Why Always Shine director Sophia Takal encourages actors to make bad choices

One of Tribeca's most anticipated films came out of 'New Age exercises' and a long-term collaboration

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Sophia Takal’s second film has emerged as one of the darlings of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. Its April 15th world premiere drew a lot of buzz, based around the positive reception for Takal’s directorial debut, 2011’s Green, and a promising cast, featuring Mackenzie Davis (Halt And Catch Fire) and Caitlin FitzGerald (Masters Of Sex) in the lead roles. The early reviews have been positive, and occasionally rapturous. Like Green, Always Shine deals with jealousy and competition between two women. But where Green is a loose mumblecore drama, Always Shine is a nervy thriller that owes as much to Single White Female as it does to deliberate touchstones like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona.

And this time, the protagonists aren’t virtual strangers — they’re longtime friends whose relationship crumbles spectacularly during a weekend getaway at Big Sur. Beth (FitzGerald) is a fragile, pretty actress whose look has earned her a series of Final Girl roles in horror films that require “extensive nudity,” as one condescending set of filmmakers tell her during an audition. (“Don’t worry, sweetheart, we’ll make you look beautiful,” one says.) Anna (Davis) is a tougher-looking, more aggressive aspiring actress who hasn’t even had Beth’s level of success. Her financial desperation, and her resentment of Beth’s passive-aggression about their careers, builds to a breaking point during the vacation.

Takal works closely with her husband, Lawrence Michael Levine, both on her films and his: She's edited and produced for him, he's produced for her, and they've written and performed together, including co-starring in Green. He wrote Always Shine and has a role and a producer credit, though she's said the film came directly from her experiences as an actor. I sat down with Takal at Tribeca to talk about how he came to write a film about her thoughts on women, how growing older has affected Takal's friendships with other actresses, and why she encourages her cast to make bad choices as an exercise.

Always Shine

(Tribeca Film Festival)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tasha Robinson: Your husband has the sole scriptwriting credit here, but you’ve talked about how this film came out of your personal feelings about femininity. What was your collaboration like here?

Sophia Takal: As I was thinking about making a new movie, and the themes I wanted to explore, I was talking a lot to Lawrence about my feelings and my struggles. Maybe this sounds overly dramatic, but he was watching me unravel over these women in my life who I felt embodied a feminine ideal so easily. After going through that, and talking about my feelings with women, and feeling like other people had similar issues, I decided I really wanted to make a movie about them. I wrote an original outline that was just like, "Let’s go to Big Sur and improvise a movie!" and Larry said, "I actually really relate to these feelings, but in a different way." He was feeling a lot of career competition toward me, in the same way I was toward other friends. And he also said, "I know it’s not the same, but I also don’t feel like I fit in the typical masculine mold. And this really resonates with me, so if you don’t mind, I think I could write a strong, resonant script for this." He’s such a talented writer, and I knew he would write a great script around the few ideas I gave him. So he wrote a draft and gave it to me, and it just rang so true. Then we worked on it together, sort of — I gave him feedback and he wrote new drafts for about a year and a half. That’s how we work together. We write together a lot.

You’ve collaborated on a lot of projects, in a lot of different roles. How has your collaboration with each other evolved?

This project was very challenging to collaborate on. We were both working through our egos. He loved the script and felt really attached to it, and he wanted to direct it. But I really wanted to direct it too, so there was some conflict in taking this personal thing away from him because it was also personal to me. At one point, we talked about him directing it and me acting in it, but I really didn’t want to do that. At this point, I feel like our collaboration is much more supportive. Each of us really wants to help facilitate the other person’s vision, instead of to have ownership over everything. And that’s really opened us up. Our work is evolving and getting stronger because we’re fighting less while we’re doing it. We’re just really focused on making each project the best. Usually the person who had the original idea has the final say, so it’s about making sure they’re happy and doing exactly what they want to do.

You’ve cited Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence, and Lynn Ramsay’s Morvern Callar as major influences on this film. What did these films bring to the table?

All the movies from the 1970s with slow zooms were visual influences. With my director of photography, Mark Schwartzbard, we watched Robert Altman’s 3 Women and Images, and I really wanted to build suspense through slow zooms and a moving camera like he does. Theme-wise, 3 Women was also a big influence, as was Cassavetes’ Opening Night. The idea of the ghost that becomes more and more threatening to Gena Rowlands’ character was something we wanted to incorporate. And with Morvern Callar — Larry showed me that movie, because a lot of the feedback we were getting from traditional financiers, when we were trying to make this movie in a more traditional way, was that the main character wasn’t likable, and it was unclear why she was doing these things. Larry said, "There’s this great movie you need to see, where the protagonist’s motivations aren’t really explained in a way where everything ties up neatly, and with a character who’s flawed." That really opened things up for me.

