Fantasia 2017: An Interview With Karen Skloss, Director Of THE HONOR FARM

The director of the genre-adjacent film talks to us about HEATHERS and shifting to narrative films after being a documentarian.

Is it a horror film? A teen coming-of-age film? Or just an excuse to watch a bunch of kids trip their asses off in an abandoned prison? The Honor Farm is a film that defies genre, keeps the audience guessing, and director Karen Skloss likes it that way. I sat down with her just ahead of the film’s screening at Fantasia International Film Festival to pick her brain about the film’s intentional genre ambiguity.

What point did you get involved with The Honor Farm, and what drew you to the project?

I made another film, called Sunshine, which was a documentary. I’ve been working in documentaries for 15 years. The thing that brought me into movies, beside loving movies, was working as an actor. I wanted to get back to narrative. Sunshine is about me being a single mom, and the changing landscape of being an “unwed mother.” After that I kept thinking that I should do something about prom. I don’t know why; it was just a weird idea that I had. I initially wanted to do a documentary about prom, and why it is much more centered on the women. Why is it only their coming of age, and their sexuality, and fertility? This made me realize that I just wanted to do fiction about this. Then I started collaborating with Jay Tonne Jr. I was like “What if we do a film where she thinks she’s going to have a typical prom, but she just ends up doing mushrooms?” And he was like, “Yeah! And what if they go to the honor farm?” Jay has actually been to an honor farm, in high school. Then, all of a sudden, we had this great, whacky, movie idea.

The set of the honor farm itself felt almost like a character in the film, like a haunted house. Was this a single location, or a set you built? How did you piece together the honor farm?

I’m glad that you say that, because I wanted it to feel like a character. Like the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. We really lucked out, because it is more or less a single location. We had been looking, and couldn’t find anything. And shooting in abandoned buildings is unsafe. But this one had just been cleaned up. The National Guard uses it for military exercises. There are bullet holes all over the walls. We enhanced the graffiti and had to bring in our own rubble. We did steal a few shots from the building next door, and there was even an underground tunnel, just like the script.

The posters at the prom specifically say it is in 2012, and you see one character use a cell phone, but other than that you don’t call any attention to the era of the film. What was your intention in making the film time-ambiguous?

That was definitely intentional. There weren’t any other cellphones in the film for that reason. It gets a little tricky, because I didn’t want people wondering why the characters didn’t use their cellphones. “Why don’t they just call the police?” That’s a modern-day movie problem. Cellphones wreck that.

The film is clearly setting itself up for the audience to think that it is a horror film, but then it takes a couple of surprising turns. Do you enjoy toying with their expectations?

It was something that I did, because it was something that I wanted to see. I wanted to use some of those tools, because it would be a fun thing to do. I do think it is something that people have to be prepared for, or open to. If they aren’t prepared for it, they need to at least be willing to go on a journey. People aren’t going to be ready for it if they are expecting horror. That’s something that I keep doing in my work, that I can’t help doing. I just like it.

Even the characters do not obey the tropes of their caricatures. Each teenager acts slightly different than you may expect them to, and they have depth.

Honestly, I think that was even more important than toying with the genre. People have been talking more about the genre categorization, but for me it was important that the characters be real. I also like the idea of a nod towards the 1980s John Hughes movies. Those characters were real too, but they were types, and those types have become tropes. If you look at the teen television shows, I definitely did not want to do that. I wanted to flip them upside down, which is how it is in real life. Nobody is entirely a bad girl - they are complicated. Oddly, it was more challenging with the male characters, which is funny. Often the female characters are so one dimensional, but I got to a point where I realized, “He’s just a beefcake! Wait a second, I need to fix this.”

Speaking of gender roles in the film, I loved that when the bad kids entice the young woman away from the prom it is a group of girls who are driving a hearse.

Oh yeah. I was thinking about Heathers, as a part of the framework. In that they are bad girls, but they are also the popular girls. These girls [in The Honor Farm] are like misfits, not the popular ones.

As a female filmmaker, do you think you brought something to the film that a male filmmaker would not have been able to bring?

I’ve been surprised recently by some of the stuff I’ve seen; where men actually can understand some of those female relationships. I think maybe there hasn’t been that space given to them. It is actually really great when we can tell our own stories, instead of having men “observe them so well.”

I grew up female and had these types of relationships. I was like Lucy and her friend, so in a way it is mildly autobiographical. There was a moment when I intersected with the weird girls at school, the “smoking section” group. For me, that was a wow-I-have-found-myself moment. I was able to let go of a lot of ideas that I had put on myself about who I was and what I needed to be. In that way, that relationship came out of a lot of personal experience.

What are you looking to do next?

I’ve got a lot of ideas, and I’m interested in a few serial projects. I’m cutting a feature right now for Andrew Bujalski. When that is finished and The Honor Farm is released, which is October for VOD, I’ll feel ready to start looking for my next project in earnest. It might be genre. I’m kind of feeling it.

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