Interview with Karen Skloss, Director and Co-Writer of The Honor Farm
The Honor Farm is a film about a teenager coming of age during her prom night, but not through the traditional ritual that high schoolers expect. Can you tell us what attracted you to this particular story?
Over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to stories around personal transition. Transitions are not only a natural point of drama in life, but also these in between times are often moments of growth. Well-drawn portrayals of the feminine along these lines are still relatively rare in mainstream media. When I read the book Promiscuities by Naomi Wolf, where Wolf explores ideas around rites of passage in American culture–the germ of the prom night setting for The Honor Farm was born. Part of Wolf’s thesis is that with very few rites left to guide girls into womanhood, sex often becomes one of the few acts that can mark the transition clearly. This is confusing terrain for girls, or really, it’s confusing terrain for everyone. So, I thought it would be fun (and hopefully useful) to tell a story about a girl who is ready to cross over using that tool…but who is stopped (due to a drunk and incapacitated boyfriend) from simply going through the motions and ultimately realizes her own way of doing so–through the most unexpected of routes.
Co-star Dora Madison Burge (Friday Night Lights, Dexter) says of the film that “it’s not just a teen movie… it’s going to be a piece of art.” She is right to point out that films directed at teenagers are not traditionally considered to be highly artistic. How is your film going to go against that expectation?
The fourteen-year-old version of me was 14, going on 30. Teenagers develop in varying arcs, but I feel that those ahead of the curve need movies that address the depth of the issues they are facing. I want to make a film that speaks to that group of young people but also appeals to my peers and other folks who love movies. My sense is that people coming of age now are open in ways that we weren’t, and I admire that. They deserve media that meets them at their level and challenges them. On the surface, The Honor Farm is a psychedelic thriller about a bunch of kids who get into trouble in the woods, but at a deeper level, it’s meant to provoke thought and reflection like an Alan Watt’s lecture or a piece of poetry. It’s fueled by many scary movie tropes, but it twists them. This will probably piss some people off, but if we do our job, it will also make for something strange and unique that pushes boundaries within the teen genre the way movies like Donnie Darko or The Virgin Suicides did.
You write on the film’s Kickstarter page that “anyone who dares to remember junior high can testify that coming of age can be a horror story in and of itself.” Can you talk about how your own experience as a woman growing up has influenced the way in which you want to tell this story?
I’m adopted and I think, perhaps partly due to this, my teens and early adulthood years were rough. Though my adoptive family was very loving, I always felt a bit mismatched everywhere and had a difficult time feeling truly loved and accepted. So I spent (a lot of) energy trying to please other people, so much so that I nearly lost my footing completely. I was pretty much miserable as a teen. Yet, ostensibly as the cheerleader, so-called pretty girl, and honor student—I projected an image that didn’t reflect the intense feelings of rejection and self-hate I was trying to process. I habitually went to others for reassurance, thinking that if they loved me or thought I was “fill in the blank with whatever I was wanting to be assured of,” I must be worthy. While my case was a little severe, I think this kind of dynamic is an almost universal feature of adolescence. It’s just part of the process of learning to stand on your own and figure out where you’ll ultimately fit socially and practically within this little exercise we call living. I love the idea of making a movie that could offer some younger adults, who might be going through this sort of experience, an inkling of what I learned once I was actually 30 instead of 14 going on 30—the realization that no one can make you “okay” except yourself. Naturally, those are only words, and they fall disgustingly short to someone amidst the pathos I was experiencing in my teens. Yet, my hope is that maybe this movie can grab a hold of some of that message in a digestible way.
How has your extensive experience as a documentary filmmaker affected your approach to co-writing and directing The Honor Farm?
Editing docs is an incredible training ground for storytelling. I think it was Orson Welles who said, “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art,” and I feel that learning to see a movie in raw footage and then actually creating that film is a wildly instructive way to understand production (as well as to get paid to learn from other people’s triumphs…and mistakes!). There are endless ways to hone your craft, but I wonder what can top cutting well-shot documentary footage as a storyteller’s training ground. It teaches you to see the many possibilities within the limitations of material, and it’s infinitely challenging. When I sat down to write The Honor Farm, I found that all of those years of making something out of raw reams of footage translated surprisingly well into screenwriting. However, the first thing I had to do was make some boundaries for myself with a very detailed beat sheet, which took almost as long to write as the first draft of the script. As to the directing part, thus far, I think it’s been an asset in a similar way. A friend of mine was recently describing two types of filmmakers—the gardener and the architect. I think that if these labels work, by nature, I’m the gardener type. Documentary has been perfect for me in this way. I like to set things in motion and respond to scenes, locations, performances, and even set disasters in a visceral and organic way—always looking to redirect the energy back into the movie itself. I’m prepared for something happening in the moment to jump out and surprise me as better than my original idea. It makes the process endlessly thrilling. I think this approach has a strong kinship to documentary and that sense of play and bit of roughness will be an important element in The Honor Farm.
Do you plan to edit The Honor Farm? In what ways does your experience as an editor affect your directing style?
