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Annette Kellerman's SXSW Experience! A Chat With HONOR FARM Director Karen Skloss.

I recently got the chance to talk to director Karen Skloss about her new film and first narrative feature HONOR FARM ahead of the film's SXSW premeire on Saturday 3/11. The trippy thriller follows a group of teenagers who decide to explore an abandoned work prison that may or may not be haunted. They also decide to eat mushrooms before embarking on their trek- what could possibly go wrong? So I was thrilled to be able to get some answers from gal behind the camera ahead of the film's world premiere at this year's SXSW Conference. I hope you enjoy our chat.

Annette Kellerman: So you wrote and directed HONOR FARM?

Karen Skloss: Yes. Well, I had co writers.

AK: Where did this story come from?

KS: It was kind of a process getting to it. After I made my documentary SUNSHINE, I wanted to do a movie about rites of passage. I was thinking about prom, and I was thinking about doing a documentary about prom. And then I was like, I want to do a hybrid film. So, that was kind of the germ of the idea- trying to find out how I could tell a story about a girl kind of figuring herself out in that frame. And then I started thinking about my own high school experiences, and I started to want to tell and even bigger story. Basically how a single night can change the way you think about yourself and the world. And then as I was collaborating with my co writer Jay Tonne, he was talking about his high school experiences, and they used to go to a place called the Honor Farm- which was an abandoned prison work farm.

AK: Whoa. So that's a real thing then?!

KS: An actual real piece of history in Colorado. And I thought, oh wow, that could be a really fun point of conflict and tension of the story. We could explore these academic ideas that I wanted to do, but in a way that was fun and accessible for young adult audiences.

AK: You've been an editor for many years. How did your experience cutting films inform your directing style?

KS: I think it was a really great training ground. Most of my experience is with cutting documentaries, but I feel that the problem solving that it takes to retro fit something- rather than when it's all planned out and you put it together- teaches you a whole different skill set. I think I found it applied to the writing process on a certain level because there was this...I feel like I've been writing all this time, and even though it wasn't a lot of screenplays, I have been crafting stories. So when we were on set, I think I just have grooved in my brain that are really adaptable where I can really step back and look at the situation how it is and be able to reassess and reframe rather than having a rigid point of view. Instead of- No! This will never work! It has to be this way- there are certain things that have to be that way, but there's always a round about way to get there if you can't get there the first way. I think I thank those years working on documentaries.

AK: For sure. To go from whittling hours and hours of footage down to a cohesive story in documentary filmmaking to having a shot list and more of a blue print with narrative must have been a fun transition.

KS: It was! I felt like I was off-leash all of the sudden in a weird way. There was no ties to anything reality-based.

AK: Did you cut this one too?

KS: I cut it with another editor, Mike Saenz, and also my friend Spencer Parsons- also both filmmaker/directors.

AK: Very cool. I guess the film definitely fits into the horror/thriller genre. What films or film makers inspired you for this project? Did you draw from anything in particular for this story, or were you trying to steer clear of any overt influences?

KS: I'm always kind of out on my own wavelength on a certain level- for better or worse. But I was really inspired by the approach and strategy of David Lynch. The way he creates an alternate universe space sort of thing. And also the way that he gets the story through...transcendental divination. (laughs)

AK: That's a good way to put it!

KS: I was kind of following that sort of process of trying to pull the story together in a somewhat organic way, at least from a writing perspective. And I also was really interested in seeing the movie fit into maybe the same box as DONNIE DARKO, or VIRGIN SUICIDES, or one of these dark teen movies. Even HEATHERS.

AK: Totally. Not straight up horror, but with the same dark sensibility.

KS: A dark edge, you know? But I think the twist with this film is rather than having it be...for instance with HEATHERS, it's pretty darn bleak at the end. Even DONNIE DARKO- I guess it has a little bit of hope in it, mystery or something, and that is definitely where I wanted this to land. In a space of there's a lot more going on behind the scenes in this game we're playing called life and what we tend to even have the mental space to think about on the day to day. And that's what's kind of the cool and exciting thing when you look out to your own horizons and your own future. That was the idea! (laughs)

AK: Can you talk a little bit about casting? I just felt like everyone was so spot on- and then of course there's Mackenzie Astin! I've been a nerd for him since back in the Facts Of Life days.

