“Women perform femininity whether they are actresses or not”: Talking to Sophia Takal About Always Shine, at Tribeca
By Mark Asch
Always Shine, which is currently playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, is the long-awaited second feature by Sophia Takal, long a favored filmmaker of this publication (she used to live in Brooklyn; she said Goodbye to All That and moved to California). The setup will be familiar if you saw Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (though Always Shine was in development prior to that 2015 film taking shape): two friends retreat to a cabin to clear their heads and reset their relationship; rivalry, resentments, personality swapping and narrative ruptures ensue.
The setting is Big Sur, and the friends are Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis), both actresses, although Beth is getting a lot more work these days—she has the right look, she says defensively. Beth appears overpowered by the pressures of success—taking on demeaning work in cheesy horror movies that require gratuitous nudity, while shivering under the gaze of her old friend, who, she knows, thinks she’s a phony.
The passive vs. aggressive dynamic explored in the screenplay—by Takal’s husband and regular collaborator Lawrence Michael Levine, who also appears here—becomes threatening as slow camera movements and jarring, subliminal edits foreshadow violence. The characters, attempting to sell their femininity and vulnerability on the open market while still retaining some agency in an ostensibly creative and expressive profession, eventually end up in a horror movie not so unlike the one Beth auditions for in the opening scene. Takal answered a few of my questions over email.
Green in a lot of ways felt like a thriller, with its slow and ominous camera movements and music, even though we could classify it as a relationship drama. Here in Always Shine there are elements of the slasher film; the 70s arthouse female personality-swap brainteaser; and the indie film with a behind-the-scenes interest in performance, boundaries and ethics in indie filmmaking (sorta like Actor Martinez). But again, there’s that slightly unsettling way of moving the camera, and that portentous music. Dread feels to me like a major emotion in your movies—is that a place you work from? Or am I misreading it? If I am, then why do your movies feel so scary?
This film was always intended to be a thriller. It was almost a response to people saying Green didn’t go far enough into the psychological thriller genre (that film wasn’t conceived of as a genre piece, we found that through the filmmaking process). And it feels fitting, because the issues I was dealing with at the time—of not feeling feminine enough, of feeling insanely competitive with my friends regarding our careers—were overwhelming. I was filled with rage, had violent impulses, felt like I was going crazy, which lent itself to exploring these issues within this genre. I guess maybe the movies feel so scary because I’m a really intense fucked-up person????
Always Shine is about female performance, in terms of life just generally, but also very specifically in the ways that Anna and Beth talk about their crafts and careers, what “type” they are, their rivalries with each other, and so on. Is the pressure that fuels the film is coming from your own or other people’s experiences of the film industry specifically? Or was it inspired by more broad social pressure? (Can the two even be untangled?)
Women perform femininity whether they are actresses or not. There’s a set of expectations about behavior that women learn from the time they are very, very young and they begin to adopt these postures, patterns of speech, set of values, etc. Some women embody those things more easily than others and others are very strong and are able to break free from what they are taught and become their own people. The film was definitely inspired by this broad social pressure opposed to film-specific pressures.
That said, we chose to make these characters actresses because actresses project to the world what women are supposed to be and therefore are oftentimes even more scrutinized and boxed in by stereotypes about femininity than other women (there’s a great Brooklyn filmmaker, Elisabeth Subrin who has a wonderful blog that also speaks to this). Growing up, I always wanted to be an actress so I absorbed the behavior these women were projecting —their fragility, their silence, how they used their bodies and how they were judged.
Caitlin FitzGerald spoke about this in an interview we did recently—you start out wanting to be an actress because of this almost sacred feeling of creativity and connectedness that you feel when you work, but the more successful you get the more you are boxed into and expected to present this idea of femininity.
But, truly, I think even though the specifics of this film are about actresses the movie seems to be resonating with women who aren’t involved in the arts at all. Who feel completely trapped by these stifling notions of femininity and who are working through these issues and maybe feel filled with rage, shame, and confusion.
How would you describe your style, as a director? I mean less in the auteurist sense than in terms of your process on Always Shine. As a filmmaker, performer and producer, you’ve definitely been involved in progressively larger-scale work, which means communicating with (and delegating to) more and more people (who are more and more experienced), both cast and crew. What have been the challenges there?
I’d describe my style as New Age-y meets hands-off. I think a lot of my job as a director starts before the first day of shooting. Casting is the most important thing to me and so I look for actors who seem most connected to the material, who seem most able to flawlessly embody the role I’m casting them.
I spoke to a lot of actors about Always Shine and while the material resonated with everyone I spoke to some actors I would speak to about Anna would say “it’s funny—I actually connected more with Beth.” That’s really not what I want, I want someone who feels completely connected to the character they are playing, who intuitively understands what choices that character would make so that I can just let them work on set and stay out of their way.
The same goes for my crew. Mark Schwartzbard, the cinematographer, understood what I wanted. We watched movies together and shot listed scenes before the shoot but once the shoot started I trusted him to actualize our “vision” without needing to micromanage him.
So, once we’ve done all the work—once I’ve established the look of the film with my DP and my production designer (Lanie Faith Marie Overton), once I’ve chosen the actors I think will require the least amount of molding in order to bring the characters to life—I feel like the most important component of directing is keeping everyone focused, engaged and present.
