HIGH ON THE FARM: A CHAT WITH KAREN SKLOSS (2017)

Meeting on the patio of the Irish Embassy[1], I enjoyed an extended conversation with Karen Skloss, the director of The Honor Farm (2017, reviewed here).

Karen SklossAll right, this is Giles Edwards from 366 Weird Movies here with the director of The Honor Farm, Karen Skloss. We’re going to discuss the first fictional feature she’s directed, having previously directed Sunshine, a 2009 documentary that played on PBS and elsewhere concerning the nature of pregnancy, your daughter…

Karen Skloss: And changing family values, I guess, and looking at motherhood and women’s place in the family and structures…Kind of like a personal essay film. A very personal story; the “personal is political” kind of thing.

366: I read, courtesy of IMDB, that you did a little of previous work in film editing. Is that how you started in the filmmaking business?

KS: I still do it, right now I’m editing Andrew Bujalski’s new movie, I’m really excited about it.

366: Now is what do you think will be your future career? Focusing on editing? Focusing on directing feature films?

KS: I guess it’s a slow transition to… [At this point, bar noise grew excessive] …I kind of wonder if we should be outside.
I guess we’ll take a field-trip with this recorder and keep our fingers crossed. [Traveling outside, far quieter.]
Now we’re talking! I had a vision, and no one separates a director from her vision.

366: Except for the producers and money-men, right?

KS: [Laughs] Right! Now, this is more like a cafe interview.
Yes, 2009 was my last feature, my directorial debut, with lots of editing in between, and now some more editing. But it’s cool, because I’m going to get another one off the ground soon. I would love to direct as my “bread and butter”, but I also love editing, so it’s totally fine.

366: Your preceding movie went back about a decade, with the family ponderings. You mentioned [at the screening] your daughter was a teenager now, so I presume she was born well before the movie that concerned her and you.

KS: Yeah. It’s funny, I started shooting while I was pregnant. It was one of those projects that happened slowly while I was working as an editor and doing other projects. I was slowly doing this personal essay over many years.

366: Obviously getting into film is a dream for a lot of people. Did you start heading toward this career in high school, college…?

KS: High school. I starred in my first feature film when I was 16 and I had wanted to be an actress since I was in middle school, which was the point where I actually started auditioning for stuff, at least as many parts as there were in Austin, TX. But then I got into Odile & Yvette at the Edge of the World  when I was 16 and that was the movie that made me realize, “Oh, I can make movies!” So then I went to film school and then art school. The first narrative film I made in film school was a short that went to the Cannes market. Then I went to grad school for studio art, just to round out my experience, and while I was in grad school I landed a job editing this documentary called Be Here to Love Me, which kind of started my editing career in earnest. It did really well and came out everywhere, so, then I was set.

366: And your first film was a documentary/personal kind of thing … what was it that made you want to go into horror?

KS: [Laughs]

366: Which is obviously a bit of an over-statement for this kind of film, but it is being billed as a horror movie, from the things I’ve read about it.

KS: Well, yeah, sometimes we wonder. That was our initial tack, and I feel that might not be really the right way to encapsulate the movie, because it leaves people disappointed. Whereas if you don’t set people up for that, they’ll get something else—they can get what the movie is. But, it is a way to propel people to the movie because it does borrow from that genre, so we have to talk about it in that frame in some way. I guess it’s a “genre bender.” Yes, it occurred to me that if you were to pitch it as a “coming of age drama”, people would ask, “What’s with this haunted prison?” It’s a little tricky, yeah.

366: Because many people don’t like their genres…

KS: Yes. “Don’t bend my genre!”

366: “It’s confusing and scary and new!” Watching the movie, something really came to mind with the hearse driving sequence — came to mind immediately, his City of Women. There’s a bit when the main character fellow meets these drugged-out teenage girls in this open-topped car—they’re even bouncing along to music the same way the young women in the hearse were—and I was wondering, Did that just happen? Or was it a Fellini reference?

KS: Oh man, I wish I could say that! No, I guess you could say there’s Harold and Maude in there, or something like that. But no, no. Oddly enough, the hearse was an idea that came out of when I was a teenager my friend drove a weird, old Rambler all around and then, I remember, there was a wacky lady I met when I was teenager who drove a hearse, that I thought was really cool. So it was definitely more autobiographical details than a Fellini reference. I wish it was a Fellini reference. I was weirdly obsessed with Carl Jung’s “Red Book” and the ideas of the collective unconscious while I was writing this script, so maybe I just sapped it through.

