By Melissa Lopata
Hip Slope Mama spoke to Park Slope Filmmaker and mother of two, Sarah Schenck about her first feature film, "Slippery Slope" which just came out on DVD in August 2008. You can purchase it on Amazon or rent it on Netflix.
The film is a sexy, screwball comedy about the collision of porn and feminism. In it, the main character, Gillian, is trying to find immediate funding to get her anti-porn, feminist documentary into the Cannes Film Festival. Ironically, it seems the only instant money making solution that presents itself is an opportunity to direct a porn movie. However, this isn't just any porn flick. She's been asked to write and direct a series of high class literary adaptations to capture the “horny intellectual audience”. In order to make the films more acceptable to this crowd, Shakespeare's "Tempest" becomes "The Temptress" and Dickens' "Hard Times" becomes "Really Hard Times." She begrudgingly accepts the offer in order to save her lifelong dream, all the while keeping the job a secret from her husband and trying to reconcile her intensely conflicted principles.
As a writer/director/producer, her short films have won prizes in the U.K. and Belgium. In 2004, Sarah was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for producing the movie “Virgin”, starring Robin Wright Penn and Elisabeth Moss.
HSM: In your prior life, before becoming a filmmaker, you had some pretty diverse experiences. Can you tell us a little bit about them and how they influenced you as a person?
Sarah Schenck: It is true that I’ve done a lot of off beat things. For instance, I was called a hair model, but I was really a product testing guinea pig for Procter and Gamble in Paris. I also worked as a maid in Paris so that I could study at the Alliance Francaise. I worked for Mother Theresa in Calcutta. I got a fellowship from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and gave lectures there on 15th and 16th century Flemish painting. I worked for The New York Times in Rio, Brazil researching a story on the sex industry. I served for six years as the New York City Comptroller’s Senior Advisor for Education after working on public education policy for the 1992 Clinton/Gore presidential campaign. I worked for my Senator Arlen Specter on African aid issues; then worked for the United Nations Mineral Resource and Development Commission. I also volunteered with the Special Olympics and taught skiing and ice skating, later on worked as a tutor with the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club, and did lots of precinct-walking for Democratic candidates.
I grew up in a very small rural town in Pennsylvania. It was a beautiful part of the country, very agricultural economy, although there was also a big university there. But I really always wanted to go; I wanted to be somewhere else, work somewhere else. And explore what I, even in my little town, understood to be a really big & exciting world out there. I think the first time I started to do that was when I was an exchange student. I left home when I was 15 and went to live in South Africa for a year and that was during the era of high apartheid there. And it was a really shocking and informative experience, but very inspiring as well. It was incredible for me to see a society like that somehow manage to move into a multiracial democracy and to see Nelson Mandela out and free and leading his people was a truly inspiring experience for me.
I worked both as a volunteer, as well as professionally for politics for a long time. I always thought I would run for office. It sounds a little corny, but I always thought I could do some small thing to make the world a better place and I still aspire to doing that. I feel I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways. Life is so hard sometimes, but I do feel like most of my basic needs are certainly taken care of so it feels like it is a responsibility, as well as a privilege to try to do something bigger with my life. Politics to me felt like that avenue.
HSM: After, such an incredible resume of varied experience, what made you want to become a filmmaker?
Sarah Schenck: Through a coincidence, one of the people who I worked with at the NYC Comptroller’s office was also kind of interested in film as a hobbie. We each started on our own paths as filmmakers.
I was consumed by the incredible excitement of making something from nothing. Telling stories is, for me, a really fundamental part of human experience. Film is an extremely enticing medium because it’s not just words, not just images, it’s also working with a costume designer, working with composers, etc. and, you know, it’s extremely hard and extremely hard to do well, but it’s also so exciting and so much fun.
HSM: In your movie “Slippery Slope”, the main character is a woman whose political thoughts are at odds with her impulses. Do you think that most women struggle with what feminism means to them?
Sarah Schenck: That’s an interesting question…. I don’t know. I think part of the reason I made the film is because I was interested in having a conversation and finding out. I’m curious to know if that’s an issue in women’s lives. There are a lot of parts of that character Gillian that are very much like me in my life, but there’s also a lot of parts about her and of the story that are very, very different from my life.
I understood an intellectual tension between my interest in pornography and in sexual images and representations and my political beliefs. When I say that, I mean that I do consider myself a feminist. I don’t want to be judged because of how I look or my particular perceived sexuality. But on the other hand, I think there are two very powerful forces and useful ways to understand life: sexuality, on the one hand, and gender roles and stereotypes, on the other hand. I don’t think I feel that tension in my own life. For me, those two things are all part of who I am and I don’t feel like they are at odds with each other. But I did find a lot of the rhetoric very interesting and sometimes off-putting about how women’s sexuality should be, because I don’t actually think whatever my personal preferences or interests are should be yours. I feel it is fine if you don’t like pornography (all pornography or any particular types of pornography). I feel like that’s absolutely your prerogative. For me there are some types of pornography that I do find very upsetting and degrading to women and contributing to the inequality of the sexes. But I wouldn’t say that is true for all pornography or even all pornography that does appear to have a real power dynamic at play because I think that power dynamic can sometimes be a real source of eroticism.
HSM: Your film chooses to present the subject of feminism and pornography in a satirical light. Did you find that this type of subject would be easier to broach by using comedy as a tool?
Sarah Schenck: I’ve always been interested in politics and art. For me, there is a real danger in coming across as dogmatic and taking a cast iron skillet and hitting someone over the head with my perspective because I actually really do have dearly held political beliefs.
I think that comedy is perhaps the most effective way to approach really sensitive subjects. Most people have strong feelings about politics, about the idea of feminism, about sexuality. So I felt like approaching those issues through a drama would be more off-putting and it’s not something I could even conceive of. I also feel that sometimes I’m a melancholy person, so in my own work as a writer and director right now I’m really exclusively interested in comedy because I want to laugh.
HSM: As a mother and as a feminist, what is the greater message you would like to relay in your film?
Sarah Schenck: “Love begets freedom and freedom begets love”. I hope the overall message of my film is about liberation and love. Freedom means different things to different people. For me, personally, marriage has been a really liberating experience. I feel freer and have more possibilities open to me as a partner in a really happy & supportive relationship. It’s also very hard. It’s hard to have a vibrant, thriving marriage. As far as I know, we all have difficult patches some of them heart wrenchingly difficult. In that sense, I hope the message of my film is one of keeping oneself open to new possibilities in life. Whether it is someone like the main character in my film, Gillian, who has preconceptions about what kind of sexual behavior or expression is good. She finds herself confounded by her response to certain types of pornography and ends up finding pornography is a way of reconnecting with her own sexuality. And then there are also the women on the porn set who have not been exposed to feminist thought and precepts and actually find those liberating in their own way.
Click above to watch the "Slippery Slope" trailor.
Melissa Lopata is the creator of Hip Slope Mama. She is a former Corporate VP for a Fortune 5 company, who became a stay-at-home mom. Melissa is thrilled that HSM has taken on a life of it's own as a unique community website for all the interesting, vibrant and creative women who live in the area. She uses this site as a gateway to set up dynamic local "Mothership Events" that enlighten and empower women. She is the mother of a 1 year old and lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn.