Director Kari Skogland Advice on Film Industry Careers
Women in Film
"Television is a great place to learn the ropes because it is a very schedule-driven fast and furious environment; yet, you are expected to be creative," defines Kari Skogland on how she learned her trade. Her energy resonates as we talk about her pro-gun control movie Liberty Stands Still, her career, and women in film.
"Now, there is some spectacular television. It is a creative medium. Unfortunately for women, it's a very misogynistic world here in the states." As a successful writer and director of both television and film, Skogland doesn't acknowledge the male-driven obstacles women face in the industry. "If you do, you are defeated."
Originally from Canada, where the industry expects professionals to do multi-medium, Skogland feels fortunate to have started there. "While I was in Canada, I was able to bounce back and forth between TV and feature. Here in the States, I'm more featured-orientated. I do an occasional pilot. I love to do that."
Gun Control Message
Liberty Stands Still, released in 2002, is Skogland’s first film where she both wrote and directed. The movie was a budget challenge, and she created a unique way of telling a story about gun control and violence starring Linda Fiorentino, Wesley Snipes, and Oliver Platt.
The idea of the movie came from the Columbine shooting. “I felt that we, as a society, had not really discussed or debated the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of it. I think we’re at a point in our society where we need to debate the role of guns,” explains Skogland.
Skogland commented on the issue of guns in general. "Why do we need them as a cultural statement? Aren't we simply arming ourselves against each other? The second amendment arguments are spoon-fed by the multi-million dollar industries that skew the spirit and intent of it."
She spoke of another incident, the sniper shootings in Washington (October 2002). "I thought the Washington sniper and pervasive feeling of movies like Bowling for Columbine and mine were starting to bubble and percolate the issue."
She feels the need for discussion died off but comes back. "People seem to squash this issue or seem to be unable to cope with it."
Financing the Movie
Financing for the controversial film came from the cast because they wanted to do the movie. Skogland feels fortunate she worked with such a stellar cast. Linda Fiorentino, Wesley Snipes, and Oliver Platt made it clear that they helped financially. “To Lions Gate credit, they did not try and temper the issue of gun control at all. I had no idea that John Feltheimer, who runs Lionsgate (at the time of the interview), is very much a gun control advocate. It was just one of those happy coincidences of fate.”
Working with Wesley Snipes
She cast Snipes in the lead role, knowing it was against type. “Wesley is a very fine actor who comes from Broadway. I knew he would be attracted to the role because of the challenges. I like the idea of him traditionally being in the action role. I wanted to surprise the audience a little with him and where we were going with the character. I hoodwink the audience into thinking it looks a little like an action movie and starts to turn where violence is very real and very graphic.”
Violence in Film
Is there too much violence in film?
Guns in Movies
Skogland's driving point in the movie is, "if you are going to show what guns can do, then you better back it up and be ready to show it. I wanted the audience to be stunned. Each time someone got shot, I wanted the audience to realize that 'Shit man.'"
She thought it out carefully with herself on showing that guns kill. "When someone shoots a person in Compton -- just takes him or her out, that's it. It's cold, and it's not even calculated. It's horrific. I felt that for me to soften it would be a disservice."
She wrote the character in a risky situation, so the audience feels torn about Snipe's character committing an immoral act. "Yet we somewhat understand his position. On the other hand, we hate him for it, and on the other hand, we understand it. I really wanted the audience to be as conflicted as these characters were," added Skogland.
Flaw in the Characters
The casting of Linda Fiorentino brought credibility to the story. According to Skogland, "Someone who you didn't know if she was going to love you or kill you and to have the power that made you believe she was saying who she was."
Skogland wanted a fatal flaw with all the characters, "Where they had made some choices that may have seemed very legitimate at the time, but were ethically unsound in varying forms."
She offers an example of when Wesley's character arrives at the moment with the death of his daughter. "His world is shattered, and he is forced to reckon with what his life looks like. He decides to take action. It's misguided action; there's no question about that."
The misguided action is a two-edged sword where we feel is his pain though we disagree with him. At the same time, we think the same about Linda's character. Skogland adds, "She is numb to what she is really doing as we all can be in life because it is more convenient that way. We discover how she has become this person, and Wesley's character has to change her mind."
Oliver Platt plays Liberty’s (Fiorentino) husband, a gun manufacturer. Skogland didn’t want him to be an arch-villain, but more like an everyman. “You liked him. You felt for him even though you realize this man is not thinking about what he is doing on a global scale. He is not taking responsibility for his community.”
