One year ago, director Sophia Takal’s remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 holiday slasher, Black Christmas. The far more supernatural take on the film came after another, bloodier remake, Glen Morgan’s 2006 Black X-Mas. The reception to Takal’s take – from a script co-written with April Wolfe – was a flurry of negativity, mostly from those upset at the mere idea that the film was aimed at a younger audience and dared to deal with the #MeToo movement and the aftermath of sexual assault. Because of this, the actual content of the film was hardly ever focused upon, and the story of how the film came to be never really had a chance to be told.
That’s a damned shame, because Takal’s Black Christmas – despite its small budget – manages to tell a story about a group of young women fighting back against more than just another mysterious killer. There’s a real sense of stakes at home in this version, strengthened by a tangible sisterhood among the young women of Mu Kappa Epsilon (ΜΚΕ). Seeing the MKE sisters interact with and come to the aid of one another in a myriad of circumstances is the film’s strengths, notwithstanding making a legitimately creepy and violent film on a small budget, while aiming for a PG-13 rating.
Because of the fact that the controversy so outweighed any coverage of the film itself, I reached out to April Wolfe to discuss how 2019’s Black Christmas came to be. It’s a wide-ranging chat, and getting to bring it to you is a real joy.
How did you come to know Sophia Takal?
I came to know her first through her movies. I was really really into Always Shine and she actually had another movie before that – well, a couple, but one of them is one that she directed under a pseudonym because she’s so delightfully weird – but I just really connected with her and had her on my podcast [Switchblade Sisters] because I had given Always Shine a really glowing review and I wanted her to come and talk about something. She chose Brian de Palma and it was just such a wonderful conversation.
I had written her after and she was just like, “Yeah, we should get a drink,” and a lot of people say that but she, I think, doesn’t say things unless she means them. We just kind of connected on that level and I sent her a script of mine and she really loved it and it’s actually going to go into production in 2021. So, yeah, that’s how I met her: from being a fan.
Just hanging out and having drinks and getting to know each other: that’s what led to the two of you wanting to write together?
Yeah. It’s a weird thing because I think that both she and I come from a place where neither of us care about bullshit or small talk and so we kind of immediately got pretty deep, pretty quick. Usually, I’m the one asking people questions – digging into their lives – but the first time that we met for drinks, she was just talking to me about very personal things in her family and then asked me very personal things and it kind of felt like we knew each other pretty quickly.
It was so weird because, at the time, I was still kind of nervous because I very much revere her. We’re around the same age but I just have really loved her work and through just having one drink and talking via email, I feel like we were both able to portray ourselves exactly as who we are. Truly, I still don’t know exactly why she chose to co-write with me. I gave her some takes and I tried to talk her through things – I wasn’t even putting myself out there as a writer. She just asked for notes on on a script that she was working on and I told her I wouldn’t tell anyone – would sign an NDA or whatever.
I gave her a bunch of notes and she was like, “Oh, these are really good. Maybe you should just write this with me,” but I came from a place purely of wanting her to succeed and wanting her project to succeed. I didn’t really have anything in mind of doing it myself and then she just asked me.
Was that a different project or was that Black Christmas?
That was Black Christmas. She had already sent me or I had already sent her this script for a movie called Clearwater that she’ll be directing next year and I think she decided pretty quickly that she wanted to direct that, because it’s very much within her style and that’s why I sent it to her, and so she already knew that I could write. That’s when she sent me her script, just for notes, and from my giving her notes after that, she just asked me if I would write with her.
What was your initial reaction to a second remake/reboot/reimagining of Black Christmas?
I just assume that all of the older properties are going to come back. I don’t really have the same kind of preciousness that a lot of people have about these things because those things still exist – they don’t disappear. If you love the original, great, but I have always been of the mind that if you are going to do an reimagining or remake or whatever, then it should have a reason for existing and it felt like Black Christmas – the original – there’s so much that felt relevant to today that it felt like there would be a reason for it to exist again, just in a different form, and especially in terms of how I explained my take to Sophia: essentially, the fact that slashers have been in this really strange area that I feel like we’ll never get out of.
The genre itself kind of stalled out into a final girl thing and then, Wes Craven being the genius that he was, was able to use meta humor to reinvent the genre again, but then we were stuck in those two camps for a really long time: there’s still a final girl and there’s that meta humor and that meta understanding of it, but it still didn’t seem like there was much moving the genre forward past what it is.
