“Always Shine” is only the second film Sophia Takal has directed, but she’s been around. A filmmaker and actress, she emerged in the wake of that misnomer of a very loose “movement” known as “mumblecore.” As such, she’s acted in films for Joe Swanberg (“All the Light in the Sky”), Ti West (his segment of “V/H/S”) and her husband, Lawrence Michael Levine (“Wild Canaries”). In 2011, Takal made her first feature, “Green,” about a couple (Levine and Kate Lyn Sheil) whose union is challenged when they meet a Southern woman (Takal herself).
It’s taken Takal five years to follow “Green” up, but the new “Always Shine” — written by Levine and directed by her — finds her going next-level: It’s a polished, if still experimental, psychological horror by way of an art film. Caitlin Fitzgerald (“Masters of Sex”) and Mackenzie Davis (“Halt and Catch Fire”) play fellow actress friends, one successful, the other not, who go off on a Big Sur getaway. But deep-seated tensions — particularly Davis’ character’s anxieties over how her friend gets all the attention — rise to the surface, leading to a fractured narrative. Previously using handheld and all the fixtures of no-budget filmmaking, Takal busts out a film of slow zooms and flash-forwards and elegant long takes, while making a film that challenges how gender norms imprison women.
Takal talks to us about testing herself as a director, relocating to Los Angeles from New York and how camera zooms are awesome.
It seems like this was made in a very open way: very constructed but still experimental. How did you describe the process you wanted to your cast and crew?
I had a tone in mind, and everyone that participated in making the movie was aware of the tone. Everyone understood the reference points — Robert Altman’s “3 Women” and “Images.” We thought about how we could create an environment that would allow us to take those kinds of chances. I feel like in the ’70s — maybe people were on drugs, I don’t know what it was [laughs] — but there was a risk-taking in those movies that was exciting. I was trying to create a space where everyone felt they could take risks, and when something didn’t work out it was OK. It didn’t have to be super slick; it could be a little messy. I’d rather have a messy movie that’s taking chances then a super slick movie that’s doing the same as everything else.
You use a lot of camera zooms, which aren’t as popular as they once were. I’m glad to see them back.
They’re cool! I guess people started thinking they were cheesy at some point. But I think they’re cool. I was referencing movies throughout. Because the movie’s about performance, it’s about actors, it’s about the entertainment industry, I wasn’t afraid of being referential. I think everyone in their lives, men and women, perform, perform their gender, who they’re supposed to be, what they perceive from the media, from movies, from magazines. Making a movie referential that is talking about the way movies influence how we behave seemed appropriate.
I read that you used the same zoom lens as Altman used in “3 Women.”
Not the actual lens. Slow zooms were really important to me. There were certain scenes when I was reading the script, I knew how to shoot them with slow zooms. I talked to Mark [Schwartzbard, cinematographer] about how badly I wanted to rely on slow zooms. But two weeks before the shoot, Mark emailed me and said, “About these slow zooms…” We were trying to raise a lot more money than we could get, and I basically put a lot of this movie on a credit card. He kept giving me reasons why we shouldn’t use a zoom lens. And I started freaking out. He said it would cost $10,000, $15,000. I was like, “We can’t make this movie without a zooms lens. Slow zooms are an essential part of this movie. It’s part of the tone. It’s how I first thought about making the movie. What am I supposed to do?”
Then I just went on eBay and searched “vintage zoom lens,” and the first one that popped up was $2000. I sent it to [Schwartzbard] and he said, “It’s a zoom lens from the 1960s that was probably the same kind Altman would have used.” I bought it. It had barely been used since the ’60s and ’70s. That was basically the only lens we used the entire time. The idea of how to shoot it was that every scene was going to be shot in as few shots as possible. How much can we use movement and tracking and zooming to keeping things happening in real time? It’s a preference I have in general, so I can watch actors act. That’s my favorite thing about movies.