“*Welp* It’s official. After 5 years of pitch meetings, dashed dreams and some excitable close calls – I finally sat across from the right people, with the right script – we got the greenlight for me to direct my first feature film – and no one I love will have to sell a kidney to make it happen!”
That’s from Emily Skyle-Golden’s Facebook post from Jan. 15, after private equity investors signed on to her latest film-in-progress, Flip.
While this is the first full-length feature she’ll bring to the screen, Skyle-Golden has been making and promoting films for almost two decades now—and she’s been a storyteller of one sort or another for even longer. She started in television at age 9, hosting a show called Teen Talk in Colorado. She’s worked as a TV news reporter in Chicago and Los Angeles and a radio host here in Reno at the a.m. talk radio station KKOH. But there were times when she found journalism too constraining.
“I had been used to writing just snapshots of stories and never getting to explore much outside of a headline,” Skyle-Golden said in a phone interview last week. To branch out, she tried stand-up, performing with Second City, the Chicago group that’s launched the careers of generations of comedy giants. (Jim Belushi and Tina Fey are just two names on the star-studded alumni list.) “I learned that it was kind of fun to take real stories and get inspired and kind of go crazy with them,” Skyle-Golden said of her time with Second City. “And it started me as a writer outside of the world of journalism.”
Within a few years, Skyle-Golden was a seasoned scriptwriter. But she still wasn’t calling her own shots. It was commonplace to write and sell a script, then see producers stray so far from her original idea that she barely recognized the finished film. Once, she sold a story about women in their 40s doing things like starting a business and leaving a husband, “coming to terms and getting fierce.” The final product? “It’s a 16-year-old’s story now, with nudity for no reason,” she said.
“I just kind of got tired with that,” Skyle-Golden added. Ever since, her goal has been to direct the films she writes, so they stay true to her vision. In 2005, she wrote a script about an overweight video gamer who was down on his luck. “I had a whole bunch of fun, quirky characters that you never see in actual Hollywood films,” she said, among them “a non-six-pack-having romantic lead,” a British doorman who longs to be a comic magician, and a chicken mascot who’d rather be a pole dancer. “I just didn’t want someone to ruin it,” she said. “So I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m going to direct my own baby.’”
She moved to Reno in 2009 to work for a home shopping channel, and in 2011, she and some collaborators began hosting a monthly film night featuring shorts from the festival circuit. That event grew into the Cordillera International Film Festival, an annual, four-day event held in Reno and Sparks that now boasts 140+ films from 60+ countries, 11,000 audience members, and an agreement with Artown do the July film programming at Wingfield Park.
In 2016, Skyle-Golden started shooting the story with the video gamer, the doorman and the chicken. She figured it’d be an easy job.
“I have to be honest—I’m very Pollyanna,” she said, sounding the part, even over the phone. (In person, she exudes a reassuring effervescence, as if your favorite aunty was also a warm-hearted movie star with glamorous locks, and the kind of room-filling optimism that it takes to get any big creative project accomplished.)
Filming the gamer’s story did not turn out to be an easy job.
“I had to shut up city streets,” Skyle-Golden recounted. “I needed an airline to donate an airplane to me because I only had a $5,000 budget, and filming in a plane is upwards of 70 to 100 thousand dollars.” The cast and crew numbered more than 300 people, including two dozen or so children from the Future Filmmakers Foundation, a program Skyle-Golden founded that pairs kids from the Boys & Girls Club with professional filmmakers to make their own short productions.
She released the film, a 20-minute comedy/drama titled Dear George, in 2017. Before it garnered a list of nominations and awards at the Oregon Short Film Festival and appeared in the Cannes Short Film Corner, Dear George won an award for excellence at Boulder City’s Dam Short Film Festival. “It was my very first festival, and we won,” Skyle-Golden said. That was the moment she knew her film career had launched.
Her next, film, 10 Syllables, a 16-minute docudrama about a rape survivor who refuses to keep silent, came out in 2019, after the #MeToo movement reached a groundswell. According to the film’s website, “Every sound bite in the film has been pulled – verbatim – from actual sexual assault cases.” This film earned even more acclaim than Dear George. It was one of only seven short narrative films at the American Pavilion in Cannes and got press attention around the U.S. and in Australia.
“A wicked case of impostor syndrome”
On the heels of what by now amounts to at least two decades of momentum and demonstrable success, Skyle-Golden included a personal note in her January Facebook announcement: “Do I already have a wicked case of Imposter [Syndrome] kicking in? 100%.”
