“It’s Not Purification, It’s Something Else”: Sophia Takal Scorches Social Media Self-Care Celebrities in her Blumhouse Horror Feature, New Year, New You
In Blumhouse’s first female-directed feature film, New Year, New You, Sophia Takal (Always Shine, Green) sticks four friends from high school (played by an all-female cast toplined by Suki Waterhouse, Carly Chaikin, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Melissa Bergland) and their hidden grievances into one of the women’s sealed residence for a New Year’s reunion. The four are connected, molded and torn by a tragedy in their past that Takal reveals through sharp cuts of glass shattering and blood inking through a pool. Danielle (Carly Chaikin), now a social media self-care icon who claims to mix amongst the likes of Leonardo Dicaprio and Elon Musk, has been shaped by the adversity while the envious Alexis (Suki Waterhouse), the supposed shy iconoclast with a scar, is broken by it. The other two women, Chloe (Melissa Bergland) and Kayla (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), are more or less snared at the ankles in between, dragged one way and back by the claws of the two arch enemies, who manipulate and weaponize them in their battle of passive-turned-active aggression. For a time, the warring foes are morally interchangeable but Takal’s skillful direction and breakneck pacing finally allows the film’s neutrality to shatter, with its characters’s opinions, attitudes and monstrous behaviors brought into the light.
New Year, New You premieres today on Hulu.
Filmmaker: How did you get involved with New Year, New You?
Takal: They sent the script to me. It was a good idea: this group of women who were friends from high school [and who still] harbor jealousy and competition. Then they gave me permission to go in and play with it and shape the characters into very specific and unique women. [I was able to] hone in on the things that were interesting to me and that were in line with what I wanted to make a movie about. But I feel like the tone and the story was pretty much all there for me [so] it was mostly about reshaping these characters.
Filmmaker: Did the original script by Adam Gaines have the alluded-to-tragedy in the past that seems to shape each character differently in the current version?
Takal: It was a different tragedy that they alluded to. The specifics kind of changed, but the general shape stayed the same.
Filmmaker: How long was your shooting schedule?
Takal: We had 15 days. It was a pretty quick process in general. I’m so used to making indie movies where you labor over the script for a year and take forever to raise the money to make it. Then you shoot it, and it’s a year before it plays at festivals, and another year until it gets distribution after that. For New Year, New You I got the script before 4th of July and we were shooting by the end of July. Then we had a couple of months to edit it. Michael Montes had just a couple of weeks to do the score — and there’s so much music in this film. He made such great music so quickly. Everyone was working this fast, and now it’s coming out. It was crazy, and it was really cool to see what I and a whole crew were capable of doing in such a short period of time. But I never felt that anything suffered for having to do it so quickly. A lot of that was having great people operating on the same page, and then we all just dove in on the movie we all wanted to make together.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the casting. I love Melissa Bergland in this. She has to sell a lot and does.
Takal: Yes, she’s so good. I worked with a great casting director, John McAlary, who just knew the style of performance that I was going for. I prefer more naturalistic performances, but the film is also funny, so I needed people who could be both funny and grounded. He was able to find all of these wonderful actresses. I’d never worked with any of them before but I was more or less familiar with the work they’d done prior. This casting process happened very quickly too. We only confirmed our cast the Friday before a Wednesday shoot. So it was really important to find actors who could nail it right away, who could bring it on take one. I was able to get a couple days of rehearsals with the actresses, which was very important to me because they’re [playing] old high school friends who have known each other for years. I didn’t want the first time they met to be on set. So we did backstory rehearsals where they improvised the end of their hanging out in high school. This gave them shared memories and experiences and helped them become more specifically comfortable with each other so that it felt like they were older friends. A lot of them had experience in television and were used to this pace where they didn’t get a lot of takes to find the performance.
Filmmaker: Do you generally prefer to have a lot of rehearsal time with your actors, or are there some instances and character dynamics where you’d prefer the actors met for the first time on set?
Takal: I think it depends on the relationships. I guess I do generally like rehearsals because I like working with actors. But I never rehearse text from the script — it’s always improv, acting exercises, or New Age-y warmups. It’s never like, “Run this scene a bunch of times.” I’d like to find a way to do rehearsals like that with all of my movies, but I guess different actors have different needs and it always depends on how much time you have with them. Backstory rehearsals make a lot of sense to me.
I am kind of inspired by the way Mike Leigh develops his scripts. I think I’m just taking a tiny sliver of his technique and wedging it into a more traditional way of making movies.
Filmmaker: With an intimate ensemble of four actors, were you catering to each of your actresses differently?
Takal: This is the first time that I felt each actor had different needs and needed to be communicated with in a different way. Some actors don’t mind result-oriented direction and would rather have that and other people can get in their heads if you tell them how to say a line without an action beneath it. My natural way of direction is to not give result-oriented direction — to let [actors] interpret that themselves. Almost every scene [in New Year, New You] had four people in it, so I had to find a way of communicating that to each actor in their own language.
