In the midst of putting together the shotlist for “New Year, New You,” a claustrophobic thriller largely set inside a mansion, Sophia Takal was looking for a place to put what has become a visual signature, a communion of the fickle elements of nature with the torrent of emotions stirring inside the souls of her characters that has distinguished her films ever since her debut “Green,” where the title could either refer to the woods where the central couple retreats or the feeling of envy that comes to threaten their relationship.
“So much of [“New Year, New You”] is shot in the house, so the little bit of nature I could get was really important to me,” said Takal, who found herself entering a new realm as well with the film produced by Blumhouse as part of the holiday-themed “Into the Dark” anthology series, currently streaming on Hulu.
Fittingly, the eerily atmospheric shot of drooping flowers amongst other greenery reflected in the pool of the creepy manor, with the camera ultimately pulling back to reveal a dead body at the crux of “New Year, New You,” arrives upfront, an announcement not only of the unsettling horror film ahead, but that Takal hasn’t had to sacrifice her distinctive voice — in fact, she’s only refined it — in taking on her first job for hire. After exploring the insidious feeling of jealousy inspired by men that can turn women against one another in her previous two films, first romantically in “Green” and then professionally in her brilliant 2016 thriller “Always Shine,” it isn’t difficult to see what the director saw in what Adam Gaines initially cooked up with “New Year, New You,” a reunion of high school friends on New Year’s Eve who have considerable justification for not seeing each other for a while. Although the less savory reasons make themselves known as the film wears on, the most obvious is that Danielle (Carly Chaiken) has grown famous in the years since they all were classmates, becoming the best friend of millions online as a social media celebrity touting self-love selfies and wellness techniques, presumably having less time for those she knows in real life.
It is with some surprise then that Alexis (Suki Waterhouse) hears back from Danielle, saying that she’d love to come over to say goodbye to the house where she had spent much of her teenage years with Kayla (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Chloe (Melissa Bergland) now that Alexis’ parents have sold the place, and soon enough, the quartet is singing TLC’s “Unpretty” at the top of their lungs and daring each other in a game of “Never Have I Ever…” But the evening turns sour once uglier aspects of the past start cropping up, particularly Alexis’ belief that Danielle’s success has been built on years of making others feel inadequate and opening up old wounds starts to become as physical as psychological.
Takal once again shows a rare ability to convey how each of her characters can prey on each other’s insecurities because they share them as women, and wields her camera with great confidence, working with cinematographer Lyn Moncrief (“The Wind”) to create a phantasmagorical experience that’s as intense and reverberating as it feels to those stuck inside the hall of mirrors she’s set the film. Remarkably, Takal is turning around “New Year, New You” mere months after filming it in late July, tucking an unexpected and most welcome present beneath the tree before the holidays and now that the secret’s out, the filmmaker was clearly excited to spill details about the production, marrying her creative process with the well-oiled machine at Blumhouse and discovering the built-in sexism of stuntwork.
It was so interesting. I had such a fun time doing it and part of that is because Blumhouse is such a filmmaker-driven company. They weren’t interested in having me make their idea of what this would be. They were really interested in helping me make the version of the movie I wanted to make, so it was a really nice toe dip into this world of directing for hire because I felt so supported. There were so many things about it that felt like an indie. I got to choose my cinematographer and I got to propose the cast I wanted and basically, they could approve or didn’t, but they approved it and they really wanted to make sure I got everything I needed. So it was awesome. I want to do it more and more.
Given the themes of jealousy that have run throughout your films, it seems like a social media influencer who can inspire a case of FOMO was inevitable. Was that already in the script when you came on?
Yeah, there was a social media celebrity in the original script, but another way Blumhouse is really wonderful is they let me tweak the script a bit so it could get more specific and deeper into these characters’ minds. One of the things I added was making the character a health and wellness self-love guru social media influencer and that really opened up the story to me and helped make it specific. I’m judgmental of all social media. [laughs] But I think there’s something particularly insidious about this niche market of people telling other people to love themselves, but then are also creating such a curated idea of what you’re supposed to be and how to love yourself that I find a little bit disturbing.
How did you find your cast?
There was this wonderful casting director on the series who helped me and it was a combination of meeting with actresses and having them audition and talking with them, not only knowing that they were talented and they could bring so much to the roles, but also were intelligent and wanted to explore the same ideas that I wanted to explore, [particularly] to confront the way we’re taken by social media and explore this idea that self-love culture and self-care culture might be pretty narcissistic and not healthy.
I remember how collaborative that process was on “Always Shine.” Was this similar?
Actually, one of the challenges I was excited to figure out was how do I bring what worked for me on “Always Shine” to this movie, considering it’s a much bigger budget and a much bigger crew, but a shorter shooting schedule with a lot to cram into 15 days. I was able to do some acting exercises I had done on “Always Shine” — breath work and some hippie New Agey exercises — and also I did have a couple days of rehearsal where I was able to do some backstory and improv so they could rehearse what their friendship had been prior to this moment because part of what’s really important in a movie where everybody’s been friends for a long time is physical and emotional comfort. So I was able to bring that to a set that was run in a very different way than my other two films had been run. [But I was] working with people who had done a lot of TV and were used to the fast pace and were able to work in this very rapid pace flawlessly and brought so much to every take and every scene.
What was it like house hunting for this central location?
It was tough. There was a sauna written into the script, so finding a house that had a room that could either play as a sauna or a steam room was really important and [also one that] at once felt claustrophobic and labyrinthian was another. But Mitchell the location manager was awesome — fun factoid: he had been one of the TAs in college and I hadn’t seen him since I graduated — and he did a really great job. There were other things to consider that were annoying, like one house I loved looked too similar to a house in another episode, so I couldn’t use that one, but I ended up finding a place that I really, really loved. It could’ve been easy to get annoyed [by having to] shoot in the same room over and over again, but because the location was great and the production designer and cinematographer were so wonderful and helped bring my vision to life, it really ended up working out really nicely.
You do all these amazing things with mirrors. How did those come in?
Yeah, that was something from the beginning I had talked about with my cinematographer – I wanted to shoot in reflections as much as possible and one of the reasons I was so drawn to this particular house to shoot in was because there were so many mirrors already there. Then when I talked to the production designer and said, “I want a mirror in every room. As many mirrors as you can get.” Just because we’re toying with this idea of duality and the way we reflect ourselves outward on social media and being in control of how we present ourselves rather than presenting our authentic selves.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
All of the stunts were challenging. They’re stressful because I like to do a lot of takes and I didn’t get to because it’s dangerous and you have stunt doubles. All the stunt doubles were incredible, but one thing I learned that really frustrated me [was that] because in horror movies, girls are running around in their PJs like this one, and female stunt doubles get so beat up because there’s very few places to put pads and keep them safe. So it felt like I was really playing into the patriarchy, making all these women run around in their PJs. [laughs] But I think it’s okay and the stunts were definitely the most challenging, just making sure that the camera is at the exact right place and you’re getting all the shots that you need to build out an action sequence when you have so little time to do it.
This end-of-the-year release feels like the Christmas gift I didn’t know was coming. Was it hard to keep a secret?
It’s so nice to make something and have it come out like within a few months of making it because it feels like all the stuff I was exploring was still relevant and part of the zeitgeist. And it was really hard to keep a secret because I wanted to tell everybody, but I’m really excited about when it’s coming out because it feels like a really good time. You’re at home, maybe you’re hanging out with your friends from high school and you may be a little annoyed at everybody because it’s been a few days and you’re ready to chill out, zone out and watch a movie and I feel like this is a really fun movie to watch under those circumstances.