“It's so weird to be here now, because I really didn't think it would get this far.” Filmmaker Susan Skoog is sitting in her hotel suite, musing not on the swanky room afforded by her distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, but on the strangeness of actually being on a press tour for her first feature, the coming-of-age tale Whatever. Yet despite her wonder, and even considering the dismal ratio of indie films to willing distributors, talking to Skoog lends the idea that it might've been more surprising if she hadn't reached this point. Direct, intent, and possessed of a mind so busy it continually cuts off sentences to get to the next thought, Skoog gives off an air of competence and drive.
A native of Red Bank, New Jersey (“where Kevin Smith lives now”), Skoog studied theater and acting at NYU, but found she settled naturally into directing. “I feel like I know what I'm doing when I'm directing,” she says. “When I'm acting, I'm always flipping out.” After graduating, she wasted no time. A gig assisting Pat Benatar's manager led to a P.A. position at the then-new VH1, which itself quickly led to a producer's job. “VH1 was only a couple years old at that point,” she says, “and it was the kind of thing if you had, like, a heartbeat and half a brain, they let you produce a show. I was there probably three or four months and I got my first show.” Five years later, she was off to L.A. to freelance, making documentaries and specials (she received Cable ACE Award nominations for two of her TNT works), and having a short film accepted to Cannes.
Although Skoog's script for Whatever was optioned right after she finished it, it was dumped and dumped hard. “It was a really bad experience,” says Skoog, declining to name her would-be benefactor. “He didn't do anything with it and told me it was never going to get made. It was hard going through that, but it was good, because I was like, 'If I'm gonna make this I'm gonna have to do it myself.'” So she did: garnering more freelance pay by learning to edit on an Avid, collecting credit cards, hitting up family and friends for loans, and securing finishing funds from the D.C.-based Circle Films. When the completed film met with a marked lack of enthusiasm (“We got rejected from every festival imaginable”), Skoog went ahead and held her own distributor screening.
“I was editing in New York the day after the screening,” Skoog recalls, “and we had a really good screening, but we were pretty demoralized from not getting into film festivals. Then the next morning I'm in my edit room and I get this call from this William Morris agent at, like, 10:30. I'm like, 'How on earth did you find me?' From then on, that whole day, it was the most intense day of my life, it was like 'Miramax. Harvey has to see the movie . . .'
Not exactly the everyday story of the long-suffering film-school auteur, and Skoog does present a different picture of the indie filmmaker. With her self-professed work ethic and her self-taught skill, honed by years of steady work on projects for hire, the 33-year-old has a lot more practical experience under her belt than even some mainstream directors. And she presents a brisker, more businesslike front than her zealous peers, radiating the impression that she hoards her passions, meting them out carefully for her characters (Whatever features some great ones), or perhaps for the ardent letter she sent Chrissie Hynde in order to get clearance for a song.
If Skoog's no-nonsense approach sets her apart, it may also push her ahead of the pack when it comes to Hollywood, an idea with which she's reasonably comfortable. “I guess if it was something I like,” she offers, about taking on a studio project, “I'd be f -” But by then, she's off to the next thought.