Friday, February 26, 2010


Sarah Schenck--writer/director, Bryn Mawr College alumna, and Hepburn Center Fellow--came down from New York to introduce and discuss her 2006 comedy Slippery Slope at Bryn Mawr Film Institute on Wednesday, February 24. Check out some highlights from the Q&A below.

In Slippery Slope, when an ardent young feminist needs cash to get her documentary "Feminism for Dummies" to Cannes, she takes a job directing an adult film... bringing her ideals to the set and awakening her own sexuality. The experience changes her professionally and personally in unexpected ways, jeopardizing her relationship with her politically-correct husband. The sexy screwball comedy gets big laughs, but also raises some serious issues about the uses and types of sexual imagery on film and the state of women's liberation. Slippery Slope premiered at the Montreal International Film Festival with three sold-out screenings and was honored with Best Film at the L.A. Broad Humor Festival.

You’ve done a lot of different kinds of jobs. How did you become a filmmaker?
I love film. I’ve always loved seeing movies.
While I was working at the City Comptroller’s office in New York doing education policy, I was at a party with a bunch of Columbia University film students and one had lost his art director. He knew I knew how to paint so he asked me to create a prison rec room set. I did, working nights and weekends, and took the opportunity to hang around the set while shooting. Watching him work with actors was transformative. Grad schools are a close knit community, and soon after I was asked to produce a short film. I’d run a political campaign, and producing a film is similar, there are a lot of transferable skills. Eventually I left my job at the Comptroller’s Office to become a full-time filmmaker.
I did other shorts as a director and writer and produced a feature just before Slippery Slope, Virgin, which got nominated for a bunch of Independent Spirit Awards. It helped that it had Robin Wright Penn in it. I knew that with Slippery Slope I needed to write scripts I could make on the money I could raise, with no stars.

Why did you make a comedy?
I love comedy, it’s an effective, direct way into the subconscious, a way to deal with sensitive and sore issues. Someone more articulate than myself said, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” And I agree with that—it's a challenging genre.

What would you do differently?
There’s an alternate ending [that BMFI’s audience got to enjoy, and which is also on the DVD], and I think maybe I chose the wrong one. Also, the sex scenes. I work with actors in a different way when nudity and sex are involved. Those scenes didn’t come out the way that I wanted; I wanted them to look more disorienting and a little less “soft-core”. I had story boards and had it all planned out, but other things took precedence and I wasn’t able to shoot those scenes the way I wanted to.

How long did it take you to write the script?
I wrote the script based on an idea I’d had for some time. Once I sat down to write it, it took about seven months or so, but I was also working on other things. Because I’d done some other scripts and produced a feature, I knew what I could do with the budget of a first-time filmmaker.

What was your budget and how long did it take to make Slippery Slope?
Slippery Slope had a $300,000 cash budget from eighteen private investors, as well as tremendous in-kind support, so it was about a $500,000 film, a much bigger budget than what I’d had to work on before. It took two years, including post-production and one day of re-shoots. We did 3-1/2 weeks of principal photography and then went to the cutting room, a pretty standard process.
For my current project, Primitive Streak, I didn’t feel up to fundraising again, so I am following an alternate model, using a smaller cast and shooting whenever time allows, then cutting and posting short episodes on line. Ultimately, we’ll re-cut and join the episodes to become a feature film.

What kind of distribution did the film get after its premiere at the Montreal International Film Festival?
It’s very difficult to get a theatrical release for a small independent film, so it’s a treat to get to see it on the big screen with you tonight. A distributor [Life Size Entertainment] did take us on, but not for a theatrical release. We sold to HBO Hungary, and some other markets. It’s a hard time for distributors, there are a lot of good films out there that never get released. The challenge with filmmaking is that it is such an expensive medium that if you’re not commercially successful, it’s hard to continue.

I loved Jim True-Frost on TV’s The Wire and it was so fun to see him in Slippery Slope. How was it working with your actors?
I think Jim True-Frost [who plays the protagonist’s very P.C. husband in Slippery Slope] is so wonderful to watch. There are people who really hate his character, so it’s interesting to see how the portrayal is received. His wife said to me that Slippery Slope is his favorite movie that he’s ever been in!
The hard thing about film, unlike painting, is that it’s a very expensive thing to do. Because we were able to pay SAG wages, we were able to get some wonderful actors. They were like racehorses, incredibly fine-tuned, and they brought great suggestions for the script and insight into their characters.

How did you go from working in Mother Theresa’s hospitals to being a filmmaker? How do those other experiences impact your thinking about your work?
It’s funny, I spoke earlier today at Bryn Mawr College about this. Every day I struggle with a sense of failure because there’s so much need [in the world]. I’ve taught kids to read and I know how to shingle a house, so wouldn't those activities be a better use of my time? But being a filmmaker is kind of like marriage. I think people get married when they feel like they have to be together; being an artist is the same kind of thing. You do it because you have to, because part of you can’t not. I love to communicate through film, and I also try to do little things to make the world a better place.

Sarah Schenck, a Bryn Mawr College alumna and Hepburn Center Fellow, made her feature directorial debut with Slippery Slope. She has written three other feature screenplays. In 2004, Sarah was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for producing Virgin, a $65,000 feature starring Robin Wright Penn and Elisabeth Moss. Her short films as writer/director/producer have won prizes in the U.K. and Belgium. She field produced the New York City segment of The College Track, a documentary about access to college for low-income students that aired nationwide in 2005 on PBS. Sarah has since made three documentaries for Project Renewal, New York City’s largest non-profit providing services to the homeless. She also makes half-hour documentaries on subjects relating to the food supply that air regularly on the Park Slope Food Coop’s cable television show. Sarah also recently began work as Video Producer and Director with Parent Earth, an internet start-up devoted to parenting, food, and environmental sustainability. She is currently raising funds for her next feature film, Primitive Streak.

Sarah received her B.A. in Art History from Bryn Mawr College and her M.A. in Political Economy from Stanford University. Before she became a filmmaker, Sarah served for six years as the New York City Comptroller’s Senior Advisor for Education Policy after working on public education policy for the 1992 Clinton/Gore presidential campaign. She has also worked for The New York Times in Rio de Janeiro researching a story on the sex industry; was a fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and lectured on fifteenth century Flemish painting; worked as a product testing guinea pig for Procter & Gamble in Paris; and cared for patients in Mother Theresa’s hospitals in Calcutta.