Interview: Black Christmas director Sophia Takal

The original “Black Christmas” (1974) was released four years before “Halloween” and the year after Roe vs. Wade was passed. Unique for addressing abortion, stalkers, domestic violence, sexual independence and a woman’s right to set her own path, it was the first credited slasher film, but also, sadly, one of the few to bring women’s issue to the forefront.

This December, “Black Christmas” is back, co-written and directed by Sophia Takal, the first female director to take on a feature for the fast growing Blumhouse Productions.

We chatted with Sophia about the similarities between horror and comedy, the chance to take on timely issues, and the importance of process in the making of a film.

I was reflecting that there’s actually not many female directors that I get to talk to. So it’s a privilege to talk to you today. 

Sophia: Oh, cool. Well, thank you.

I understand, you were the first choice to direct this project and obviously you co-wrote and directed it, which is a huge time commitment. What was it that really drew you to it and say ‘Yes, this is what I want my next project to be’.

Sophia: Well firstly, when Blumhouse approached me about potentially remaking the movie, I loved Blumhouse so much. I had made an episode of a TV show for them and I has such a great time doing that and I was excited. I had wanted to work with them again after that. So I was really excited that they approached me and also I am a huge fan of the original “Black Christmas”. I think it’s so ahead of it’s time in terms of its place in the horror genre but also in terms of the way it dealt with abortion and sexual politics and female characters. I thought it would be really interesting to take a movie that was so groundbreaking and make a version that was as contemporary for today as that one was back then; and also was as scary and stylish as that one was.

And try to sort of move the conversation forward, not just in terms of what the characters do but also within the genre itself and what constitutes a slasher movie.

It’s interesting that comedy used to be the go-to for social commentary in film, but horror really seems to be taking over. Obviously the original “Black Christmas” was way ahead of its time there, but what do you think it is about the horror format makes it such a great way to reflect on social issues?

Sophia: I think partly because of the same reason as comedy, which is that first and foremost it’s a genre that’s meant to entertain, and when you’re watching a horror movie you’re on a roller coaster. It’s the exhilaration of being scared and maybe the catharsis of that fear. And so I think it allows you to make a movie that doesn’t feel preachy or overly pretentious or like a chore to have to watch. I think by allowing the audience to have fun and not just kind of making them feel guilty and bad, like a harrowing drama might, you can look at issues that are a little bit more complex and a little darker.

You co-wrote the film. How did you find working with a partner? Did you think that’s harder or easier than writing by yourself?

Sophia: Well I actually originally worked with my husband who is a writer and director also. So this was really interesting working with someone who I was not married to. It was a really, really wonderful experience. April [Wolfe] is deep in the horror culture right now and knows so much about the genre and the community and fans of the genre. So her insight was invaluable. And it was great to have another woman to kind of check in with and make sure what we were saying or what we were doing was intentional and it was just really lovely. All of my collaborators on this, men and women, have just been extraordinarily supportive and very passionate about making this movie.

I found all the female characters were richly drawn and complex, which is not always that common, unfortunately. How much work did you guys put in to uncovering their backstories and their dynamic with each other?

Sophia: It was really important to me that the actors all kind of felt comfortable as their characters and with one another because the relationships were vital onscreen.

And I have a background as an actor. That’s how I started off. And so it’s really important to me. Performance is very important to me and working with the actors is my favourite part. And so what we were able to do on this movie was a week before we started shooting we did back story improvisations and character improvisations where the actresses and actors would improvise scenes in character. So for example, we improvised Marty and Nate’s first date. And the night that Riley got sexually assaulted. How she came home and told her friends. Everyone had a shared memory of the experiences that the characters were talking about in this film.

There definitely came across a great bond and deep connection. The cast was fantastic. Did you find it difficult to cast for this film?

Sophia: No! I was so lucky. Imogen Poots is an actress I have been wanting to work with for years and she was my first choice for that role and all of the other actors were also my first choices for the roles that they played. I felt that everyone was so suited. Well, it’s really important to me, when I am looking with an actor, it’s not just if they’re right for the part. It absolutely is a group thing and it’s easier if people can just slip into characters without needing a lot of guidance; but also – who understands that the process of making a movie is as important, if not more important, than the final product and they work together through creating as a community making art. I think of making a movie almost as an art project. You’re just kind of always allow for improvisation. That’s why I look for actors who have that kind of passion and openness and flexibility to work and to gel and become just like one weird mass of human consciousness.

Is it pretty rare to have a rehearsal time and that lead-in time before actually filming? Because it seems to be happening less and less I hear on productions.

Sophia: Yeah. I have been really lucky. You know, prior to working with Blumhouse I have done a lot of independent films where I was able to sort of chart my own path. So I have been lucky enough to be able to do these kinds of exercises on all my movies. I would love to make a movie where there was like, months of rehearsal and we could just really dive into it. My husband made a movie once where we did six months of rehearsals and all of the actors created their own characters and the script was created based on function and foundation. And that was possible because we were working with really hungry actors who were able to give us a lot of time, but to be able to do that now would be really lovely.

You filmed this in New Zealand! Did being a bit more isolated help with the experience?

Sophia: I loved shooting in New Zealand. The crew and the actors from New Zealand were just fantastic to work with. Yeah, I loved just the energy and it’s such a beautiful country and the people are so wonderful. I loved it.

Yes – we’re big fans over here in Australia, although they don’t like us that much [Laughs]. What are you looking to do next? What kind of projects are you looking at?

Sophia: You know, I love horror but I’m also really interested in making movies outside of the genre. I do love movies that are kind of a little bit — I think the point of movies is to show each other our own humanity and each other’s humanity and remind us that we’re all struggling and trying to figure things out. So movies that accomplish that are really important to me.

“Black Christmas” is in cinemas 12 December. 


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