Writer-director Susan Skoog revisits teen angst in the '80s
Writer-director Susan Skoog could almost pass for one of the teenagers in "Whatever," her angst-of-adolescence feature debut that looks at high school strife and sexual politics in the post-disco, pre-AIDS scare moment of time that was 1981.
With freckled, pixie-ish features and a wardrobe built around high-top sneakers, the diminutive 33-year-old freshman auteur seems most comfortable with her legs tucked under her in the generously yielding chair of her San Francisco hotel room, where she's spent a July day fielding questions about her film.
"Whatever" is a soundtrack-driven teen angst and frustration movie that visits some of the same territory as the hugely popular bubble gum pictures of the 1980s, but from a earnest, complex and introspective point of view.
Part of a trend of female coming-of-age independent films that started in 1996 with "All Over Me," "Whatever" is stars relative newcomer Liza Weil as Anna, an unsure, curious New Jersey girl with art school ambitions, who has virginity and an unsupportive single mom weighing on her mind. Her best friend Brenda, a promiscuous, hard-partying bad influence with a haunting history of sexual abuse, is played by another film novice, Chad Morgan.
A potent, visceral picture, it may be a defining work in this emerging sub-genre because of its unabashed candor and fly-on-the-wall authenticity.
"(Skoog) has the guts to really explore these things that haven't been explored and let these really uncomfortable and honest moments play out," says Weil of her director. "It's really rare. This film would have never gotten make if it was like a Hollywood movie. Susan would have had people telling her it was too dark."
Skoog, who has been directing and producing cable television specials and series since graduating from NYU's theater and film department in 1987, says she considers high school as the nexus of one's formative years, which is why, she says, anyone can identify with a picture like "Whatever," which doesn't seem to necessarily be aimed at teenagers.
SPLICED: Yours isn't the only female coming-of-age film this summer ("The Slums of Beverly Hills" comes out in August), and other recent films like "The Ice Storm" and "The Opposite of Sex" have built storylines around the topic as well. Any insight into what might be behind this trend? Do you see it as a trend?
Susan Skoog: I think it's just that there's more women now that are of an age -- in their late 20s or early 30s -- who are making films, and they're making films about subjects they are close to.
Men have been making coming of age films since movies began, so now there just happens to be more women. Things are more equal for women in the entertainment industry and in the world at large. There's more opportunity for women. I think it's just a matter of natural progression.
SPLICED: What was it in you that drove this story. How autobiographical is it?
Skoog: Well, it's not specifically autobiographical at all. I mean, Anna is a lot cooler than I was (at that age). Although the characters are all composites of people I've known. A lot of the events and situations (were similar), but my life was a lot more stable -- my parents are still married and they were very supportive of me. But I thought a lot of films I've seen about growing up and high school really didn't reflect the world that I saw. There's a real underbelly (you don't see) in John Hughes films.
SPLICED: I was going to say this seems to be kind of a Brat Pack backlash...
Skoog: Yes. (Laughs.) The anti-John Hughes film. I love those movies. They're fine. They are what they are -- they're pop -- and they're good movies. But I was more interested in realism, in social realism, in what's really going on, and in recreating the world that I saw.
SPLICED: The Hughes movies don't have the depth.
Skoog: Yeah. They're sort of superficial and they're comedic. They look at the lighter side where everything turns out OK. They guy pulls up at the end in the Corvette and takes you to the prom, and that didn't happen to people I know. Life is more complicated. I just wanted to make a film that dealt with more complicated issues. When things don't go your way, you still have to figure out what you're going to do.
SPLICED: Why 1981?
Skoog: Well, that was when I was in school. That was the world I knew. But I also thought it would be fun to go back and see Indian print skirts and blue eye shadow. But it's also an interesting little window of time -- just before "Just Say No," before AIDS.
SPLICED: And just post-disco.
Skoog: Yeah. It was kind of right in the middle there. Everything changed pretty radically soon after that in the '80s.
SPLICED: What did you look like then? Big hair or anything?
Skoog: No. I looked exactly the same. I had the same hair do. I've had the same hair do my whole life! (Laughs.)
SPLICED: Sexuality plays a big role in these characters lives, and you totally captured the awkwardness of experimental sexuality. Did you coach that?
Skoog: Well, the big virginity scene, I wrote it...(She pauses to collect her thoughts.) The character is nervous. She starts talking about Disneyworld, you know! And Liza was saying beforehand that she was really nervous, and we used that. The character is nervous, you're nervous. That's OK. Use that.
SPLICED: You approached the sex scenes with unusual reserve. It felt real without going that extra step of having someone lying naked on a bed. Was that a conscious decision?
Skoog: Well, the scenes are about sex, but there's more going on. Sex isn't usually just sex. There's people with histories, there's politics. Even with Brenda, like when she's with that guy in New York and the camera comes around she has this extra moment of hanging on to him because she wants the comfort. That's part of fleshing out these people and who they are.
SPLICED: By the way, the bicycle seat was a great touch -- after Anna loses her virginity, she starts to get on the bicycle, then thinks the better of it and gets back off to walk. That was brilliant.
Skoog: It was funny, in this movie we did an average of like three takes for most stuff, but that damn bicycle we did like seven! It took forever to get.
SPLICED: Many of the independent directors I've talked to have stories about something they had to do during filming to save money. What's yours?
Skoog: There's a lot of that. I wanted to shoot one of the scenes, the bus station scene, I wrote to take place in Penn Station. But we knew we weren't going to be able to shoot in Penn Station. The stuff we did get in Penn Station was just the girls running around -- total guerrilla. We did that in like 15 minutes. There was supposed to be a whole dialogue scene, but we couldn't shoot in there, so we went to a bus stop. We went to like Avenue B in New York in the middle of the night one night.
SPLICED: How much money did you have?
Skoog: Well, we shot it for $115,000 in cash. Then there was about 30 (thousand) on my credit card and we had about 50 (thousand) in unpaid bills. But when you add in differed salaries, the blow up and all the lab work and everything, it was just under $1 million. Oh, and the music! The music was a huge chunk.
SPLICED: It's a great soundtrack. Is the CD a big push?
Skoog: Yes, it is. We're trying to sell the soundtrack because the music in the movie was pretty expensive! In stores now!
SPLICED: Did you make the film and sell it at Sundance or did you have a distributor already?
Skoog: No, we made the film and finished it last August, then we had a distributor screening in October, and about two days after that Sony made an offer to us.
Skoog: Totally. We had a major party for that. We closed the deal on my birthday.
SPLICED: I wrote in my notes while watching the movie that it had the same sort of slice-of-life flavor that Mike Leigh is really good at...
Skoog: Really? Thanks! What a compliment.
SPLICED: So I was wondering who your favorite filmmakers are.
Skoog: Well, I like Mike Leigh a lot. But I have to say I think Eric Rohmer is my favorite to, um, try to copy. (Laughs.) Every year in New York there would be a new Eric Rohmer movie and I'd go up to Lincoln Center and I'd see it on opening day.
SPLICED: The extremely natural dialogue and unglossy tone were what reminded me of Leigh. The party scenes seemed especially authentic. They actually made me nervous, because I was the kind of person who didn't do parties very well at that age. What did you do to play that up?
Skoog: Hmm...I don't know. You just get a bunch of extras, pick out the ones that look right, hand them a beer, stick the fat girls in the corner. There were the same extras at every party. I don't know. You just do it.
SPLICED: The smooth way to say that would be "It just comes naturally to me."
Skoog: (Laughs.) A lot of the actors came up with stuff to. Everyone has been to teenage parties, so it all just kind of clicked in.