KS: That's so cool! You're the second person who has said that, and I'm like, yes! We really reached out and tried to get some older stars who kind of had a hook, ya know?

AK: People of a certain age will have the nostalgia factor.

KS: I was really in love with Mackenzie Astin when he was on The Facts Of Life. I was a little star struck when I met him in the casting process.

AK: I would totally geek out too. Not to mention the fact that his mom is Patty Duke, his dad is Gomez Adams, and his brother is freaking Samwise Gamgee- well, Mikey first in my heart.

KS: Yes!

AK: So, what particular qualities were you looking for in the rest of the cast and did you have to adjust any of the characters based on casting?

KS: It was a process. Sometimes I got what I wanted and sometimes I had to get what talent came before me. Lucy is actually a great example. We kind of cast the film in layers. We had seed money from the city of Austin that we used to shoot the very very first leg of the film. That was in a real prom. We put the actors in real prom. So we cast Olivia, Katie, and Dora- and then Will Britton and Sam (Samuel Davis), their dates. For that first little bit of shooting we didn't even have a full script. we just had the concept.

AK: So what made the final cut was at a real prom? I was wondering, because that looked like a pretty legit prom! That's a lot of dressed up kids!

KS: Whoa extras! So, it had to happen then. It had to happen in this window, we gotta shoot it. Olivia was really different than the girl I had in my head, but she was the only person that we saw that I was like- she could carry this film, she really could. It was kind of fun because then I got to kind of build the whole project around her. Since we didn't have a finished script or anything, I basically wrote it for her. Olivia is- her natural self is just kind of regal, sort of a princess.

AK: She's super charismatic.

KS: I'm so glad you feel that way. I'm really excited for this movie to come out for her. I mean, she's done lots of other movies, but we really put a lot of heart and soul into this together- the three of us who worked on it in the very beginning. So then I kind of got to write the parts exactly for those girls. When it came to casting everybody else, I kind of had Liam Aiken in mind for the role of Sinclair because Paradigm had been talking to us because Olivia was with Paradigm. Then he actually came and read for it and I was like, whoa! It was kind of the same thing as Mackenzie Astin- I was like, Yes! This is so great! And then with JD I wanted a really dark horse type, and I just couldn't find him. And when I saw Louis Hunter, I was like- you could carry this. It required a little bit of revision from exactly what I had in my head, but I felt like between Vicky Boone here and Emily Schweber in Los Angeles I had so much great support putting together this cast. When we saw them all standing together- it's like, they look so good together! My casting directors rock!

AK: I have no idea how old they all are, but they really nailed the teenage vibe versus like a 90210 scenario where you have 30-somethings playing high school students.

KS: That was little bit of the worry because of our timeline with casting them when they were right...and then they kept getting older! And we were trying to raise the money to do this!

AK: Oh yeah. There can be a big difference between 17 and 21!
KS: Yeah. And we could've scrapped the initial footage, but I liked it. It was so good. And I also really got attached to those girls.

AK: I really like Katie Folger. She was in my friend Emily Hagins' film from a few years ago, GROW UP TONY PHILLIPS and she has such a special presence onscreen.

KS: And Katie is one of those...she's gonna be a maker too. She's not just an actress, she's kind of a girl after my own heart.

AK: So cool. Did you film on location, or was that a soundstage? Because thats some incredible location scouting if that was a real place.

KS: All on location. The only thing that was a soundstage was the white space scene. We totally lucked out. We weren't finding anything and at the last minute- as films go, within our deadline we're like, we have to find this location- we found this place in San Antonio that was right next to a police station. Which was kind of funny because even though we had permits the police would come over all the time like, what are you people doing?! It was a huge police station, with like 200 cops cars or something like that. But kids would still try to break into these two abandoned buildings. One was an insane asylum, and the other was a former state home or something like that.

AK: It definitely had that institution feel.

KS: We couldn't have actually shot in those buildings because they were unsafe. Except one of them had been abated. Two weeks before we started shooting they had removed the asbestos and all the glass and everything so people could do military training in there for like urban combat. We were like, can we come in at night? It's near the "ghost tracks" in San Antonio, so it has all kinds of lore. We even met some people in San Antonio who said they had gone to that building as teenagers and tripped.

AK: That's crazy!

