Lawrence Levine, Kate Lyn Shiel and Sophia Takal in Takal’s directorial debut Green
25-year-old Sophia Takal studied at Vassar before transferring to Columbia to get her BA in film studies. There she met Lawrence Levine to whom she is engaged and whose film Gabi on the Roof in July she produced, edited and starred in. Green is Sophia’s feature directorial debut which she also wrote, edited and co-stars in along with her fiancé Levine and her best friend Kate Lyn Shiel who has been in a number of indies including Joe Swanberg’s recent Silver Bullets.
Levine and Shiel play Sebastian and Genevieve, a hipster Brooklyn couple who spend 6 months in the rural south so Sebastian can blog about sustainable agriculture. Already feeling marginalized in the relationship, Genevieve’s worst jealous instincts flare up at the arrival of Robin (Takal), a pretty but guileless local with whom Genevieve at first bonds before her insecurity gets the better of her.
Filmed from a partly improvised script on a shoestring with nothing more than the three actors, a director of photography and a sound man, Green has all the hallmarks of dozens of so-called mumblecore films, but what elevates it above most of them is an honesty and a subtle but keen psychological incisiveness. It’s a film rooted in real feelings and it shows a wisdom about those feelings and about personal interactions you’d expect from a much older and more experienced filmmaker.
Takal not only did a terrific job behind the camera, she also shines on screen as Robin. With her accent and innocence and her chatty willingness to say the first thing that comes to her mind without worrying how it will be perceived, she reminded me a lot of some of Shelly Duvall’s work in the 1970’s.
I sat down for a few minutes with Sophia at Hollywood’s historic Roosevelt Hotel on the eve of Green‘s AFI Fest debut (it’s playing tonight and tomorrow, check out the film’s AFI page) to talk about her experiences making the film which won an award at SXSW, received a Gotham nomination for Best Film Not Playing in a Theater Near You and landed Sophia a spot in Filmmaker Magazine’s 2011 list of 25 indie filmmakers to watch.
Green definitely springs from the same well as the so-called mumblecore movies of Joe Swanberg and others, but it’s different, isn’t it?
I love mumblecore movies and I definitely have a lot of the same influences as mumblecore filmmakers. I produced and acted in Gabi on the Roof in July that Lawrence directed and that was more traditionally mumblecore. It was handheld and there was a lot of talking and a lot of characters and it was kind of overwhelming to make. The actual process of making it was really difficult so I think a lot of the way in which I decided to film Green, the intimacy of the set and the sort of subjective nature of the film and the camera was in direct response to wanting to work against the challenges of Gabi. I didn’t want to have a lot of camera movement, I didn’t want to do a lot of editing, I just sort of wanted to experiment more. Also it was such a small crew, just a DP and a sound person and the three actors and that was it, so there was an intimacy which allowed for experimentation and made me feel like “If no one ever sees this I won’t have lost anything but two weeks of learning to make a movie.”
So you completed filming in just two weeks? How long did you take to edit afterward?
It took several months for me to sit down and really watch the footage and to not be afraid of diving in, but then I think I really only spent like 8 or10 days editing. So many of the takes were long ones, so the work was really about watching and picking the best ones. The scenes with more editing were because I didn’t get the shots I wanted because I didn’t know how as a first time director. I would’ve loved if every single scene was in one shot.
You studied film in college so obviously it’s something you’ve wanted to do for a long time, but your experiences have been all over the map. You’ve produced, edited, written, acted and now you’ve directed. Which one of those things really drives you?
I started out from the time I was really young wanting to act. That was always my focus. And then I directed a little bit in high school and a little bit in college studying film. Then Lawrence had been a director already and so I kind of wanted to support him and help him direct a movie, but then I guess my ego got in the way and I was like “I want to direct a movie. I want to be in charge. I want to say what I have to say!”
That’s what everyone in Hollywood says, so you’re not alone!
One thing that sets Green apart from other films similar to it is its emotional depth and honesty. It doesn’t have that ironic distance a lot of mumblecore films have. Where did that come from for you?
I think probably having experienced the feelings of jealousy and knowing that I wanted the film and the performances to mirror my own way of dealing with jealousy, they way it sort of comes on suddenly. Plus, I wanted to use the strength of the actors. Kate and Lawrence are both really great actors and they’re very naturalistic. They’re two actors who you can just read what’s going on on their faces without them having to talk a lot so I wanted to use those strengths.
