The following interview with actor/filmmaker Sophia Takal was originally published on September 5th, 2012, at HollywoodChicago.com. Takal’s third directorial feature, “Black Christmas,” arrives in theaters on Friday.
In a mere four-year span, New York actor/filmmaker Sophia Takal has sported a remarkable versatility. Since 2009, she’s acted in ten feature films and is set to star in many more. Her first lead role was the titular heroine in Lawrence Michael Levine’s 2010 gem, “Gabi on the Roof in July.” Takal and Levine’s offscreen status as a couple enhanced the chemistry between their characters, siblings Gabi and Sam.
Takal later directed Levine and her close friend Kate Lyn Sheil in her directorial debut, “Green,” a hypnotic psychodrama that has garnered various accolades, including the Chicken & Egg Award at SXSW. The film centers on a young urban couple, Genevieve (Sheil) and Sebastian (Levine), who move to the country and befriend a genial local woman (Takal). As the friends’ laughter echoes through the dense, oddly foreboding forest, an underlying sense of unease threatens to dissolve their newfound bond. Levine has described the film as “a monster movie in which jealousy is the monster.” The film opens September 7th at Facets Cinémathèque and is bound to generate impassioned discussion among cinephiles.
Hollywood Chicago spoke with Takal about “Gabi” and “Green,” as well as her recent collaborations with Joe Swanberg, Ti West and Alex Karpovsky.
How did you get your start?
I started out wanting to be an actor and when I was decided to go to college, I was really interested in going to acting school. Then a lot of people told me to go to a regular college instead because “a smart actor is a better actor.” Everyone convinced me that going to acting school was a bad idea, so I started at Vassar. I was going to major in theatre but they required you to take classes about everything related to theatre and I was really not interested in that. I was interested in everything relating to film—film history, film theory—so I decided to major in film. I transferred out of Vassar and into Columbia and it was a similar situation. It was a very holistic approach to film and theatre and I was really interested in learning all I could about all aspects of filmmaking. From there, I met Lawrence, who was my TA, and we started making shorts together. I watched him direct “Gabi on the Roof in July,” and that made me want to direct my own movie. He made it look effortless, and I quickly learned that it’s not effortless.
You’ve studied the acting techniques of Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler and the Upright Citizens Brigade. How have these formed your own approach to acting?
I studied Stella Adler in high school so I think that really formed me, but I don’t find techniques that helpful. I don’t think about the techniques while I’m doing it. I think improvisation is really helpful. As an actor, the most important things are being present, listening and being able to respond in the moment. When you study improv, there are no tricks. You can’t pretend to be listening and you can’t hide behind anything. After college, acting classes were helpful because they allowed me to practice every week. You watch an actor at the beginning of their career and if they are lucky enough to keep working, they’re just going to get better and better because they become more comfortable. And then acting in movies was helpful for learning how to act in movies. [laughs]
Where did the character of Gabi come from?
There were a few people I knew that I drew from, but the bulk of that character came from my experiences of going to Vassar, and even prior to that, when I was still in high school. I was a virgin but I felt like I had to talk about sex and be very provocative and free in order to be a grown-up. By the time we decided to make “Gabi,” I was over that, so I could look critically at it and see how it had gotten me into a lot of situations that I wasn’t ready for and were somewhat traumatic. We talked about where that came from. Also, my parents were going through a divorce right before we made the movie, so that influenced it a bit. The relationship with the brother came from my experience with friends growing up who would say, “If my brother weren’t my brother, I would marry him.” That was a really interesting thing that I saw a lot—these young girls who were really into their older brothers, which I thought was intriguing.
You also researched Fluxus feminist art prior to shooting.
I wasn’t aware of Fluxus art before researching for “Gabi.” There was a symposium at The New School for Fluxus feminist art and from that point on, I was obsessed with it. You probably can’t tell this from “Green,” but I actually think that art should have a sense of humor about itself. Art is very important and it can change lives, but it doesn’t actually save lives. So I think it’s important for art to have a sense of humor about itself and not be super-snobby. Artists shouldn’t think that they’re better than everyone else. Fluxus really plays with the idea of what an artist really is and what art means. That’s how I interpreted it, at least, and that’s what I really responded to. I had this idea that art should be repeatable and it shouldn’t just be for the elite and I feel that that’s true.
Audience reactions were split on the character of Gabi, with some viewers finding her refusal to seek employment unsympathetic. What was your reaction to that?
At first, I took it really personally. I got really mad and got into arguments at Q&As. Particularly men and women over 50 who had kids Gabi’s age just didn’t want to deal with that. I always thought Sam was an unlikable character. He cheats on his girlfriend. Then I’d get mad at Larry and say grown-ups are sexist because they couldn’t handle a flawed female [laughs]. But now I’m like, “Everyone’s allowed to have their own reaction.” I started to realize that audiences aren’t used to seeing flawed characters—they’re used to seeing bad guys, not normal, everyday people who aren’t super-glamorous and perfect. I feel like that’s changing a little bit—I didn’t see the movie, but apparently Charlize Theron is really awful in “Young Adult.”