On this film, that meant doing morning meditations with the cast and crew, doing New Age-y group therapy warm-ups that Larry had taught me. It was important to me that the cast and crew were on the same page. I think on bigger films there’s a real divide/disconnect between the cast and the crew and I didn’t want to feel that on this movie. So we all lived together, we all did these warm-ups, we all ate dinner together. At dinner every night we would go around and say the high of our day and the low of our day. It was a way for everyone to feel seen and heard and for me to learn what was working and what wasn’t. I was very process-oriented on this film, trying not to think about whether or not we were making a good movie in the moment but trying to be present to the creative energy that we were creating and embodying.
As a follow-up, how much direction do you give your actors, now that you’re only off-camera? Do you prefer a lot of rehearsal, a lot of improvisation, both, neither?
We did a week of rehearsal but we didn’t rehearse the scenes, we did backstory rehearsals where Mackenzie & Caitlin improvised different points in their characters history: the first time they met in college, when they moved in together after college, hanging out after Beth got back from a shoot… We tracked their relationship and came up with which scenes we thought would be best to have a shared memory of and then played those out. That was also helpful for the two of them to develop their own characters physicality and to observe the way each other carried themselves as Beth and Anna. A lot of Beth’s physical mannerisms were written into the script (biting her thumb, playing with her hair) but there was still lots of room for the actors to bring physical specificity to those characters.
You’re settling into California, right? How is being a filmmaker and actress in California different from being an actress and filmmaker in Brooklyn?
Being a filmmaker kind of feels the same except there are more opportunities to make money as a filmmaker and people (at least that I’ve encountered) seem to treat it more like a job, like an aspect of themselves rather than all of themselves. That’s been helpful—I don’t feel like I carry my career so intensely anymore, that it’s not what defines me and therefore my success or failure isn’t a reflection of my self-worth. I really thought it was going to be the opposite—that I was going to become obsessed with my career because so many people in LA work in film—but there’s just a level of remove, of wanting to enjoy the day. Maybe it’s because I’m not deep in the Hollywood trenches or maybe it’s an internal shift that I’m projecting onto everyone else but whatever it is I’m very, very happy I left Brooklyn (sorry!).
Being an actress is a little different—I go to auditions and everyone is wearing tight clothes and tons of makeup and I feel out of place. But having directed films and met with actors about roles I also realize that if I’m right for a part I’m going to be right for it, I can’t try to squeeze myself into someone else’s idea of who I am and try to convince them that I’m what they want. So it’s a bit easier to go into a room and just be myself than it used to be. I still get self-conscious and issues that I explore in the movie still crop up but not as intensely.
The editing of Always Shine, by filmmaker and occasional BK Mag contributor Zach Clark, is very striking, the way it foreshadows trauma and creates tension, playing with time in very quick, almost subliminal cuts. What did you want to achieve with the editing? What sort of adjustments were you making in order to refine the editing to get it to where you wanted it?
Zach Clark played a huge part in shaping this film. I knew I wanted the editing to be jarring. I tried to cut a version of the first ten minutes that was weird and wild but didn’t have the editing chops to do it myself. I showed my assembly to Zach and he was like “I know how to make this really cool.” And he cut a version of the opening credits that’s exactly what’s in there now and showed me that. I loved it and I was like Yes! Make the whole movie like this!
Even though we had certain ideas written into the film (women looking into the camera, the close-up of the camera in the beginning of the film) Zach fleshed out those ideas and themes even more—the idea of performance, of an audience being complicit in the plight these two women are going through. He added the slate that pops up throughout the film and when I saw that I thought it was such a fun, visual way to get inside Anna’s mind and have the structure of the film mirror Anna’s own breakdown. I really like the balance Zach found between pulling the audience in and then pushing them away with devices like that.
It was a long-ish editing process because of all of the experimentation. We just kept pushing to make it weirder and wilder until we felt like we had gone overboard and then pulled back. But because this wasn’t just a straightforward edit there were so many things to try.
Kind of a similar question about the music: How did you describe what you wanted to the composer? Did you play anything for him as a reference?
I played Michael Montes the score for Robert Altman’s Images. That score has two composers—John Williams and Stomu Yamashta. I played him all of Yamashta’s music which was very guttural—he uses his voice and it’s very avant-garde and evocative. I think I told him I wanted it to sound “organic” and to use real instruments (which is rare on such a low-budget movie) rather than composing everything on the computer.
Also, Larry and I spent a month before the shoot prepping in Big Sur and one night we were in the hot springs at Esalen and there was a man sitting on a stool (totally naked) playing the didgeridoo while everyone was relaxing in the hot springs. We kind of entered this trance. And I spoke to Michael about using these traditionally meditative sounds (didgeridoo, tibetan song bowls, etc) but making something ominous and frightening with them.
That’s sort of how Big Sur feels, in general, peaceful and beautiful but also ominous and overwhelming.
How would you compare Always Shine to Queen of Earth?
I haven’t seen Queen of Earth. I think we both shot our movies in October, 2014. And, it’s a funny coincidence, but Elisabeth Moss was attached to Always Shine for a few months in 2013 but then ended up not doing it and doing Listen Up Philip instead. So, when I found out she and Alex were doing QOE I just braced myself for the inevitable comparisons the films were going to get but never watched the movie myself.