SXSW Midnighters aren't just about horror or wild antics. In this year's witching hour screenings, The Honor Farm bends the rules and reality among films that highlight gore and craziness. Austin-based writer/director Karen Skloss describes her magickal high school trip as "a girl watching all these levels of what people expect from her, and what's required, just melt away for a second, and making a choice and decision for herself."
For her debut narrative feature, Skloss follows Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate, Krisha), a senior heading to prom whose perfect night becomes a psychedelic journey through mushrooms, visions, and the supernatural. It may seem like a change for a filmmaker best known as one of Austin's go-to documentary editors, yet Skloss knows drama, having started as an actress. When kick-starting her professional career, she found the Austin scene of the mid-2000s was documentary-centric, and that's where the most opportunities were. However, she does not see that time as a diversion. She said, "I was so fortunate to have that as a formative place, because editing a documentary is one of the most challenging ways of telling a story. So this is something that I have been waiting patiently to have the resources and time and place to finally be able to do."
The seeds of The Honor Farm were in fact planted by her 2002 coming-of-age short "Smitten," and her 2009 documentary about teen pregnancy, Sunshine. What struck her during the making of both was the narrative strength of "transitions. The best stories are at these points in our lives when everything is changing."
Her initial instinct was for a prom documentary, examining the differing importance and significance placed upon it by boys and girls. However, she found new possibilities inspired by Naomi Wolf's Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood. "It talks about how there is a real lack of ritual in our culture for women, and adolescents in general, and prom is a weak substitute for an actual initiation ritual that helps us understand when we've gone from being a child to being an adult."
While definitely not a conventional horror, Skloss knew there had to be some fear-inducing components within Lucy's long, strange trip. She said, "If someone's going to go through a rite of passage, there's usually an element of danger. So there was an interest in having a dangerous place that she could put herself in, and I was interested in having it be vaguely supernatural."
That's where the titular Honor Farm came from. It's based on a real place, the Colorado State Insane Asylum in Pueblo, Colo., that co-writer Jay Tonne Jr. visited when he was a teen. Skloss described it as "the quintessential suburban satanic place, where bored kids go when they want to be scared. ... It has this lore that people actually died there, and they ended up demolishing it."
Luckily, she didn't have to uproot production to the Rockies to find her own Honor Farm, but just headed down I-35. "San Antonio is full of all kinds of legendary ghost places," she said, and she found an uncannily perfect abandoned location. "It was an insane asylum, but then they told us, 'Oh, actually, it was a work farm also, and people are buried here.' Kids would do mushrooms in that building, and wander around."
Skloss managed to add an even richer sense of reality into one core scene that depended on her documentary skills. "We shot the prom scenes at an actual prom," she said. "All these girls were crying in the bathroom, and everyone else's real stories were unfolding around our fake story."
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