December 26, 2018

How Sophia Takal Became Blumhouse's First Female Director

In 'New Year, New You,' an all-female cast experiences extreme tension in close quarters. 

Sophia Takal’s New Year, New You, the fourth episode of Hulu’s Blumhouse-produced new horror anthology series Into the Dark, offers a creepy, surprisingly funny look at the dangerous cocktail of toxic female friendships and social media celebrity.

On New Year’s Eve, a group of four millennial girlfriends gather for a long overdue reunion. What at first sounds like a fun time quickly spins into something far more ominous, thanks to a game of “Never Have I Ever” that reveals dark, long-held secrets.

To top it off, the queen bee of the friend group is a YouTube star whose sunny exterior and vocal-fried aphorisms might all be a devious façade. The film has an all-female cast and takes place largely within one setting. Frequent mirror shots and novel editing techniques like split screens create a stylized world that pleasingly alternates between highbrow artfulness and deliciously trashy genre convention.

Takal’s previous film, Always Shine (2016), explored dramatic tensions between women, and New Year, New You pushes these themes even further, with no men in sight and terrifyingly exaggerated mean girl behavior. 

As the film gets set to premiere on December 28th, Takal spoke with No Film School about her approach to horror and the perils of social media.

No Film School: How did you get involved with this series? It has a novel structure, with 12 episodes each by different directors. Did you collaborate with any of them at all?

Sophia Takal: Blumhouse Television approached me. I think there was a desire to tell this uniquely female story with a woman’s point of view and a woman director. They had seen Always Shine and liked it, so we met. I really love Blumhouse and think they make incredible films that use genre in a really exciting way.

The exciting thing about the series is that they are all completely different movies and each filmmaker is really given the space to bring their own style and point of view to the work. So I haven’t spoken to any of the other directors and we didn’t collaborate on the episodes at all. There’s nothing that’s the same about any of them except for the fact that they all have to do with holidays and they’re all horror. But beyond that, I got to choose my DP and actors. It wasn’t like it came with the actors and the crew.

It was a really exciting way for me to get my feet into this world of directing for hire rather than just originating material on my own and I ended up having an incredible time. I think part of it has to do with the fact that the people I was working with at Blumhouse were so smart and thoughtful, and they weren’t trying to wedge me into their idea of what this should be. They were really just trying to help me make the best version of what I wanted to do.

"During my revision, there was a moment where I was maybe going to have one character be a guy and then making the character a woman. I wasn’t thinking about it as 'Oh, I’m going to have an all-female cast' in that moment. I was just following my intuition."

NFS: Was the all-women cast something that you were envisioning for the film from the very beginning or was it something that came about a little later in the process?

Takal: The original conception of the story by Adam Gaines [the film’s co-writer] was about a group of women on New Year’s Eve, so that was kind of already built into the story. As I revised and tweaked what he had written, I realized that all of the supporting characters could also be women. I don’t remember if it was all women in his original draft. I do remember during my revision there was a moment where I was maybe going to have one character be a guy and then making the character a woman. I wasn’t thinking about it as “Oh, I’m going to have an all-female cast” in that moment. I was just following my intuition.

At some point during preproduction or even during the shoot, I realized there were no men in the movie. It was really cool. Not that there’s anything wrong with male characters. There’s just something where, especially in horror, it was exciting for there to be so many different kinds of women.

NFS: What were some of your stylistic influences?

Takal: Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now was a really big influence. With the use of mirrors and the editing, I was very influenced by Robert Altman’s Images and 3 Women. I come back to those two movies a lot in all of my work for their visual style and their explorations of femininity and hysterical women. And Brian De Palma’s Sisters. Those are all movies rooted in that kind of '70s horror.

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was another one and then there was a more recent horror movie, The House Of The Devil by Ti West. I saw it when it came out and I loved it. I think Ti is a great filmmaker and a wonderful person. I showed that to my cinematographer when we were talking about color palettes and movies that feel like they’re set in a different time but are still exciting and fresh.

Sophia Takal's 'New Year, New You,' courtesy of Hulu.

NFS: How was it incorporating social media in the film? It seems tricky to include since it’s the type of thing that’s so of the moment and could soon end up feeling dated. Did you have to watch a lot of corny YouTube videos for research?

