SXSW: Talking to Breakout Greenpoint Filmmaker Sophia Takal About Insecurity, Among Other Things

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03/18/2011 9:44 AM |

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In Green, the directorial debut of Greenpoint twentysomething Sophia Takal, Brooklynites Sebastian and Genevieve, played by Lawrence Michael Levine and Kate Lyn Sheil, relocate to the South, where he plans to work on a blog about sustainable living. There, they meet Robin, a blithely naive local played by Takal; the couple’s privately mocking regard for Robin evolves, in a twist reminiscent of the opening of Alice Munro’s story “Fiction,” into a connection between the intellectual Sebastian and the chattering Robin—though that may simply be the product of recessive Genevieve’s imagination, destabilized by the unfamiliar rural location, rendered strange with languorous camera movement and ominous music.

Takal, Levine and Sheil may be familiar from last year’s Gabi on the Roof in July, written directed by Levine and costarring Takal and Sheil. )Takal and Levine are a couple, and Sheil is their roommate.) The day after this interview was conducted, Takal was awarded SXSW’s “Chicken & Egg Emergent Narrative Woman Director Award.”

I was struck by the continuity between the characters here and in Gabi—in both films, Lawrence Michael Levine’s character seems to have a way of, sort of, self-effacingly undermining insecure women in his life—and so I was hoping we can talk a little bit more about the collaborative process of writing.
I’d never written anything before, so I really did rely on the actors a lot, and Lawrence in particular because I think he’s a really great writer. I started out writing an outline that I kind of wrote in one night, and then put away for the next six months. And then, took it out and sat down with Kate and Lawrence and said, “This is the movie I want to make, these are the ideas that I have for characters,” and we spent hours and hours and hours—because we all live together—just talking about who the characters were, and where they were coming from, their history and psychology.

I wrote a script based on that—a lot of the scenes were scripted, and then some of the more psychologically based scenes were outlined in detail. We did those scenes and then had a couple of weeks off between our two shooting weeks, and I went back and watched that footage and re-scripted them and then we shot them. I didn’t plan on doing that, but a lot of the times I wasn’t happy about the way it was shot, so I decided to reshoot it. But I wasn’t particularly strict about sticking to the lines, and I really wanted it to have a naturalistic feel, so they were allowed to change the lines however they wanted. And we talked about every scene and the psychology of every scene and what was going on underneath.

I know that for Gabi you guys did a lot of character improv to develop the script, but in this case it was more discussion-based?
Yeah, it was like discussions while we were drinking coffee. And I loved doing the improvisation, but I just wanted to jump in and make a movie and I didn’t really want to take a long time to do it. And I knew that Lawrence and Kate were incredible actors and understood the characters. I don’t think we needed it for this particular film.

How far along in the process did you have the music and atmosphere in mind?
I always wanted this sort of horror tone, or eerie tone, and I knew I wanted nature to go from seeming peaceful, to something very scary and threatening… I wasn’t sure what kind of music I wanted to use until after our first week of shooting, when I was driving in a car and the Columbia radio had some show that was playing weird, ambient music and I was like, “oh, this is the exact music I want.”

There’s lot of terrific interaction between urban and rural people in the movie. Were you drawing on any experience of the South in writing it, or in playing it, or directing it?
Not of the South. We shot actually in Pennsylvania. But I wanted them to be far away from the city, so I decided to set if farther South, which is why I had an accent. But we shot in Pennsylvania, where I grew up going on the weekends, where my dad lived, and I based my character on a waitress at this diner we went to. She would babysit me on the weekends and stuff. I don’t have a lot of experience with the South—feeling it was really far away from me or New York City was all that mattered to me. It didn’t really matter what city, or what state it was in—where my accent came from, you know, what region or anything like that. I just wanted it to seem really isolated. And it was really, really different from what they were used to.

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There’s great moments of people trying to figure out how to talk about art with somebody who’s on a completely different wavelength and deciding how condescending they’re going to allow themselves to be, and I was, I guess, wondering, is that sort of an interaction that you are familiar with?
I really relate to Robin. Lawrence and Kate, they know so much about music, and they know so much about books and writing, and they know so much about art, and I always feel really left out of that—that was definitely something came from real life. And in general, in the New York scenes—the Philip Roth conversation, I just read Portnoy’s Complaint after I finished shooting the movie. I always feel a little bit lost and insecure about that and afraid of judgment, so I don’t feel like I’m on the other side of it trying to… I always feel like I’m the one people have to explain who people are to, and I’m always hyperconscious of that. And I also really liked the idea that Genevieve feels the need—she feels she has to pretend she is as intellectual as Sebastian, and she hasn’t read all of Philip Roth, but she’s really embarrassed by that. And I wanted to counter that by having Robin, someone who’s ok saying that she doesn’t know this, and Sebastian’s reaction is to not be hostile towards it, even though Genevieve is afraid of showing that side of herself. In the beginning, Sebastian sort of belittles Genevieve intellectually, like, “Oh, you haven’t read as much as me,” and I really wanted Genevieve to mirror that when she was treating Robin badly.

There’re two striking parallel bits where in private, the two of them laugh about her taking The Dark Knight really seriously, and then, with her, don’t correct her when she says that Juno is an art movie.
That’s my favorite line.

It might actually be mine too. What was the house where you shot?
It was my dad’s house. It was in the Poconos. We shot one scene from Gabi there too, when they cut the chicken.

I have a theory that there are a disproportionate amount of low-budget films that are shot in vacation homes.
That’s what I was going to talk about…

Because you can house everyone there, and they’re empty, and I think half the films I’ve seen at festivals…
We only had a DP and a sound person. That was out crew. And I just wanted it to be small and away from New York and for us to take our time with it, not to feel rushed, not feel the need to do something to be successful, and just say to do it at our own pace. So I though that it was important to shoot out there.

I read you saying you were working on a film that you were hoping to shoot this year? Are you allowed, prepared, to talk about it a little?
Well, it depends on how much money we get. We have two, one if we can get a little bit of money, and one for no money at all. One is like a murder-mystery-relationship-drama-comedy. This is the one that requires money. And Lawrence and Kate and I would also be in that, and there’s other characters involved, and I’m really excited about that one and I hope we eventually make it. And then the other one is another story about relationships between women but in a totally different world.

Presumably in New York?
I think New York. New York or Chicago, maybe. I don’t know, I want to get out of New York. I’m tired of it.

I’ve done all these interviews with filmmakers who’ve talked about wanting to escape from New York…
I think, also, audiences are really judgmental of films from New York. So, the combination of me not really wanting to shoot there, and people not wanting to see it…

But why specifically out of New York? What is it about city life that…?
Well, I love New York to live, but I think that there’s a certain energy creatively of competition and intense desire to succeed, that I get really sucked into. And I think, anytime I can get away from that and just focus on the actual thing that I’m making… I really like to take advantage of that. Because everyone’s cutthroat and amazingly talented, and you’re totally bombarded with people who are always doing things all the time.

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