Susan Skoog says "Whatever"
by Andrea Meyer
"Whatever," a debut feature for writer/director Susan Skoog, is being
released by Sony Pictures Classics this Friday. Skoog has been a
writer, director, and producer for several TV networks including MTV,
VH-1, and TNT, and she made a short film called "A Dry Heat" that did
the festival circuit. Among her vast TV experience, Skoog has produced
and directed several documentaries including "Inside the Academy Awards"
and "Our Favorite Movies" and retrospectives on the work of Robert
DeNiro and Martin Scorsese.
"Whatever" takes place in the early 80's, where the Pretenders and David
Bowie blare on the radio and everyone's up for a party. Joints are
passed, kegs are flowing, and everyone's so wasted they're either
groping each other mindlessly or passing out in a corner. In the midst
of suburban high school oblivion, we meet Anna (Liza Weil), an aspiring
painter who can't wait to get out. She wants to go to New York and get a
scholarship to Cooper Union. She wants to lose her virginity. She wants
to go crazy and have adventures and live moments that will make her an
adult, an artist, a woman. And she wants it now.
indieWIRE: Why did you choose to set your film in the early 80's and how
did you recreate it?
Susan Skoog: I set it there because that's when I was in high school,
and it's sort of fun to go back. We had no money, so people were like,
"you can't do a period piece." But in actuality you can get clothes from
the Salvation Army and from used clothing stores for virtually nothing.
And then we put ads in the paper for people to donate old clothes, and we
had a whole house full of costumes, wardrobe. And we did the same with
the set pieces. It was all old stuff that people had in their basements.
From the 80's it's still around, and it's in decent condition and
nobody wants it, so we'd get it for free.
iW: What was the budget?
Skoog: We shot it for $115,000 in cash, but I had $30,000 on my credit
cards, and we had $15,000 in unpaid bills. Well, about $180,000 to
shoot. By the end of the day, when you add in the finishing funds that
we got and the blow-up, and then the music and the deferred salaries and
everything, it's just under a million.
iW: How is your film different from other coming of age films?
Skoog: I think it's more realistic. That's what I was trying to do was
make a more realistic look at high school, at the underbelly of what
goes on in high school, as opposed to "Pretty in Pink." Not everyone
gets the guy with the Corvette who rolls up and saves your life. We're
not all prom queens. Most of us fall between the cracks of what we've
seen in most coming of age films. I felt like I hadn't seen in film what
I saw when I was a teenager. And especially from a female perspective. I
felt like there hadn't been a film that really nailed what it was like
to be a suburban girl growing up in this country.
iW: Your film appeals to audiences of all ages, not just sixteen year
old girls, even though it's about high school. How do you think it
Skoog: I think that being an adolescent, there are certain things that
never change. Like your parents are usually the enemy when you're a
teenager. I think that portal from adolescence to adulthood is ripe with
strife. It's a very turbulent time, and it's always been that way, from
"A Rebel Without a Cause" to "Romeo and Juliet." It's part of being a
teenager. Some things just never change.
iW: How did you choose to shoot in Wheeling, W. Virginia?
Skoog: We were going to shoot in Jersey. But it was funny -- Kevin Smith
was shooting "Chasing Amy." He lives in Red Bank, which is where I grew
up, and I was going to shoot in Red Bank. My mom kept sending me
newspaper articles saying, "Local town won't let Kevin Smith-Clerks
Guy-Shoot Film." And I thought -- if they won't let HIM shoot, they're
not going to let ME shoot. So then one of my producers was from Wheeling
and said, "no one's ever shot in Wheeling. We should go there."
So, we went down there, and it looked like New Jersey. It actually
looked more like my town did back in the early 80's, because there
weren't as many strip malls. There wasn't Banana Republic. And also the
town was really nice and helpful. The only location we paid for was
Cooper Union. We got all the locations for free. They were people's
homes or houses that were on the market that realtors would let us use
for free. Also we did a fair amount of press while we were there, and we
were saying in one of the articles how we needed clothing and we needed
a van, and this woman who owned a bicycle shop called us up and said, "I
have an extra van, and if you guys want to use it..." It was amazing.
There was a college nearby where we shot the school stuff, and there was
an abandoned dorm, and that's where we all lived. That's why we were
able to do it for so little. There were sort of magical things that
happened all along the way. We thought we were going to get crew from
Pittsburgh, which is an hour from there, but it turned out that the crew
in Pittsburgh did commercials and big features and were like, "we're not
going to do an independent film." We were put into panic, but then this
airline popped up with New York to Pittsburgh $29 round trip! We got
crew in New York and flew them all down, and it was actually cheaper
iW: What was it like shooting on Super 16. Did you plan to blow it up
from the beginning?