The fact that Black Christmas is considered by so many to be one of the first slashers, it felt like there was an opportunity to say, “Well, what if we completely reimagined what a slasher could be?” That’s that’s where I was coming from, so I felt fairly positive about it as a possibility in terms of reimagining it.
It works really well. On the DVD, there are some extras and behind-the-scenes stuff where one of the the things that gets discussed is the idea that there are multiple slashers, but they’re all from the same well of toxic masculinity, which seems not only timely but very necessary. What were you and Sophia drawing from to craft this? Was that focus in her initial script or was that something that got added as it was worked on?
I think that’s something that kind of got added as we went through drafts. I think Sophia already had an impulse, though. She already knew that she had this impulse to want to say something with it. She doesn’t make something unless it can start a conversation, essentially. It’s the way that I think about her work and one of the things that I appreciate about her. We come from that same place.
I think that when I came on, what I did was was look at what was behind her impulses in her first draft and then bring those out and and those included – I think I’m much more well-versed in the slasher genre. I think she had more of a cursory knowledge at the time and so, I was bringing up specific films that we wanted to reference but also wanted to completely subvert, which in some ways I knew that it would make people angry, but I didn’t want to make it unless it wouldn’t make people angry. This was a terrible thing to say, but I just wanted it to have a reason to exist and so, it was on our minds pretty consistently.
Looking at the first Black Christmas, seeing the scenes: “How do you do this differently? How can you subvert the expectations of the genre in a way that might make people uncomfortable but, if maybe if they watch it enough times or give it enough breathing room it might make them less uncomfortable over time?”
The idea that watching it and the subverting expectations seems to be a really big part of it in that quite a few characters change and they all change in different ways which I find really fascinating. You get some characters are are changed by the goo and others change because they’re presenting false fronts and it seems like a really fun way to play with the expectations of the slasher genre .
I mean, as much as we got into serious discussion of stuff, I think Sophia and I still wanted to have fun, which a lot of people missed: we understood (at least I did) that what we were creating [goes] through a lot of tonal shifts in this movie. From one scene to the next, there’s just a lot of tonal shifts and I think that you see that when you watch it.
It can be really jarring at first. You’re like, “Why did they do that? Why did they do that?” and it’s because we were purposely giving people a little bit of whiplash – which some people connected with and some people didn’t. You just try as best as you can, so I’m glad that you said it could be fun doing that, because that part was very fun. I’m just like, “Well, what if we just did this? I just don’t ever want to do anything half-assed and I don’t want to be bored and I don’t want to do the same thing that everyone else has done. That’s kind of our guiding principle.
The movie has very serious parts and it starts out like a very traditional cold open slasher where Lindsey is getting stalked and then there’s the cut to the sorority sisters at MKE hanging out and partying. The interaction between all of the women in the sorority seems like that must have been really fun dialogue to write. I think of when they’re running out of the DKO fraternity after the talent show: they’ve got the text message and Riley, after hearing the messed up text messages is like, “So, we’re good, yeah?” and they all dance off. It just seems like writing the interactions between all of these women – it’s fun watching them interact. It’s just such a blast getting to be a part of that group for a while.
I mean, it’s a kind of a bummer: some of the parts that we had to cut out of the script – because we were writing it up until or through when Sophia was shooting the movie – the thing that’s tough to deal with is the first things that are on the chopping block are often the ones that are the little details that you love. The little interactions, the quips, the little building blocks.
For instance, the character of Jesse: she had a lot more lines, originally, because she was just so ditzy and so fun but also so full of confidence in a way where you’re just like, “God, I just want to be with you. I don’t even care if you’re ditzy. You’re just so self-assured and you don’t give a fuck what other people think of you.” That had been brought out more and that was something that, as we started working with Blumhouse on the draft, her part got slimmed considerably and that always kind of hurt me, because I was like, “I think that you’re going to want that in the edit. I wish that you would just shoot it, because you might want some more comic relief. You might want her to be a bigger character,” but for time’s sake and budget’s sake, they couldn’t even choose that.
Then we would get into some of the test audience things and they would be like, “We want more Jesse! We want more Fran!” and I was just like, “These are the things that we had to cut out because they seem meaningless, but they have so much texture.” It’s nice that we got to have some of that texture in there: there’s a running joke of Jesse making ham that we got to keep and there was even more of that, where she’s just astounded of the simple things of life and she’s just so in the present in a way that the other characters aren’t.
