At a time when women are making strides across the industries of film and television, the horror genre remains primarily a boys' club. Sophia Takal, Blumhouse's first female horror director, is one of the filmmakers aiming to change that.
The former actress has been directing well-received female-led psychological thrillers since 2011's "Green" and made waves with "Always Shine" in 2016. , Her latest film, the reunion thriller "New Year, New You," is streaming as the first installment in Blumhouse Television's "Into the Dark" holiday-themed anthology series for Hulu.
The feature-length episode, which premiered Dec. 28, follows four high school friends — including a popular social media influencer dubbed Get Well Danielle (Carly Chaikin of “Mr. Robot”) — who are forced to reckon with sins of the past after a New Year's Eve celebration turns deadly. Suki Waterhouse ("Assassination Nation"), Kirby Howell-Baptiste ("Killing Eve") and Melissa Bergland ("Winners & Losers") also star.
"There's nothing the same about any of the movies [in ‘Into the Dark’], except that they're holiday horror movies," Takal said by phone from New York. "I think it's a really fun concept to create an anthology around. Christmas and Halloween are classic horror movie holidays, but there's so many others that would be fun."
Rather than choosing the New Year's Eve focus, Takal was approached by Blumhouse to direct the episode.
“Usually, when I come up with an idea, I'm going through some big emotional thing,” she said. “I'm struggling with something or something's really on my mind that I want to work through my art. But with this, I had to do something that someone else was thinking about and find my way into it. It felt a little bit like working from the outside in, rather than the inside out."
By focusing on a high school reunion among friends at differing levels of success, Takal found her way into the story via themes of female jealousy and resentment, a through-line of her previous work. "I really related to the idea of people regretting how they've lived their lives and having a quarter-life crisis. All the themes around the New Year's Eve backdrop were exciting and relatable to me," she said.
The Times caught up with Takal to get her take on social media, working with Blumhouse and bringing the female gaze to horror movies.
Social media plays a key role in this movie, and you seem especially interested in the dark side of social media influencers. What was the inspiration behind that?
I really gravitated towards this idea that social media can be psychologically damaging. Oftentimes, people compare themselves to these very curated images that social media celebrities put out, in particular this "self care, self love" way of thinking. I think that self care is really important, but when it's taken to the extreme, it can cause people to be pretty narcissistic, only thinking of themselves and how their lives are going and how their bodies look. So this is about exploring that.
What was your experience like with Blumhouse? Jason Blum recently had some blowback for saying that women are less inclined to direct horror than men, and he apologized.
I'd shot this by the time that [comment] came out ... I didn't experience any sexism or differential treatment that I perceived to be because of my gender. I was totally supported throughout the whole process. I also really love the movies Blumhouse makes. "Get Out" is one of my favorite horror movies of all time, and I think they do a really great job of finding different voices to tell different stories. So I was really excited to have the opportunity to work with Blumhouse, and I'm a huge fan of the work they do.
Do you think there is something about the traditional horror genre that has pushed female filmmakers away?
I really don't know. I can't speak for anyone but myself. I think that there is a strain of horror movies that is a little misogynistic. Not all, I would say. There's another strain of horror movies where the women are the heroes and are really powerful, but there are certain pockets of horror that I think can be a little bit… I don't know.
I think that something that's really exciting for me about working in this genre is that in the past it has been traditionally male-dominated — like much of movies in general — and so it feels like it's an opportunity for me to put out a new point of view or to show a new way of thinking about things within this genre.
Have you felt a real desire to tell diverse stories emerge in recent years or do you think the studios’ interest in hiring female filmmakers and directors of color is more of a gimmick or short-term trend?
This experience was pretty illuminating to me in that I didn't feel like I was just being hired because I was a woman and they felt they needed a woman. I felt that they were really interested in how a woman would tell this particular story. The fact that they were so open and so trusting of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it made me feel like it was because they saw the value that I brought, so it did not feel like a gimmick to me.
My own personal opinion is like, "Whatever it takes to get us in the door." I think it's OK, certainly for people that are aware that they have had blind spots [to acknowledge] that men, especially white men, have gotten the majority of jobs in film for so long, so it's OK to make a concerted effort to open the door to new types of filmmakers. I don't feel like it's gimmicky. I kind of feel like if I looked at it that way, it would be lose-lose. Because either they won't do it at all or if they do, they're doing it for the wrong reasons. Whatever the reasons are, I'm part of the conversation now and I feel really lucky because of that.
What do you think a female director brings to horror that a man doesn't, or can't?
I'm a particular woman and I bring what I bring to it. Another woman might bring a totally different thing to the table in the same way that different men bring different things to the table. What I bring to the table comes from the fact that I was an actress before I started directing. One of the things that drew me more to direct as opposed to focus on acting was that sometimes being on set I felt a little bit like a man's puppet. I did one movie where I had to get naked and I walked away from the process feeling a bit like, "All they wanted was for me to show my boobs." They didn't really care about the artistic side of things or what I thought would be creatively interesting.
My experience as an actress on traditionally male-dominated sets definitely informs not only the way I interact with actors but also the way I choose to shoot. The male gaze definitely influences the way we choose to frame women on-screen, how we choose to shoot them and also the stories we are comfortable telling about women. People shy away from telling stories about flawed women. There's an idea that female characters have to be likable more so than male characters do. And so I think, because I'm a woman, I feel more comfortable with showing the nastier sides of [our experiences] and don't feel the need to show perfection on-screen. I'd say that's what I bring to it as myself, who happens to be a woman.
Psychological themes about women dealing with envy and resentment recur in your work. What exactly about that interests you?
[Women are] very, very cutthroat. But because [we are] taught that being aggressive is unattractive and unfeminine, the ways in which we compete with one another and try to push each other down is so subtextual and psychological. I've experienced it a lot on both sides as someone who's been teased a lot and also as someone who was competitive and totally felt like there wasn't enough to go around.