Takal: Yes, definitely. One of the things that I brought into the original script that Adam wrote was making that social media celebrity character specifically famous for self-care health and wellness culture. I would be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that I read goop and buy crystals and juices, so I had a little bit of familiarity with that world. But I also think it’s ridiculous.

I did a lot of research to kind of get the cadence of how these women speak about self-care culture. I then had to watch a bunch of YouTube videos to get the visual style. I had a few videos in particular that I shared with Carly Chaikin [who plays the social media guru] so she could get a sense of what these women are like. I showed those to our production designer and cinematographer so that they could understand what I was going for. The YouTube videos were so different from the rest of the movie, so it was really important to me that it felt singular. Those parts are like you’re in a different world.

NFS: The setting is so essential to the film. Was it shot on location?

Takal: That was someone’s actual house. In fact, it used to belong to Cary Grant and then it belonged to a producer of Revenge of the Nerds. It’s a location with some Hollywood history.

"Part of what I was looking for when casting wasn’t just talented actresses, but also women who kind of shared my point of view about social media or at least understood what I was trying to explore about this world of self-care."

NFS: What was the casting process like?

Takal: I worked with a casting director to find these actresses and I think all these women are really great. They understood the material so well. Part of what I was looking for when casting wasn’t just talented actresses, but also women who kind of shared my point of view about social media or at least understood what I was trying to explore about this world of self-care.

For me, part of the reason to make a movie is to look critically at something that is part of our lives, or something that we take for granted as normal without really exploring what’s harmful about it. I was finding women who were open to exploring things in an emotional and intellectual way.

NFS: What were some challenges you faced on this film?

Takal: There were a couple of challenges. One was that it was great to shoot in one location because it meant we got to spend more time shooting instead of moving around, but it also meant that we had to find new and exciting ways to shoot the same room over and over again. That was something my cinematographer and I really had to work on and talk about. We listed all the shots in advance so that we had a plan and even when we were rushed we wouldn't fall back on shooting it in the exact same way every time. Even when we didn't have enough time to really come up with the best shot in the moment, we wanted to have different ideas for every scene that takes place in the same room so that it wouldn’t start to become visually boring. The production designer really went for a '70s design and added a lot of mirrors to help us be able to find some cool shots that way, so we weren't just shooting against white walls all the time.

"I was nervous about making sure that we were getting what we needed, and having to rely on other people in those moments to help me figure it out."

Takal: Another challenge was shooting a 90-something page script in 15 days and there were actually a lot of stunts. The last 20 minutes have a lot of action and that eats up a ton of time because you've got to reset the blood and with the stunt doubles they're doing crazy stuff like falling down the stairs and jumping out the window. You really only have one or two chances to get it because it’s really dangerous and you don’t want them to get hurt. I hadn’t really worked in that space before and I hadn’t really shot a lot of real action and horror stuff in that way. I was nervous about making sure that we were getting what we needed, and having to rely on other people in those moments to help me figure it out. It wasn't like what I was so experienced doing.

Sophia Takal's 'New Year, New You,' courtesy of Hulu.

NFS: How did you go about creating humor within a scary movie?

Takal: I definitely wanted there to be a satirical element to this because these are definitely first world problems. I think there’s something funny about the narcissism that social media breeds. It’s so ludicrous to me. I just think it’s important to laugh at ourselves as much as it is to feel fear or empathy. It's important to have a sense of humor and I wanted to make a fun movie to watch. I think it's really funny, and that was an element I really wanted to bring to it.

NFS: What draws you to the horror genre?

Takal: For me, what’s exciting about the stories I want to tell in this genre is that so much in our lives is subtly scary. I'm particularly interested in these ideas of femininity that are forced upon women and I think it’s pretty horrific the way we’re taught to be. I think that’s changing and constantly evolving, and I know that men are also taught to fit into a box. But I just think that the way that our genders are kind of forced on us is horrific.

It’s also a kind of heady and intellectual subject to talk about or to make a movie about. So I think that the horror genre allows us to feel the visceral fear of those ideas in a more fun kind of way, or a way where people might be more open to walking away without feeling like someone was hitting them over their head. You can be scared and excited and laughing, and also happen to reflect on the ways in which this self-care culture makes us go crazy. Horror allows you to explore social issues and societal ills in an interesting and fun and exciting way, rather than just having a boring drama or documentary. I think that working within the genre gives you a little more leeway.     

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