Two teen girls ditch their prom for a decidedly more psychedelic and life-changing experience in “The Honor Farm,” a midnight feature at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival that uses the techniques of horror films to tell its story about a rite of passage from a female perspective. Olivia Applegate plays Lucy, who finds herself on a vision quest to a derelict prison farm at night with a group of mushroom-gobbling friends. There’s danger, trepidation, and transformation... everything that comes with your first time.
Austinite Karen Skloss wrote and directed the film. For over a decade, she’s been working as an editor on documentaries about everything from songwriter Townes Van Zandt to auto racing, to Pink Floyd’s album art. In 2009, she premiered “Sunshine” at SXSW, which was a documentary about her own family life. Her daughter, a central character of that film, is now 17, and took a co-writing credit on “The Honor Farm.” I spoke to Karen Skloss after the film’s premiere. To hear our entire conversation, click the audio link. The below transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Nathan Cone: I guess having your daughter as a co-writer not only helped with the plotting of the film, but with the authenticity as well.
Karen Skloss: She was a huge help with that. It kind of happened organically, because I was working a few drafts of the script alone, and then she’s just a really creatively inclined person, and we love to do stuff together. So I was like, “Hey, let’s just read it.” We wound up doing a series of one-on-one table reads of the script, and it really helped to read the dialogue out loud together. We would re-work the dialogue and make sure that it seemed authentic. Along the way she started to chime in with structural things, too, and all of a sudden I was like, “wow, I’m really collaborating with my daughter!” And it felt right because I definitely wanted to make a movie that wasn’t just for teenagers and wasn’t talking down to them, but was kind of by and for them.
Yes, this is a movie about a transitional time in life, and it’s specifically about a transitional time in a young woman’s life, and you’re using the horror movie tropes in order to present that.
Definitely. In a way we’re almost subverting the horror movie trope. And so in that way if you’re going into the movie expecting the typical horror movie-type layout, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re ready for a strange roller coaster, and something that kind of bends your mind a little bit, I’m hoping it’ll be a really fun journey to go on. At the end of the day, more of a trippy-freaky movie than the typical scary movie.
Speaking of the trippy part, I liked the way you depicted people after they had eaten mushrooms, because they stare at lighters for a long time and stand in one place, which is kind of what happens, more so than running and twirling around. There’s a little bit of knowingness to that.
Hee hee… fair to say…! I grew up in Austin, and I had a really neat friend group, a lot of whom I’m still friends with, and we were young “seekers.” I think what sets a drug like psilocybin or mushrooms apart from drinking alcohol is that it helps you get really quiet and go internal and go into a deeper place, which I thought would be kind of a fun thing to try and help this [character] learn things about herself.
What was high school like for you?
Painful! Just like everyone else. But better than junior high! [laughs] In high school, I was lucky to have my group of friends because they were all like wannabe beatniks, and we were hanging out on the street corners. I had a group of girls and a group of guys, but the guys were kind of my favorites because they were just so wacky. They had a notepad and drawing pad in their knapsack, and we would hang out and play chess on the street corner, and listen to jazz, and go throw rocks at bottles on the train tracks, and then you know, the stuff like drinking and hanging out. We did a lot of running around at night on the Austin green belt.
Similar to where you’re going off to places like we are in this film? Abandoned, derelict places?
Yeah, we didn’t have an “Honor Farm.” That came from my co-writer [Jay Tonne, Jr.]. He actually had a place that you would go to that was called the “Honor Farm” in Pueblo, Colorado, which was an abandoned prison work farm, that had all the lore. We were a little more like… communing with nature. So [the movie] became a hybrid of my high school experiences and my other co-writers.
Let’s not spoil anything with this next question, but how much of the movie do you think is real, or not? In your main character’s head?
I think a good way to think about the movie is that I mean the frame to be kind of an allegory, and there’s a lot of poetry in it. One of the things that I was really thinking about while I was working on it was Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, and his wacky book called “The Red Book” that led to that theory. It has these wild drawings that he would do after putting himself into a trance. I have an idea of what really happened [in the film], and I think that my idea could be just as right as the idea that you might interpret when you see the movie. But even deeper than that, if you go deeper down the rabbit hole, the movie is really just sort of about what happens in this crazy weird experience that we’re having right now as humans. And so that’s the reason why it’s meant to be sort of a puzzle. You can have a little fun thinking about some of those things, and just reminiscing about your own past, or something you’re going through right then as a teenager, to actually have a movie for you that is dealing with some of the stuff that is heavier.
Yeah, there’s a lot of metaphorical stuff happening here. Your main character, Lucy, she’s with a boy, and she says at one point, “yes, I want to go down that tunnel.” And when we come to a scene where a woman is going to be sacrificed, and there’s blood coming out of the back of her head but she’s still alive at the same time… there’s a lot of metaphorical things happening with transitions, and with sex, that are going on in the film.
Most definitely. I think that that’s part of the fun of it is going with this crazy stuff. It’s part of the roller coaster ride. You really don’t know what’s going to happen next. But there’s definitely some strange stuff that is happening to [the characters]. If none of it’s real, then there’s no danger. And so it’s not all in her head. And she’s obviously encountered some people, and we’re not really sure what’s going to happen.
Is it okay to say that when that goat-headed creature held up a donut, I let out a giggle?
[laughs] Yes! I’m so glad! One of the most important things I felt with this film is that if you want to explore deeper themes like this, it’s really important not to take yourself too seriously. And I think that in a nutshell is kind of about why the donut exists in the movie!
What was it like shooting at night?
Hoooo! Well it would have been difficult shooting at night in and of itself, but it was also the wettest summer in Texas history that year [we shot]. We had rain almost every single day. Usually the production strategy that you do is when it’s raining you go for your interiors, but most of the movie takes place outside and at night! That left us with some serious challenges. The crew worked so hard. Also there were so many extra bugs because it was so wet. It was like shooting in a tropical jungle!
This is your first narrative feature, what are your hopes for it, and future plans?
Well I really hope that young adults, teens, and the young at heart are able to see it, and we can find a way to get it out. It is kind of an art movie for teens, but I think it’s also something that can work. So we’re working to secure a good distribution deal for it. I’m also hoping that this would be something that will allow me to keep working with actors and doing some more narrative work. That’s kind of where I started out. I was an actress when I was a teenager, and I love working with actors. I also love documentaries, and would be happy to do more doc stuff, but I’m hoping to just keep getting to do more narrative features.