Sophia Takal on Gender, Nature, and Always Shine
'It would be interesting to direct a more mainstream horror movie, and see if it would even be possible to put my own ideas in.'
One of the most overtly feminist films ever written by a man (Takal's husband Lawrence Michael Levine), Always Shine relates the story of a trip from L.A. to Big Sur by actresses Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald). In L..A, they maintain a friendly rivalry; in Big Sur, that friendliness starts to fade, eventually erupting into something very ugly.
Note: This interview took place shortly before the election.
Steven Erickson: Your film makes a lot of references to the horror genre, not always in a flattering way. Do you consider Always Shine a horror film?
Sophia Takal: I hope so. I hope people receive it that way, because I’ve always conceived of making a genre movie. I know that it’s a little different than a traditional horror movie, and that’s by design. I’ve acted in a few horror movies, and I’ve watched a lot of them. I’ve always been struck by how misogynist they sometimes come across, and how they objectify women as naked girls running around screaming. I wanted to tell this story of femininity and what it means to be a woman, but tell it in this genre that so often boxes women into traditional ideas of womanhood.
Erickson: Have you ever read Carol Clover’s book Men, Women and Chain Saws? It makes a feminist defense of the horror genre.
Takal: No, but a lot of horror movies do seem like they could have feminist readings. The woman is the one who ultimately defeats the bad guy; a woman who seems helpless at the beginning comes into her own. Those movies are great. I’m talking more about slasher and gore movies. There’s just lots of hot girls around with no story arc. As a viewer, I find them troubling because so many young men watch them. I want to start a conversation between men and women about how we’re all, as audience members, culpable in forcing women into boxes.
Erickson: I was surprised that Always Shine is written by a man. It foregrounds gender from the very first scene. How closely did you work on giving him ideas for it?
Takal: My whole life, I’ve struggled with the idea that I was too loud or too aggressive or too opinionated, that women were supposed to be shy and deferential. I talked about that a lot with Larry when we started working on this project. I was really tormented by this idea of being a failure. He felt similarly alienated by the rules about being a man. As a man, you’re not allowed to be emotional. You’re supposed to be muscular and protect women. He felt like a failure as a man. He told the story through two women, but I think he really related to it. He observed how I behaved in the world, and how friendships of mine had been ruined by the notion that there’s only one way to be a woman. He was able to incorporate all those things.
Erickson: It’s interesting to me that the presidential campaigns, as toxic as they’ve been, have brought some of these ideas to the mainstream.
Takal: We’ll see what happens. I’m nervous. A lot of the conversation about how women are expected to behave is exciting to me. People told Hillary Clinton her voice is too shrill, she’s smiling too much, she’s not smiling enough. She’s only allowed to behave in such a tiny box. It’s unfortunate that so many people have that opinion, but on the other side, people are calling them out and saying, 'What do you mean she’s shrill? What do you mean she’s talking too much?' There’s such a double standard. It became so apparent with those two people that a lot of people understood what it’s like to be a woman who’s striving for what’s considered a male endeavor.
Erickson: Have you thought about making a Hellraiser or Friday the 13th re-boot and using it to express your ideas about gender?
Takal: I actually have a really hard time watching horror movies. If I’m watching one, I have to read the synopsis on-line, to find out the ending. I didn’t grow up watching horror movies. Always Shine has horror elements because it brings up feelings that are so violent and horrific that it lends itself to the genre. It’s not the only genre I would ever want to work in. It would be interesting to direct a more mainstream horror movie, and see if it would even be possible to put my own ideas in.
Erickson: How much of the depiction of an actress' life is based on your own?
Takal: A lot it came from Larry’s imagination and observation of actresses who are starting to become more successful. Anna is definitely based on me, but she’s not a particularly successful actress. To me, it’s less to do with careers and more to do with how women present themselves. But then when we shot the audition scene with Caitlin, she was really upset because she said it reminded her of so many auditions she’d been on. Having to act it rather than having it happen to her, she found it so disturbing the way people assume you’ll go along with anything because you’re desperate.
Erickson: There’s a line about Anna having done ten nude roles consecutively.
Takal: I have done a lot of nudity. A lot of my friends who are actresses have been asked to be nude. Sometimes, I find it very liberating to be naked in a movie, and sometimes I find it objectifying and terrible. By the time I wrote this movie, I had made a lot of small indies where people just expected me to be naked and didn’t realize that made me vulnerable. Women are expected to just take off their clothes because that’s what men want to see.
Erickson: The sound design is a very powerful element. How long did you and the sound designer work on it?
Takal: We stopped shooting almost exactly two years ago. We locked picture in September 2015. There was a full year for editing and thinking. A lot of the conversation was about differentiating L.A. from Big Sur. L.A. is full of man-made noises: cars, sirens, jackhammers, airplanes. They’re cut off from nature and whoever they are. In Big Sur, there’s nature and wind. They discover who they truly are. For the score, I talked with the composer Michael Montes about using instruments traditionally thought of as meditative and hippie, like the didjeridoo and Tibetan sound bowls, and using them ironically to create ominous music. Big Sur is magical, but you’re alone and there’s no cell-phone service.
Erickson: Nature is generally thought of as a chance for characters like yours to relax, but it’s actually rather threatening. For you, what role does it play in the film?
Takal: As a society, we’re constantly bombarded by noise and distractions. Our cell phones are connected to the Internet. People are always listening to other people’s conversations. In L.A., there’s TVs at gas stations. There’s no moment when you can just be alone and be yourself. For me, nature is a place where all these distractions go away so all they have to focus on is each other, their problems with each other, the way they haven’t been able to cultivate self-acceptance, and their whole identities are based on other people telling them they’re good people. Without all that noise, in nature, they’re finally able to confront each other.
Takal: Not for me, but probably my editor, Zach Clark. I know that he referenced Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and a lot of Japanese ’60s sexploitation films. Zach is also a director and a voracious cinephile. He’s seen every movie. So he was able to pull from all these various movies throughout cinema history that used a very trippy, weird editing style. I knew I wanted to be trippy and disarming, but I didn’t know how to convey it beyond a few vague adjectives. He was able to formulate something from that.
Erickson: There are a number of films that play out a similar plot: Robert Altman’s Three Women, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. But for some reason, they’re always directed by men. Desperately Seeking Susan is the only example I can think of that was made by a woman. Do you think this is just because there are fewer female film directors?
Takal: I don’t think that it's impossible for a man to make an interesting film about women. Robert Altman did it many times, and also Ingmar Bergman. But I do think that there’s something essential or subtle about a relationship between women that a woman would have grown up her whole life being attuned to. I do think women bring something different to films about women. I think that’s changing, and as it changes, you see women are making movies about women. The exciting thing about diversity is that we’re seeing a diversity of characters we might not be used to.
Erickson: Did you think about acting in this film?
Takal: Initially, I thought about it, but eventually I realized the part of Anna would have left me in such an angry head-space that I would’ve been an angry director. It wouldn’t have been fair to the cast and crew. I Skyped with Mackenzie and she obviously understood the character. I could take a step back and just be the director.
Erickson: Do you see Always Shine as part of a line of cautionary tales about Hollywood?
Takal: Yes, in a lot of ways. For me, it’s more a cautionary tale about what happens to a person who denies who they are, denies their bad parts and pretends they don’t exist. These are two actresses, but I made them actresses because we watch them and copy their mannerisms, styles, and affectations. All of us perform and try to fit into strict roles. To me, it’s more a cautionary tale about performance. It’s saying that it’s OK to be messy, loud, and imperfect. It’s actually easier once you accept those parts of yourself.
Now please enjoy Getting Stoned with Sophia Takal: