“All These Other Misogynists Waiting to Pounce”: Sophia Takal on Black Christmas
Rotely obsessed with heroic Final Girls and the murderers brandishing phallic-shaped penetrative weapons who stalk them, slasher films have long been the subject of gender-study discourse and academia, each observation proving that a knife can be perceived as more than a knife, a stabbing more than a stabbing. What is it about the anonymous, shadowy male presence that feels so threatening? Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas seeks to investigate and literalize that question, presenting the modern male as someone who can be equally powerful and deceitful. What’s so scary about the fictional Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees when the world we inhabit offers up Brock Turner and Brett Kavanaugh?
Technically a remake of a 1970s slasher from filmmaker Bob Clark (shot nine years before he’d reach notoriety for directing that other yuletide classic, A Christmas Story), this modern update of Black Christmas is interested in exploring rape culture, sexual assault on college campuses and the unequal power dynamic that favors men over women. It’s Christmas break on a suburban college campus, and a group of politically-active sorority sisters are spending the holiday together at their shared home. What could go wrong does as, one by one, each woman is picked off by a masked killer (or masked killers), wearing long robes that hearken back to an ancient cult? Who are these ominous stalkers and why are they offing the sorority house over such a festive time of year?
The answer is both goofy and timely. Having to do with males’ endless need to claim superioity over the opposite sex, the big reveal doesn’t flip the script; it further contextualizes it. Our Final Girl, Riley (Imogen Poots), is a sexual assault survivor, and, having been recurringly haunted by a rape she experienced on campus, fights back for each of the women who never received a chance. Both funny and poignant (one moment we’re seeing a student’s DivaCup offered up as an object of pagan sacrifice and in another our lead delivering righteous justice to her abusers), Black Christmas is less a “message movie” than a movie that organically teases out the themes inherent in the slasher genre.
Do moviegoers need a socially-conscious reimagining of Black Christmas? I think so, especially in a world in which a previous remake from 2006 crashed and burned due to in-house meddling from its distributor, The Weinstein Company. This 2019 version, produced by the prolific Blumhouse and directed and written by women, can be seen as a necessary corrective.
A few days after the film opened in theaters throughout North America, I spoke with Takal about the fast production schedule, the need for a PG-13 rating and the online discourse the film has sparked.
Filmmaker: We’re chatting on the Monday morning after your film’s opening weekend (where it’s currently playing in over 2,600 theaters). Are you the type of filmmaker who likes to attend as many screenings as possible to gauge an audience reaction? Do you shut down your social media accounts until the publicity dies down?
Takal: This is the first time I’ve ever had a wide release like this, so I’ve yet to develop a tradition! I was on social media a lot this past weekend and was made aware of the dialogue going on between people who appreciated what the movie was trying to do versus people who seemed really hostile to what we were trying to talk about. One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that, due to there being so many opinions online, I’m lucky enough to not take the negative too seriously. I’m aware of the really mean and hostile, sexist things people are currently saying about the film, but there are other people who have publically vocalized the opposite opinion. Therefore it doesn’t feel as bad as it could have.
Filmmaker: Is it a vastly different experience than touring the festival circuit, as you’ve done in the past, and most recently with your feature Always Shine?
Takal: It’s definitely been a different experience. What’s also been different about Black Christmas is that we wrote, shot, and put out the movie within nine months. I haven’t had time to reflect on the process of making it. I wrote Always Shine and tried to get it made for two years before we actually shot it, and then we edited it for another year, and then it came out on the festival circuit, and then it came out for a theatrical run months later. I had so much time to process each stage of that process. With Black Christmas, there was an energy and an urgency to the movie that bled into the release. I’m just getting my bearings now because the process was so intensive. I was working seven days a week for three months to finish the movie on time.
Filmmaker: You had previously worked with Blumhouse on a feature for Hulu (New Year, New You) and with that project you became the first woman to direct a Blumhouse production. Did you realize you’d be working with them again so quickly?
Takal: It was a couple of months after the New Year, New You release that Blumhouse asked me to do Black Christmas. While I really enjoyed working with them on New Year, New You, I was hesitant to do this movie because of the timeline, of not knowing if I’d have enough time to literally make a movie. I just had no idea. New Year, New You was made on a really fast timeline as well, but there were parts of that process that made it easier to work quickly.
Filmmaker: Like what?
Takal: For example, there weren’t test screenings on New Year, New You and we were able to shoot it in Los Angeles (whereas we went all the way to New Zealand for Black Christmas). There was a written script in place, and even though I rewrote it, it already existed. Black Christmas, on the other hand was all from the ground up. I was a little nervous, even though I loved the people I worked with on both projects at Blumhouse; it felt like we were “in it together.” It was really exciting, being a woman asked to direct a studio, theatrically wide release, and so I was definitely going to try it and see what I could do. I wanted to see how much of myself I could put into that process.
