Writer Director Sophia Takal on Persona, Female Aggression and Her Psychological Thiller, Always Shine
Following its New York premiere this past Thanksgiving weekend, Sophia Takal’s highly recommended psychological drama Always Shine opens today in 16 markets across the United States. When the film premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, I wrote
Sophia Takal makes her long-awaited to follow-up to her microbudget stunner Green with Always Shine, which takes the abstracted psychological thriller aspects of her debut and warps them into, well, a crafty, intelligent and altogether satisfying psychological thriller. It’s Persona meets Mulholland Drive meets Single White Female as a weekend getaway between two old actress friends goes horribly awry. Caitlin Fitzgerald is the demure starlet who is suddenly successful after a string of love object roles while Mackenzie Davis is her friend, who is perhaps even more talented but doesn’t have the “right look.” What she does have, though, is that self-sabotaging whiff of desperation, and Takal’s direction hits all the requisite genre beats while perceptively honing in on these actresses’ insecurities, unthinking betrayals and wounding microaggressions.
I spoke with Takal — who first appeared in our pages as a 25 New Face in 2011 — last Spring, just before her premiere, but by the time the transcription came back and the piece was edited, her screenings were over. So, I decided to hold this interview for the release, but, as you’ll see at the end, I felt self-conscious about running it so long after our conversation. After months on the festival circuit, including an international premiere at the Venice Film Festival in the Venice Days section, and, then, a psychological landscape altered by the recent presidential election, was the tone of our conversation off? So, months later, after talking with Takal about inspirations, collaborating with husband Lawrence Levine, casting, the size of her crew, shooting with zoom lenses, and more, I emailed Takal two follow-ups that take our conversation straight up to the present day.
Filmmaker: So, when did you first get the idea for Always Shine?
Takal: It was right after Green. Some of my female friends got a little more successful, and I started to get jealous. I had been taught that my whole identity was wrapped up in my career and this idea of being successful, and the people I saw getting successful were, I thought, more feminine than me. They were these shy, quiet, beautiful, perfect female archetypes. I started to go crazy — I was angry at all my friends, I alienated them, and I acted a lot like Anna does in beginning of the movie. It caused a huge strain on my friendships and on my relationship with Larry.
Then I started to realize that throughout my whole life I had encountered this narrative of being too loud, aggressive, ambitious. I tracked it all the way back to kindergarten, where I was made fun of for being to loud and big. These ideas of [what is feminine] had been taught and ingrained in me from the beginning of my life. The way I start to make movies is to talk to other people about issues I am struggling with, so [the themes of Always Shine] became a good thing to explore.
Filmmaker: So there’s almost a therapeutic role for you as a filmmaker?
Takal: Yes — I’m putting my own shame and feelings of not fitting in [into a movie] so other people can feel less stifled by these images too.
Filmmaker: How did your husband and screenwriter, Lawrence Levine, relate to these themes?
Takal: [After Green] Larry was going through a similar thing as me. His masculinity was being challenged because people were paying more attention to me. There was competition, and he was feeling the same things [but viewed through] his gender: “I’m the man, but I’m not rich enough, successful enough.” My struggles with femininity mirrored his own issues with masculinity, so the story resonated with him. And that’s how we developed the script together. It’s very much about femininity, but he was feeling trapped too, so he was able to relate.
Filmmaker: So did the film help you resolve these issues?
Takal: The process of making the movie is what helped me resolve these issues. This movie took a lot longer than Green. It was five-year long process instead of two weeks. And having to rise to the occasion, deal with setbacks, the financing, the long casting process — my natural assertiveness was beneficial in this context. Assertiveness and decisiveness felt better when I was the director. As an actor I’m a pain in the ass. I argue with directors who just want an actor to do the job and be quiet. That’s not who I am, and I can be difficult in that context. So, yes, making the movie was a really cathartic experience.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the casting process. You made a film where actresses are playing actresses. To what degree were you looking for actresses who had internalized already the themes you were working with?
Takal: When I’m casting, I’m looking for someone who I have to say the least to because they totally understand the part already. So I talked to a lot of actresses, and the script resonated with all of them at different levels. Mackenzie Davis really understood Anna — she is a really powerful woman, and she understands how the world can be wary of that. She’s an intense, opinionated person, and so she totally got it. We did a week of rehearsal, and on one of the first nights in Big Sur we played this little game and Mackenzie was very competitive. She was like me — I’m very competitive in recreational situations.
