration to write Hangsaman is two-fold: she is obsessed with the disappearance of an 18-year-old Bennington student named Paula Jean Weldon (that part is true) and also intrigued by her growing relationship with Rose (Young), the pregnant wife of Lerman’s Fred Nemser. Shirley at first seems only interested in tormenting Rose, but then comes to view her as an ally and co-conspirator in her ongoing war of words with Stanley.

“It was really exciting to start to work on Rose because the story of Shirley Jackson was somewhat fixed in being a real life person,” says Young. “But with Rose, I had an opportunity to mold the character to whatever the film needed to tell the best possible version of the story. I did that obviously with the help of Sarah Gubbins’ incredible writing and Josephine’s direction.”

Young sees her character as a catalyst to help Shirley restart her writing, even as the author caustically forces Rose to stand up for herself. “What became pretty apparent about Shirley in both reality and this fiction that we’ve created is that she was a difficult person to get along with and she really tested people,” says Young. “She pushed people as far away from her as possible, almost in a self-sabotaging way. So it was pretty important for us to have Rose not be pushed away and not succumb to the banishment that Shirley would offer upon many of the people who tried to get close to her.”

In a psychologically neat twist, Young also plays Weldon, a dream-like figure glimpsed in sequences that represent Jackson’s thought processes as she works on Hangsaman. “I did not know that I would also be playing Paula Weldon until one day Josie wanted to put me in a wig and I didn’t really know why,” laughs Young. “There were options for her to be played by someone else because it wasn’t necessarily such a direct transference of persona, but by the time that we actually got to shooting, it was pretty clear that Paula should be a recognizable enough figure to an audience that it just had to be me.”

The film’s structure of having four people–two married couples, one older and poisonous, the other younger and innocent–in an enclosed setting is reminiscent of Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, filmed in 1966 by Mike Nichols with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the lead roles.

“There was a lot of talk about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on set,” says Young. “Because there is such a mirror image to the types of characters and the dynamics where you have this couple who are at each other’s throats, but you also sense that they’re the smartest in the room. And though they may despise each other at times, they could never leave each other because they would never find someone who could handle each other. Simultaneously with Fred and Rose, they’re a young, impressionable couple who really are not quite sure of how deep they’ve really gotten into this situation.”

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For all the talk of Albee’s masterpiece, however, the core of Shirley comes down to the title character and the powerful central performance by Moss, who Josephine Decker says fully immersed herself in the mystique and persona of the complicated author. “I know Lizzie did a bunch of research,” says the director. “We were all reading the Ruth Franklin bio of Shirley, and we were also really excited by obviously reading the Shirley novel and trying to really get inside of this world and this person that Sarah Gubbins had written.”

“It was the best acting master class one could ask for in a way,” says Young. “And not just because Logan and I were learning, but because we got to be a part of it. I think Logan is obviously far more experienced than I am as well, and I learned from him. I learned from Michael and Lizzie, from members of the crew… just to, especially in some of those ensemble scenes, fill any space of that was such a privilege for me as an actor, to be a part of such a high caliber of talent.”

Decker adds, “Lizzie’s brilliant. She’s so smart, and she has great, strong opinions, so it was really just exciting to encounter her and try to support her in this vision that she brought to playing Shirley. I think that there was so much kind of unhinged reality that blossomed out of her, so I feel really grateful I got to work with her on this. And she just killed it.”

Shirley is available now on Hulu, via VOD and at limited drive-ins and theaters.