"Likability to me is such a frustrating thing."

I don’t know if this is true, but I feel like female directors are better able to understand the complexity of a female character without needing to explain everything, and without needing to make the character "likable." Likability to me is such a frustrating thing. I think there’s more awareness around this now, but in general, male characters can be so flawed, but if a woman is mildly annoying, "She’s not likable!" It mirrors this box of femininity in the real world, too, where you have to be this one narrow, certain way, and if you’re not, you’re intolerable.

Always Shine

(Tribeca Film Festival)

Who do you consider the main character? One of the interesting things about the film is that there’s such a balance between Anna and Beth, in terms of perspective and sympathy.

Psycho was also an influence, in that you start off being in one character’s psychology, and then it shifts. Anna is based on me, so I always thought of her as the main character. But I did want to start with Beth and have that shift, so you understand both characters’ point of view. I think you transition into Anna’s headspace around that scene at the bar with the handsome older dude. If we were aping Psycho, that was our shower moment, our transition moment.

Brian De Palma also feels like an influence here, given how much you’re looking at voyeurism and sex and the film industry, and questions of identity and escape. Was he part of the mix?

I’ve loved the films I’ve seen of his, and I’m sure he was an influence for Larry and my DP, but I’m not so familiar with his movies. I saw Body Double and a really good one with Robert De Niro called Hi, Mom! which was also an influence, because it’s not experimental, but it’s just totally wild, and it narratively goes off on these wild diversions, which I did in the scene here with Jane Adams. It’s just a diversion that may have been inspired by the diversions in Hi, Mom! I love that movie.

But I’m not that well-versed in cinema. Zach Clark, my editor, he knows so much about movies, and I’ve had so many collaborators who know so much more about movies than I do that they were able to infuse in choices I might not have thought of. They just have a bigger cinematic vocabulary.

"I like the sense of community in filmmaking, the sense of shared collaboration."

How do you come to being a filmmaker, if not out of that kind of obsessive love of film?

I started out wanting to act. And I started out acting and watching directors, and thinking, "Oh, that looks easy." It isn’t easy. At least, it wasn’t easy for Green, the first movie I directed. But because it’s not so expensive to make movies anymore, and because I really like making them — I like the sense of community in filmmaking, the sense of shared collaboration. That really means a lot to me. Not just with movies, but in general, it means a lot to me to have a supportive group of people together socially, emotionally. And that’s what draws me to wanting to make movies. It’s like a fun, creative way to work through my issues. But when it’s over, I don’t feel like watching my movie. And I don’t really feel like watching movies in general. Some movies have changed my life, but I came to it mainly from acting, and from feeling a sense of purpose in being on a set, and making art with other people.

You said you had trouble with traditional financiers. What was it like getting together the money for this project?

Impossible. So many times, the money fell through. There were four different times that, like, three weeks before we were going to go to Big Sur to shoot, people would be like "Never mind." They signed contracts, but still, "Never mind." And what are you going to do, sue them for it? But I found two investors for smaller amounts of money. And then I put a lot on my credit card. And I Kickstarted the post-production. It was just so essential to me. I’ve been trying to make this move since 2012, and I shot at the end of 2014. So the two years in between were emotionally taxing. I would be so ready to make it, and then the money would fall through. Eventually, I was like, "I can’t keep doing this. I really just have to make it." When I decided to do it on my own, I cast Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald, the two actresses I was really passionate about. They weren’t cast because of financier reasons. It was very important to me that the people in those roles understand how intimate and collaborative it was going to be.

And they were totally game for it, and that was really amazing. The process was really important to me, so I needed actresses who were going to go through that process for me. It’s weird, "female-driven" is a buzzword right now, and people say they want more movies by women, and about women. And I think women really want that. But what I’m encountering is that there are a lot more male distributors. I don’t think this movie is just for women. It’s a fun psychological thriller in a lot of ways. There are cool aspects that everyone can enjoy. I’m trying not to be an essentialist, but I also feel a little like there might be a seed here of something that it’s easier for women to relate to. I hope it’ll spark a dialogue, and that there is a place for it in the landscape as more than a piece of entertainment.

There’s certainly a stereotype that relationships between women always have a spark of jealousy in them, and that women deal with competition and jealousy very differently from men in their friendships. How do you think about the ways that plays out here?