Filmmaker: And what was the game that you played?
Takal: “Celebrity.” It’s really fun. Everyone writes a bunch of names on pieces of paper and throws them into a hat. In the first round you can use as many words as you want to say who it is. In the next round you can use only one word. And in the final word you have to act it out silently.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about genre. Green was a psychological drama that had psychological thriller impulses almost under the surface. With Always Shine, you have embraced the genre of psychological thriller, or even psychological horror, much more explicitly. How did you come to do this?
Takal: We always intended to make this more of a genre film than Green, in part because I wanted more people to see it. [The screenwriter] Simon Barrett watched Green, and he said, “Someone should have died in the end.” I thought, “I get it — I should go all the way with this.”
Also, a really long time ago I sent an early draft to Ted Hope. He said, “You made this movie really small — you can make it bigger.” His was a critique of the last third; he said instead of pulling back, I could make it more interesting. And that was helpful. Making it more of a genre film was easy once I accepted the theme of the movie, which is if you want to be a self-actualized person, then you have to acknowledge you are who you are even if parts of yourself don’t fit into who you want to be. And if you suppress anger and rage they will appear in these weird perverted ways, and you can’t be an authentic self.
Filmmaker: Did you study up on the so-called rules of your genre when you were working on the script? And what about all those slow, ‘70s-styled zooms?
Takal: I wish i knew what the rules were when I started! I like genre movies, but I don’t watch a lot of them. I showed my DP, Mark Schwartzbard, Three Women, Images and Persona, and we studied how we could, with a small budget and small crew, get this really creepy energy. Those films were really big influences. We bought the DVD for Persona, but it was dubbed in Italian with no subtitles. Larry and I watched it while we lived in Big Sur for a month doing prep. We couldn’t understand it — only how it was shot.
I really wanted to use slow zooms. I had been planning the movie for a year with Mark, and once it was finally happening, he said, “I don’t know if we can afford a zoom lens because it requires a special mount with the camera we are using.” So I went on eBay and found a vintage zoom lens from the ‘70s for $2,000. I said to Mark, “Would this work,” and he said, “Yes, it would.” That was the only lens we shot on.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the editing and working with the filmmaker Zach Clark as editor.
Takal: I had tried to cut an assembly myself, but what I wanted in my brain I didn’t have the skill to cut. Zach asked me to watch some Japanese sexploaiton films from the ’60s like Koji Wakamatsu’s Go Go Second Time Virgin, as well as some films by Alaine Robbe-Grillet. He told me, “This is what I’m thinking.” He was really cool to work with.
Filmmaker: During my last interview with you, when I spoke to both you and Larry about Wild Canaries, you told me you had a lot of issues working with your crew as a young female producer. Did that change this time out with you as a director?
Takal: I think why I could process these issues this time is that I found a group of people iI felt safe around. I encountered men who could deal with my energy without thinking I was too intense. Sometimes as a woman, people don’t assume you’re the director. I’ve heard stories from other female filmmakers about their DPs trying to direct the scenes because they don’t think the female director is communicating properly.
Filmmaker: Why did you choose Big Sur as your location? It’s such a wealthy place; how did you manage to pull off such a low-budget shoot there?
Takal: I had an emotional connection to Big Sur — I just love it so much — but not a logistical one. My friend John Baker put me in touch with a woman who lives there, and she showed me a bunch of locations. We became friendly with a real estate agent there who owns the Big Sur Bakery. He helped me find a rental house that we could rent for two months.
The only way to shoot in Big Sur is to have millions of dollars or to be so small that no one knows you are there. Our crew was six people. The majority of the film takes place in and around that house, and once we secured it, we had a home base. Then, Larry and I showed up a month early to develop relationships. We were shocked at how generous businesses were in letting us shoot after hours. Everyone was supportive and nice. Part of what I wanted to do with this movie, and part of reason I didn’t act in it, was because I wanted the experience of making it to be fulfilling and of paramount importance. Our energy was, “We are making this art project,” and that made people more willing to help.
The cast and crew all stayed in that house, and we all had breakfast together. Because the crew was small and movie was intense, I really didn’t want there to be a line between the cast and crew. I want the cast to feel safe exploring these intense emotions in front of the camera, so the whole cast and crew did group meditation and acting warm ups in the morning. Then we would shoot the rest of the day, and my sister would cook dinner every night. We would talk about everyone’s high of the day and the low of the day so that we knew our process was working.
Filmmaker: How did your crew break down?
