SXSW 2017: Karen Skloss on her Mind-Bending Prom Thriller The Honor Farm
Prom. For some kids, it’s the night of their young lives. For most everybody else, it’s kind of a let down, a bunch of hype for what turns out to be a fairly forgettable dance, rented tuxedos and dresses you’ll never wear again, and the realization that riding around in the back of a limo can be a nauseous affair. For the characters in writer/director Karen Skloss’s The Honor Farm, however, prom is the beginning to a trippy, potentially deadly event horizon involving psychedelic drugs, forest spirits, haunted spaces and creepy dentists.
“I guess in a nutshell I wanted to make a movie that encapsulates that experience you have a teenager when you have one night that changes the way you look at yourself,” Skloss says about her beguiling feature, one that benefits from her skills as a visual artist, editor, and documentary filmmaker. Skloss’s installations and videos have been shown around the world, and as an editor and documentary filmmaker, her work has been featured on HBO, PBS and at the MoMA. She’s also a cinephile with a deep knowledge of the medium, so the weirdness at the heart of The Honor Farm touches upon some of her favorite work and, very likely, some of your favorite films.
“I wanted to have that story be told from the point of view of a young woman who’s trying to figure out if she really has grown up,” Skloss says. “She’s graduating from high school, and has the whole idea of sex as a marker. The idea that sex allows you to say, ‘Okay, now I’m a woman,’ is definitely something I wanted as a central element of the narrative.”
The story is centered on Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate), a senior in high school whose has been saving that ‘Now I’m a woman’ moment for prom night. She’s attending the prom with her football quarterback boyfriend but he can’t handle his liquor and ruins the night. This leads to Lucy and her best friend, Annie (Katie Folger) jumping into a hearse with some of the “bad” kids, lead by goth goddess Laila (Dora Madison), on a mission is to eat some shrooms and go to the Honor Farm, a former prison work farm with a very dark history.
“I thought, what would happen if prom went wrong, and this straight-laced girl winds up making some choices she would have never, ever considered making,” Skloss says. “What if she realized that, all the things she was trying to do, checking all the boxes and doing everything appropriately, really aren’t working for her. So maybe the kids she always thought of as the problem kids can be a part of the solution.”
When Skloss was conceiving of the project, she was chatting with her first co-writer, Jay Tonne, who told her a story about a weird place he and his high school friends used to visit—the Honor Farm.
“It was an abandoned prison work farm with all of this lore around it, including a warden who abused people in the basement showers,” Skloss says. “And the rumors were in their community some children were killed out at the Honor Farm, so it definitely had some very bad juju.”
Rituals are a recurring theme in the film. Several of them are enacted, from the dubious, faux-royal trappings of prom night, with its kings and queens, to the more substantial rituals of teenagers pushing their own limits (and breaking the law) as they take drugs and take risks.
“Every suburban culture has one of those places, where the kids go on a dare, because if there’s not that much to do, you’ve got to find some place,” Skloss says. “Your parents would never want you to do it, it’s really not a good idea, and yet at the end of the day it’s actually really healthy. Even though it is dangerous and things go wrong, I think that those spaces are really important. It’s actually worth the risk, and parents often did it too.”
Even the most seasoned filmmakers struggle with showing the effects of taking drugs on screen. The degree of difficulty is only increased when you don’t have a budget that allows for liberal use of special effects. Skloss’s solution is an elegant one, relying on both her actors abilities and the subtle warping of the linear narrative, moving moments around so that, once the kids ingest the mushrooms, neither they nor the viewer is on solid ground. The fluidity of the narrative was baked into the script, and then enhanced in the editing bay.
“These elements were scripted, and there was certainly a lot of crafting in the edit that needed to happen to build in the trippy-ness,” Skloss says. “We were pushing these weird elements even further, partly as a response to having to cut some stuff from the script, and then we were thinking, ‘What about Out of Sight when they do the weird, nonlinear stuff?’ So we started to work through some of that, and I’m just really comfortable with non-linear storytelling, it seemed to be the right vehicle for being in an altered state. We didn’t want to just rely on special effects, unless we had the budget of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas [laughs]. Also structurally I’d say I was also thinking about the interior psychological space of Donnie Darko, but from a female perspective, and rather than being from a troubled kid, this is a girl who is going really deep within herself for the first time.”
Once the kids make it to the Honor Farm, things unravel quickly. Characters glimpsed briefly reemerge, while Laila summons her dead cousin in a ritual whose consequences she’s ignorant of. Enter forest spirits and a whole host of creepiness, including baby goats, Blue Velvet-like creepy adult behavior, all of which is further enhanced, and distorted, by the fact that the entire group is on mushrooms.
“I always felt there’s a kind of Alice in Wonderland feeling I wanted you to have where she’s fallen down into this space,” Skloss says. “I obviously have my story of what really happens, but it was really important to me that my story was muted and cryptic enough. Sort of like in Blade Runner with the origami unicorn, where you can decide for yourself what that means.”
Skloss says that Laila is a catalyst for a lot of what happens to Lucy in the film, unwittingly drawing the supernatural elements to the group of teenagers as their night descends into madness.
“In my mind, there’s kind of a black lodge, white lodge type of Lynch thing going on,” Skloss says. “There’s a ‘summoning the spirit of the forest’ thing happening, where they’re not really malevolent forces, they could be guides, but it’s raw nature, and so it’s untamed. Laila has unleashed something along those lines with her little spell. She doesn’t even know what she’s doing, but she’s doing something. The drugs help them to see what’s happening, but it’s not the just the drugs. It isn’t all meaningless and pointless, there’s actually real supernatural stuff going on, but because they’re on drugs it’s kind of hard to understand.”
At one crucial moment of the film, there’s a bizarre interaction between Lucy and a forest spirit, of sorts, who wears a goat skull and holds a chocolate donut.
“That’s a dividing moment,” Skloss says. “If you see the donut and you’re like, ‘Screw this movie,’ then it’s not for you.”
I loved the donut.
Featured image: L-r–Louis Hunter, Katie Folger, Liam Aiken and Olivia Grace Applegate. Courtesy SXSW/The Honor Farm.