After starting out as an actress in 2009, New Jersey native Sophia Takal quickly graduated to directing, helming her debut independent feature Green in 2011. That was followed in 2016 by Always Shine (featuring an up-and-coming Mackenzie Davis) and, last year, an episode of Hulu’s horror anthology series, Into the Dark, titled “New Year, New You,” which Takal also wrote.
With her previous two films (she also wrote Green) essentially being psychological dramas/thrillers exploring aspects of the female psyche, it somehow makes perfect sense for her to direct the new feature Black Christmas, the third movie to come out under that title since 1974. All three are set in a sorority house on a mostly empty college campus during the Christmas break, but only Bob Clark’s 1974 original and Takal’s version address issues relevant to women in their respective eras.
For the new Black Christmas, a group of young women led by rape survivor Riley (Green Room‘s Imogen Poots) must once again fight back as they are murdered one by one in or around their communal house, but this time the film clearly addresses the issues of toxic masculinity, rape culture and the oppressive nature of patriarchal institutions even as the bodies pile up, and the blood flies.
For Takal, the chance to make a visceral horror film while also exploring themes close to her heart was the lure for taking on a well-worn genre and title. We discussed that and more when we sat down with her in Los Angeles.
Den of Geek: What did you see as the possibilities for Black Christmas beyond a basic remake?
Sophia Takal: Well, earlier this year Blumhouse approached me and said we have the rights to Black Christmas and there’s no script, but there is a Friday the 13th this December that we’d like it to come out on. Would you like to write the script and direct the movie? And I was scared because that sounded like a very short amount of time to write, direct, and finish a movie.
They were like, you can do whatever you want. It’s just got to be called Black Christmas. You can take a lot of liberties with the property. So I went back and I watched the original Black Christmas, which is a movie that I had seen before and I have loved, and watching it at the beginning of 2019 what I was struck by more than any particular plot point was the way it made me feel, particularly the ending and how as a woman watching that movie and seeing that, you think that the main character has beaten the killer and then to find out that, no, actually the killer is still out there.
That really resonated with me because I was feeling at the time like we’ve just gone through this whole #MeToo moment where everyone was talking about their experiences with some pretty bad men. And slowly those men were coming back into the culture and rehabilitating their image. To me that movie kind of tapped into this feeling. I had this feeling of dread, of just, “oh, there’s still misogyny out there.” Even though if you think you’d beaten it, you’ve still more battle to be had.
So because they had said I could take elements of Black Christmas, but didn’t have to stay totally true to plot. I thought it would be really interesting to set a movie in 2019 that was like as modern and contemporary to today as that movie, which was about abortion and sexual politics, was in 1974. So that was sort of like the seed of the original movie that stuck with me and made me want to pursue making this film.
It’s interesting how relatively progressive the original was.
Yeah, I think a movie that shows women as complicated individuals is really exciting, and to have an opportunity to do that for our generation is also really exciting.
When somebody says that to you, “All we have is a title and a release date, go,” does that make you want to do it even more? As a challenge?
For me, regardless of how a movie comes to me, a big question I ask myself is why tell this story now? What I was excited about was that it felt like it was the right time to make a movie about women from a woman’s point of view in the horror space. So yeah, it was a really exciting, the timeline aspect of it was a huge challenge but it was a really exciting one.
I think one of the ways in which the time crunch affected my approach was in my approach with April Wolfe, the co-writer. We were really intuitive in our storytelling and we really didn’t have time to judge what we were trying to say. There was this combination of rage and excitement of being a woman in this very tumultuous time that I think is really alive on screen and probably would have gotten watered down if we’d had more time to second guess ourselves. So that was a really exciting part of the process too, just leaning into this heightened feeling that a lot of women were experiencing in 2019.
You had a blank canvas, but you kept the original’s college setting and kept it focused on the sorority. But other than that, did the script go through a lot of changes?
Well before April came on, I had written a more straight ahead slasher movie script that really wasn’t satisfying to me because it just felt like we weren’t moving the conversation forward in terms of the horror genre. It just kind of felt like another slasher movie where a bunch of women get killed. And that just didn’t seem right to me.
Once I approached April about writing the script with me, we talked about how can we open up the slasher genre. How can we add to it and move the conversation forward, not just in terms of relationships between men and women but also what it is to be a slasher movie. From that we knew we wanted, again from the original, this idea that you can’t kill misogyny, you can’t kill the patriarchy. It’s always going to be there. It’s always going to pop up. And then we kind of took that to a more literal place in terms of there not just being one killer, but there being a bunch of killers. Every time you think you’ve won a battle, you’ve got to fight it again. That really to me is the tie between the original and this movie, just this idea of there being an ever present threat to women.
Before this you did an episode of the Hulu horror anthology series, Into the Dark. Did that give you sort of a run-through of how you would approach a feature in the genre?
I had already done a couple features, so this movie is definitely aesthetically similar to a lot of the stuff I’ve done, which is just very much referencing and rooted in the style of American cinema from the 1970s. Especially because this was a movie that was based on a movie from the 1970s it seems like the right cinematic language to use for sure.
For Into the Dark, I watched a bunch of De Palma and on this one I had my director of photography watch Blowout, and we watched Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All movies that have a really specific and unique style and are scary but also stylish, and have an artfulness to them.
There’s one shot that I thought was a reference to Exorcist III.
It’s my favorite shot from that movie.
Yeah, isn’t it great? So scary.
What do you like about working in the horror genre? On one hand you can create metaphors for so many things, but on the other hand it’s got this crass, exploitative, misogynist side to it.
I think one of the really exciting things about horror, and something that’s been true about horror for decades, is that you can take a social issue or a dark aspect of the human experience and explore it in a fun context and still have the exhilaration of watching something really scary and feeling really alive when you’re watching a movie and not feel like someone’s just preaching to you. I think that’s one of the reasons I love horror so much.
But then yeah, you’re right. There’s another strain of horror there that just feels really exploitative and that makes women’s bodies disposable. I wanted to lean more into the first type of horror and less into the second.
Did you have a lot of time to rehearse with the women and get them to form a bond?
We shot it in New Zealand and the women came a week before and we did a bunch of backstory improvisations. So in character, we improvised the first time Riley and Chris met or the night Riley got raped and all her friends were there for her, or Marty and Nate’s first date. We just did a bunch of these improvs so that all the actors would have a physical comfort with one another from just being around each other and also these shared memories that they could draw on in their performances.
We’ve seen a number of horror movies coming along in the past few years directed by women. Does it feel like that tide is turning, even as long as it can take in this business?
I hope so. I think it feels like all different kinds of people who have normally not been allowed to tell stories in film are being given opportunities to. I guess as long as the people who pay for the movies feel like it’s profitable to do so, they’ll keep doing it. Hopefully it’s not a trend, it’s not a fad and that it’s something that keeps going forever.
Do you want to work again in this genre?
I’d love to make a romantic comedy. I think for me the story starts with a character and the issue I want to explore. A lot of times I look at what dark or negative quality about me I want to work through. Oftentimes it lends itself to horror because like I was saying, you can tell a scary, exciting, fun story, but still have something deeper to say and people feel like they’re not just having messages shoved down their throat. I think horror is great for that. But yeah, I’d love to make a movie like When Harry Met Sally… also.
Black Christmas is out in theaters now.
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye