Mackenzie Davis in "Always Shine"

Tribeca ’16 Interview: Sophia Takal on Harnessing Darkness for “Always Shine”

It had felt like I had known Sophia Takal forever only moments after meeting her. There’s usually an uncomfortable pause in the split-second before making conversation with a stranger just after shaking hands, but as we rode down an elevator to sit down, Takal gave an unusually florid description of how sleepy she was in the wake of the premiere of her second feature as a director, “Always Shine” – like a kid “ready to have their face fall right into the bowl of spaghetti in front of them,” she said, not showing any particular fatigue – and then within moments of exiting the elevator was swept up in calls to come over by any number of other filmmaker friends hanging out in the lobby as she repeatedly turned to apologize profusely for these distractions.

This is the way it should be for Takal, who considering her second film confirms the great promise of her first, “Green,” is no doubt the biggest badass in the room. Yet after summoning chaos in both films — blitzkriegs steeped in feminist theory that turn out to be exceptionally entertaining given how naturally Takal and her husband and creative collaborator Lawrence Michael Levine adapt such concerns into genre elements, it is no small irony that she seems like the calm in the midst of a storm. Then again, Takal insisted that for “Always Shine” — the psychological thriller featuring Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald as Anna and Beth, respectively, a pair of actresses whose weekend retreat to Big Sur is upended by the former’s envy of the latter’s success while the latter is hardly satisfied with the roles being offered to her — her entire crew do the same acting warmups in the morning as her cast to foster an harmonious set filled with trust in addition to their daily meditation. (Going one step further, she would allow everyone to go around in the evenings describing their “high and low” of the day, to figure out what was working and what wasn’t to improve the film.)

Although Takal is unusually quick to credit collaborators, it is clear from “Always Shine” that the original voice that she demonstrated in “Green” was the start of a distinctive style that is all hers. After her latest opens with a brutal audition Beth goes out on as two offscreen male producers coldly discuss the nudity required for the role, Takal is unsparing in her confrontation of systemic sexism that pits women against one another and lucidly expresses the psychic toll this takes in densely layered cascades of images that encompass the anger, the fear, the dangerous thoughts as well as the harsh whims of the natural world that threaten to drive her characters to madness. The result is dizzying in a way that reminds of Brian De Palma if only the male desire that drives his style lost the Y chromosome along the way, with Takal utilizing a bigger budget and more seasoned actors to create a singular, nail-biting experience.

Despite awaiting caffeine as I peppered her with questions, Takal spoke eloquently about her work, the often personal basis for her films, deepening her thematic and visual style and figuring out the right filmmaking process for her.

Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin Fitzgerald in "Always Shine"With your second film, some trends emerge both thematically and visually. After making “Green,” did you feel more confident to push things further?

Absolutely, yeah. This movie was much more deliberate. The way “Green” happened was, I was living with Kate Sheil and Lawrence Levine, then my fiance who is now my husband, about a month before we started shooting. I was like, “Do you guys want to make a movie, maybe just the three of us? For about $900 bucks, let’s just try it.” We came up with an outline and I collaborated with Larry and Kate to develop the script and the characters with them. It was very, very collaborative. The development period was great. It was kind of ripping off a Band-Aid — I had no idea if anyone was ever going to see [“Green”]. I just wanted to see if I could direct something.

“Always Shine” was such a long process. Larry and I started talking about the idea for the movie in 2011, right after “Green” came out. I was having a lot of issues around then, having a hard time dealing with the rage and anger that I felt. I felt a lot of pressure to feel more feminine and quiet and obedient. I was really struggling with these two elements of femininity, and it really was synthesizing both parts of my personality, so I felt very refracted.

Larry and I started talking about that and the same things really resonated with him. Even though it was about two women, he said, “Well, I feel a similar pressure as a man. I’m supposed to be rich and powerful. I’m supposed to be assertive. I’m not supposed to cry.” He felt similarly disassociated from the way masculinity had been presented to him and he was like, “I think this could be a really cool real movie.” Not that “Green” wasn’t real, but if we did it in a more traditional way like, “Let me sit down and write a script rather than just doing an improvised thing where we act in it and let’s try to get professional, recognizable actors so that more people will maybe see it.”