366: That’s a fair answer. Also, with the question I posed… [Interrupted by fellow asking for money] …”Bon chance, monsieur!” … um,… Oh yes, the stoner dialogue. I was very impressed with how that sounded, from my personal experience being around that type of person, they are thinking they sound incredibly profound; they are not. And that captured that kind of thing…

KS: I do think that’s one of those things where I feel that’s how it could seem at the beginning of the movie, but maybe, even though it doesn’t sound very important to us, when we’re sober listening to the not-profound drug conversations, there’s something going on in an interior way in that moment that actually is meaningful. All of it’s subjective.

366: And it gets increasingly subjective as [Lucy’s] visions start recurring due to the mind-altering substance. There is the banal conversation that morphs into something that—even if it’s not really happening—she’s discovering something about herself and what she wants. Takes the mundane and transforms it into something a bit more worthwhile, certainly for her.

Another reference… the Donut.

KS: [Laughs]

366: Obviously, the word “” comes to mind.

KS: [Laughs] Good!

366: Now, was that intentional?

KS: Well, the idea behind it was to … the absurdity, the sheer absurdity of it.

366: Yeah, there was a nice chuckle [from the audience] there. But if any other director is famous for donuts, it’s everyone’s favorite David Lynch fellow. Now, if I remember my mythology correctly, Diana — goddess of the hunt…

KS: Yes!

366: And the “stag” references…

KS: And the moon.

Still from The Honor Farm (2017)
Scene from The Honor Farm

366: Lots of the moon. I was wondering if you might be able to expand a bit on that because there’s the woman who may have been abducted, and is obviously the [stag] stand-in, because she’s the one with the mask, who poses the riddles, and she’s the recurring element in all the visions Lucy has. And there’s the weird bit with the dentist, there’s the weird bit with the capture, there’s the odd fellow who’s friends with the dentist with the laughing guess which is also…

KS: [Laughs], a bit “Lynch”. It was tricky, I didn’t want to go too far with that. ‘Cause, you know, Blue Velvet, of course.

366: Of course. Now could you kind of pin-point a little more precisely how the [stag woman] fits. She’s presumably a customer of the dentist who may or not be involved with this ritualistic what-have-you. She appears later in the movie without this ritual happening, with the donning of the mask…

KS: Well, I … saw her … as a bit of a conjured entity. And it’s hard to say when she was conjured, you know, there are a couple of different points when you could say she was conjured. You could say she was conjured in the [opening] dream already, and that’s why she’s in the waiting room. But I like the idea of her being this force that acts like an older teacher for Lucy in her journey of self-discovery in a kind of -an sense, if you will…

366: Oh, I will.

KS: [Laughs]…where there are these complex forces of nature that are within us, that are us, that we see ourselves being separate from, but we really aren’t. Those forces of nature are things that aren’t clearly good and aren’t clearly evil, but can be very instructive. So the whole design behind giving Lucy this older woman who’s at a different stage ahead of her; and maybe she isn’t even a women, somewhat androgynous. Mot a proper sexuality, but her teaching Lucy about her sexuality, because [Lucy’s] the next generation of woman: budding fertility/coming of age/prom night …

366: That was also nicely captured, too.

KS: Yeah, that’s funny too, because if you look at prom night, and this was something that my co-writer was really into, the idea of prom as a sort masked, pagan ritual [that weirdly survived the coming of Christianity. We have these “rites of spring” where the young maidens are adored because of their budding fertility — they’re the next ones to have the babies [chuckles], and make us continue to go on.

366: I like the young fellow who “paid attention in English class”, that character…

KS: Yeah, I liked him too. That’s Liam Aiken, you know, from Lemony Snicket, he’s the main guy, and I wrote the part for him. I was really stoked he was into it.

366: I had a question — you may know, or it may have been from your co-writer — about the significance of that symbol on the card on the card that [Laila] burns…

KS: [My co-writer] came up with that, yeah, and it was a symbol … it was actually something that we gave a lot of thought to. And I did look into possible symbols, and I was really nervous about getting too crazy, you know, I didn’t want to conjure anything weird or bad with my movie, so I believe that was something that actually had to do with fertility. My production assistant found that, and she said it had something to do with fertility. But! “Fertility” isn’t actually what she’s supposed to be doing, because in the movie, [Laila’s] using it like a Ouija board to contact the spirits, so we have another conjuring that could be happening there. We’ve got whatever conjuring Lucy may have made within her dream that connected with the spirit; in the bathroom, she says “I really wish something real would happen”, and at the Honor Farm, Laila burns this card and … I feel that’s the most literal meaning of this movie: Laila burns a card, and some weird stuff happens.

