“There Had Never Been A Really Realistic Depiction of the Teenage Girl Experience As I Remembered It”: Director Susan Skoog Looks Back on Whatever
Susan Skoog’s underappreciated teen drama Whatever opens on a moonlit image of two lovers on a field of grass, he on top of her, in what appears to be flagrante delicto — but which is revealed shortly after to be a train run on an unsuspecting teenage girl. Disenchantment is the bedrock of Skoog’s unsparing debut, released by Sony Pictures Classics in 1998 but taking place in the early ’80s. Liza Weil — most famous as Paris Geller on Gilmore Girls — stars as Anna, a 17-year-old who loves listening to Chrissie Hynde, smoking Newports, partying and painting. She dreams of going to Cooper Union to escape her unnamed Jersey suburb, but finds school — and the constant admonitions of her divorced mother, shacking up with a bulbous businessman in a desperate bid for a better life — to be an interminable drag.
Whatever manages to feel apiece with its chosen period, but it also harkens back to a simpler time in independent filmmaking. But while the Kevin Smiths, Tarantinos and Rodriguezes of Skoog’s era have gone on to produce more baroque Hollywood product, the filmmaker has been teaching at Montclair State University, where she also runs the public programs at the Film Institute. Light of touch but unvarnished in its depiction of predatory male behavior — and the frustrations of being young, pent-up and stuck in a rut — Whatever is receiving a rare 20th anniversary screening at Quad Cinema on November 10, with Weil and Skoog in person for the Q&A.
Ahead of that presentation, Filmmaker spoke to Skoog about how much, and how little, has changed in independent film over the last two decades, and what she’s been up to since Whatever.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you watched Whatever?
Skoog: I had to make a director’s reel a year ago, so I pulled some scenes. But I had not looked at it in 20 years. I had to upload it to Vimeo but I didn’t want to watch it. Then I took a look at some of the scenes, like, “Hey, I forgot about this!” I have a friend who did watch it and tells me it totally holds up. I did rewatch the opening scene, and I put it on Facebook and Twitter, because I was so upset about the [Brett] Kavanaugh thing. It was interesting to see how that scene, the “train” scene, connected. We did maybe four or five takes but not a lot. When you cast it well, it kind of just flows. Once in a while Liza and I would shoot for coverage and she would zone out and I’d be like, “Come back!”
We shot it in 27 days, mostly near Pittsburgh, West Virginia, then we did a few days in New York, a few days in New Jersey. We didn’t have the ability to look at dailies, which was kind of freaky, and we lost our DP; the first guy had a family emergency halfway through. Luckily the production designer Dina Goldman knew another guy who just finished a show. He had worked on Spanking the Monkey. He jumped on a plane and we didn’t miss a single day of shooting. He went on to do a lot of big TV shows. Both DPs were really wonderful, really helped me communicate what I was after. I did a lot of homework. I think in lieu of money, working on TV helped me understand the need to prep, to accommodate every single possibility within an inch of its life. That’s where the freedom to improvise comes from, if it does.
Filmmaker: Tell me about your career ahead of Whatever. I’ve read you worked for MTV. Did you develop the idea on the side?
Skoog: I was a producer at VH1 and I did some work for MTV. I was doing music documentaries, and in those days we did everything ourselves — produced, wrote, directed, edited. And yeah, that was my day job in my 20s. But it taught me about working with music and shooting, so it gave me a pretty decent foundation from which to make stuff.
Filmmaker: The songs are key to the movie, it seems, especially the Pretenders tracks.
Skoog: The songs cost more than the film we shot on. I really loved and worshipped Chrissie Hynde, David Bowie, Iggy Pop — really wanted to use music from those artists in the film. We had a music supervisor who was really wonderful and helped us get the rights. I wrote letters to Chrissie begging her to give it to us for cheap, which she did. Bowie’s people were very generous; they gave us festival rights. We released the soundtrack and the strategy was, “If we’re gonna have all this expensive music, let’s have a soundtrack release to help pay for it.” But ultimately the licensing cost more than the actual movie. But the soundtrack did pretty well. And if we hadn’t gotten rights for all those songs, I had a plan which was, “If we don’t sell the film, I’ll just replace everything with music that’s affordable”. But we were very, very lucky that Sony bought the film.
Filmmaker: You also run the Film Institute at Montclair State University, so you’re a double threat. Did Whatever come out of a cinephilic background?
Skoog: I just felt that at the time, there had never been a really realistic depiction of the teenage girl experience as I remembered it. My desire was to make a film that was a little more realistic to what me and my friends experienced. I love The Breakfast Club, but I felt a lot of those films were a little sanitized.
Filmmaker: Whenever somebody makes a movie about adolescence — especially an unsparing one — there’s a tendency to presume it’s autobiographical.
