When Mom Writes a Horror: Psychedelic Prom Night Thriller 'The Honor Farm'
To write a script that's both inventive and authentic, sometimes you have to go straight to the source.
"I didn't want the cat to come out of the bag that mom's writing a freaky drug movie," said Karen Skloss. She wanted to make a film that captured the feeling of being a teenager during one of the few coming-of-age rituals we’ve maintained in America: prom night. While initially hesitant about it, to nail the effect of her psychedelic midnight movie, The Honor Farm, she employed someone from the inside: her teenage daughter.
Skloss sat down with No Film School on the eve of the world premiere at SXSW 2017 to talk about the impact of being an editor and doc filmmaker on her story as well as getting input from a teenager to make the characters in the script ring true.
No Film School: You directed the feature doc Sunshine, and you've been an editor on many films. Coming from that background, how different was it to actually sit down and write this narrative script?
Karen Skloss: My experience as an editor was surprisingly useful in sitting down and actually writing. I wasn't expecting it to work that way. I think there must be similar grooves that are worn in your brain, because you have all this material, and you're still trying to look for the through-line and figure out how to tell the story.
Maybe that's also why the film is different from your traditional three-act structure. I had all these ideas and themes I knew I wanted to explore. I wanted to make a movie that's an homage to the '80s films that I love—a film that’s edgy, creepy, and weird. Maybe it’s the same process as pulling together footage in a documentary. I had the confidence to color outside the lines a little bit, whereas if I didn't have that experience editing, I might've been checking every box from Syd Field.
NFS: How did your daughter factor in the screenwriting process?
Skloss: I had two co-writers. With the first co-writer, Jay Tonne Jr., we worked on this whole crazy structure of the film. The idea of this black lodge, white lodge, and some of these strange, witchy ideas, and the freaky drug themes that I wanted to do. I wrote the script and he helped me work through and revise it. Then he started to fall off the process organically because his part of the work was basically done.
"Somewhere along the line, Jasmine, my daughter, snuck the script and read it."
Somewhere along the line, Jasmine, my daughter, snuck the script and read it. I didn't want her to read it, because I didn't want the cat to come out of the bag that mom's writing a freaky drug movie. I was like, "In a couple years, you can read it." She loved it, though, and had feedback right away.
[Karen’s daughter, Jasmine Skloss Harrison, was able to interject over the phone about what it was like to work with her mom on the script.]
NFS: What kind of notes did you give your mom after you finally took a peek at the script? What was your collaboration like?
Jasmine Skloss Harrison: When we started out, she was very protective of it, and me reading it. But when I did finally get to read it, I loved it. Right away, my notes were about the dialogue. Sometimes she would feel a little lost to trying to write dialogue for teenagers. I could let her know whether or not some of the jokes were funny to me, because that was the group of people that she wanted it to be true to: my age. Since the movie is taking place in current times, I could help her bridge the gap to what being a teenager is like and what we say now. That way, I also helped with the personalities of the characters. I'm so proud of what we came up with, and proud of her film.
"I cornered Richard Linklater to get some advice before shooting. He told me that if it doesn't feel right, don't do it."
Skloss: Jasmine is a very astute storyteller. I saw her as my in-house market research. Then we started to work on it together. We would do table reads with each other, because she's also an actress. I started to realize she deserved a credit because we went through so many drafts together and I started to really think that she was helping shape the authenticity of the film in a major way.
NFS: What would be your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Skloss: I think it's important to understand what your resources are. I don't think that we would've pulled off this movie if I didn’t have the support of the Austin community. Because I've been working in this town for a really long time, and I have those relationships, I was lucky that my friends would come and make this happen.
I cornered Richard Linklater to get some advice before shooting. He told me that if it doesn't feel right, don't do it. People will try to convince you to do stuff, and if you do something against your gut, you're probably going to regret it later. You just have to be really in touch with your own internal barometer, which can be a big challenge when you have a lot of people to convince, all with different agendas.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.
No Film School's coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Vimeo.