Interview by Bears Fonte
Prom is a rite of passage, and like any culturally significant moment, the experience comes replete with penalties for failure. When dating success carries with it the burden of having an effect on your popularity, the idea of losing your virginity on prom night becomes less of a goal than a requirement. And what about a first drug trip? A night in the wilderness? A trip to somewhere haunted? Austin-based Karen Skloss tackles these coming-of-age motifs in her new narrative, THE HONOR FARM, which made its world premiere at SXSW last week.
Lucy and her best friend have the worst prom ever. With one of their dates completely ignoring them, and the other puking on their dresses, no one is getting laid tonight. But that’s okay, because a girl from a very different clique offers them a different first time experience, tripping on shrooms and heading out to visit a haunted, abandoned prison, The Honor Farm. As they make their way through an alien landscape, made all the more bizarre by the highly hallucinogenic drugs they’ve taken, new friendships are forged and fears are faced.
Skloss’s film plays a bit like a drug trip (I’m guessing…. I’ve never… no seriously). It starts as one thing, something you think you know, and then progresses rapidly into confusion unpredictable visuals. Sometimes there seems to be no way out. It’s a metaphor that works very well for the character who are never quite sure if what they are seeing is really happening. Although the film played in the Midnighters section, it does not really work as a genre film, its much more of a coming-of-age film, toying with moments of avant garde. The strength of the film is in the interplay of the young characters, who feel quite authentic, and in the striking visuals.
I had a chance to sit down with the director in Austin just after the film’s world premiere.
BEARS: So up till now, you’ve been doing a lot documentary work. This is your first venture into a full scale narrative. What about doing a narrative film got you most excited? and what translated the easiest over from one to the other?
Skloss: I think, the story telling. The hours— years— of time that I’d invested in editing documentaries actually translated surprisingly well to the writing process. I felt like I knew how to deal with the storytelling structure and play with a confidence that if I was doing my first film, there would have been a higher learning curve.
BEARS: What was the first image that you conjured in your mind, that you were like, “this is in the film”? I’m going to write the story around this.
Skloss: Oooh! That’s a good one! Let me think about that. It was a film that unfolded over years. I think the visual side of things . . . when I was looking into the vision, and thinking about the white space . . . the movie has a black lodge, white lodge Lynchian nod, I feel. At least in my mind. It was sort of like: what would happen if we went into the white lodge? I feel like the images in the white space, of her just swallowed up by all this emptiness. And then some of the tableau imagery that’s in the film. I was thinking about Cold Mountain and Color of Pomegranates and these crazy, wild, arty movies, and just wanted to go there. How can I build a narrative that lets me do this?
BEARS: So when you’re doing a movie that has a large chunk that essentially involves a drug trip, there’s always that idea at the end of the movie of what actually happened. Did anything actually happen? How, when you’re working on that, do you play that ambiguity both ways in the writing process, the directing process too? How do you leave it open-ended but still give the audience enough to grab hold of that the characters actually living lives and making physical and emotional changes?
Skloss: I think it helps to have a baseline through in your own mind that you know what happened, or at least a plausible story of what happened. But keeping it in mind that you’re framing it from the point of view of your character, and she’s in an altered state of mind. That was the way I approached it. She was having these experiences and this is what she’s seeing, but then me— as her mom or god, whatever, I’m looking down— this is what I think is actually happening. On top of that, there’s the diabolical side of me that says, what is real at all?
BEARS: You co-wrote this film with your daughter, how did that come about?
Skloss: That was a lot of fun. It happened organically. We’re close and she’s an aspiring actress, and a really good storyteller herself. Actually, she wasn’t supposed to read the script but she snuck it. I kind of didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag with some of my high school behaviors. … I was very careful about any kind of substances around her. Not to say I’ve done all kinds of stuff or anything like that—
BEARS: But you did grow up in Austin.
Skloss: But I did grow up in Austin . . . I think she was like, “ohhhhh, okkkaaay.” You’re not as perfect as you try to make it seem. But I was okay with that because I feel like she’s got a really good head on her shoulders. My one worry was that she thought she could do whatever she wanted. If your parents do something, it kind of demystifies the whole thing anyway.
BEARS: That’s not cool. Then they’re just following someone else.