Skoog: Well, I witnessed most of the events in Whatever as they happened to friends or acquaintances or myself at the time. But all the characters are composites. It depicts the tone and texture of my adolescence, but I had a much more stable environment than the kids in the film. I related to a lot of what they were experiencing; I was very rebellious, dying to get out of the town I grew up in and out into the world, and so on. I guess I always felt like there’s shades of gray in every option. Sometimes you want relationships to work out, and even if they kind of do, it’s not the way you thought. I’m interested in natural realism, my observation of the world as it is, not necessarily how we want it to be as a story, even if that’s what interests me as a filmmaker.
The script was pulled from watching relationships between adults, romances that were not so cut-and-dry or so clear-cut. When you’re young you just don’t really understand a lot of what’s happening – you just kind of muddle your way through. Afterwards you say, “Of course that was a bad relationship!,” but at the time it’s all you’ve got.
Filmmaker: Did you workshop the script? Or was it shot as written?
Skoog: While the script got a good response from people, it wasn’t quite right. It needed work. So I worked on it for a couple years, and I kept developing it. At the time I was working and I had moved from New York to L.A. I was doing the same kind of freelancing and producing, and I would do these big shows and get a big paycheck. I was kind of doing that for a couple years and saving up a bunch of money. I didn’t know what I was doing in terms of screenwriting, at the time; I was stabbing in the dark. I did not workshop it at all. I did one reading with my friend who became one of the producers. We did a reading in her backyard with a bunch of actors and recorded the audio. To this day it was the worst two hours of my life. I was like, “I am never doing this again!” But I was new to the process.
Filmmaker: Why was it so agonizing, though?
Skoog: The beats were wrong. The actors were fine but they just didn’t connect with the moment-by-moment, the impressions and reactions that were so critical in my mind to how the film was going to play. So much of it is about the subtext, about what’s not being said, the feelings. And when you’re doing a reading, people are just looking at words on the page, missing those beats. So I had to make sure the script had those details, that subtext, to make sure it was written into the script, so it was helpful but it was like, “Aieee, this is not what I wanted.” I had to make sure it was clearer, the moments in between and the subtext, whereas when I shot it I could manipulate it, get what I wanted out of it.
Filmmaker: Was it hard to explain that to people? There’s one layer, which is the dialogue, then there’s another, which is what it actually means to Anna, or to Brenda [played by Chad Morgan]. The drama comes from things being pent-up.
Skoog: Well, everyone else thought the reading was great. I just thought it was awful. Like I said, it didn’t capture that moment-by-moment, so I went back to infuse the script with beats that would be apparent to the reader. Some people really responded to it, but when we started working with casting director Adrienne Stern, she said a lot of young actresses were really responding to it when they came into audition. They really came into it as actors.
I had done an interview with John Landis, who was very helpful to me and he’d talk with me, meet with me, kind of like a mentor. I had sent him the script when I was about to start, “I’m gonna go make this!” He calls me up and he goes, “I read your script. Do not make this movie. You’re gonna go nowhere with this movie. It’s really good but do not make this movie.” I said, “Really?” He said “Really.” But then he added, “But my wife loves the script, so you should make it.” He was really sweet and supportive. He’s somebody who was obviously very accomplished, weighing in with the idea nobody knows anything and his wife said make it. So you never know. You have to kind of follow your heart and your gut about what kind of work you want to make. I was very fortunate. Lightning just kind of struck, and we just wanted it to be a movie that connected with people. And we sold it, we went to Sundance, we had the whole thing.
Filmmaker: But why did he tell you that?
Skoog: It was too small, it wasn’t like The Breakfast Club or whatever movies were at the time, that had this kind of clear, high-concept hook. I think he meant it commercially. Career-wise, he considered it a really bad idea. And he was right! I just got really lucky that the movie gods shone down on me.
Filmmaker: Couldn’t the argument be made that a movie about real life without a “hook” is a good thing?
Skoog: I mean, we’re talking about the guy who made Animal House. He’s a big Hollywood director. He’s wonderful, but he does a different thing. For myself I was trying to imitate Eric Rohmer. And Slacker was another huge influence; I thought Linklater was just brilliant. Following everyday people with nothing exciting going on and exploring who they are, I thought that was just fascinating. I had interviewed him for VH1 and he was so sweet, so handsome. I was like, “I want to be just like you!” It’s kind of what triggered me moving from New York to L.A. and exploring the idea of making a low budget indie film.
Filmmaker: Rohmer had a process of writing the script, casting it, doing a table read, recording the audio and rewriting the script from that.
Skoog: Really? I didn’t know that. But what I loved, always, was the weird, unspoken awkwardness of his movies, which I try to infuse in everything I do.
Filmmaker: Were there moments in the shoot when you realize, “Maybe this doesn’t sound natural,” or maybe something didn’t jibe with the actors?