Filmmaker: Black Christmas presented you with an opportunity to once again work with Mark Schwartzbard, who was your DP on Always Shine. Did he shoot New Year, New You?
Takal: No, he was working on another project at the time, so I worked with another great cinematographer, Lyn Moncrief.
Filmmaker: For these Blumhouse projects, do you have certain people you’ve worked with in the past that you can rely on in these fast-paced environments? A shorthand to make the transition from one project to another slightly easier?
Takal: In the case of Black Christmas, having Mark as the DP was really important, as the film was to be on such a large-scale. Other than Mark, I didn’t get to pick any of my crew. Everyone else was assigned to me either through Blumhouse or via being on set in New Zealand and meeting people locally. While I ended up very lucky, the idea of making a movie that was going to be seen on such a bigger scale than anything I’d previously made was really scary, especially since I hadn’t worked with most of these people before. What if I were to work with people who didn’t speak the same cinematic language as me or didn’t understand what I was trying to do? It was really important for me to bring Mark on.
Filmmaker: When you signed on to direct, there wasn’t a script in place. How quick was the turnaround for a first draft? Had you reached out to your eventual co-writer, April Wolfe, by this point?
Takal: First I tried writing my own draft, but that version was like a harrowing “incel/school shooting” story and I was like, “No, I cannot make this.” It could’ve been an awesome movie, but…no [laughs]. I wrote that draft really quickly. I then wrote another draft, this time as more of a straightforward slasher movie that was more like a straight up remake [of the original], but for whatever reason, as I was writing it, I felt that it didn’t excite me as a director. I didn’t want to direct that movie.
One of the things I don’t like about the slasher genre is the way women’s deaths are expected to entertain and titillate. It feels (at least at this moment in time) really bad and I didn’t want to add another voice to that. It was around this time that I sent the script to April. She knows so much about horror, and as I didn’t know how my Black Christmas script was going to end up, I asked her, as a friend, if she could take a look at the script and help me help figure out a way to make it fresher and more exciting, something that I might want to actually direct.
April read the draft and came back with tons of thoughtful ideas, and that’s when I asked if she would co-write the movie with me. She came up with the supernatural twist that’s revealed in the third act—I know that’s a spoiler, but hey, the movie’s out—and that was really exciting, because a big part of the movie is this idea that misogyny can’t ever be fully eradicated (that’s why the film has multiple killers). Just when women think they’ve beaten it and feel they’ve made some progress in beating sexism, there are all these other misogynists waiting to pounce. I wish I could remember exactly how April articulated it, but speaking for the both of us (and probably a lot of other people), misogyny can feel almost magical. Just like in real life, misogyny is this dark force that exists and feels extremely heavy. It has such a strong hold on people and feels almost supernatural in a way. In real life, it’s not something you can get rid of (it’s been going on for thousands of years) and we wonder where it all came from. It feels like some crazy force, and to be able to take that idea and put it into our screenplay was important to us.
Filmmaker: I have to admit that I watched Black Christmas back-to-back with Jay Roach’s Fox News expose, Bombshell, and one felt like the spiritual predecessor to the other. There’s that line late in your film where Professor Gelson (played by Cary Elwes) talks about how these misogynistic fraternity members will grow up to hold all the power in the workforce and there’s nothing women can do about it. Bombshell depicts an all too real example of that.
Takal: We actually considered removing that speech from the film because we felt it might be too heavy-handed. And then in October, when Representative Katie Hill had to resign from Congress, she gave a speech where she said something along the lines of, “Yes, I’m resigning, but there are sexual predators who are still walking among us.” She basically said the same thing we had in the movie and we all agreed, “Now we have to keep that in.” Maybe it still feels heavy-handed to some viewers, but it’s the reality of what’s going on and it was interesting to see what we wrote being simultaneously reflected in modern society.
Filmmaker: How did you settle on New Zealand for the shoot?
Takal: That was also a result of the production timeline we had in place. Blumhouse asked, “Why not New Zealand,” and they came to that decision after numerous research. We had to shoot in the summer in order for the film to come out this year, and, of course, the Southern Hemisphere experiences winter in June and July, etc. and New Zealand already has a strong film infrastructure in place. We came across this old university, the University of Otago, that had a very Northeastern, old school college vibe to it, so that’s where we focused our search. We ended up not being able to find everything we needed within that town (and eventually had to move a few hours away to complete the film), but that one stretch of New Zealand basically had everything we needed.
Before shooting, I hadn’t realized that sororities and fraternities were almost strictly American institutions. For whatever reason, I just assumed that they felt, for lack of a better word, very British [laughs]. I was surprised to find out these groups were very much American institutions.
