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Susan Skoog
The Whatever Interview
 

Remember your high school years, in all their pain, angst and messy glory? Filmmaker Susan Skoog does, and she's ready to take you down memory lane. In her own words, her new film Whatever is "a realistic look at what it's like to be a teenage girl. I think it's an accurate portrayal of the female adolescent experience." The movie follows the adventures of aspiring artist Anna Stockard (the moody, winsome Liza Weil) as she makes plans to leave suburban New Jersey for the excitement of New York City and Cooper Union art school, but also wants to test her limits and experiment with sex and drugs. Watching Anna's coming of age, especially her self-destructive downward spiral and return to the living, brought on pangs of recognition from this viewer.

Whatever represents the fruits of Skoog's creative fascination with teenage rites of passage. "The idea came to me because I like adolescence, I think it's a really turbulent time and a really interesting time of your life, where you formulate yourself, in a way. You create the base of who you are for your adult life, almost as an adult, and it's that portal from childhood to adulthood where you're breaking free from your childhood."

The initial idea for the film came about while she was editing her award-winning short film, A Dry Heat. "The initial story that came out was the break-in, where they break into Brenda's family's home and rob them, because that's something I saw a number of times when I was in high school. People I knew were so angry and hated their families so much that they would rob them, or get their friends to rob them. I always thought that was kind of twisted, but yet a very interesting example of adolescent anger. That's where the story started, and it just kind of went on from there."

The script took about two years to write. "The first draft of the script had three main characters, and the main relationship was between Anna and a guy (laughs) ... I read the first draft and said, 'this is terrible, this is muddled, this won't work.' So I kind of made that character into Brenda - there was another Brenda character, but I had to merge these two characters and make Brenda. And then I wrote the second draft, which was kind of the base of what the story is now. I wrote it for two years of writing and rewriting and rewriting, and then going back to it. It's a long process which kind of evolves. It's funny - I have a computer with five more scripts of things these characters do and tangents they go off on. I've written so much with these characters doing everything on the planet."

The core relationship in the film is between Anna, an aspiring artist who wants to experience the bad life, and her party-happy best friend Brenda (played with sensitivity by Chad Morgan). "She's not a bad girl," notes Morgan, "she's just a little confused and lost, I think. Which is similar to Anna, I think, which is why they feed off each other, even though they're completely growing apart."

"They even each other out," adds Liza Weil, who plays Anna. "Each one has something the other doesn't, which is sort of a give-and-take. It gets a little unhealthy at the end. They just start growing apart from each other, which happens to everyone."

Whatever isn't a very plot-driven film. Skoog eschewed a traditional story in favour of an episodic structure, choosing instead to develop strong, believable characters going through the pratfalls of coming of age. The film's approach is further distanced from story-driven movies through its pacing. The film seems to take place in "adolescent time", accurately portraying the slow rate at which time passes in sleepy suburban towns when you're seventeen and you're aching to get out. "I wanted to try and make the audience feel like how you feel when you're in that age. Take you through that journey - that angst, and the emotional turmoil, and yet the excitement of, like, cutting school and go to NYC. I wanted you to feel that, that that was really thrilling, the idea of what life could be."

Unlike many recent films portraying the lot of an adolescecnt girl, like Girls Town and All Over Me, Whatever isn't driven by a particular political agenda. This doesn't mean that Skoog didn't have issues she wanted to work through and impart to the audience. "One of the main issues I wanted to deal with was this whole idea of girls and their self-esteem, which I think hasn't been dealt with in any real way in the movies. I think when things don't go well for boys they tend to blame their circumstances, and they blame the outside world, and they blame a person. Girls blame themselves, and they turn it inward, and they quit - and girls tend to quit much easier than boys. ... We all get over it and accomplish things and live our lives, it's not like this major handicap. I think it is a difference, I think that it's something that hasn't been dealt with well in film, and that was an issue that I really wanted to deal with."

Adds Weil, who makes her big-screen debut with her portrayal of Anna, " I liked the script when I saw it, because it was an accurate portrayal of what girls go through in high school that I saw, and I could relate to it because I had a rough high school life. I grew up in suburban Pennsylvania and aspired to get out of there, but fell into a whole self-sabotage thing, doing everything I could to stay there, and I felt like I messed up for a reason."

Shooting Whatever took place over nineteen days, the bulk of which transpired in Wheeling, West Virginia. Though the story took place in suburban New Jersey, the high tourist traffic made shooting in Skoog's home state unrealistic, and Wheeling was chosen as a cheat location on a suggestion by producer Michelle Yahn. Says Weil of the whirlwind shooting schedule, "It was really perfect for the kind of film we were making. We were all staying in this abandoned dormitory on a college campus. It was really cool because everyone stayed there, from the cast, the crew, Susan, the DPs. You'd get up in the morning and shower next to the script supervisor. It really allowed us to develop these friendships we wouldn't normally have made. It was also a great balance between getting work done and blowing off steam."

Much like Welcome To The Dollhouse in story, approach, and low budget, the audience for Whatever might also share some demographics with that landmark film, in that its portrayal of adolescence will probably appeal most to those who aren't in the thick of things. "I always thought it would be for my contemporaries, people in their thirties who went to high school in that time period. College age kids, kids in their twenties, are really responding to it. People who are out of high school -- obviously, we can't show it to high-school age kids, but my fiance teaches at NYU and we showed it to one of his classes of nineteen-year-olds, and they were all like, 'oh my god, this is my life.' They really liked it. Which is really great, that it seems to be touching many generations. I also think older people, people in their forties or fifties who have teenagers, are really responding. Some of them are upset by it, but I think it's a window into adolescence that helps them understand it a bit better."

In closing, what kind of advice would Skoog extend to young filmmakers, who are inspired to pick up a video camera and film their stories after seeing Whatever? "Make sure your script is really, really ready to go before you shoot. Once you shoot it, you've shot it, and you can't go back. Don't shoot until your script is really, really together. Listen to what people tell you about it. It's hard, because you can get criticisms and you can get input from people, but you have be careful where it's coming from. (On the other hand), if everyone is telling you the same thing, you should listen. If you're going to make an independent film, make something that needs to be made, and that has a place out there. I feel bad, because there are so many films out there that don't get distribution ... Make a film that you feel needs to be made. It's been almost four-and-a-half years with this, and I feellike you really have to love what you're doing."

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