Skoog: I’ve been shooting short films over the past few years, just because that’s where my life is now, and I’m not married to shifting things or moving things around. The script is just the foundation, right? I Sometimes when you’re shooting it’s like, “We don’t need to say all of that. Let’s cut it!” I’m definitely open to changing stuff on-set if it’s not feeling right or it’s too awkward. When we did Whatever it was just cast really well and everybody just kind of was there. It didn’t change much at all from the shooting script.
Filmmaker: Obviously the film works because of Liza Weil’s performance.
Skoog: The people that auditioned for Whatever, a lot of them are women who are very well-known now, and men too. It was an exciting time. I was insecure about the script, and actresses came in, but many of them seemed to really respond to the material. We had a lot of great options, and then Liza came in and that was it. It was instant. We really connected, we were very close. And then Chad, who plays Brenda, she came out of LA, Liza was out of New York, Chad was very different from the person I envisioned in my head but she was so natural, had so many levels, was such an interesting presence. Both of them were amazing to me.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the Industry. You’re teaching film students today. Are they still chasing the idea of the “calling card” short film, the feature screenplay that opens up Hollywood, the huge festival premiere? It sounds like you lived the earlier version of that success story. Does it even exist in 2018?
Skoog: I had some money saved, I borrowed a ton of credit cards to get the movie going, and in those days you could do that. The industry is so different now that I think a lot of my colleagues and professors, we’re teaching the students that yes, equipment is cheaper, easier, but that just means storytelling is key. Working backwards on storytelling is what we push — making, doing, collaborating. Getting work online is a really good way to get stuff seen, but the business model for a web series or any of that is still all the way up in the air. Who’s putting money into these series? All the students want to make a feature, but it’s so much harder to get it seen. And the festival circuit has changed too. Back when I went to Sundance, you could actually send something in cold and reasonably get in! Ok, so it was still a lottery, you still had to know people, but we were thrilled to go, and nowadays I’m not sure anything gets shown at Sundance without a lot of connections. There’s a different access now, and while that has created a ton more work, the top-level festivals are more demanding. I do some festival work, appear on some panels, and the volume of material is just totally overwhelming. So I feel for film festival programmers, I really do.
I’ve been making work for years and I’m still having a hard time. Yes, the technology has democratized filmmaking, now everybody with a phone or an inexpensive camera can make some decent work. That means there’s so much more stuff out there. When we shot Whatever in Pittsburgh, just finding a lab that could process our super-16 was incredibly expensive.
Filmmaker: Tell me about your life post-Whatever.
Skoog: I got an agent. I was in Hollywood being pitched as a writer-director. I got a lot of scripts where I was being asked to spend a year rewriting something. I did a lot of writing for Hollywood for years, trying to get stuff made, and it was just a very, very frustrating process. I was making a living, I did well. It was nice not to be broke after so many years making Whatever. But after a while I found the whole process very frustrating. Not being able to get anything made was too much so I just stopped, had kids and started teaching. I’ve been teaching for ten years now. And I’ve made a whole bunch of nonfiction TV, and in the last few years I’m back to a collection of narrative short films. I shoot in the summers when I’m off from school. I am trying to develop one into a feature film, and I’ve had projects that got close but ultimately didn’t go. But I’m not that ambitious! I’m happy to be with my kids and go for a walk [laughs]. I love filmmaking. I don’t love writing as much. And when it works it’s just exhilarating. But I found it so hard to keep doing and keep not getting anything made. I just feel like I wasn’t cut out for that.
Filmmaker: Was the film shocking when it got released? To your parents?
Skoog: I know we had some trouble with the MPAA. We had to shave a lot of scenes to get past that because they had problems with the teenage sex scenes. I don’t know if it was shocking. I didn’t think it was shocking. I know a bunch of students and cast and crew will be there Saturday, people who were very bonded in making the movie, who all went to Sundance together, so it’ll be a reunion. I’m also bringing my teenage daughters, who have never seen it! [laughs]
Filmmaker: How old are they?
Skoog: One is 17 and the other is 14. I also have an 11 year old who’s not coming. But my daughter’s the same age of Liza’s character in the film. People were saying Whatever was a realistic depiction of teenage girls, which wasn’t huge at the time; depictions of boys were big at the time, like Porky’s. I also liked the Sichel sisters’ All Over Me — another film from the same time that was about female sexuality, that was really rough and textured and realistic, not so nice. Remember, this was the era of Kids.
Filmmaker: I feel like with the typical teen movie (or TV show), the cast is in their mid-twenties, and it’s kind of an invisible layer to protect the audience.
Skoog: Don’t get me wrong. Those films are wonderful, they have their place, they’re different from what I was trying to do. I don’t want to slag John Hughes movies at all. But it’s just a different vibe.