I wanted to work with other actors was because I really wanted to stretch myself as a director to not just fall into old patterns of speech and thought with people who [already] knew me and to force myself to have to be more articulate and to practice convincing people who didn’t know me to believe in the process and the project, especially because I wanted to work in a really particular way. I wanted it to be very intimate and collaborative. I wanted the actors to be there at rehearsals and to take the things that worked for me in “Green,” and see if I could put it in a bigger context.

We started trying to get actors involved in 2012, and originally, we had wanted to make it for a lot more money then we ended up with. Actors would come in, and money would come in, then actors would drop out, and then the money would drop out. It was a really long process and in that time, I was able to focus on how I wanted to shoot the movie, how I wanted the movie to feel.

Did it actually change the equation for you that unlike “Green,” you were not acting in it?

Yeah. Originally, I wanted to be in it, and then some friends talked me out of it. They were like, “You shouldn’t be in this. It’s going to be too hard.” At first, I was annoyed. My ego was like, “What do you mean? I can handle it.” Then I started thinking about actors who I would be willing to “give the part up for,” someone who I felt could bring more to the role than I could. Mackenzie Davis was definitely on the top of my list as someone who would bring so much more to the part.

Also, I really wanted the focus not to be result-oriented. It was really important to me that the shoot matters just as much as the final product [since] who knows if anyone will ever see the movie? Who knows if we’ll even finish it? The world could end before we do, so let’s make sure that it’s a fulfilling, rewarding, creative experience in the moment. For the cast and the crew, I couldn’t be as strong as a collaborator behind the camera if I was playing a role that was as aggressive and intense as Anna because … she’s kind of nuts. To operate in that space, and also create a calm atmosphere for the whole crew to feel like they can collaborate and thrive, didn’t feel possible. That was a big reason why decided not to [act]. When Mackenzie said “Yes” to doing the movie, I thought obviously, she’s going to do better, and I can be a better director because of her.

Did Caitlin come about because of Mackenzie? They share a similar body type that would seem to be important to the story as they come to reflect one another.

Yeah. Larry and I talked about how important it was to us that the women looked alike. Once we cast Mackenzie, Caitlin was someone that I was a huge fan of from “Masters of Sex.” Before I knew her, I would look at her and think, “She’s so beautiful and soft. She fits so well into my idea of who Beth was, and also what Beth might be struggling against.” Then I Skyped with her, and she just understood the material so well, had so many insights and added so much depth to that character that maybe I missed at first to make that character whole. It was really cool to work with her, too.

Was the opening quote from John Robert Powers, saying “It is a woman’s birthright to be attractive and charming…and in a sense, her duty as well” something that had been lingering in the back of your mind or something you specifically found for this?

It was something that I had read about. I forget if it was after we had written an outline for the movie, but Larry and I read a lot of feminist, contemporary, celebrity-culture, and feminist books and it might’ve been in one of those. John Robert Powers owned a modeling school and we read a book – or it might’ve been a manual – called “Down from the Pedestal” about all the different female archetypes that are taught to women. Larry read another book called “Fame Junkies,” and [other] books about beauty pageants, which is where the title comes from. There’s a beauty pageant saying, “Always shine, never blend.” We thought that was such a sharp, ironic sentence to put with a movie.

That quote is striking not only for what it says, but how you present it – it’s set against a foreboding dark blue sky that portends how you’ll often intertwine the environment with the psyche of your characters, which is something you carry over from “Green.” Those images seem very carefully crafted and deliberate, so I suspect you don’t just send a crew out to randomly collect B-roll.

Actually, both times I just sent my DP out to shoot. [laughs] But I happen to work with really amazing collaborators on both of my movies. I feel a little bit like I’ve had the experience of directing very easy. You just pick really talented people and let them do their work. Mark Schwartzbard shot this movie, and he came to Big Sur [where we shot “Always Shine”]. He came a week early, and we shot-listed [the whole film]. He was attached to shoot the movie for a very long time before we got the money and we would go to the movies, and see [Robert Altman’s] “3 Women” in the movie theater, and talk about what we liked afterwards. That’s how we figured out what lens to shoot on. We bought a old vintage zoom lens from the ’60s, like the ones Altman might’ve used while he was shooting.

