How Sophia Takal became the first woman to direct a Blumhouse horror
Takal reenvisioned classic slasher Black Christmas, bringing a fresh directing perspective to the revered fright flick distributor.
Sophia Takal wants to know when making movies is going to start to feel like work. Until now, it’s been fun, unusually: a family affair, thrillingly intimate, humming with passion and on-set enthusiasm. Her new film, a splashy remake of the ’70s slasher Black Christmas, is a wide-release production developed under the aegis of Universal Pictures, with all that entails – a multimillion dollar budget, month-long international shooting schedule, 70-person crew. Still, it was full of closeness and comfortable rapport. “This was something I’d always wondered,” she told me days after she delivered the final cut to the studio. “As I’ve continued to grow as a director, and make bigger and bigger movies, will this ever feel like a job? Maybe it will. But so far it hasn’t. And that’s been a really nice surprise.”
The scale of Black Christmas is certainly a change for Takal. The psychological horror film Always Shine, her previous feature, was eked out on a budget that barely cracked six figures. Her debut, the close-quarters love-triangle drama Green, was cobbled together for even less. With Black Christmas, she’s graduated from under-the-radar indie darling to mastermind behind the season’s blockbuster horror event.
Black Christmas is produced by Jason Blum, the one-man horror tycoon responsible for such already minted modern classics as Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Purge franchises. This is noteworthy in two important respects: the first is that Blumhouse, the production company Blum runs, is a major operation, and by working with Takal they have fast-tracked her into the most prestigious echelon of contemporary horror. The second is that Takal is a woman – making her the first and so far only woman to helm one of the nearly 100 theatrical features Blumhouse has produced to date.
Late last year, Blum was widely criticised over remarks he made when asked why he had never hired a woman to direct a Blumhouse film. He insisted that while he is “always trying to do that,” there are simply “not a lot of female directors period, and even less who are inclined to do horror.” The outcry was vehement: critics began naming the many dozens of acclaimed female directors who work in the genre, and dismissed Blum’s comments as the phoney apology of a man not trying hard enough.
But Blum had worked with a female director – Sophia Takal. On the strength of her work on Always Shine, she was brought on to direct “New Year, New You,” a feature-length episode of Blum’s horror anthology series Into the Dark, which started streaming last October on Hulu. While the criticisms levelled at Blum were still technically accurate – “New Year, New You” was never released theatrically – Takal felt only gratitude toward Blum, who had, after all, given her a big break. “I think I had just finished shooting when he said those things,” she recalls.
“When I read that, I just… I have felt so totally supported by Blumhouse as a company and by Jason personally. Some parts of the horror community can feel like a boys’ club. But Blumhouse has been on the forefront of making space for diverse voices. They have made it possible to tell socially relevant, interesting stories that are still fun.” When it came time to find someone to take on the remake of Black Christmas, for which Blumhouse had acquired the rights at the beginning of the year, Blum didn’t have to look far to find a director from outside the boy’s club of horror. He went straight to Takal, who was quickly becoming one of the most intriguing new voices in indie horror.
Takal came up at the outset of the decade within a loose-knit group of Brooklyn filmmakers. Emerging in the wake of the “mumblecore” movement of the early 2000s – a briefly fashionable phase of hyper-indie dramedies that launched the careers of Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, and Mark Duplass – the unnamed cohort included Amy Seimetz, Alex Ross Perry, and Dustin Guy Defa, among others. Takal’s first film starred her husband Lawrence Michael Levine and her best friend Kate Lyn Sheil – both of whom were heavily involved in the same Brooklyn scene.
“That post-mumblecore Brooklyn film scene I was part of was so exhilarating and creatively fulfilling and really formed my idea of how to make art,” Takal says. From 2011 to 2014, she was producing and acting in movies made by her peers and friends, including Jonathan Lisceki’s Gayby, Levine’s Wild Canaries, and Todd Rohal and Kent Osborne’s Uncle Kent 2. Many of these films shared cinematographers and editors, were programmed at the same festivals, and were released in New York at the same cinemas by the same small distributors. They were even celebrated by the same critics.
The post-mumblecore Brooklyn scene never really disbanded. Its best and brightest simply broke out – from art houses in the boroughs to multiplexes abroad. For Takal, the attempt to leap to a more legitimate strata was a professional consideration. “As you get older, there are certain ‘regular life’ things you have to do, like having to make money and not just spend money on movies,” she says. “You have to be an adult – things like that.” The trick is to retain some of that familiar intimacy as you transition to the big leagues. “I’ve been careful to bring what made those movies special with me, to movies with bigger budgets made for a wider audience that are not just made with my friends.”
