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A small downtown Manhattan theater buzzes with energy on a Friday night. A bright-eyed girl in a floral dress, plastic wine glass in hand, stands in the middle of the crowd of critics, crew, and friends, thanking them for attending. Her name is Sophia Takal, and she's a little nervous. It's understandable, considering her guests were just treated to an early screening of her latest film, Wild Canaries, which would begin its festival circuit—first SXSW, then the Sarasota Film Fest, then Boston's Independent Film Festival—later that March.
Wild Canaries, a screwball comedy that recalls Clue, is a departure for Takal. The writer/director/actress has made her mark in the independent film industry starring in lo-fi genre fare and quiet and contemplative slice-of-life films with and by the same people. Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, and Ti West, are all related names that appear if you search for her. On her filmography, you'll find The Zone (2011), Supporting Characters, V/H/S (2012), and 24 Exposures (2013). Not only does Wild Canaries, the hilarious maybe-murder mystery, have names recognizable to non-cinephiles, such as Jason Ritter, Kent Corrigan, and Alia Shawkat, but it showcases Takal's abilities like never before. She's a surprising comedic talent who's absolutely magnetic on screen.
That's partially thanks to her husband, Lawrence Michael Levine, the film's writer, director and co-star, whom the Montclair, NJ native met while he was her T.A. at Columbia University. Together, they've worked on Levine's first feature film, Gabi on the Roof of July, and Takal's own written/directed movie, Green.
With 25 acting credits to her name since 2009, Takal is a familiar name to those who frequent indie movie houses, but Hollywood's been tougher to crack. She's proven she's got everything it takes to her name on the Grauman theater marquee, but her phone isn't ringing off the hook. It's time for casting directors to throw out the old Rolodex and give Takal a call.
Interview by Tara Aquino ( @t_akino)
No Days Off
So you’re a crazy prolific actress on this real indie grind who shows up to every film festival, but you don’t get hounded like, say, Sandra Bullock.
I mean, well, I don’t do that anymore because paparazzi just follows me all the time. [Laughs.]
When did you start working in the movies?
A year or so after I graduated college Lawrence and I shot this movie called Gabi on the Roof in July, which I acted in, produced, and edited. Lena Dunham had a part in the movie, and so did Amy Seimetz and Kate Lyn Sheil. We didn’t really know anyone in the movie beforehand.
On where Takal's ideas come from: "I usually start with a bad feeling and use that bad feeling to create something positive."
How’d you connect with Lena Dunham?
Through Amy Seimetz, who worked with her on a short called Round Town Girls. The character that I was developing went to Oberlin, where I didn’t go, and Lena did. So Amy put me in touch with her to talk about the school.
Where do you like to meet people to collaborate with?
Movies tend to end up in the same festivals, so you spend more time with your friends out of town than you would while you were home. It helps solidify friendships.
Is that something that you thrive on, being at a festival and being surrounded by filmmakers?
Yeah, I do. Sometimes it’s grueling and exhausting, and you just want to be home. With Green, by the end of the festival run I was thinking, “I never want to make movies again.” A week later you’re well rested and then you’re like, “Never mind, I do.”
Did you have second jobs when you were starting off?
I was a waitress for a while and worked at a coffee shop and babysat. I would go on Craigslist and look for jobs that would pay me a lot of money for a short amount of time. I was like a PA for some post-9/11 health initiative and I had no idea what it was and I was running around having no idea what I was doing a lot of the time, just trying to make money.
Nowadays are you able to just focus on film?
Yeah, now I'm just really focused on acting and helping Larry make his movies and trying to direct another movie as well. My everyday consists of writing, like working on scripts, maybe staring at the Internet. Larry and I try to be working on at least one movie a year. For the past couple of years, we've been going from one movie to the next. From pre-production through the festival run or like acting in movies and being out of town doing that—I haven’t had a normal day in a while.
How does your creative partnership with Larry work?
It's a lot of talking and then a lot of fighting and then a lot of talking again. [Laughs.] The difference between us is that he’s very focused and disciplined and he will write every day for a certain amount of hours. He'll write in the same place and can’t move around because he's so focused. I'm a little more flaky and I jump from idea to idea and I'm not sure if one is better than the other.
We alternate who’s directing, and the reason we do that rather than co-directing—even though we are both heavily involved in each other’s work—is because someone needs to have the final say. Otherwise, we would go around in circles forever arguing our points. [Laughs.]
Where do your ideas come from?
I usually start with a bad feeling and use that bad feeling to create something positive. [Laughs.] This new movie that I'm trying to make is about my feelings of frustration and inadequacy fitting in with my ideas of what an ideal woman is, or what femininity is.
You seem like you’re always thinking about the next thing. Do you have a list of projects you’d like to get started on?
Yeah. The thing is, those ideas are really specific to a period of time that I was going through in my life and sometimes it takes a while to get a script to a place where I feel comfortable showing it to people. To me, a movie is worth doing if two years later you’re still like, “Yeah I really want to say this.”
Do you have any other projects you're currently working on?
I don’t think that every work has to touch every person. It would be very vague and unspecific and would end up touching no one.
I have a project that my husband wrote that I'm directing called Always Shine, which we are shooting this year in California. It's a psychological thriller. That's another one where we're trying to make a bigger movie on a bigger scale and give it a chance to be seen by more people.
Does that make you miss your early processes?
Yeah. I mean, it’s exciting to have the resources to make a really awesome movie, but it’s also frustrating in a way because I'm used to just calling my friends and saying, “What are you doing next week? Let’s make an improvised movie in our apartment."
How do you find funding for your films?
We have producers who are better at that than us, who help us either through production companies or a private equity.
How do you feel about the people who react against “mumblecore” movies?
I don’t know why people react strongly towards a movement. If a certain movie is considered mumblecore, that's fine. I don’t understand the hostility towards what I think is a very genuine approach to creativity. In a world that is increasingly less supportive of that creativity, it’s really important that that exists. It’s inspired a lot of my friends and I to pursue something we care about and reflect a certain person’s life or a group of peoples lives. I don’t understand being totally anti-that, like as a thing or a concept or a notion.
The criticism I hear most about mumblecore is the same criticism people give to Girls, that it’s inaccessible to the general public.
I don’t think that every work has to touch every person. It would be very vague and unspecific and would end up touching no one. I understand the idea of, "This didn’t reflect my life, so I don’t like it,” but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I’ll watch a movie that doesn’t reflect my life and I’ll either be happy that I saw it because it brought me into a world that I didn’t know much about before, or it just wasn’t for me.