You’re seeing more flawed females on TV as well as on film. Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls” is another example.
Exactly, I agree. I hope that’s going to become the norm.
“Green” had a much smaller crew and cast than “Gabi,” and was shot in rural Virginia rather than cramped New York apartments. Was the film made in reaction to “Gabi”?
It was a reaction against “Gabi” in so many ways. I was super-jealous on the set of “Gabi” and was kind of impossible to deal with. Time had passed and I was able to look at it and see where that jealousy came from. I decided that I wanted to make a movie that dealt with the issues that I had gone through. I also wanted to make a movie with my friends with no plans of who was going to see it or how we’re going to market it or anything like that. It was a no pressure situation where we were all working together to just create art. I wanted to get away and remind myself why I love making movies.
You and Lawrence have collaborated with Kate on a number of pictures. How did your partnership first come about?
We didn’t know Kate before “Gabi,” but she came in to audition and was great. Through the process of making “Gabi,” she and I became very close friends and we all decided to live together because after we were done making “Gabi,” we were broke and needed a roommate. On a whim, I decided to make “Green.” I knew that I wanted to work with Kate and Lawrence—they were my best friends and I knew we could plan it relatively easily. They’re also two of the best actors I know. I trusted them to be patient with me and not be judgmental since it was my first time making a movie. Their input was very important and it was hugely collaborative. Joe [Swanberg] made “The Zone” a year afterward based on how intimate we had become from living together.
“Green” would make a killer double bill with Joe and Kate’s film, “Silver Bullets.”
I hadn’t seen “Silver Bullets” before I shot “Green,” but I loved that they both played at SXSW. That was fun because they are thematically similar.
Why did you have Kate in mind for the role of Genevieve?
From the moment I conceived of the story, I knew that I wanted Kate to play the main character because of her talent. Her energy seemed right for this character which is weird to say because she’s actually a very strong person [laughs]. She has a softness that’s important to the character. Seeing her dynamic with Lawrence while we lived together was also helpful. He always picked on her and bullied her and sometimes made her cry while we were hanging out and she would put up with it. I thought that would be something fun to play with if they were in a relationship. I wasn’t really interested in playing the main character because it was my first time directing. I actually think a lot of it had to do with my experience on “Gabi” and people not liking my character. I wanted to play a likable character and that’s why I gravitated toward Robin. I didn’t think I had it in me to play another unlikable person, although some people don’t like Robin—they find her annoying. I also didn’t want to relive those feelings of jealousy.
How was the character of Robin conceived?
We shot “Green” at my dad’s house, and I went there every weekend while growing up. The character of Robin was based on two people who lived in that area. One of them lives close to my dad and is much older than Robin but is similarly chatty and always trying to connect. People tend to find that overwhelming, but I always find it endearing. Some people would judge her as stupid but I don’t think she’s stupid at all. She just has different cultural touchstones to talk about. The other person that Robin was based on is a woman who worked at the diner where we shot at. She also used to babysit me. So it was a combination of those two people, mixed with a little bit of me, I guess. Lawrence and Kate are really well-read and know a lot about music and movies and a lot of times they would connect over those things and I would always feel left out because I don’t know a lot about music. That feeling of being an outsider was based on my own experiences.
Did Ozu serve as an influence?
Yeah, totally. Lawrence had introduced me to Ozu and I loved the way that his movies were shot. The first film that my cinematographer, Nandan [Rao], shot was “Bummer Summer,” and it played at the same festival where “Gabi” premiered. I thought it was shot so gorgeously, and he used long takes. That was a direct contrast to the frenetic roving camera of “Gabi.” I wanted “Green” to be still, and I also knew that Lawrence and Kate were such great actors that they could sustain a performance through a whole scene without needing multiple shots to cover up.
After the first week of shooting, you went on hiatus with Lawrence to attend a friend’s wedding. How did that break impact the shoot as a whole?
Oh man, it impacted it so much. The first week I was so bad at directing. I didn’t know how to talk to anyone and I didn’t know how to communicate what I wanted. We had a different DP that week than the one that ended up shooting and reshooting a lot of stuff, and I really didn’t know how to communicate with him. It was one of his first times shooting a feature, so we really did not know how to talk to each other at all. I was really impatient with Lawrence and Kate and was so frustrated that people didn’t know exactly what I wanted, so it was pretty miserable. At the time, I thought it was just going to be a very naturalistic, simple movie. Then on the second to last day, we shot the campfire scene. We shot a wide shot and I kept saying to the DP, “We’re going to run out of light. I want to move in to something else in case we don’t get it in the wide,” because it was really rambly and I knew I was going to want to cut it a bit. He was like, “No, no. Don’t worry,” so it was two hours of shooting without any stopping and I didn’t really know what he was doing. We weren’t going to have time to reshoot it.