Jessse had one of the best death scenes that we had written in the earlier draft but that had to be completely deleted. By the time that we got to New Zealand, we had to reimagine the entire thing. She had a death in in the workout room. She was in the little gym area that we had designed and she had the best action – all that kind of stuff – but again, budget kind of forbids you from from doing that type of thing and giving those characters what they deserve.
Hopefully it comes out in those little interactions of fun: them talking to each other and also the fact that, very rarely if you’re working in genre, do you get to write so many women characters interacting with women characters in a very kind of private moment type of thing. It’s just such an opportunity to to have something like that when you’re writing a sorority movie.
“Up In the Frat House”: where did that come in? To me, that’s one of the highlights of the movie because that’s where you see Riley become the Riley that she will be for the rest of the movie. Then, it gets turned into an actual song that plays over the end credits. Every time I watch Black Christmas, I can’t believe that they actually produced this as a fully-recorded song.
It’s so weird, right? It was surreal to see that. A lot of people don’t know, but Sophia loves wordplay and she loves doing parody songs. She absolutely loves parody songs and loved dreaming up lyrics to parody songs, so that was a like a non-starter. She had to have that song in a talent show in this movie. That was one of the things that remained from her first draft to everything else – just like, “This has to be there!” and I was just like, “Yes, absolutely.”
I think she already knew what she was doing was playing around with with teen movie tropes and the Mean Girls thing and this sexy Christmas dance and this stuff. Part of our whole thing that we were doing was taking those old movie tropes about women and girls and then hopefully turning them on their head and that was this delightful thing that Blumhouse did not try to take out. She held hard for that and we had originally written it to “Santa Baby” and the thing is that it costs so much money to get those and we had no money to make this movie, so we just went and and found like the best royalty-free song that we could in public domain and it is “Up On The Housetop” and it worked that we could make it kind of a thematic thing about this house that becomes this terrible place.
We started writing it but it just proved to be kind of a herculean task and so that’s when our producer Adam [Hendricks], who had worked with Riki Lindhome, approached her about writing it because it also gave us a little added value of “Everyone knows Riki Lindhome does these great parody songs and things!” She wrote most of the lyrics for us and then recorded the end song for us and I just really love it. I think it’s a classic and I’m so happy that it ended up working out that we had to use this song because we had nothing – no money.
What was so funny is that I didn’t realize it was her. I saw Black Christmas in the theater and I’ve watched it a couple times but I was doing the research for this interview and I was like, “Wait what?” but as soon as I saw that she had written it, I was like, “Oh totally. That is 100% her voice.”
It was pretty nice. It was so funny because Blumhouse had the idea to approach big pop stars to see if they would re-record it for us but again, I was just like, “We have no money. You guys know that, right? I’m glad that you’re interested in shooting for the stars but we have no money.” I think they were able to get Riki to agree to do it for a fee and it actually turned out really sweet and really nice because her voice is so clear and sweet that, when it comes on, it’s not like an anthem, it’s just adorable. That juxtaposition of all that violence with just this candy sweetness at the end just made a lot of sense, I think.
Talking to you about budget and stuff, I find it really hilarious that the movie has an alternate ending. How do you end up with a different ending? Is it just that it’s really cheap to shoot a cat licking stuff or is that b-roll that you end up with and it makes a great little tag?
We wrote that in, to have a separate cap ending if you stuck around for the credits. We just wanted it to be funny. It’s a tough thing because – like I was saying – we were playing with tone in a way that I think was displeasurable to some people but for a certain number of people, they understood that it was okay to have fun and it was okay to talk about serious things and and it was okay to feel a little bit scary during these points, but I think the way that we wanted to end it was just a reminder that you can have fun.
2019 had been such a hard year, it felt like, for both Sophia and I – and in terms of the world, as well – that we didn’t want it to be a fucking downer. The way that we had written it was essentially to have that that second ending pop up and to be like, “Try to smile a little bit after you leave the theater.”
Maybe this is me pulling too far, but in 2017’s Tragedy Girls, there’s another movie that subverts the whole slasher thing while also dealing with similar themes although in a totally different way. What I find really funny is that both your film and that film also have like a scene at the end where young women are holding hands while people burn to death.
