Director Karen Skloss knows how to explicitly chronicle the most important transitions in a person’s life, no matter what emotional and physical obstacles they’re forced to contend with as they strive to achieve their goals. The award-winning filmmaker, who’s made a name for herself writing, helming, editing and producing short and documentary movies, has powerfully made evolved into a narrative feature scribe and director. ‘The Honor Farm‘ marks Skloss’ feature film writing and directorial debut. The thriller’s story, which she co-wrote with Jay Tonne Jr., enthralling chronicles the surprising psychological journey that idealistic teens experience, particularly as they set out to uncover who they truly are and strive to become adults.
‘The Honor Farm’ follows high school student Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate) as her prom night, which she initially envisions to be perfect, doesn’t turn out the way she had planned. Her date, Jake (Will Brittain), doesn’t take their experience as seriously as she does, which leads her to believe her prom night was a failure. Lucy’s best friend, Annie’s (Katie Folger), doesn’t have a much better night, so the duo decides to visit the title abandoned prison with strangers they meet along the way.
As part of their visit to the haunted prison, the g group decides to experiment with drugs. Fueled by the drugs they have taken, as well as their growing fear of walking through the dangerous forest, the group makes a secret wish and a summoning of the dead. The party’s adventure sends them on a mind-bending trip into a dangerous trap.
The thriller had its World Premiere during the Midnighters Section at this month’s SXSW. A few days after the drama debuted at the Austin-based festival, Skloss generously took the time to sit down down for an exclusive interview at the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel to talk about co-writing and directing ‘The Honor Farm.’
Among other things, the filmmaker discussed why she decided to craft a story that’s set on the protagonists’ prom night, as she feels the experiences that teenagers have influence the way they interact with, and view, the world. The writer-director also mentioned that she embraced the chance to shoot the drama on location in the same city where it premiered, as incorporating real places into a story that’s so heavily influenced by its setting helped make the characters’ arcs feel more authentic.
ShockYa (SY): Along with Jay Tonne Jr., you co-wrote the new horror film, ‘The Honor Farm.’ What was your inspiration in telling this type of story?
Karen Skloss (KS): I wanted to tell a story that captures the fun and special times of when you’re a teenager, which are so valuable. The experiences of one night can change the way you view yourself in the world; you can be changed by just a few set of events. I wanted to tell that story through a female perspective, while also looking at female sexuality. That’s a marker for when you go from being a girl to a woman.
But instead of having the story be all about having sex on prom night, we wanted to make it about the anti-prom. The story really deconstructs what you think a prom movie, as well as a scary film, should be. I also wanted to make something that’s freaky, tricky and mind-bending.
SY: You also made your narrative feature film directorial debut with ‘The Honor Farm,’ after you helmed documentaries and short films. What was your directorial approach on the thriller, and how did working on developing the script influence your helming duties on the set?
KS: It was really a thrill. I had been making documentaries for many years, but I was first attracted to making all kinds of films, because I love movies in general. I initially wanted to become an actress, so I spent my teenage years pursuing acting. So getting the chance to apply the things that I learned in documentary storytelling, as well as pursuing acting when I was younger, to the process of working with actors as a narrative director now was really helpful.
I also went to art school, so I’m also really interested in the visual component in storytelling. Telling a trippy, freaky movie also lends itself to using beautiful imagery. So to be able to direct a film with that element felt like a dream come true. Of course, shooting this type of film was hard, but it was also very exciting.
SY: ‘The Honor Farm’ is unique in the fact that it’s a female-centric horror-thriller that features a talented cast, including Olivia Applegate, Louis Hunter, Dora Madison, Liam Aiken, Katie Folger, Michael Eric Reid, Will Brittain, Mackenzie Astin, Josephine McAdam and Christina Parrish. What was the casting process like for the film?
KS: It was an unconventional process. We had a bit of seed money, so we cast three girls who were actually at prom, and shot at a real prom. But then it was a race against the clock to get the rest of the money. It actually took a couple of years, so we were like, “Don’t cut your hair!”
We then ended up doing a second round of casting. The first round of casting was held here in Austin, and we did the second round in Los Angeles, in order to bring the final cast together for the film.
SY: What was the experience of working with the actors on building their characters’ emotions and relationships?
KS: It was interesting. When we shot the three girls for the initial footage, we had a treatment. So those scenes were partially hybrid, because we were filming at a real prom. I told them what the scenes were, but they were also writing a lot of their own dialogue.
In the interim, I was flushing out this whole script. I had written these parts perfectly for them, for what I knew they could do. We then filled in the holes with the newcomers. So we created a family with the three initial girls.
But we didn’t have the budget to have rehearsals, especially since a lot of the actors were from L.A., and were flying in to shoot the movie here. So they flew in the day before we started shooting the first scenes. I’m told that they stayed up all night in their hotel room, and got themselves on schedule for our night shoots. (laughs) They also did some research, but I’m not sure what kind of research it was. But I know they came out of the experience very bonded together. So it was cool that they became a family so quickly. They really had a fun time.
SY: Since ‘The Honor Farm’ is mainly set in the prison work farm and the surrounding woods, did you film the movie on location?
KS: Scouting locations for this film was a blast. We tried to film in a cave at one point, so we were going through all kinds of trails. We were also trying to find all these rad haunted buildings. (laughs) I just thought that the entire shoot was going to be a blast. But it turns out that there’s also actual work involved.
But I had a very clear idea of what I wanted. So it wasn’t so much that the locations influenced the story, but I felt like we found the perfect spots to shoot the film.
SY: What was the experience of making the horror film independently? Did the process influence the creative experience on the set?
KS: I think filming the movie independently definitely helped. I felt incredibly fortunate that we had any financing at all, because it’s such a wacky movie. It made it special, but all the more important to deliver such a clear vision. It definitely wasn’t a project that I couldn’t put down until it was finished.
SY: What was the process of working with your cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky, on creating the visual presentation of the thriller?
KS: I loved working with him on the film. It came as a surprise, because he’s known for working with the mumblecore master, Andrew Bujalski. So I wasn’t expecting our film to be as beautiful as it is. We sat down for a couple of weeks, and figured out our way too many camera setups; but we ultimately always had to lose a few of them for every scene. But that initial work that we did helped us so much in trying to plot the strategy and look of the entire film.
We also had ideas of how things looked, since the characters go from suburbia to nature, and then back to suburbia. So we had to work with natural and artificial light, and how they would work in the film.
We also had to figure out the point-of-view of the woods. The supernatural element of the movie, for me, have somehow been summoned through the activities that are taking place at the honor farm. But it’s not necessarily evil, so it’s not a black-and-white, evil spirits genre film. It’s kind of like a David Lynch movie, where there’s good and bad, but we don’t know which is which.
SY: ‘The Honor Farm’ had its World Premiere here at SXSW, during the Midnighters section. What does it mean to you that the thriller is playing at the festival, and how have audiences reacted to the movie?
KS: It’s been so great, and such a relief, because it wasn’t an easy movie to make, and we were working on it for a long time. So the goal is to bring it to as many festivals as we can. SXSW is a wonderful festival to launch the film at, and connect with our audience. Hopefully, the festival will help get the path going, so we can have the movie be seen widely.