I really hope to collaborate with another editor on this one. I cut Sunshine alone, and it was quite the haul. That said, I think it would be next to impossible for me to keep my editing mitts off of it entirely. Cutting is one of the ways I understand material, since that’s been my mainstay. As to the editing/directing portion of your question, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been editing for so long. It’s taught me tons about covering a scene, and I can feel the beats in performances and material in a way I don’t think I would have without spending so much time in an edit bay.
For the film’s cinematography you’re working with Lee Daniel (Boyhood, Before Sunset), who also shot your documentary Sunshine. Can you talk about your creative relationship with Lee and how it has evolved through your work together?
I met Lee in Austin through a short film festival I was involved with called Cinematexas. Later, I was able to work with him while editing Margaret Brown’s film Be Here to Love Me (which he shot). We became friends, and when I got funding from ITVS for Sunshine, I finally worked up the courage to ask him to come on and shoot. (I’d been working with my close friend, the amazing Heather Courtney, on shooting Sunshine up to that point.) Lee’s sense of coverage is like no one I’ve met. The guy is truly an artist. He’s incredibly visual, and I think that’s where the two of us gel the best. I can bring him a frame and he’ll usually find a way to add something that pushes it further. That leaves me the space to push forward the performances and other elements. It’s such a fun collaboration, working with Lee.
What made you decide to use Kickstarter instead of other platforms for your crowdfunding campaign, and do you have any advice for filmmakers hoping to finance their films that way?
Before launching, we spoke with both Kickstarter and Indiegogo and it was a tough call! I know there are some other really great platforms out there as well, but for us visibility was an important factor, so it really came down to those two. In the end, we wound up going with Kickstarter because of their relationships with media outlets and film festivals. Our Kickstarter campaign is one part fundraising, one part early audience building—so, in that way Kickstarter seemed like the best fit. However, I know Indiegogo is expanding their relationships heavily now, so I’m sure I’ll wind up working with them at some point, either on this project way down the line if we need it, or on another someday. As to advice to others looking to pursue crowd funding, well, this is my first attempt at it. So, I’ve made sure to surround myself with people who have completed many successful campaigns, and I am following their advice religiously (especially my campaign manager, the unstoppable Annie Bush). Annie says the middle of the campaign is the toughest part, as most people contribute in the beginning or the end, so that’s the part where you put on a brave face, chin up and keep on getting the word out. She also says that visibility is key. A major reason why campaigns fail is because people never hear about them.
Are you looking at other sources of funding, and if so, what are they?
Most definitely. We’re working to attach name talent to a couple of key roles, which will help us with investors. We have Louis Black, co-founder of SXSW and The Austin Chronicle, on the project as part of our executive producing team plus the script and business package is out to several investors right now.
As a woman who has been working in the film industry for almost fifteen years and has been successful in various production roles, do you think it is useful for emerging filmmakers to become proficient in more than one aspect of the production process or should they instead focus on one?
I think it’s important to try your hand at every role in the process as you are getting started. To me, it seems vital to understanding and truly appreciating the collaboration that filmmaking is. However, it’s also nice to settle in where your strengths are. There are definitely parts of the process where I know the project is better served if I bring in someone with a different skill set. Equally, having honed my skills as an editor and established a reputation that keeps the phone ringing, I can drum up work to keep the lights on while I’m pulling together the passion projects.
Do you think that being a woman is an advantage when directing women protagonists, and if so, in what ways does it improve the production experience and the film itself?
Generally speaking, women can relate to women in ways that men cannot. In the same general way, men can relate to men more easily. The difference is women’s voices have traditionally been left out of the dialogue, so it’s an important thing that we are starting to make sure that they are heard and included. Just as they say, “Write about what you know,” there is just no way to completely step out of gender perspective. We can imagine, empathize, fantasize, and project, but ultimately we can only be who we are. And I believe that accurately translating that essence of being into a shareable form is the stuff of great art. That’s why we need more women in the film industry. Why should (mostly) straight, white men be the only ones who get to do this? Maybe that’s part of why, when I was coming of age as a filmmaker, people were always saying, “Everything has already been done.” Though there are so many incredible movies in film history, it’s been kind of a one-note party (in terms of the makers) for the movies that most people know.
The Honor Farm is directed by a woman, starring women, and made for women. What is the benefit of having women behind the camera when working on such a project?
With all of the broad-minded thinking happening nowadays around gender perspective, I think that talking about the creative dynamics of female-centered/helmed project is all the more interesting. Naturally, there is the benefit of bringing aspects of the feminine perspective that have traditionally had no audience, into the cultural landscape. This exciting shift is bound to have an influence on the kinds of content being made and perhaps even the people who engage with it. There’s another voice participating more and more in the conversation now. And it’s saying things we have not been able to hear or that have not had the place to be said before. It still seems that even though women are half of the human population, we need to keep asking these questions and pressing for things affirmatively. I’m involved with Leah Meyerhoff’s national group for female directors, Film Fatales, and the affirmative nature of that group has been really galvanizing. I think it is generally true that a group of females who have embarked on a creative endeavor together will have a different dynamic and different interests than a group of men (especially when compared with the entrenched, good old boys). However, I think that the ultimate goal will be that we acknowledge and ultimately embrace the value of individual perspective, outside of gender or any other grouping, and create a system that nourishes and gives opportunity to strong voices—blind to categorization.