She can easily rattle off a list of moments where she’s had to think fast and perform under pressure—red-carpet appearances, negotiating with Homeland Security to film the airport scene, winning a prestigious pitch competition. Yet the impostor syndrome, the nagging feeling that you’re not as competent as other think you are, still lurks.
“… I sit there and I’m like, ‘They’re going to realize that they were wrong’ or … ‘you know, the other filmmakers are going to watch my film and be like, ‘How did she get here?’ … It’s weird, because I’ve had measured success with several different careers that I’ve dived into. And every time I start a project, I’m like, ‘All right, well … we’re going to fake it till you make it.’”
Behavioral scientists say impostor syndrome is common. Around 70 percent of us are likely to be nodding in recognition. Nobel Prize winners, high-level executives, and actors including Meryl Streep and Lupita Nyong’o have fessed up to it. So have some prominent locals.
“It was unbelievable,” Skyle-Golden said. “Private messages saying, ‘Girl, I feel the same.’ And one of them is a very successful politician. Another one is a CEO of a construction company. These are women that are incredible. And it blew my mind to think, ‘Oh my gosh, she felt that?’ She is so put together.”
“I don’t know that I’ll ever get over it, but I think it’s empowering to know that it’s a feeling I’m going to have,” she added.
One thing Skyle-Golden learned from Dear George’s 12-year journey from script to screen is that bringing a film to fruition can be a long, painstaking process. Flip is already moving much faster.
The pandemic has presented some challenges though. Skyle-Golden had to shelve a comedy called Working Stiffs, which was slated to start shooting soon, because it required 1,000 extras in a Comic-Con-type environment—too many to pack into one place during a pandemic. For that film, she’d been considering Fred Willard—the octogenarian actor whose hundreds of credits include Anchorman and Space Force—for a lead role, but he passed away in 2020.
“I have no idea when that’ll ever get to get made now,” she said.
With Flip, the cast will be unusually small for a feature-length film—but some characters are in their 70s and 80s. If filming starts during the pandemic, there will be health precautions to follow.
The industry’s COVID protocols include testing on the set and replacing the craft services table with individually packaged meals. “COVID right now adds an average of 20 to 25% of your filming budget,” Skyle-Golden said.
She’d been hoping to start filming Flip in October, but the dates aren’t set in stone. One scene takes place at the World Cup, and it has to be filmed at the real Word Cup, which, for 2021, has been canceled.
Skyle-Golden noted that usually, at this point in a film’s development, she’d be able to spill some substantial details. In this case, though, she’s obligated to keep them under wraps. “The film is about a topic—and in a world—that has never been featured in a narrative film, which is why we’re having to be so protective,” she said. This way, she explained, “No one could … swoop in and write it faster or produce it bigger and get it done before we do. … There’s only been a seven-second scene even implying that it exists, in a film called Training Day with Denzel Washington.”
She can say, however, where she learned about the topic. It was at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, where she teaches theater in non-pandemic times on behalf of Marin Shakespeare Company.
“I work with a social justice program that brings art into prisons with a mindset that eventually these men are going to be your neighbors, are going to be my neighbor,” she explained. “And so we should be making sure they have humanity, you know, they’re treated like humans. Over the years, we’ve forged relationships, teaching Shakespeare and improv exercises. One of the gentlemen, unfortunately, has kidney failure. So, he’s not doing very well.” The man shared a story from his childhood, and it evolved into a different story that eventually became Flip.
Here’s another detail Skyle-Golden can release: David Rubinstein, a Hollywood entertainment attorney who worked on the film 1917, is Flip’s executive producer.
And here’s one more: While Skyle-Golden has long been a champion of Nevada’s film industry, Flip won’t be filmed on her home turf. The story is set in Compton and Vacaville, and she plans to stay true to place, filming mostly in California. She said she’s sad about not being able to film in-state, and that she plans to bring along as many Nevada crew members as possible.
For Skyle-Golden, the best thing about making Flip is that she’ll get to maintain creative control from start to finish, exactly the goal she set for herself back when her 40-year-old protagonist became a naked teenager at the hands of another producer.
“The hardest thing is getting investors and studios to believe in you, at that kind of financial commitment, to be a director. So that’s the most exciting part of all of it,” she said. “Not only did I get to write the script, but instead of selling it and having someone else take its vision, I get to be part of it from the beginning and all the way through the end.”
In the Facebook post announcing that Flip is a go, Skyle-Golden elaborated, “It’s going to be a long journey filled with challenges, setbacks and dumpster fires – and I couldn’t be more excited to tackle them all.”
All photos courtesy of Emily Skyle-Golden. To learn more about Flip, including audition and crew opportunities, visit the film’s website.
This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.