This weekend, co-writer/director Karen Skloss celebrates the world premiere of her latest project, The Honor Farm, which will play during the 2017 SXSW Film Festival as part of the Midnighters slate. Daily Dead caught up with the Austin native, who has worked extensively in the world of documentary projects and has a lot of editing experience under her belt, to discss making the leap in the realm of narrative filmmaking, how rewarding it felt to have The Honor Farm chosen to be a part of the prestigious fest, finding her core cast members, and more.
Keep an eye out for more on The Honor Farm and our live coverage from SXSW 2017 right here on Daily Dead.
First of all, congratulations on being a part of SXSW this year. How excited were you when you got the news that you were going to be a part of the Midnighters section of the fest?
Karen Skloss: We were really thrilled. That's the perfect place for the film and it was a dream of mine. I think it's any filmmakers dream to have a launch at a major festival so you can actually have your movie be seen and stand a chance. So that was a huge relief, especially with this film, because it was a difficult movie to make, and it took us many years to put all the pieces together and finally actually have a finished film. So this was a huge hurdle and goal met. I was very thrilled.
You mentioned this taking a few years. I'd love to hear about your journey of getting this film made and what inspired your story.
Karen Skloss: It was a really unorthodox approach. Because in the beginning, I had just made a documentary, and then I was thinking about making a documentary about prom, actually. And the idea behind that was, why do girls care about prom more than guys do? And that was the very beginning thing that got the ball rolling. Then I started realizing that I really wanted to make a movie about somebody learning something from some kind of situation that exceeds their expectations. That’s when I realized I really wanted to make a narrative.
So why don't I begin with the frame of prom night and then we can expand it into this mind-bending experience where a more straight-laced girl goes off track in a way that she's never allowed herself? And that is the starting point for a bunch of experiences that become her making her own coming-of-age ritual rather than just going through the motions of what prom is supposed to represent.
We ended up doing it as more of an improvisational, almost kind of Cassavetes or hybrid film type way. So we used the initial seed money to cast our first three actors: Olivia Applegate, Katie Folger, and Dora Madison. We put them into an actual prom night as planted actors in the middle of a real prom, and then when we saw that footage, we were hoping to raise a little more money and continue in that style with a bit more of a treatment in place.
But it took a while to piece together the funding and in that time I kept working on it, and working on it even more. When I edited together the prom footage, and had time to think about it, that’s when we started really forming a screenplay for the actors that I had cast. Then it was a race against the clock to be able to use that footage without the girls aging out of the movie. We worked really hard on putting together the pieces and by that point, raising the money took a lot longer than anyone wanted, which is usually the case with fundraising. But then it all came together finally, and it got to be a whole other level of this really exciting thing.
You mentioned prom as a ritual, and it’s very interesting to me looking back in retrospect, because I never realized how many rituals that happen as you transition into adulthood around that age. And another aspect that I related to was the idea of the Honor Farm itself. Back when I was growing up, there was an old Ovaltine factory in our town, and that was our version of the Honor Farm, where we would all try to sneak in and stuff like that. Which again, was another rite of passage. So I think your themes in this work on several levels.
Karen Skloss: Yeah, definitely. I felt like it would be really fun to tell a story that explores that as part of teenage culture, and everybody has a place like the Honor Farm that they go to when they’re growing up. Especially if you live in a town where there's not a lot going on, you're going to be looking for something to do as a teenager. So those places are really important, too. You said it really well, that it is a place for ritual or rite of passage, because you have to have some danger and you have to have some fear in order to hack through those parts of your life.
The Honor Farm in the film is actually modeled after a real place called the Honor Farm which was in Pueblo, Colorado, where my co-writer Jay Tonne grew up as a teenager, and they would go and sneak in. That was a prison work farm that had basically the same story as the one in the film, where there was this sort of weird warden that tortured prisoners in the basement and kids would go there and scare themselves to death and party and do drugs. The sad ending to the actual Honor Farm was that there were these kids who actually were killed there, so they wound up having to demolish it because there was a lot of anger.
You mentioned finding your girls pretty early, and I really enjoyed Olivia’s work in the film. Can you discuss what it was you saw in her that made you realize she was the perfect fit for this journey that her character goes on in the film?
Karen Skloss: Well, it was interesting, because we were casting early on with grant money and limited resources. We got a local casting director in Austin, Vicky Boone, who is incredibly talented. She's worked a bunch with Richard Linklater and Terrence Malick and all the biggies here. So I was lucky to get to work with her. And she really is creative about how she looks for talent, so we had a limited amount of time to find this character that was so important to the film. And I had these ideas in my head of what I wanted her to be like.
But once Olivia came in, we'd seen so many girls who were all really talented girls, but I just didn't feel like I had my girl until we saw her. When Olivia walked in, she didn't even have a headshot. She was sort of found through Vicky's alternative routes of putting out feelers and working outside of traditional channels. And of course, right after that, she got cast opposite Ryan Gosling in Terrence Malick's Song to Song, which is just now coming out at the same time as my movie. So it’s funny that Terrence and myself have the time frame here, in regards to our films finally getting out there [laughs].
To learn more about The Honor Farm screenings at SXSW, visit the film festival's official website. In case you missed it, watch a NSFW clip from The Honor Farm, and check here for more of our SXSW coverage.