This familial aspect of Black Christmas was hard-won, considering what was at stake with the project: beloved horror classic, biggest producer in the genre, major studio backing. Not exactly circumstances that lead to low blood pressure or an easygoing attitude. But if she was never quite overwhelmed by the prospect of making Black Christmas, it may be because she never had time – the whole thing came together too quickly for her to be intimidated by expectations or daunted by scope. Blum commissioned Takal to take the movie on at the beginning of 2019. She wrote the script in March with her co-writer, April Wolfe. She shot the movie in June. She spent the last few months in the editing room, and now it’s ready to be released in December, less than a year from the day she got the job.
“It was a bit of a whirlwind, putting this together,” Takal admits, in the immediate aftermath of its completion. “But in some ways, that was really helpful, because it made it possible to do something bold: we were able to tap into this feeling a lot of women have right now, this camaraderie with one another and this desire to find catharsis through our mutual rage. I feel good about that. That’s very exciting.” The original Black Christmas, often cited as the first slasher film, predating Friday the 13th and Halloween, concerns the grisly murder of the members of a sorority over a college campus’s Christmas break. Takal’s Black Christmas shrewdly contemporises the concept: no mere passive victims, this movie’s sorority sisters, upon learning a killer is on the loose, are eager to fight back.
It’s an audacious recalibration of the traditional gender dynamics of horror. The way these women subvert the genre’s types to fiercely defend themselves against their male assailants speaks urgently to our cultural moment – a time of reckoning with rape culture, when malignant misogyny is under long-overdue threat. “So much had happened,” Takal reflects. “Donald Trump was elected. The #MeToo movement happened, and is in the process of happening. A few months earlier the Brett Cavanagh hearings happened. I just felt that women were bonding together over shared trauma, and that was something I wanted to weave into this.” That compelled Takal and Wolfe to write a script about a sorority absent the usual tone of petty cattiness. They wanted a story “about women, but women who don’t hate each other.” These women would support each other and share each other’s victories and struggles. They would have to. They had a common enemy: toxic men, a cabal of killers out for female blood.
When she set out to write the first draft of Black Christmas, Takal noticed something curious. “#MeToo had exposed a lot of terrible men,” she explains. “But at the start of 2019, some of the names of the people who had done bad things were starting to return to the zeitgeist. Louis CK was doing stand-up comedy again. All these people were entering the mix.” The news had a pronounced effect on Takal and other women she knew. “It made me realise that even when you think you’ve beaten misogyny, or made progress, toxic masculinity is always waiting in the wings, ready to take over again.” So that formed the basis of the drama in the film. The women are liberated and modern and progressive. But the bad men are still lurking there on the periphery, poised to strike. “It’s still there. You have to keep on fighting.”
Black Christmas is so explicit about its themes, and so refreshingly bold in its politics, that it’s difficult to believe it’s a star-studded, multi-million dollar horror blockbuster opening in thousands of theatres around the country – even by the standards of a more outwardly progressive post-Get Out industry. Although more conventional than the slow-burn Green or the surreal, almost experimental Always Shine, Black Christmas is in some ways astonishingly bold for a studio picture. When I say so to Takal, she gushes. “That’s how I feel too! It’s so exciting to me.” She credits the extreme latitude of her producers. “What’s so great about Blumhouse is they are so supportive of filmmakers and their visions and unique voices. I think other places would have been scared of this crazy script that’s overtly feminist. But they were excited to dive in and trust me to bring it to the screen.”
For Takal, even the smallest details serve as a reminder of the unusual degree of freedom she was afforded. “There’s a scene at the start of the movie where a girl can’t find her diva cup, and a friend throws her a pad, and she puts the pad on in front of her, which is a thing I’ve had friends do in front of me,” Takal enthuses. “I was thinking at the time, like, this is going to be in a wide-release Universal movie. That is so cool.” Ultimately, it’s not the concept of the film or the themes it tackles that matter most about Black Christmas. Takal cares more about touches like this. “It’s these tiny moments that feel so particular to a female experience,” she says.
“These things that in conventional society we’re meant to hide as women – our shame, our rage, even our periods – to be able to make a movie and show those things, and have women and girls recognise themselves on screen, is so important to me.”