366: Yes, and she’s burning the card to try and talk to someone who died in a fire. Macabre, even for those trying to get in touch with the spirit world. Sort of rubbing it in, “I want to talk to you by burning this!”

KS: [Laughs] It’s a cleansing, a purification, healing! [Laughs again]

366: Back the “occult” thing, the circle of stones, when they’re on the ‘shrooms, the first thing that came to mind was the mushroom ring [Interrupted by fire truck siren] …certainly in English folklore you have the “faerie ring”, which is made of mushrooms, whereas these kids are “on” mushrooms, making a circle that they then all congregate in. There are a lot of points that you set up where reality might be stopping.

KS: Yes. [Excited] I knew I would like showing this movie at “Fantasia.”.It’s funny, because there was a deleted scene we didn’t get to put in the movie where the boys are introduced earlier and they’re reading a little passage from “Siddhartha”, which I thought would be fun, you know, the boys are like budding intellectuals…

366: Except for maybe the guy eats too many mushrooms.

KS: The drug-dealer guy, yeah.

366: Yeah, it’s hard to say, but I’m sure he’s a smart guy.

KS: But yeah, the quotation had to do with talking about a circle. I’ll e-mail it to you. It talks about how we think we’re going forward, but it’s actually a circle going upwards, something like that: basically about how life is a spiral, you know, weird teenage/Hermann Hesse philosophy, but yes, very aware of the faeries/circles. Actually, when we finish this I’ll show you this picture from this crazy place I went to called “the Faerie Glen” in Scotland, and we came across the wildest circle things. Ever.
But when we’re looking at this pagan stuff, Diana—I can’t believe all the stuff that you’re saying! You’re really impressing me. [Laughs].

366: It’s my job.

KS: Yes, so, thank you for noticing that.

366: Moving on, I liked the pairing of the burning/death contact scene, just as Lucy and JD are going into the tunnel, and so they’re trying to go through a “channel” while the others are going through a “channel,” and we find out, at the same time, that both of the channels are blocked, with the ceremony interrupted by the guy who picked up the ceremonial goat and the basement tunnel shown to be collapsed.

KS: [Chuckles] Yeah, that guy who took too many mushrooms.

366: He seemed happy enough, one of the only people not to freak out, actually. What is the rating of the movie?

KS: I don’t know, it hasn’t been rated yet. I guess it’ll get rated — does it only get rated if it comes out in theaters?

366: That is my guess. I suppose it depends on the distributor; I know a lot of theaters, if it’s not rated, won’t touch it.

KS: Yeah, we’ll be doing a tiny theatrical [release], probably Amazon Prime.

366: Looking back on it, I can’t see it being rated higher than PG-13, depending upon how they feel about the deer carcass that appeared early on in the prison.

KS: That would be interesting if that were the thing that threw us over the edge.

366: I think that wraps up a lot of things I wanted to mention, do you have any closing thoughts for us?

KS: Just try to remember what I said about that one guy who asked that one question[2], and I’ve had a few audiences now, and I’ve been wondering “When are they going to ask me about the deeper meaning behind the movie?” Because, you know, that’s why you make things.

366: It had to do with her wanting to feel something real, and that the most important thing that happened to her wasn’t necessarily “real”.

KS: Yeah, to me that’s everything. That’s the concept. And in that way, the movie itself, I feel it’s… I want it to work in a way that it becomes weirdly reflexive, almost like a bit of existential philosophy; “teenage existentialism.”

366: That’s a good moniker. Let me jot that down…

KS: ‘Cause I think teenagers need it and deserve it because they’ve gotten to that point, and a lot of stuff that’s made for teenagers is assuming that they don’t really care about those questions. So I wanted to give them—and not just teenagers, but also the young at heart and people who want to reminisce about that period of their life, people in their 20s who just came out of it—this sort of movie. It needs to be a puzzle, but not that kind where I laugh say, “Hoho, I made this puzzle, see if you can un-do it!” But more as an exercise for an audience that wouldn’t get that kind of film. And that’s why I used “horror”.

366: Using it to open a door for them…

KS: …a way into this theme…

366: …that while they may not have been looking for it, now that they’ve signed up for it, happy to explore it.

KS: Exactly.

  1. Not the actual embassy, but a nearby pub where Fantasia-types gather most every night. []
  2. At the post-screening Q&A. Without superior playback equipment at my disposal, the specific question is effectively lost. However, it pertained to the nature of experience and that something can effectively be real, experience-wise, even if the events technically did not happen in real life. Apologies to you (and Ms Skloss) for having lost this. The preceding transcript does cover most of the response to the mystery question, however. []

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