Director Sophia Takal isn’t making a New Year’s resolution for 2019. In fact, in New Year, New You fact, her installment of Blumhouse’s horror anthology series Into the Dark, out now on Hulu, she goes the extra step of confronting the often unrealistic and “psychologically damaging” self-care platitudes that are even more prevalent in the social media age.
New Year, New You starts out like your typical New Year’s Eve night: four girlfriends (played by Suki Waterhouse, Carly Chaikin, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Melissa Bergland) meet up for a girls night on the last day of the year to reflect, drink, and recite their resolutions. But the celebration soon turns into a bloody nightmare during a particularly tense game of “Never Have I Ever,” when celebrity self-care guru Danielle (Chaikin) reveals her fabulous escapades while the rest of her friends struggle to come up with equally incredible confessions amid their mounting jealousy and fury.
The movie’s a brilliant and horrifying reflection of how we value ourselves through the gaze of others and the very thought of our own flaws can cause us to become unhinged — terrors that have only escalated in the social media age.
With the new year right around the corner, Polygon spoke to Takal, who also co-wrote the episode with Adam Gaines, about the horrors of self-care culture, working on New Year, New You, and being among Blumhouse’s few women directors.
Polygon: The characters in New Year, New You come prepared with New Year’s resolutions, but they go horrifyingly awry. Do you find something particularly terrifying about the self-care movement?
Sophia Takal: I really do. I guess it’s like most things when it goes to an extreme; I think it becomes damaging. Our culture is very self-obsessed. I think if you’re a good person who’s involved in the world, like activists, you can overexert yourself tending to other people and it’s really important to take care of yourself. There were a lot of conversations that included “make sure to take care of yourself” around the 2016 election. “While you’re protesting, make sure to take care of yourself.”
But then there’s this other strain of self-love culture that feels extraordinarily narcissistic. Like, “I’m going to be the best I can be.” But for what? Why do you want that? I think it’s really important to love yourself. Women are taught through the media not to love themselves for who they are. But sometimes when I go online or go to a skincare store, still fitting into this idea of beauty, you have these perfect women saying, “Love yourself. Take care of yourself. Do yoga.” You’re still finding ways to compare yourself. You’re not eating organically enough. It’s like the same model and hierarchy of other beauty cultures, just under the guise of “No, it’s about loving yourself and taking care of yourself.” I think it’s really important not to be so me-focused. I think that people can pat themselves on the back for taking care of themselves as if they’re doing something great for society when they’re just being self-absorbed.
Then there’s the effect of social media.
Takal: They’re reflecting their best versions of themselves or curated versions of themselves. And you’re living your whole life and you see the ups and the downs, and you see your flaws. It seems like people you admire don’t have flaws because they’re not putting it out there. I think it’s psychologically damaging.
You confront that so well in the movie through the use of mirrors, which capture each of the characters’ true personas and emotions — in this case fear, rage, insecurity, and evil. There’s a particularly great scene where the friends dance to TLC’s “Unpretty” in the mirror.
Takal: The cinematographer and I talked a lot about using mirrors. We found a great location that had so many mirrors and our production designer added all these mirrors. It was this idea of reflecting our real selves and reflecting [who we are] on social media. But it was also pointing out a duality. That was something I really wanted to play with.
How did you assemble the cast to get what you were looking for?
Takal: I had never worked with any of these actresses before, but in general my work is trying to say something about some aspect of the female experience. For me, talent is very important, but so is the ability to think critically and acknowledge our own complicity in whatever it is that I’m trying to explore. So for me it’s thinking about social media, thinking about our obsession with ourselves and our bodies and our images. I think it’s about finding actresses who are aware of that. Suki has a million Instagram followers and Carly has tens of thousands. But they were very aware of the pro and cons of what that means, and they were able to have really intelligent conversations about it. So for me it’s really about finding people who are really open to what we’re exploring. Part of making a movie is learning more about myself and learning more about the issue that I’m looking at and thinking about other ways to live life. I want to do that with people who are interested in that as well.
What did you learn about self-care or social media culture after making this movie?
Takal: I think whenever I’m making movies, whatever I’m trying to work out in myself feels like it has less of a pull on me. I don’t really do Instagram anymore — though I have gone back on to promote this [laughs] — but it’s easier for me to ignore the pull of social media and ignore this idea that I need to buy certain products or do certain exercises or eat a certain way in order to feel good about myself.
How did you make the platitudes we see online all the time more frightening? I’m thinking particularly of the mantra that Danielle and Chloe repeat: “Nothing stands between me and my desires.” It’s hypnotic.
Takal: It’s a heightened [way of looking at] what we do all the time. The character Chloe is played brilliantly by the actress Melissa Bergland. Finding that mantra — I guess it would be called a manifestation — when we were working on the script opened up so much for me. It’s what this whole thing was about.
What they’re saying, “Nothing stands between me and my desires,” is actually (a) not true and (b) destructive because you can do crazy stuff to get what you want. I think it’s good to have goals and everyone should strive for their dreams, but I also think that so much of our society is focused on external validation both physically and also with your job or your family. If you’re a mom, [it’s about] what kind of mom you are. Our femininity is judged through a male gaze even when it’s women who are doing the judging.
For me, I used to have that mantra a lot. It was, “I can achieve all my dreams.” Then my new mantra became, “I have everything I need in my life right now to be happy.” Focusing on being grateful — that kind of self-care or self-love I’m into. But the idea of “deserving more” or “deserving the best” rubs me the wrong way. If it works for people, great. But I also think that puts a lot of pressure on people and isn’t looking at things systematically either.
Was there more creative freedom in directing a film-length horror anthology installment for Hulu rather than an independent feature, which you’ve done in the past?
Takal: I loved the genre because when it’s done well it allows you to explore intellectual issues in a more visceral way. I think if this was a drama, it would seem like I was hitting people over the head with my point. But here you can laugh and be scared, but try to look critically at something.
I think I’ve had a complex when directing a movie. If I’m a director for hire, I’m like, “People will undermine me because I’m a woman” or “People won’t trust me.” But I really didn’t have that experience at all [on this project]. Everyone was really supportive. I had a great crew. The executives I was working with were really fantastic. It was a lot of women who were giving me script notes and producing. I really felt like I grew a lot as a filmmaker managing a 70 percent crew as opposed to a six percent crew I was used to working with. I had more tools at my disposal. I had to learn how to talk to everyone and allow myself to grow. I thought it was great. I think having a bigger budget and having a bigger crew allowed me to expand my visual style and how I make movies.
You’re among the few women directors who’ve worked for the horror-focused production company Blumhouse, led by Jason Blum. How was that experience working with such a huge brand and producer?
Takal: It was awesome. I was very grateful that they trusted me and gave me this opportunity. I know that they’ve worked with other female directors before and I think they’re going to continue. There are a few other women directing episodes of [Into the Dark] and I think they’re really making a concerted effort to bring in all sorts of viewpoints from different directors and that includes women. I’m really excited about it. I would love to work with them again. It was just a great experience.
Candice Frederick is a freelance TV/film critic living in New York City. You can find more of her work here.