I watched the footage and it was totally crazy and weird and shaky. I was so upset that we didn’t have this really crucial scene—which we may still not have. It took a lot to salvage that scene. But what it did do was help me see how the movie could be very subjective and not totally naturalistic. I forget if it was Lawrence or Kate but one of them played me some music that was very eerie and asked, “What if you shifted gears a bit?” From there, it opened up and I saw how the music could work with the footage. Nandan knew [composer Ernesto Carcamo], and he played his music for me. It was perfect and we put it underneath a lot of stuff that we shot. We decided that was the direction we were going to go in. When Nandan came on, we shot all the new stuff with that in mind, and then reshot a bunch of stuff that I didn’t feel we had gotten in the first week. So the whole “horror movie” thing came between the two shooting weeks.
Was the original campfire footage still used in the final cut?
Yes, that’s the footage of the fire and of me and Lawrence. To me, that’s the moment when the movie becomes really weird and gets inside Genevieve’s mind. There’s a really important shift that takes place. When I get jealous, it comes out of nowhere. It’s very abrupt and it’s very severe. I wanted the movie to mirror that feeling but it was such a tough balance to find. Some people are like, “All of a sudden, she’s jealous. It makes no sense.” A lot of times, boys said that and girls were like “Oh no, it totally makes sense.” We ended up shooting one shot of Kate by the fire. We had our friend Ben go to my mom’s backyard in New Jersey. We built a fire in her suburban backyard and shot a bunch of footage of Kate. Then I superimposed that with the original footage of Kate transitioning because it was important to see Kate’s reaction to Sebastian and Robin connecting. Some people still think that the jealousy comes out of nowhere, but that’s sort of by design.
You’ve collaborated with Nandan on many projects since then. What has been the appeal of working together?
I’d tell him what happens in a scene and what was important emotionally for me to capture, and he would show me a few options and let me pick. He was so important for the shoot. He taught me how to talk about cinematography and about the visual aspects of filmmaking. At Columbia, we studied a lot of films, but we only had one filmmaking class and we shot a lot of our own stuff. I didn’t learn about how to talk to a DP or how to think about how to show things visually. He knew exactly what I wanted and he knew how to convey the emotion visually, which was invaluable to me. He was so patient with me. We just shot another movie together that I directed and it was the same thing. If I couldn’t articulate what I wanted, he knew the exact questions to ask to get me to articulate it.
What led you to become involved in “The Zone”?
I had been aware of Joe’s work for a very long time and we’d become friends through Kate. “The Zone” was the first time that I had worked with him and I was super-excited. Since then, I’ve been in two other movies that he’s directed and they have that same style of intuitive filmmaking. They all have the same feeling of just having fun and playing with your friends. On all the movies that I’ve been involved in, for the most part, but particularly the ones with Joe or Kate, there’s this feeling that we’re having fun and we’re doing this because we want to, not because we have to, which is the most wonderful feeling in the world.
In “The Zone,” Joe seems to be questioning his own approach to directing intimate scenes and whether they have damaging consequences for the actors. Have you found yourself asking those same questions?
I don’t really think about those things when I’m directing, but I do think about them when I accept parts in movies and am like, “Should I really be doing another sex scene?” I didn’t think about where this work fell in Joe’s career because while you’re doing it, you’re not sure of what the movie is at all or if it will ever get finished [laughs]. So you’re very much in the moment. We would shoot something and he would do one take or two takes of it and that would be it. I would forget that I was making a movie that people would see. Joe has a way of making you forget that you’re performing. I thought that was really fascinating and really fun.
How hands-off is Joe while filming intimate scenes? There’s an especially intimate scene where you’re filming Lawrence sitting in a chair while Joe isn’t present.
Everything in the movie is real—it’s so weird. We couldn’t tell if he was creating this environment for the movie or if it was real. It was so confusing to figure out whether he was playing the character of “Joe the director” or if he was just being Joe. When we shot that [chair scene], Joe did just get beer and come back later [laughs]. It was a mind-f—k but in a really fun way.
You’re also featured in a segment of the upcoming horror anthology “V/H/S.” Which one?
I’m in Ti West’s [segment]. It was the best thing ever. It was just me, Joe, Ti and Kate sharing a hotel room in Arizona, going out for karaoke every night, shooting sometimes and seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. It was my birthday weekend and they were really nice to me. I didn’t even know that they were submitting it festivals. I had no idea what was going to happen with it, and the fact that it’s this buzzy horror movie is really funny to me. It was such a fun, mellow time.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a comedy about a white girl who goes to Africa to find herself because I think that’s a really funny idea. Half of the movie ideas I have are comedies that poke fun at people and the other half are angsty “Green”-like dramas dealing with female issues. I’m also working on a script called “Always Shine” that Lawrence and I are writing. I’m directing it and planning to shoot it in Big Sur at the beginning of next year. One film that I recently acted in was “Supporting Characters,” which premiered at Tribeca and stars Alex Karpovsky. It’s a really charming romantic comedy that is very likable and so different from most of the movies that I’m involved in. It’s not super-artsy and it has a much wider appeal than a lot of the movies that I’ve been involved in. Basically it’s a movie that Lawrence’s parents saw and really enjoyed, whereas with the movies I make, they’re like, “Oh great, I have to see my daughter-in-law naked again.” [laughs]