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How ‘The Sky Is Everywhere’ Director Josephine Decker Made Her Happiest Film Yet — About Grief

Decker and star Grace Kaufman unpack the emotional A24 film that opens Friday

The whimsy and imagination of a film like “The Sky Is Everywhere” is all the more impressive knowing that production took place during COVID and during California wildfire season, offering unique challenges to getting the story onscreen. 

“It’s like two competing crises,” director Josephine Decker recalled in a recent interview with TheWrap. “COVID is like, only have meetings with other people outside. And then there’s California wildfires [with] ash falling in the air, and it’s like do not go outside under any circumstances, stay inside with air filters running.”

Based on the book by bestselling author Jandy Nelson, who also wrote the screenplay, the film follows teen Lennie Walker (Grace Kaufman) as she juggles feelings of grief, new love and loss in the wake of the unexpected death of her sister Bailey (Havana Rose Liu). Following the tragedy, Lennie starts experiencing romantic longing.

“The Sky Is Everywhere” is adapted from the YA novel of the same name from 2010. The film is the second movie of a previously announced partnership between Apple and A24. The film hits Apple TV+ and select theaters Friday.

“The heart of the film [centers] around this profound loss that Lennie goes through,” Decker said. “And navigating also just being a human being who is growing into her sexuality and is trying to maybe also avoid her feelings a little bit by falling in love, but really reckoning with this grief that she is going through.”

Decker, whose previous features include the indie “Madeline’s Madeline” and the claustrophobic Shirley Jackson thriller “Shirley,” described the film as the happiest movie she’s ever made, even though the story centers around “the worst thing that could happen” to a younger sister like Lennie. Bailey’s death also tears holes in the lives of their makeshift parents Gram (Cherry Jones) and Uncle Big (Jason Segel).

“The vision was like, how do you make the happiest movie you’ve ever made about grief, and also be really honest and true to the grief and let the audience into Lennie’s experience?” Decker said. “It felt really important for the audience to identify with it and really believe the depth of her grieving, so that was super challenging in the edit to make sure that we kept the levity and the comedy and the play of the script and also really let you into Lennie’s subjectivity and let you into that darkness.”

Bailey also left behind her boyfriend Toby Shaw (Pico Alexander), who reveals some secrets of his own as he and Lennie bond over their shared loss. Decker opted for different visual approaches for the characters.

“We played a lot with different lenses …  with Joe [new student played by Jacques Colimon], it’s a very wide angle, very open sphere. You can kind of see everything,” Decker said. “With Toby, we shot on dollies and on handheld and we use longer lenses to make the space around them a little bit more closed […] focusing on the grief and the rawness of that feeling.”

The bright and colorful wardrobe broadens the imaginary scope of the film and counters the devastation that Lennie feels.

“[Lenny] does wear a lot of really colorful clothes. She has that yellow jacket which felt so important, remember there’s this like innocence to a primary color like that and especially like one solid primary color that feels very Lennie, especially at the beginning,” Decker said. “There’s a simplicity inside of her, but then she enters this very, very complex world of grief. I think the color is also pointing towards — I don’t wanna say a simpler time because I think a color can be very complex too — but that there’s something really joyous about having all those colors in the film.”

Decker and her team chose Humboldt County in Northern California to capture the redwood forests and ground the film in other nature settings that brought Nelson’s novel to life. Additional ‘Lenniescapes,’ or glimpses into Lennie’s mind designed by Nelson when she wrote the script, helped express more abstract emotions against the actual physical forest backdrop.

“One of the things that drew me to the script was that you’re in Lenny’s imagination so much that there’s these Lenniescapes where you’re kind of flying into the sky with her or floating out of your body and kissing someone like it’s so magical. It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before,” Decker said. “It felt important to me to really let those be. I didn’t want to do a lot of CGI.”

Filling the role of Lennie is Grace Kaufman, who deepened her understanding of Lennie through embodying the character’s affinity for poetry.

“I’d kind of dabbled in writing poetry, but while we were filming I found myself on our days off, I’d go into the woods with either other classmates or just solo and I would just have this little journal and I would write poetry in it,” Kaufman told TheWrap. “And it was really soothing. It also helped me become more observant of my surroundings and take in all the natural beauty that was around because, it’s something that Lennie does as well.”

As with so many YA books, there is a love story at the heart of “The Sky Is Everywhere” and something of a love triangle between Lennie, the new kid Joe Fontaine and her late sister’s ex-boyfriend Toby. As for which side Kaufman falls, she confesses she has an affinity for Joe.

“I can understand the appeal of both, but I think deep down Lenny and Joe are just totally meant to be,” Kaufman said. “I think that deep down the whole time I was rooting for the two of them because Joe is just totally this light in Lenny’s life while I think Toby is kind of this reminder of the past. Joe is this kind of like a guide to the future where he kind of gives Lennie this element of hope and reminds her that life is meant to be celebrated and meant to be lived to its fullest. So he kind of brings her out of the depths of despair and reminds her that which I think is such a beautiful message.”

Of all the quotes from the book and voice-overs in the film, one that stuck with Kaufman the most didn’t actually make it into the movie. 

“It’s when Joe and Lenny go up to the coast and they’re standing on that kind of elevated part talking, and then they end up kissing and stuff,” Kaufman said. “I remember [Jandy] wrote Lenny and Joe are like driving together in the Truth Mobile down the coast, and there’s this gorgeous swirling sunset. I wish I remembered it word for word: She was like it’s the kind of like heart-leaping magical drive that you remember when you’re eighty. It was just so beautiful, and it brought tears to my eyes.”

The story culminates in an uplifting hot air balloon ride that ends the film on two high notes — the love triangle gets solved, and Lennie feels closer to Bailey. 

“That last section I think feels so important to me, because the film doesn’t talk directly about spirituality, but then when you have this revelation you sort of understand in this deeper way that Bailey has been present throughout the film and throughout Lenny’s journey,” Decker said.” I think it really gets at this connection between earth and heaven. You know, Jandy put them in the f—ing sky. I think that was probably intentional on her behalf, and so we just had to support it like, yes, there’s loss and something that always makes me cry at the end in the movie is like, that person is still always there.”

“The Sky Is Everywhere” opens in select theaters and begins streaming on Apple TV+ on Friday.