As filmmakers and multi-talented artists, you can’t get much more nakedly transparent than Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell, who bare their bodies and souls with their Tribeca-premiering documentary Flames. Shot over the course of five years, the project charts the immensely passionate and profound relationship between the two artists, watching the spectacular romance, excitement and adventure of their relationship at its peak, and the fallout as Decker and Throwell clash, falling out of love with each other.
While the project wound up going on for years, the initial spark came from conversations surrounding one of Throwell’s shows at MoMA. “I asked, what are the parameters for the project?’ and they said, “You do whatever the hell you want.” And I said, “Whatever you want?” And they said, ‘Yes,” Throwell shared.
Although the romantic relationship lasted less than a year, with some reluctance on Decker’s part, the documentarians carried forward, documenting honest and occasionally ugly moments as the relationship went down in flames, and incorporating footage of the making of the film in but one layer of a very meta and intricate picture.
“I think I was pretty sure the project was dead because when we broke up, I was like, ‘Great, that thing’s over. No one will ever see that footage, which is probably better,’” Decker explains. “And then Zefrey was like, ‘OK, we’re just going to shoot one more thing, and then the movie’s going to be done.’ I was like, ‘I never want to see you again! I’m not shooting anything, and you don’t understand story structure. The movie’s not going to be done—we didn’t shoot a full movie.”
With reluctance each time — and no certainty that the project ever would amount to anything, given that Throwell’s background was in art, and not in film — Decker agreed to meet with her co-director and film every six months following their breakup.
“If I had known that we were going to shoot for four years, every six months after we broke up, I probably would have been like, ‘No way! I’m out!’” Decker admits.
“I definitely wouldn’t have done it either, but you know, you’re putting together the pieces,” Throwell says. “Let’s say you’re working on a sculpture, and you finish the arm, and you think, ‘Perfect. We’ve got an arm, we’re done.’ And then you’re like, ‘What about a torso?’ And then you get that torso done and you’re like, ‘No neck? Where’s the neck?’ This is really how it went.”
This is perhaps what is most fascinating about Flames — the way it was pieced together over time, with Throwell simply following his artistic intuition over the course of years, winding up with a film that is unlike any other.
“I think what was cool about it was that partly because Zefrey came from an art background — not necessarily a film background — he didn’t realize that what he was making was not a normal movie, at all,” Decker says.
Making a movie documenting your own life, in its most intimate and provocative moments, you’d expect a certain level of self-consciousness, or an awareness of the camera that would prevent genuine interactions on screen—and this is a problem that Flames surmounts. “I think the camera does always change things, but I’ve been around cameras a lot in my life, and also was working in documentary for a long time, where your whole job is to make the person on the other side of the camera feel like there’s no camera,” Decker shares. “So I think I got used to pretending that there’s no camera, and that helped with these more intimate set-ups.”
In Deadline’s video above, Decker and Throwell expound on their unique artist process and the ups and downs of their lived-in cinematic experience.
Flames premiered at Tribeca on Thursday. To look for upcoming screenings of the documentary, click here. Paradigm Talent Agency is overseeing U.S. and international sales.