We established the look together, then it was just like, “Let him go and do his job.” He knows better than me how to use a camera to tell a story. He’s on the same page as me. It was the same with Zach Clark, who edited it. It’s just about picking people who know what you’re trying to shape and have a similar sensibility as you and then can make it a thousand times better than you ever could on your own. So yeah, the day before the shoot, Mark went out and shot all this video [of the atmosphere in Big Sur] that I didn’t see until the editing room. I was like, “This is amazing. I can’t believe he just did that. This is so cool.”

Both this film and “Green” feel like thrillers when they’re subjects that wouldn’t seem to lend itself to that. How strong are the genre elements when you start thinking about the story?

It was more intentional to make this a more straightforward genre movie than “Green.” To me, “Green” is like a drama with scary music, playing with the idea of jealousy as a monster. A few people saw “Green” and they were like, “Someone should’ve died in it” and I took that to heart. The feelings I was feeling at the time of just such rage against women — and the notion of femininity, and softness, and quietness — I was so angry, I was like, “I could imagine killing someone right now,” so that feeling lent itself to the genre. I was listening to John Williams’ “Images” soundtrack while we were working on the script, so the tone of the music was something that I had from the very beginning and I was really influenced by 1970s’ trippy, genre-ish movies.

Colleen Camp makes a brief, wonderful appearance as someone Anna and Beth come across before settling in. Was her casting a nod to that era?

Oh my gosh, I love her. Isn’t she so good? A friend of mine, Phil Allocco, who is a filmmaker, worked with her on a movie called, “The Truth About Lies,” that she was a producer on, and she was also in it. I also saw her in [Peter Bogdanovich’s] “She’s Funny That Way” and Larry reached out to Phil and was like, “Could you put us in touch with Colleen? We’re huge fans of hers. It would be so great.” She ad-libbed for hours [on the set], so we had to cut it down, but there was so much to that part. There’s a lot there if you’re aware of her whole career from the beginning, just the way she looked and how she was presented as a sexual object that mirrors what the girls are going through in their own careers, so I thought that was such an interesting, cool thing to have in a movie. She’s so fun, and so nice to work with.

Since your films have been born out of issues you’ve had – and you genuinely get the feeling you’re working through them on screen — you feel these are actually therapeutic experiences?

They are, but I almost feel like it does a disservice to the movie to say it’s like therapy for me because I think other people relate to the movie, too. I don’t want it to seem too self-indulgent. Usually by the time I get to shooting the movie, I’ve forged though whatever issue I’m trying to work through and I have enough distance from it that when it finally gets down to shooting, I feel in control of it.

I’m never totally free of jealousy. I’m still jealous of my friends. I’m still worried about not being feminine enough. Doing all this press, I’m still [thinking], people want to talk to Caitlin and Mackenzie more than me. So I still have an ego, but I’m so much more aware of it in a controlled way where it doesn’t take over my body and make me a monster. I think the writing process is where I really do my therapy. Then, by the time I shoot it, I feel like I’ve worked it out. Directing is part of owning it. Then a whole new crop of issues comes up from those experiences, then that’s what my new movies are about. That seems to be the cycle so far. It is really personal.

Also, when I decide to make a movie, I start talking about my issues with people around me. If it’s something that resonates with them, I think, “Oh, this isn’t something people are really talking about and maybe they’re ashamed of it. Maybe if I make a movie, it’ll open up a dialogue so that people don’t have to feel so embarrassed by these things.” The point of making movies for me is just to make everyone feel less alone – to communicate this feeling of jealousy, or anxiety, or shame, and be like, “We’re not alone, and we’re not crazy for feeling this way. It’s okay. Let’s move past it together.”

“Always Shine” will be distributed by Oscilloscope on December 2nd.

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