Skoog: We were shooting on Super 16, and we had a lab in Pittsburgh who
had agreed to do a half deferred situation with us. We also made
arrangements with him where if we were not able to get finishing funds,
he would do a blow-down to 16mm. So we would at least have a print to
show at festivals. Fortunately, we got finishing funds and were able to
go right to a 35 blow-up. Irwin Young of DuArt and Circle Films out of
Washington DC came in as executive producers and brought us money to
finish the film. DuArt obviously got us DuArt services.
My first D.P., Michael Barrow ("Heavy", "Sunday"), sent the script to
Circle. He had done "Caught" with them, and they called right when we
starting to shoot and said they liked the script and they might come up
and see dailies. We didn't quite believe them. Ellen, our producer, was
on the phone with them a lot during the shoot, and they were really
helpful. This guy George Pelecanos was really helpful just talking us
through the shoot. They never did come see dailies then, but we went and
met them right when we were done shooting. I edited together five
scenes, and we drove down there thinking we're eventually going to have
to do these meetings. So we'll go down and we'll try it out on them
first. George said, "if nothing else, you'll get a nice lunch out of
it." So, we showed them the scenes and they said, "Whoa, this is good."
They took us to this really fancy restaurant. We had lost so much
weight. We were so pale. We'd just finished shooting and were a wreck.
They really liked what they saw and said they were interested in coming
in with finishing funds, and they got Irwin involved, because they had
done "Caught" with him, and Irwin and Ted Pedas had been friends for
like fifty years. It was really amazing.
iW: You had two different D.P.'s. Could you talk about how you worked
Skoog: Michael Barrow was the first D.P. and he was doing another job at
the time, so he wasn't really able to prep. He came down around two days
before we started shooting. I had the two main actors down there and I'd
rehearsed them in the spaces, so I had a very detailed shot list. When
Michael came, we did a walk-through with the actors in front of him and
I told him what I was thinking. And he'd say, "how about this?" and we'd
come up with the best way to shoot that scene.
Unfortunately, about half way through he had a really terrible family
emergency and had to leave. This amazing sort of magical thing saved us
-- our production designer, was friends with Michael Mayers, the other
D.P. ("Spanking the Monkey"). He had read the script earlier in the
summer and had said, "oh, this is great. I wish I had found this." So,
she goes, "he loves the script. Let me call him." He had no prep at all.
We didn't even know what scene we were doing, so in a way it was a
really good exercise for me. They're both incredibly different
personalities, but the thing that they share is that their main focus is
story and not just shooting a pretty picture or a cool move. For both of
them, story is absolutely primary and making sure the story gets told
through the eyes of these characters. They also never shared a location.
Mike Mayers showed up right before switching over to nights, and he did all
exteriors, and they never were in the same location. They never had to
light each other's locations. It was funny. Mike Mayers was looking at
Michael Barrow's work so he could try to match it, and he said, "shit.
This is good. I've got my work cut out for me."
iW: You've written about a time when there were no rules, especially in
regards to sex. People were not ashamed or afraid of sex. What was it
like to go back there?
Skoog: Part of why I set the film in the early 80's was because I wanted
to deal with teenage sexuality and female sexuality at that age without
having to deal with AIDS. I really imagine it's very different for kids
now because of AIDS. And I didn't really want to deal with AIDS. Even
though it's an important issue, it isn't what I wanted to deal with.
iW: What statement were you trying to make with the film?
Skoog: The main thrust was that when you don't get what you want, you
get what you need. (laughs) When things don't work out, there's always a
Plan B, but you have to come up with a Plan B. And I think it's hard
when you're young to even know that there is a Plan B. You could find a
Plan B or just go- "whoa, Plan A didn't work. I quit!" right away. I
think that's also the thing with girls. Boys tend to blame their
circumstances and the world outside them, whereas girls tend to blame
themselves and quit. Girls quit much quicker and easier, and I think
that hadn't been dealt with in film yet. Mostly, I think life is not a
bowl of cherries for everyone, and not everyone has that cute guy in a
Corvette. Cinderella doesn't exist, and no one's going to save you from
yourself. Not all of us get scholarships or can get out of our
surroundings easily, so we have to figure out our own way and plow
through and keep going.