Filmmaker: Is that a shared conversation you’re having with all of the actresses on set or one segmented to each actress?
Takal: No, I prefer to take them aside and give them their individual notes.
Filmmaker:And how are you covering these performances? There is an almost constant movement in the frame, a subtle zoom or pan into something dirty in even the stillest shots.
Takal: That was definitely something my cinematographer Lyn Moncrief and I talked a lot about. We watched a lot of movies from the ’70s to get on the same page about what we were going for. We also shot with two cameras, which I’d never done before, and that was really fun. We told one of the camera operators to find the craziest, artsiest, shot they could find and that was his shot — and the other camera would be more traditional coverage. We were still using slow zooms and making something artful in the traditional coverage, but [it would give] us the assurance that we covered the story that we needed to. Then we’d have something, not experimental, but off the traditional coverage to play around with. Everything is shot in this one house, close proximity, five days a week in a row, but Lyn was very good at finding things in the space. We also brought in a lot of mirrors and reflections. They were an important motif that [we could] incorporate into the coverage as well.
Filmmaker: Do you like to shot list heavily? I know this was a faster process than you’re typically accustomed to.
Takal: Lyn and I were given two days to go room to room, scene to scene, and shot list everything. I really like to do that. There’s so much insanity on the day of the shoot that it helps — even if you end up not using it or you find something else — to have something to refer back to in a pinch. It can ground you and remind you, when things get chaotic and you’re worried about making the day, of what your original intention and ambition was.
I’m more comfortable working with actors than I am verbalizing what I want cinematically. I’m not particularly adept at telling people what lens to use or anything like that. So to be alone with the DP and talk about what I want in not the most concise or articulate way when no one else is around, and to have them translate it, takes out this awkward middle step where I’d have to translate to everyone what I’m asking for. Lyn does that for me and communicates it to the various departments.
Filmmaker: Alexis and Danielle are evoked as equally unlikable and shown to conduct manipulative, parallel behavior throughout most of the film, with Danielle even appearing more rational and sympathetic in certain scenes. You don’t totally buy Alexis’s perspective on Danielle, and the film doesn’t sell it as gospel. But eventually the film does allow Danielle to become that monstrous, preying force that Alexis probably always assumed she was. What does that say? That the social media icon of the two tips over and becomes the monster?
Takal: I guess I have a pretty low opinion of internet culture. Everyone has Instagram, I have Instagram, but there are people who create products out of themselves and sell this image of how you’re supposed to live life. I think it’s lame. So I thought it was funny that this person whose image she projects of herself — that she has it all together — is all a facade. We all have a lower-self and you can’t get rid of your lower-self. You can only acknowledge it and round up enough awareness around it to not act out on it. I think in the self-care movement you’re not acknowledging your lower-self, you’re pretending it’s not there and plastering on fancy juices and yoga pants to make it seem like you’re flawless. So of course your lower-self is going to come out in weird and fucked up ways. You’re not acknowledging it, you’re pretending it doesn’t exist.
Another thing is that our culture places value on these people, so it’s understandable that you might think your life would be better if you were like them or became them, which is why Alexis and Khloe, to varying degrees, think they’d be happy if they had it. But you won’t be happier. It’s not real. It’s fake. You’re living a fake life. Kayla knows what’s up, though.
Filmmaker: And then Alexis so immediately fills Danielle’s position, and the ending suggests something cyclical. What does that say?
Takal: I think that’s a comment on the inescapable hole that social media celebrity has made on the culture. It’s also something to do with the way we’re able to turn tragedy into entertainment. If you make yourself a product you become just as disposable.
Filmmaker: Both in New Year, New You and Always Shine you’re playing with your subjects and their relationship to the camera, their personalities that turn on when the cameras hit record and linger after they’ve cut. How have you evolved that theme in New Year, New You?
Takal: I’m really interested in the way that, when you put a camera on someone, people automatically pay attention to the subject. If you’re walking down the street and you see someone holding a camera most people will turn around to see who is being filmed. There’s some magic that a camera has that places value on a subject. Alexis’s journey is wanting to be seen but not wanting to acknowledge that she wants to be seen. She acts like she doesn’t want this thing but she really does, she’s just too ashamed, or embarrassed, or judgemental of herself to want it. And then she realizes she wants to be seen, and even demands that she be seen — and then is. I’m not saying that the way she ends up being seen is healthy or good at all, but I think she starts off as…. Sometimes you’re so repulsed by the things in the world that you want the most but don’t want to admit that you want. So I think that’s where she is with Danielle in the beginning.
Filmmaker: And what about the pool as being the first image, and then with flashes in the middle, and then finally as a bookending image…
Takal: I think for me it’s just that water represents rebirth, which pairs with the new version of yourself in the “new year” idea. But it’s also a perverted version of that because the water is where people die in this movie. So it’s like your rebirth and your new you has this negative thing attached to it. It’s not purification. It’s something else.