Earlier this year Blumhouse founder, Jason Blum, took heat for saying there weren’t any women directors interested in tackling horror. After social media rebuked him by listing numerous female filmmakers Blum reversed course and put his money where his mouth was. The studio hired Sophia Takal to direct an installment of the Blumhouse series, Into the Dark, turning Takal into Blumhouse’s first female filmmaker. Takal, whose previous directorial work includes Always Shine, crafted episode “New Year. New You.” a blistering criticism of social media health gurus that explores the hostility exhibited in female friendships. It’s gory, insightful, and, most importantly, incredibly feminine. Takal sat down with Citizen Dame to discuss filmmaking and the horrors of social media.
What was it about this story that enticed you to work with Blumhouse?
Sophia Takal: I thought the concept of the movie was so clever. I had been thinking about this notion of self-care and self-love, and how when taken to the extreme it can be pretty narcissistic. I had been thinking about that for awhile and this piece came along. They [Blumhouse] were open to me adding that element to it of a health and wellness guru. I jumped at the opportunity to be able to explore my judgement about this industry and culture of self-care and how I think it’s bad for people’s self-esteem.
How did you blend the different types of horror together? Because on the one hand you have these happy social media moments which are frightening in how wrapped up people are in them, and then you have the main narrative.
It was starting with the look and the tone of the non-social media stuff that I started with. I spoke with the DP and the production designer about how do we make the YouTube videos feel like the polar opposite of what we’re doing? We looked at a lot of these self-care celebrity videos and tried to pull as much from them as we could to make it seem realistic. It’s clear it’s a little satirical. It was coming from a place of how do we make this feel as close to what a real social media celebrity would post, and also make sure it feels different enough from the rest of the movie that it’s clear this is a separate space and time, and has a separate energy.
Events take place in one main location. What was it like trying to tell this story in a very confined space?
We shot over fifteen days and it was pretty much all one house. We were shooting mostly during the day so we’d black out the windows with cloth. It was a very claustrophobic experience. I remember, there was one shot where we took the black off the window so we could see the sunset and it was toward the end of the shoot and I was like, “Holy shit.” It felt so good being able to see out the window. I was like “This is an amazing shot.” The benefits of shooting one location is you don’t have to do company moves. You get more time to work on the scenes. The challenges were being able to find interesting ways of shooting multiple scenes in one space. The living room is one of the areas we shot so much in, so the cinematographer and I tried to figure out new ways of shooting and how to make everything feel exciting. I feel the movie’s stylish in a really great way. I love the way it’s shot, but also part of what makes the movie work is the performances are so good. There’s so much subtext going on with these women that you can hang on their faces and see what’s going on with them, understand what’s going on under the surface. You don’t need all the bells and whistles because they’re able to ground the movie.
There’s so much history and writing about the horror genre. Were there specific tropes you either actively wanted to avoid or wanted to lean into?
I haven’t read a lot of horror analysis, but I am peripherally aware and have my own perception of the genre. It tends to be a horror bro clique and it’s a genre where the stories are often told through the male gaze. I wanted to tell a woman’s story. People don’t tend to think about the “women’s stories” as conducive to a horror movie, but certain trials and tribulations of being a woman or feeling like you have to fit into a particular type of idea about what being a woman means is horrific; the lengths we ask women to go to in order to be considered attractive or desirable, or even to be a considered a woman. I think it’s a very stifling and horrific process. It makes sense to tell a story in this genre. The final girl, it’s often about a woman triumphing. In some good horror movies there is a feminist bent to them. I come from an acting background and I’ve found myself acting in movies that were maybe a little horror-y, but felt exploitative. As a director I wanted to counterbalance that.
I saw several commonalities with your previous directing work on Always Shine, regarding the notion of how women want to be friends but often society prohibits that by fostering jealousy and competition amongst them. Is that something you can comment on?