You know, I don’t know if it’s just that we’re getting older, and we’re all calming down, or maybe I’ve just calmed down, but I don’t feel that sort of cattiness in my friendships anymore. Or maybe it’s because I’m not an actor. There’s a scarcity mentality among actresses where you’re just totally at each other’s throats. I think a big reason women are catty in that way where men might not pick up on the slights, even if they’re watching, is because women are taught not to be aggressive. We have these passive-aggressive ways of destroying each other, whereas I think it would be a lot healthier to just say "I’m mad at you right now," and have that not be the end of the world, work through it. What was important to me about making this movie was to show how toxic this is, and how dangerous it is to subvert your anger and rage and pretend it’s not there, and how that will really drive you crazy. Until you can synthesize all these aspects of yourself into one authentic version of yourself, you’re not going to be able to be a whole person. You’re not going to be present for life. And I hope by making a movie about that, I can help women who are struggling to acknowledge these darker aspects of themselves. They might have a way to process them more. Will be less ashamed of them, or won’t try to hide them as much.

Always Shine

(Tribeca Film Festival)

Here, though, that open aggression winds up being just as toxic, and even more dangerous.

Yeah, because to me, both of the protagonists are extremes. They’re the extremes of either side. And the last moment is when she’s finally become whole. She was filled with rage before because she didn’t feel like she could fit into that version of femininity, and then she’s not acknowledging the rage inside herself. They become the extremes of femininity instead.

That final shot seems to undo that reading, though. The synthesis and symbolism seem to be undone in the final moment.

I totally get the Fight Club aspect of the movie, where you might not think they’re both real, and I like that. They’re both real people, but thematically, they’re two sides. And to me, the last shot says she’s finally accepted both sides of herself, she’s acknowledging who she really is, but it’s too late. It’s a cautionary tale: "You need to do this before that happens." We really wanted to make something genre-y, with a lot of twists. My editor did a great job with the pacing, and created a lot of the space. But it was an intuitive process.

"That was really important to me, to break the barriers between the cast and crew, so the actors could feel free to fail."

Speaking of that, you’ve talked about doing exercises with the actors before each shooting day, to open them up. What kind of exercises? What was a day on the set like?

It wasn’t just the actors, it was the crew, too. That was really important to me, to break the barriers between the cast and crew, so the actors could feel free to fail, and not feel self-conscious. So we would wake up in the morning and everyone would sit and do five minutes of meditation, either sitting alone to focus on our breath, or to do a body scan, which I learned in yoga, where you focus on your toe and then you go all the way up and around your body. Or they’d sit back-to-back with someone — and I’d always make sure they were sitting with someone they hadn’t sat with the day before — and feel each other breathing. And then the exercises weren’t really acting exercises as much as New Agey therapy warm-ups. So there was one where we’d jump up and down and scream "YES YES YES YES YES," and then be like "NO NO NO NO NO" and stomp on the ground. Things like that, which Larry learned in group therapy, to loosen up and act kind of silly, so everyone didn’t feel like it was so serious. Everyone looked goofy, so when the actors, later in the day, were doing really intense stuff, they wouldn’t feel like other people hadn’t put themselves out there in the same way.

Are you more a grip-it-and-rip-it kind of director, where you want to focus on intensity and get the shot right the first time, or would you rather do a lot of different takes to vary what you’re getting?

I love doing a lot of takes, but I also did have a very specific idea for how I wanted this shot. So I wasn’t super loosey-goosey on this. I said beforehand, "Yeah, like whatever, you don’t have to say the exact lines…" and I think I gave the air of being a lot looser than I ended up being. A lot of the scenes occur in one shot, and that wound up being really important to me, so we’d do 12 or 13 takes, and it was just about getting it right. Since I started out acting, working with actors is really fun for me. And if I got a take and thought they did it well, I might be like, "Okay, let’s do it again, and this time make the worst choice that could ever happen." And we’d do it again, and deliberately spoiling a take might unlock something. We were doing the car-mechanic scene a ton of times. And it was starting to get the same every time. I don’t understand the point of making every take the same — we’re not shooting on film, you can do it as many times as you want. So I asked Mackenzie to do it again in an Australian accent. And she did it. And then the take after that had a little more energy and presence, and that’s the take we ended up using. Things like that are just fun to do.

What was the moment where you realized you wanted Mackenzie and Caitlin for these roles?

I was such a fan of their work. But also, they just had such a deep, deep understanding of the material, intellectually and emotionally. They had such clear ideas of who those characters were. And a little as a director, I feel like my job is just to pick the people who are most like the characters, who understand the characters most, so they can just do their job and I can stay out of their way. So I picked actresses who I thought were so intelligent and passionate, and really understood, not just the script and the characters, but the reason to make a movie like this. The social significance of it, or the value of it as a piece of art. And who were excited to come live in a house in Big Sur with a crew, and do my crazy New Agey warm-ups, instead of feeling like, "Ugh, I guess I’ll do it, because this is a big part that’ll get me attention." I didn’t feel like it was about their careers. It was about working together to create something we were all proud of.

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