Takal: We had a DP, an AC, a part-time grip, a sound mixer and a production/costume designer. And then there was Larry, the producer, and my sister doing craft serves, catering and PAing.
Filmmaker: What’s the final outcome for you after this movie in terms of what it taught you and how it’s going to change the trajectory of what you do next?
Takal: It made me more confident in working with actors I don’t know. That was a big thing for me. I was able to figure out how to communicate with people who, going in, don’t know my taste or what I want from performance. I think I rose to the occasional and articulated what I needed and wanted. For my next movie, I want to work again with professional actors.
I think Always Shine has made me more confident as a filmmaker. Green felt like a fluke — it was a small movie with my friends, and who knew what I would do in a different situation? As for the next movie, I want to move away from genre stuff to comedy, if I can, because, man, this stuff is kind of heavy. But I’m just trying to keep making movies.
Filmmaker: Okay, so you and I are regrouping now because the preceding part of this interview was done before your premiere last Spring at the Tribeca Film Festival. I believe I was one of the first people you talked to about this movie. You were in the process of teaching yourself how to talk to the public about the film, which is something that, for any filmmaker, is different than talking to yourself and then financiers while developing it, and talking to crew while making it. Now that you’ve sat through audience screenings, read reviews, gotten distribution, has your vantage point on your work changed? What has surprised you about the reaction, whether that’s on an audience, critical or a business level? Has your perspective on what you made shifted at all?
Takal: Nothing has changed too dramatically…. It’s always nice and somewhat surprising when people respond positively to something so personal, but I felt very proud of Always Shine from the beginning. I felt like I set out to do a specific thing, and I did that thing to the best of my ability, and so audience response and criticism wasn’t something I was looking to as validation of what I had done (whereas I was totally unsure of how to feel about Green, and my own opinion of it shifted as I heard other people talking about it). Maybe I’d be singing a different tune if people had unanimously hated the film, but for me this was always about the process and about making something personal and opening up a dialogue about gender and performance, and I feel like that’s happened in Q&As we’ve had and in a lot that’s been written about the film. One thing that’s been cool is having women come up to me who have seen the film to say how much the film resonates with them. A few days after the Tribeca premiere a waitress at this restaurant I was eating at said to me, “I always was so ashamed of how loud and messy I was, and after seeing you speak so honestly about all the same feelings I have was really reassuring.” And the reaction from men has been exciting, too. I think I braced myself for the possibility that men would hate this movie, but a lot of men responded positively to the film, and some young-ish (teen/twenties) men who have seen it have said that the movie made them realize all the expectations they place on women’s behavior and how they are partly responsible for these tiny boxes women feel they need to fit into. Having men that young articulate that felt like a real victory against the patriarchy!
Filmmaker: Finally, the day after Trump’s election, I received three emails from filmmaker friends. Two felt the themes of their movie were magnified by the election — that their issues were even more urgent. The third felt humbled, that their film’s meanings were suddenly scrambled, and that even the effort of making a film was called into question. How are you feeling about your film and yourself as a filmmaker now that we’re a couple weeks into President-elect Trump?
Takal: One thing that I’ve been conscious of about with regard to Always Shine is that the modes of femininity that I’m deconstructing are very specific to the images of femininity that I received as a white, upper-middle-class woman. And that’s certainly something that needs to be examined but… I mean, the majority of white women voted for Trump. White women throughout history have consistently chosen their race over their gender in terms of who they align their interests with. Susan B. Anthony! So, I’m conscious of that and conscious of trying not to speak for all women when I speak about this film. And I’m actively trying to learn about other narratives and histories that are not the de facto histories that I, as a white person, have learned throughout my life. Part of white privilege is that we don’t even have to think about those histories — they’re abstract to us, not engrained in our bodies and our lives — and I think it’s essential right now to learn what other people have lived through in a meaningful way.
I haven’t processed this election at all and what it means and what’s going to happen to the world. It’s all looking very dark to me. I said to Lawrence the other day that if all the things the president-elect says he’s going to do start happening there’s no way I can sit around and try to get another indie movie off the ground. There will be too much essential, day-to-day work that is going to need to be done in our communities. I still want to make movies and think that movies certainly help shape the cultural dialogue and can be subversive… But I might be coming to a point where I can’t justify the immense amount of self-absorbed energy that I usually exert to get an independent film off the ground when there’s so much pain in real life. Movies take time, and I’m afraid we might not have the luxury of time in a little while… I hope I’m very wrong about this.