Often women are taught to not be outwardly aggressive, so we learn how to deal with conflict in these insidious and subtextual ways. The scenes where the women are jockeying for power and dominance between each other are fascinating because it’s not just a fist fight like the way you’d see between two men. It’s these subtle digs or fake support or shifting alliances that are particular to the way women are raised. I’m trying to look at an element of what’s perceived as femininity, or what’s projected upon us as femininity in a critical way. I have to say, I have less patience for the characters in this movie than I did for the characters in Always Shine. You asking that question just made me realize that. I want to explore that in myself. Kayla in this movie, the one who’s anti-social media, is the person I relate to the most. I don’t know if I practice what I preach, but I know I think social media is bad and I know I think our culture can be particularly narcissistic and the way we curate our images online is so all-consuming. I deleted Instagram from my phone.
I got rid of the Facebook app on my phone.
Oh, you gotta get rid of Facebook! I could go on and on about how bad Facebook is, but I won’t. When I do have Instagram I start to think of my life as shareable moments, as opposed to being grounded and present, and I think that’s lame. It makes me not totally aware of my surroundings, and it’s almost like I become dissociated from myself and I’m thinking about how I’m going to be looked at as opposed to looking at things. I know it’s really bad and yet it’s so pervasive. I’m not exactly sure what to do about it but I wanted to open up a dialogue about is self-care culture helpful? Is it really making us feel better about ourselves? Or is it just another consumerist thing where we’re turning ourselves into products and convincing ourselves that through capitalism and buying the right kinds of products we’ll learn how to love ourselves? So often women look to external things as a way to learn to love themselves, but it’s still through this idea of what makes a woman a woman.
Going off of that, all the characters here – with the exception of one – appear to be nice people; they’re relatable. There’s a slow bubbling of madness as opposed to a hulking creature.
Finding the horror in realistic experiences makes it – I don’t want to say scarier – scary in a different way. The way we can turn and the way, through whatever the scarcity mentality or social mechanisms that exist, the way we turn against people we’re close to when they have something we want is primal. When I get into a mode of being jealous of what someone else has it’s scary. The feelings that go through me; I feel possessed by something. And our culture in general breeds the scarcity mentality in men and in women. It’s easy to look at someone else and see what they have, particularly when they’re presenting themselves as having a certain thing, and we don’t see what’s behind that. I moved to L.A. a few years ago and one of the most interesting things has been seeing behind the curtain of certain people. I would think I would want that person’s career and seeing their day-to-day life is exactly like mine. Their insecurities in themselves and their relationships are the same as mine. This idea that somehow I’ll feel better about myself if I grasp onto things or achieve certain things is a false notion. It’s important that we start to know that and realize that. It’s easy to know that intellectually, but to train ourselves to not get obsessed with looking at Instagram and comparing ourselves to people we see online and idolize.
You’re Blumhouse’s first woman director and yet there are still people on social media saying “women don’t want to direct horror” or “there just aren’t enough women directors.” How do you respond to those false notions?
I don’t think that’s true, obviously. I can only speak for myself and my own experience, but I don’t feel that’s an attitude I’ve experienced on this project or in general. People are open to and aware of the fact that women do want to direct, and women want to direct different genres and movies, and tell all sorts of stories. Right now is a great time to be a female filmmaker because of that. Horror is a traditionally misogynistic, male gazey genre, so I understand the impulse to think women wouldn’t want to be part of it for that reason. It’s very much a boys club and there’s a certain cinematic language and fanboy language. There are other type of genre, female horror directors in the pocket of that. I’m not. I come at it as an outsider, so I don’t engage with that aspect of horror and maybe if I did, and maybe if the guys didn’t accept me in that way, I’d feel differently. I want to tell stories. The kind of ideas I want to explore are particular to women, but telling these stories in this genre is interesting and fun, and lets you play with these intellectual ways of looking at society critically. I feel supported in that endevour right now. These things come in cycles, right now it’s great to be a female director because everyone’s trying to prove they hire women, but that might not be true forever. Right now I feel really supported in that way.