Set to terrify a new generations of fans this weekend, Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas remake hits the big screen everywhere Friday. During the recent press day for the film, Daily Dead had the pleasure of speaking with Takal about how she became involved with the project, the importance of reflecting current societal issues in her iteration of Black Christmas, and how Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was a major influence as well.
Co-written by Takal and April Wolfe, Black Christmas stars Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, and Cary Elwes.
Can you start off by talking about how this all lined up with Blumhouse?
Blumhouse got the rights to Black Christmas and called me up and asked me if I wanted to make the movie. They were like, "We've got the title, it has to come out December 13th, but you can do what you want with it, within the parameters of it being essentially a Black Christmas reimagining.” What I really loved about the original movie was the ending. I interpret the end of the movie to be like the killer represents misogyny and just when you think you've killed or beaten misogyny, it rears its head again.
Even though we've been going through this for the past couple of years, sexism is definitely still out there and there's still such a resistance to hearing women's stories. That's something I was feeling, especially in 2019, was this idea of after everyone had started calling out bad behavior in men and it seemed like there was this seismic shift in our culture. But then all of a sudden Louis C.K. is doing comedy again and people are out there and people are trying for their comebacks and trying to rehabilitate their images. Brett Kavanaugh's on the Supreme Court and I started to view the progress women make as more cyclical than a straightforward trajectory.
I thought it seemed like a moment in time where there was so much hope and so much feeling of change and what it means to change and feeling like men were finally open to hearing about our experiences. Then particularly with the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, just what was really interesting and frustrating to me about that moment was that people were watching the same set of facts and the same conversation and hearing totally different things. It wasn't just men and women, it was women and other women and it was just such a frustrating moment of just feeling like, "How can we ever communicate if we're not willing to hear each other's points of view and we're not willing to listen to how certain behavior makes us feel?" There was just so much defensiveness and I wanted to make a movie about that and I felt like the original kind of was about that as well.
Also, I think that the original is a perfect movie as it is. I didn't think I needed to do a shot for shot remake of that movie. That movie exists. I wanted to make a movie about what that movie made me feel and think about and what watching it in 2019 feels like. So I approached April about coming onboard and that's sort of where the project began. The whole time Blumhouse was really supportive and they are just so good about making horror movies that are about something deeper and it was really exciting to work with them on it.
I was going to ask, were they pretty hands-off then with you or did they shepherd you along the way?
They were hands-on in the best way possible, with their expertise as horror filmmakers and just people who have been making so many movies. They know what audiences will respond to, what they won't, and they have a model that works extraordinarily well. So, they were hands-on in helping us craft the best version of our movie possible, but they never tried to shift us away from making this movie.
They never were just like, "Ooh, maybe you want to tone down the feminism. Maybe you want to just make a movie where a bunch of girls get killed and doesn't have anything to say." They were down to the message the whole time and with the way we were moving the slasher genre forward as well. Not just in terms of the conversation about women, but just the structure and the chances we took, in terms of the horror elements of the film, too.
What I appreciated about this movie is that there's a lot of slasher elements to it, yet there are things that happen later on in the film that take a little bit of a left turn, which was a lot of fun. Obviously you're not playing by standard slasher rules, so was it fun to break free a little bit of that here?
Oh, absolutely. I love the left turn this movie takes. For me, it was what made making this movie worthwhile. Again, as a woman in 2019 making a slasher movie, I didn't want to make a movie where the whole point of it was to get off on watching women die. I wanted to take the movie in a wild direction because I think we're living in such wild times right now that it feels like the right thing for this moment in time, as it reflects just how crazy it is in real life. I love Black Christmas and I love a lot of early slasher movies, but I think as the slasher genre has evolved, it's gotten pretty exploitative of female bodies, and so I wanted to reclaim the genre in a way and I thought this was a good way of doing that.
In terms of the PG-13 rating, did you see that as a hindrance at all or just a really fun challenge for you creatively?
