They say you should write what you know. When it came time for indie actor Sophia Takal to write her striking first feature film Green, she took what “they” say to heart in a big way.
“It’s pulled straight from my own relationship,” she says. “When I’m feeling most threatened and jealous about something, it pushes Larry towards that thing. When we were shooting Gabi, I was pushing him away, because I was so jealous of these imaginary things. And it ended up making him more attracted to the people I was threatened by. So in this movie I really wanted to explore that.”
Perhaps a few introductions are in order. Takal is a rising star in the world of indie acting, and her first big role was in the neo-mumblecore film Gabi on the Roof in July in 2010. Gabi was directed by her then-boyfriend, now-fiance Lawrence Levine, who also starred in the film. One of the other characters was played by Kate Sheil, and the three young artists formed an immediate bond. Kate moved in with the couple and they began collaborating on more projects.
Takal wanted her first film to explore some of those feelings of jealousy that she had struggled with during the filming of Gabi, and she wanted to do it within the artistic cocoon the three had created. “At the time we all lived together,” she remembers, “and Kate was my truest closest best friend, who I felt safest around. And Lawrence was my fiancé, who I felt safest around. And since I was exploring issues that were very personal and hard to deal with, and also because I’d never directed before, I really wanted to surround myself with people I felt very safe around. If I was going to fail, I wanted to fail around people I knew would still love me afterwards.”
So Takal began to write a character for each of them. Robin, who Takal would eventually play, came first. But she depended heavily on her two dear friends to be co-creators. “I had this clear picture of Robin; she was the character that was clearest to me. So a lot of the scenes I wrote fully were scenes that Robin was in, to really flesh out her voice. And then, Larry, Kate, and I talked some about their characters. And I had an idea that I wanted to makes a movie about a city guy who’s writing a blog about sustainable farming. Because I think those weird contradictions are really funny in people. So we all worked together to flesh those characters out a bit more. I wrote out what was going to happen in pretty clear detail, basically everything except how they would actually be saying things. Because I didn’t have a sense yet about how Genevieve would talk; I didn’t have her voice. But I knew Kate was really great at improvisation, and had done a lot of thinking about the character. She probably knew the character better than I did, starting out.”
With a few establishing scenes in hand, and outlines of the remaining scenes to leave room for improvisation, the three scooped up a cinematographer and a sound guy and headed for the country, where the film’s couple (Sebastian and Genevieve, played by Levine and Sheil) head for what turns out to be a decidedly anti-pastoral experience. But the first week wasn’t exactly working. “Once we got to set to shoot, a lot of the outline scenes came out terribly,” Takal remembers. “We’d shoot for a few hours, and then realize that nothing was working, and that my ideas weren’t as clear as I thought they were on paper. And we’d either yell at each other, or laugh. That first week was very messy and unclear, and there was a lot of stuff where I didn’t know what I was meaning to say.”
Fortunately, there was a three-week break built into the schedule, although for completely non-artistic reasons (“Larry and I had to go to a wedding,” Takal says bashfully). That break in production, which can be so difficult for an actor, proved invaluable to Takal in her directorial role. They looked at the footage, wrote or rewrote scenes, and saw the project with new eyes. “That time off really allowed me to sharpen my vision,” she remembers, “to talk it through. I was able to relax a little bit. In general on sets, I think people are more tense, because they’re in a creative zone. They’re more raw. There’s a crazy energy when you’re shooting: ‘We have to shoot this now! We can’t be calm!’ So in those three weeks I was able to be calm, to talk to Kate and Larry, to learn how my energy was affecting them, to give them a chance to feel safe in telling me what they did and didn’t like about how I was talking to them on set.”
That time also allowed them to reimagine the tone of the film. Finding the music proved to be pivotal. “We started listening to this weird atonal music,” she says, “and we started re-imagining scenes that we’d shot. We started thinking about it less as a naturalistic chamber drama and more of some weird take on a horror movie. There’s no aliens or ghosts, but I do think that jealousy is really scary. It really does turn people into monsters.”
That insight led them to reimagine the physical setting as well, as nature itself seems to change as the tone of the film changes. “There’s something primal about where they are,” Takal explains, “and also about the feelings of possessiveness that Genevieve has. We talked a lot about wanting the nature to seem bright and crisp at the beginning, and to get more out of focus near the end. We wanted nature to mirror what was happening to Genevieve. And with the sound design, we had a similar thing. At the beginning you hear birds chirping, but by the end it’s crows.”
Armed with a new vision of what the film could be, they went back to the country house where they were filming. This time another friend, Nandan Rao, was available to shoot the film, and that proved crucial to Takal’s process of articulating the direction she wanted scenes to take. Rao also brought something else to the table—a courage in staying with long takes to allow the three actors to explore the tensions of each scene.
“Nandan is so good at finding a frame,” Takal says. “I knew he could find a frame that was beautiful. And I knew that Kate and Larry could sustain a performance and didn’t need a lot of editing. And I also didn’t want this movie to be highly edited. Larry’s movie, which I edited, was very frenetic—tons of editing, tons of background, tons of jump cuts, and I was kind of stylistically reacting to that. Because so much of Green is in these little shifts, these little fleeting moments. Watching Kate’s face, and watching her hear everything and interpret it, in real time, was crucial to understanding her character. And then in terms of Nandan moving the camera, a lot of times that was just some kind of crazy genius. He’d just end up in the exact right place in the exact right time.”
The final product is an eerie and affecting exploration of jealousy, but it also brings a really interesting subtext on women’s friendships, and how they talk to and deal with one another. It’s a subtext that, for Takal, became in some ways the focal point of the film: “The friendship between Genevieve and Robin, the evolution of it, the destruction of it, was actually more interesting to me than the love triangle. I think female friendships are really fascinating and really complicated and can get very weird in a different way than masculine friendships do. There’s this weird thing with girls where they can be so supportive of each other, then turn on a dime and be mean, mean, mean. Because of jealousy. She’s mean to Robin because she’s mad at Sebastian.”
And how did all this intimacy and crisis and struggling and exploration of jealousy affect the relationships between the three friends? “Larry didn’t want to do this movie,” Takal admits. “He was really worried about acting opposite Kate because I had been such a crazy mess during Gabi. So I had to assure him I wasn’t going to behave badly, and we set up rules. I told him that after they did a sex scene he could only pay attention to me between takes! We just wanted to set boundaries, you know? But then at some point something happened on set, and I came into my strength, and I came into my leadership, and I was very calm. I didn’t feel anything weird at all. So it had a positive effect on our relationship. And now I feel a lot safer, like I can bring more to my relationship because of what we went through.”
It’s not really a happy-ending kind of film, but that’s a pretty great real-life happy ending.