Sophia Takal's "Green" has been among the most notable debut films on this year's festival circuit. She picked up an emerging female filmmaker prize at the South by Southwest Film Festival, landed on the list of Filmmaker Magazine's 25 New Faces of Independent Film and is a Gotham Award nominee. "Green" has its Los Angeles premiere as part of AFI Fest, with screenings on Friday and Saturday.
A hothouse portrait of female jealousy, competition and desire, the film is about an urban couple (Lawrence Michael Levine and Kate Lyn Sheil) spending time in the country so he can work on a blog about sustainable farming. A neighboring local (Takal) inserts herself into their routine, first striking up a friendship with each of them, before seemingly wanting more, making herself a wedge in their relationship. Imagine a micro-budget back-to-the-country "Black Swan," flirting with psychological horror as rural quiet is mined both for its pastoral beauty and creeping sense of menacing unease.
The film sprang directly from the process of making Levine's 2010 "Gabi on the Roof in July," in which a series of urban parties go wrong. Takal, Levine's fiance and an actor and producer on "Gabi," wanted a project with fewer people and less equipment on set. Having edited "Gabi," she knew she wanted to spend her time looking at more spacious landscapes after staring at the apartment-set close-ups of Levine's film.
Takal wrote about a 30-page start and the last 10 pages of the script. The middle sections of the film were improvised at first, but dissatisfied with the footage, Takal reworked the scenes and shot them again, ending up with a scripted hybrid based on improvised scenes. The emotional impetus for the project was Takal's own feelings of jealousy at seeing Levine acting in scenes with other women in "Gabi," spurring the deep, diffuse currents of her debut.
"I don't want to make it seem like these movies are just there to work through these issues," Takal, 25, said this week in Los Angeles. "I feel like with 'Green' I had already looked at those issues and then I wanted to make a movie about them once I sort of understood them. So it was not like I was plodding through, 'Watch this movie while I figure myself out.' The movie was made in hindsight. It's taking control of the feeling and then manipulating it yourself, rather than feeling like you're being manipulated by it."
Takal, Levine and Sheil also all appear together in "The Zone," which is having its world premiere as part of AFI Fest. The film's title comes from the nickname given to the Brooklyn apartment the three of them share. More than just sexually explicit, "The Zone," directed by indie provocateur Joe Swanberg, captures a sense of intimacy that can leave a viewer wondering if these were moments even created for public consumption.
"Kate, Joe, Sophia and myself, we really share the aesthetic that any acting that seems like it could be on a theater stage, like somebody screaming in a sitcom, makes us all want to puke," said Levine of the offhand naturalism that runs through their work. "And when we act we want to make it seem as real as possible. And that's not always what every director wants, but with our movies and with Joe's movie it's a trick that people are just going to think that's you. But it's really a technique, to watch how people really talk and how they use words to communicate."
Takal and Levine have recently been busy acting in other projects both together and apart. They plan to co-direct a film together soon, to be called "Always Shine."
"Sometimes I feel possessive of this way of making movies," said Takal of their low-key, low-budget shooting style. "If someone were trying to make a Hollywood version of this, I feel like part of the point of it is to not have to exist in the context of pretty people and an easy story. Part of what is exciting about the new technology is the ability to take your time and use your friends and take a lot of risks.
"In my mind I was always like, I never have to show this movie to anyone. So if I fail, what's the big deal?"
-- Mark Olsen
Photo: Lawrence Michael Levine, Kate Lyn Sheil and Sophia Takal in "Green." Credit: AFI Fest