Yeah, and it’s so funny because I hadn’t seen Tragedy Girls until after we had made the movie but then I was just like, “Oh. Something like this is what we need to do, apparently. This is what we are drawn to.” I don’t know why, but they just feel weirdly drawn to sisterhood while watching it burn, you know?
What was the reason for not going with that other ending where you see Landon’s finger dripping the goo?
I think it was just because – again, that kind of positivity that we wanted – we wrote that part in, the goo dripping off his finger, knowing that it might get cut and that we wanted to have the option to play with it. Ultimately, I think the tone that we wanted to end with – which is why we wrote the cat, as well – is that it needed to be slightly more open-ended and we also needed to have a positive moment for this male role model figure that we’ve created with Landon. I think, in the edit, if we had gone more towards dark humor and that type of thing, it would have been it would have been acceptable to have Landon dripping that black goo.
It’s the same way that you might say that Teeth – that felt like there was an accurate ending for it: an appropriate ending where it’s certainly not positive, where all of them are bad, and everything is bad, but we needed to end on a note of hope and a potential optimism – a kind of mixed feelings type of thing and that was just leading a little bit too much in one direction.
On Black Christmas‘ first anniversary, what are some of your thoughts, thinking back on it a year later?
While we were making it, everything went so fast – from development to release within a single year – that there was not much time to step back and think about it but the thing is, now it’s on HBO, more people are able to see it who may have been turned off by reviews or just general vitriol. No matter what happens, that infects every person who is a potential audience for your movie. Even if you’re not really into the toxic macho stuff that gets thrown around in genre film criticism and fandom, it infects everyone’s attitudes towards things and there’s nothing you can really do to to stop that.
So, more people have been seeing it and it’s a funny thing to see. For instance, a number of younger women and men on Twitter who sometimes tag me in things – or Sophia will sometimes send me things that she sees of people being like, “Why did you guys tell me this sucked? This was awesome!” and that’s what the thing is: when it came out around December, there were quite a lot of movie choices. There was a lot going on in the theaters. There was a lot going on VOD. Every December is really tough because it’s everyone’s last push to get Oscar nomination qualifying things and so theaters are just jam-packed and you can’t really cut through the noise much but now, people are sitting at home with time to just watch it and be they’re finding it and enjoying it and what I’m seeing right now from reactions is hilarious.
There’s so many people – with the random things that happen that are terrible and absurd in our government and in our world – that are like, “Holy shit, this was actually in Black Christmas! Holy shit, maybe it wasn’t too heavy-handed.” The world is absurd and it almost feels like people are finally waking up to the fact that the world is so absurd and we were merely just trying to put that on screen – just represent and portray what it feels like to be a woman or a marginalized person in the U.S. in 2019 and people are connecting to that.
It’s really funny because Rudy Giuliani’s hair dye dripping down his face during this press conference? Sophia sent me a bunch people who were making the joke about Black Christmas predicting that. Yeah, shit is weird. Shit is fucked up, except that it’s strange and that reality is not reality anymore. Reality is a cartoon and and it’s malleable and flexible and we should embrace that more in our filmmaking.
I have to thank you for Black Christmas because when it was coming out, I was like, “Okay, I still haven’t seen the 2006 remake,” so I went back and watched that and I was like, “This is really good,” and then I watched your movie a couple weeks later, so the Black Christmases are sort of responsible for me re-thinking my opinion on remakes. I finally watched like Fright Night remake and I was like, “Why didn’t I go see this? Why did people shit on this? It’s so good.” I finally came around to the point where I’m like, “You can’t ruin the original. The original exists. If you don’t like the remake then fine, you don’t have to watch it again.”
I believe very fully that so many remakes are really good and we only give reverence to a small handful. Sometimes the remakes might not be immediate classics or something, but they’re worth your time and they’re really fun. What do we have against watching fun movies? Why would you want to deprive yourself of that? It just seems ridiculous to me. Just because it’s not some kind of elevated genre piece, it’s not good enough for you? It’s just silly. I don’t understand genre culture’s antipathy towards remakes and reboots and things. I’m sure there’s some that are not amazing but I don’t know why our immediate reaction is to say, “No.”
Black Christmas is out now on Blu-ray, DVD, and on-demand, and can be streamed via HBO Max.