Filmmaker: The film opens with a female student being stalked, except she’s not sure by whom. She’s receiving creepy text messages on her phone, but they could be from anyone, including the mysterious man walking behind her down a suburban street at night. This is as much a slasher scenario as it is a real-life precursor to anonymous assault. How did you work to ground these very real dangers within a heightened scenario that involves a masked killer?
Takal: We wanted to reflect how scary it feels to be a woman sometimes. That organically lends itself, in my opinion, to the slasher movie genre, or to a movie where women are being stalked, or where there’s a fear of being alone with a man. I wanted to capture what that feels like. We wanted to feature specific details from our own experiences of feeling unsafe, then to incorporate them into a genre that already has a lot of language established for itself.
Filmmaker: In one of the classroom scenes taught by Professor Gelson, the students are reading a text from feminist academic Camille Paglia. This feels like a deliberate choice, both because of Paglia’s background but also due to news of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts’ (where Paglia teaches) student body recently attempting to get her ousted (much like Gelson experiences a student revolt in your film). How did Paglia’s inclusion make her way into your screenplay? I wonder what she’d think of the film.
Takal: Oh, I’d love to know how she would perceive the movie. Thinking back, I forget if April and I first went over Paglia quotes [to include in the film] or what, but she was obviously someone whose writing we had been very aware of. She has this idea of head-magic versus belly-magic and April and I really wanted to play with that, as well as this idea of women’s intuition and of feeling-versus-logic. That encapsulates much of our movie in a lot of ways. But then there’s this other part to that idea, that the very language and logic that women use to defeat the patriarchy is actually the language of patriarchy itself. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it’s something along those lines. The character of Riley’s interpretation is that women will use the tools of men in order to fight the patriarchy. In a very strange way, we’re portraying that thesis, even though we’re not totally into what it represents.
As to that specific classroom scene, we felt that it was the perfect character choice for Professor Gelson to be teaching the writing of Camille Paglia. There are so many men who point to Paglia and say, “See, a woman thinks this too, so that must mean we’re right.” Someone like Gelson would use her as a tool to justify proving a sexist point. It makes perfect sense.
Filmmaker: The film does have a very strong message, yeah, but it’s also very funny. Judging from some of the vitriol online, you wouldn’t know that it’s very humorous at times. I’m thinking back to the random personal items that are linked to each sorority sister being prepared for ritualistic sacrifice…
Takal: Like the one student and her DivaCup? [laughs]
Filmmaker: Exactly! Serious things are being said, don’t get me wrong, but there’s also a lightheartedness to some of it as well (and that’s apparently been lost on some people). Was it tough to balance that tone?
Takal: I wanted to make a movie that people could laugh with and laugh at, in spite of the horror of what it is to be a woman and watching that on screen. Humor is a really great way of showing a character’s intelligence, so the fact that these women are funny is a really quick way of portraying them as sharp and intelligent. There’s that classic Margaret Atwood quote about how “men are afraid that women will laugh at them, while women are afraid that men will kill them.” We wanted to take that power away from these super misogynists and provide women and (and audience members in general) something to laugh at. That was really important to me, to get a kick out of how ridiculous being a woman can feel in real life. Sometimes you just have to laugh at how much people hate you and want to destroy you and don’t want you to exist. If you don’t laugh, you will go crazy. It was important to April and I to infuse the movie with that kind of humor.
Filmmaker: The film is rated PG-13, which I know has befuddled some in the rather vocal horror community. But I think you work with that rating really well, and in a meta kind of way, it draws attention to the puritanical nature of the MPAA rating system itself. By obscuring certain murders or “bad words,” you’re making the viewer more aware of them.
Takal: That whole process was very strange. Our film is dealing with characters who have been sexually assaulted and so that automatically pushes us extremely high up on the PG-13 spectrum and any violence beyond that pushes us into an R. We had to pull back quite a bit. The violence in the film doesn’t always feel completely real, but Imogen’s performance as Riley (and especially in the scene where she is assaulted) really felt like she was being attacked. It wasn’t cartoonish violence, and yet to include all of it would have turned the film into an R.
It was a crazy negotiation process, trying to figure out what we’d have to take out. I didn’t want to lose anything having to do with the sexual assault. I didn’t want to like be euphemistic about that, and yet I still wanted the movie to be scary and to satisfy what people have come to expect from a slasher movie. It was a fine balance, and I had to lose some things that I really loved, that I was bummed to lose, particularly in the last scene where Kris defiantly says, “Suck my clit,” and later finding out that we’re not allowed to say “clit” if we wanted a PG-13. We had to [obscure the line in the final cut] somewhat, but I’m glad we shot her saying “suck my clit.” As for the violence, there’s the scene where one of the killers shoots the boyfriend, Nate, in the face with an arrow, but then we were told that we couldn’t show his face with the arrow in it. It was a very interesting negotiation to try to get to that PG-13. Even so, it was a rating that I was committed to obtaining, as it was important to me that young people see this movie.