So, I really did not want to make a movie where women were expendable and their deaths were meant to be titillating and exciting to an audience. I don't think the original is like that, either. I think the original is rated R because a dude says, "Piggy pussy," over and over again—not because the deaths are particularly graphic.
I made another movie called Always Shine where the violence all happens off-screen, too. I've never been one who finds the act of poking someone's eyeballs out to be particularly harrowing or scary. I find it gross and alienating in a way that doesn't make me like a movie more. That's just my personal aesthetic and taste. So for me, I didn't feel like I had to compromise at all because I set out knowing I didn't want to make a movie that depicted violence towards women in a graphic way. I think, again, you have all of this conversation happening in society about violence towards women and kind of what that begets and I didn't want to participate in that.
The only thing I was worried about actually was that the movie was going to inherently have to be R because of the sexual politics of it and conversations about sexual assault and rape. I made it very clear to Blumhouse and everyone was on the same page, which is that stuff couldn't be toned down. That's the stuff that I care about being in there, and if that can't be in a PG-13 movie, then it has to be R. But we were able to keep that plot intact and those themes intact and I don't feel like it lost any of its bite.
Then the result is that a number of young people can see the movie and I think it's a movie for them to see to start a conversation. When I grew up, I didn't have people to talk about this stuff with, and I just think the point of movies is to make people feel less alone, even a fun holiday, goofy horror movie with a lot of laughs. It's to just feel like something about your own experience. However heightened this movie is, I want it to help viewers feel more in tune and in connection with other humans.
In terms of human connections, I'd love to talk about the cast in Black Christmas, because the girls are really fun. As soon as I heard Imogen was in it, I was like, "Whatever, I'm there," because I will follow her to the ends of the Earth. But there's a really great sense of camaraderie between everyone in this, and I was curious if that was something you worked on with them, or if it came about naturally?
Well, all of the actresses in this movie are incredibly talented and intelligent and very fierce women who all brought themselves fully to the movie and to the experience of making the movie. Something I've done in all my movies, and I'm really glad I was able to do on this one, is that we took a week before we started shooting, where all of the actors would do these backstory improvisations in characters.
So, we improvised the first time Kris and Riley met on campus, we improvised the first date that Marty and Nate went on, and we improvised the night that Riley got raped and came back and told her friends about it. I think having these shared memories and having these shared experiences that were real and not just imagined allows everyone to come closer. Then, when they're doing a scene and they're talking about something from their past that's in the script, they have the shared memory of it. I think that really, really helped solidify their bond. Also, we were living in a strange country together, New Zealand, and it was a new and exciting experience that I think also helped to bring everyone together.
Before we go, I would love to talk a little bit about production design in Black Christmas, because there are some great details in this, between the sorority house and the fraternity, which really stood out to me.
Yeah, definitely the main thrust of the conversation I had with my production designer [Mark Robins] was like, "How do we make the sorority feel like home and the fraternity just feel so bad?" When we were visiting locations, we ended up building the set for the fraternity, the hallways, and the salon, where everything happens. But one of the places we visited before we were sure we were going to do that was this place called the Dunedin Gentlemen's Club. And there was this one long hallway that had all of these caricatures of the different men who had been in charge of the Dunedin Gentlemen's Club since the 1800s lining the wall, and just feeling like a row of men were staring at you as you walked down that, there was just such a creepy feeling about that that I knew I had to put something like that in the movie.
So you have all these portraits of all the different men, who basically, as you're walking through that hallway and you're a woman, and especially if you're Riley, who something traumatic happened in that space, you feel the weight and the glare of these men. It's like a visual reminder of this line that Riley says in the movie of, "Women live in men's worlds, whether they like it or not." So that was sort of where we started with that hallway.
Then another thing was that I had my production designer watch Eyes Wide Shut, because I think the emptiness of that cult space is really cinematic and beautiful. I thought it would be kind of funny to take a Kubrickian sex cult vibe and put it into a frat house. That was our inspiration for what we called the shrine room.
In case you missed it, read Heather Wixson's interview with Black Christmas (2019) co-writer April Wolfe.