Oliver’s character sees himself as selling widgets, and he is successful at it, which hits the heartstring of the overall story.
"Statue of Liberty"
Even though Liberty is at odds with only men, Skogland didn’t plan it that way. “It just happened. Now that you brought it up. There is a sense of her name, Liberty, the nature of her. She is definitely a metaphor for the Statue of Liberty -- what we have come to understand as being liberty and freedom.“
Skogland analogously refers to the woman who started Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to Liberty’s situation. “One woman stood up and said people are getting killed. Cut to twenty years later, and we now have a complete social and ethical position on drinking and driving.”
She believes the same thing will happen in the movement about guns. “I think women are going to have a strong voice with that kind of sentiment because, traditionally, little boys play with guns. For whatever reason, there is an aggressive factor in boys and girls are nurturers.”
No Hero or Heroine
Liberty Stands Still has no true hero, which breaks the traditional way to make a movie and tell a story. "I wanted to break some of the traditional screenwriting rules in this case and make the story more of a collective story because this is really a morality play. A collective story about how people spiral downward together. There wasn't a true hero because all the characters were at odds with them themselves," explains Skogland.
The ending of the movie is open-ended. The viewer is allowed to make a moral choice. "That is the metaphor for each one of us. When we walk away, we have a choice. Every one of us has a choice. It only takes one person to start an avalanche of change. Are we going to do something, or are we going to keep hiding behind the second amendment as if it says what the gun manufacturers claim what it says?" questions Skogland.
Directing a movie from her material for the first time and seeing her name for the first time as the writer and director was heartening. "I was able to play the two roles without getting them tangled into each other."
As a director, rewriting or tweaking a script is nothing new to her: "I had obviously directed all my own material, unsung. Where my name is not on the writing credits, but obviously, I had re-written a script or dealt with a scene."
"Fifty Dead Men Walking"
Taking another stab at violence, she wrote and directed in 2008 Fifty Dead Men Walking based on the book of the same title, by Martin McGartland, who grew up in Belfast and witnessed I.R.A. brutal injustices.
The story is about a 17-year-old young man (McGartland) hired by the Secret Services to infiltrate the I.R.A.
The movie stars Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess. McGartland, played by Sturgess, joins the I.R.A. and gives information to British Special Agent Fergus, played by Kingsley.
The movie won several awards, including the Directors Guild of Canada Direction of feature film nod to Skogland.
Fifty Dead Men Walking
Writing v Directing
Writing and directing is a powerful experience, says Skogland, “I didn’t find myself so invested in the words that I felt defensive if they needed to be changed. By the same token, playing the writer versus the director, whereas a writer you know a scene isn’t going to work unless I do this because the director needs to do that.”
Describing how she writes, “I actually write, when I’m sitting in my room alone, I am definitely in my head both blocking and casting as I write.”
She admits she directed a lot of mediocre writing. She can see in her head what will work and what will not work. “I know that by virtue of experience, this is something that is going to work, or it just is not going to work. I have to change the writing and change the situation to make it more interesting. As a writer, it has helped very much to spend as much time as I have to be a director.”
Being a minority, a woman, in the movie business is something that Skogland doesn’t acknowledge. “If it is hard, you can’t acknowledge it. As a female, you hit a glass ceiling. You haven’t a clue you’ve hit it because it’s all behind closed doors. I have certainly felt it. But, I have never acknowledged it. I am not about to. I feel like the second. I admit that to be happening. I am facing defeat.”
Women v Men
She feels she might sound a little bit Pollyannaish. She offers some sound advice for anyone who wants to make it in the business. “I come from a place where it’s really like saying: I could be too short. I could not know the right people. I could be too fat. I could not have blue eyes. It is always something, and you might as well ignore all of it and keep motoring forward. Not letting it get in your way.”
She feels women are starting to make their mark. “The trick is that you really have to know your stuff. For all the women out there, you can’t let an inch slide. You have to be really on top of the business side. We all have to be multi-tasked in this particular arena. Fortunately, women are good at it. There should be no reason why we can’t be right up there.”
At the time of this interview, Skogland had a five-year-old. “So, believe me, I know the whole multi-tasking thing. I write for an hour, and then I have to cope with my daughter for another.”
© 2014 Kenna McHugh