One of the things I tried to touch on in Green was this idea that the main character has a hard time feeling comfortable with herself and feeling confident. Because she’s so dependent on her boyfriend for everything, she has no identity outside of him and I think that came from a similar feeling that I was experiencing. Not because Lawrence was preventing me, he’s not a jerk the way Sebastian is, but I felt like I was putting myself in this position where I didn’t feel like I was my own individual, that everything I had was so dependent on him, his success, his approval. That’s when the jealousy got really bad. He was directing Gabi and I was sort of sitting around waiting for him to be done writing it so I could be in it. He’d be going off having these long rehearsals with these women and that felt really bad. My first impulse was just to be really crazy and mean and yell and pick fights, but after I sort of reflected on that, I realized the root of it and I decided I needed to get my own thing so I didn’t have all these feelings.
It’s interesting that you sort of modeled the lead character after yourself, yet in the film you play Robin, “the other woman”
I didn’t want to relive those feelings of jealousy, I just wanted to look at them from the outside. I really relate to the character of Robin a lot. I’ve often felt excluded because I might not know as much about culture as other people. She’s really different from me, but there’s sort of like a blind openness that I thought would be really fun to play.
She’s a character who could easily have become a caricature. The worldly Brooklynites sort of look down on her at first, but she’s really just a product of her limited world.
I really didn’t want her to be a caricature. I wanted her and Genevieve to have a lot of superficial differences, but I wanted them to sort of bond over this ineffable experience of being a woman, not just what movies they like or the surface stuff Genevieve is used to relating to with people. It’s a bond that eventually gets destroyed by this fake jealousy.
Talk to me a little more about this sudden psychological shift the movie takes.
It shifts really abruptly and some people have a problem with that, but I wanted the shift to cinematically reflect the way I experience jealousy. It can happen even with Kate (her co-star). She’s my best friend, but she could just reach over and pull something out of Larry’s hair and that irrational feeling suddenly comes up. I wanted that abrupt shift that doesn’t quite make sense.
The score you used has a creepy horror feeling to it. You keep expecting the movie to turn into Fatal Attraction. What led you to that choice?
I thought it would be interesting to have a horror tone to it because jealousy turns people into monsters. What happens is horrific to a friendship and I think really tragic. Even though there’s no physical violence, there’s manipulation. There’s like that girl-way of undermining each other – like violence with words. It’s not abuse but this weird thing girls learn in middle school how to undermine each other without seeming like they’re doing it. I think that’s a sort of violence. In the case of Genevieve, she sort of undermines Robin in a similar way to how Sebastian did to Genevieve at the start. In the end where Robin is sort of flirting with Sebastian, I always imagined that she’d never have done that, like she was never actually interested in Sebastian, but it was the only way she could get back at Genevieve for turning on her. So it’s like the thing you fear the most becomes true because of your own behavior. Genevieve sort of creates this environment for bad things to happen.
Now that you’ve had a taste for directing, do you still want to be an actor?
I still really love acting, but I’m starting to feel like directing is a more sustainable profession. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an actress and what the goal is. Does it just mean being famous and adored? Is that the end result that I’m seeking? With directing I can be old. I don’t have to be perfect and as I get older, the experiences and the things that I have to make movies about will hopefully become more interesting. But since I grew up wanting to act it’s been sort of hard to let go of that as my focus. Things have been amazing with Green and I’ve been getting a lot of support as a director, but I still keep thinking “why aren’t people wanting to cast me in movies!” But I think in the end I’m going to try really hard to focus on directing and not let my weird desire to be paid attention to take charge. I still love to act and it’s been really fun, but it’s also kind of frustrating to care a lot about a film and you put in a lot of work, but it’s not yours so you’re not really in charge of the finished film. It’s weird to feel like you don’t control it. Directing is cool and you’re in charge. (Laughs) I’m really bossy.
Do you plan to keep working with Lawrence or are you interested in striking out on your own?
Both. I have a movie that I wrote myself that I’ve got another producer for. That’s a comedy about a politically-correct white girl who goes to Africa to find herself, and Lawrence and I are working on a movie that deals with ideas of femininity and what it means to be a woman and looking critically at received images of women, but it’s a horror movie. Similar to Green, it’ll have naturalistic performances but it’ll go harder in a horror direction. We’ll hopefully be shooting in January in LA and in Big Sur.