Skloss: Over time, I thought, “well, she’s read it. I’ll have her read another draft. See what she thinks.” And then, we started doing little table reads, just the two of us. Workshopping it. Making sure that it felt right. It’s so different to read something on the page to yourself versus reading it out loud. I’d read it out loud to her, or she’d read it out to me. We would just experience it. She became a really important part of crafting the dialogue, and ultimately the frame. Just like, “eh, I don’t know if we need that beat.” She was even that way in the editing room. She was sitting there, in the director’s chair, and I was like, “hey! You be quiet! You can’t order me around!”
BEARS: Well, it’s so interesting that this is a coming of age film. She has just come through that and you’re writing about it. Your coming-of-age experience was a while ago and different. So talk about the two of your experiences meeting together in this film.
Skloss: It’s kind of funny because my last film, SUNSHINE [a documentary], was the two of us also. It was about being a single mom and raising her, and being adopted. I feel like my movies so far have been little love letters to her. Because making movies is such an all encompassing thing. If I’m going to be that busy and that nuts, I just want to be able to include her. I think part of the reason why this movie is in the train that it is, for one I wanted to make a movie about this stuff. I thought it would be a fun thing to work on, and fun ideas to put out in the world. But it was also something I thought I could make around her, and with her, and for her. I didn’t expect us to do it together as much as we did, but I thought it would be something she would enjoy.
BEARS: Where was your ‘Honor Farm’ growing up?
Skloss: Mainly we would hang out on the Greenbelt. We were hippie kids growing up in Austin. When I lived in North Austin, more suburban, I feel like more suburban, more remote areas where there’s not as much to do, always tends to have one of those places. They just need it, to keep your sanity as a kid. In the woods behind my house, there were these deep, dark, inexplicable holes that were dug that homeless people would take shelter in. It was really fun for us to go there during the day and the homeless people weren’t around and the campfires were out. But you could see what kind of weird stuff was left around. Tempt fate a little bit. Luckily nothing ever happened to us because we were little. I was like pre-teen and we were running around in the woods.
BEARS: You filmed so much of this at night. Was there ever anything that happened at night that was really darn creepy?
Skloss: Well, there were definitely creepy things in the Honor Farm [location]. For sure. There’s actually two buildings. One was the insane asylum. The other was a home for children and seniors. They were both abandoned. One had been abated, so we were able to shoot inside. The other one hadn’t. We went and ventured into the one that hadn’t been abated, that wasn’t really safe. This was for fun. With the pickup crew. Not with our cast. And that was pretty creepy, because I felt some stuff in there. Being alone in the actual abated building was also freaky. Once the lights were gone . . . “oh my gosh, I forgot my notebook in there. I’m going to have to go back with a flashlight—,” whoo— not fun.
BEARS: Yeah, there’s weird juju. I love the background history of this. The mythology of the Honor Farm.
Skloss: There’s another co-writer, Jay Tonne, who grew up in Pueblo, Colorado. He actually went to a real Honor Farm out in there – and it was called the Honor Farm. When I was framing the whole story and talking about it with him, he said, “We should have them go to the Honor Farm.” He started telling me about it, and I was like, wow! It is the lore of the film. It’s this abandoned prison work farm and there was a corrupt warden who, down in the basement, there were these showers where he supposedly tortured people. It was the place where all the high school kids would come and hang out. They would do drugs and drink and get into trouble. It was definitely a spooky place with bad juju. Eventually they had to tear it down.
BEARS: I find it fascinating the way the relationships in the films bump up against each other. There are alliances that are made and broken. Friendship is very fluid in the film. It’s not like there are these two people against these two people. That feels very fresh to me. Can you talk a little bit about how the characters work together?
Skloss: I feel like that’s the way teenager work when getting to know each other, especially in high school. I remember watching and being a part of groups colliding. It’s like making new friends, but it’s an imperfect process. Are you going to gel or are you not going to gel? Why are we even hanging out with this group? You don’t normally hang out together. So I wanted to see if I could capture how, when two groups come together, when it works, and when they’re folding in and making one group.
BEARS: A new tribe.
Skloss: Yeah. The only way that actually would work is if people grow and change a little bit. Change the way that they think. That might be something fun to watch.