KS: Yeah, that's a real place where that kind of stuff actually happened.

AK: Was there anything that didn't make the final cut?

KS: Yeah. We had written a whole series of scenes that introduced JD at the high school. And I loved those scenes so much. They were so cool. It was all after school and the hearse (driven by one of the characters) pulls up. I really wanted to start the movie that way, but it was just so many characters to try to take on at the beginning. It just felt better after we did that. And it hurt. "Killing a baby."

AK: Totally "killing your babies!" You gotta do it though.

KS: He was reading Siddhartha too. Which I just thought was was like my high school.

AK: That must be so tough. Especially when you have it in your head a certain way, but when it gets down to brass tacks you really have to hone what goes on screen. Separate the substance from the fluff.

KS: Or its just confusing the focus because we're trying to get into this.

AK: You have to streamline.

KS: Yes.
AK: I was also wondering if there was any trippy stuff that you shot that didn't make the final cut.

KS: Well, there's stuff that we just couldn't get to in terms of shooting that I really wanted to do. It was really disappointing for our art team because they had been working super hard on building these crazy tableaus. We kind of got to do it, but there was a whole part of it that we would have to go upstairs at Krause Springs. And while we were shooting there the lights kept going out.

AK: So, that was Krause Springs? (a popular swimming spot outside of Austin)

KS: Yep. And since the lights went out so many times and it was flooded and, and, was the rainiest summer in Texas history when we shot. Remember that one?

AK: Of course we had record droughts until...

KS: Until my movie! Yeah.

AK: Yikes! It really looked beautiful though. You did such a great job creating an ethereal, kind of other world-ly vibe.

KS: Thank you.

AK: Without getting too spoiler-y, did you always plan for the film to end the way that it did? Were there any alternate endings that you considered?

KS: Do you mean the very end?

AK: Basically were the film makes a tonal shift in the third act. They kind of slide down a hill into another dimension so to speak.

KS: Originally they were supposed to fall through a hole in the floor.

AK: So their just tripping balls basically.

KS: Yeah, just weird trippy stuff. But we just couldn't pull that off, so they slid down a hill! That was a night that was really important to Jay, my co writer, that they pass through the Honor Farm into a more celestial space. Which is a real challenge from a story telling angle, like how do you continue to build tension and drama when they've come through a horrific scene and continue to carry you along on this trip. So that was definitely always in the plan, but I feel like was the challenge of the script even.

AK: Is there anything else I haven't covered that you'd like to talk about?

KS: The music is something to talk about!

AK: Yeah! The sound design is also pretty intense.

KS: We worked with (Austin musical luminary) Graham Reynolds and then also in the beginning The Black Angels, who are buddies of mine. I felt like there was crossover in terms of audience, so I thought they would be a wonderful piece to the feel of the film. And then we could cross-platform with it, and try to connect our audiences. And it was just dang fun to work with those guys! They're all so talented.

AK: Fun to work with your pals who also happen to be amazing musicians! And as far as the sound design, did you have a definite idea of using those tools to build the tension, or did your sound people come through with their own stuff?

KS: Our sound designer/recording/mixer guy the super-talented Eric Friend had a lot of ideas on his own. But then also we were editing for so long that there were a lot of ideas that were laid in and built by the editing team too. It was a hand in hand effort.

AK: And being such an experienced editor yourself, I'm sure you had a lot of ideas sound wise as far as keeping the momentum going throughout.

KS: It was so much fun. You don't get to do a lot of that in documentaries. (laughs) I just hope I get to do it again sometime. It was quite the endeavor, but so much fun.

AK: Well, thank you so much for chatting with me about HONOR FARM, and best of luck with your world premiere and other screenings at SXSW.

KS: Ah, thank you so much! I hope to see you around the fest!

So there you have it! It was pretty cool to get the director's take on her wild ride with this film. There's no word on distribution for HONOR FARM yet, but I imagine it will find its way to a screen near you in the near future, so be on the look out for this trippy, dark tale of literal and figurative awakenings. HONOR FARM will celebrate its world premiere at SXSW on 3/11 at 11:55 at the Stateside Theater. The film will also screen at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar location on 3/13 at 11:45, 3/14 at 9:45, and 3/16 at 12:15.

Thanks for reading!

Rebecca Elliott
aka Annette Kellerman




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