Greenland’s Skylar Burke stands up to bullies with her new short film, “Frenemy”
By Larry Clow, photos by Alyssa Grenning
It’s a Friday morning at Portsmouth Middle School, and 12-year-old Skylar Burke of Greenland is frustrated. Not because of homework, or friends, or drama at home, but because she’s filming one of the climactic scenes in her new short film, “Frenemy,” and it’s taking a bit longer than she, and everyone else, expected.
Skylar is the movie’s writer, director, and star (her mother, Tricia Burke, is a producer), and the film is based on her own experiences with bullying. In production since last summer, the “Frenemy” team completed a marathon two days of shooting at the middle school at the end of February, turning the gym and cafeteria into a bustling film set while students were on break.
“It’s a little chaotic, but it’s really fun,” Skylar said. “I didn’t think it would happen. I wrote the script in a dance studio while my mom was working.”
“Frenemy” follows Ariana, played by Skylar, as she faces bullying and harassment at school from a group of kids led by her former friend, Evelyn. In the scene being filmed in the gym, Ariana is at a school dance, clinging to the wall and watching the rest of the kids having fun. Kyle, Evelyn’s boyfriend, comes over and offers Ariana a cup of punch and tries to make small talk, but Ariana’s nervous. And, soon enough, Evelyn stomps over and yanks Kyle back on to the dance floor. The crowd laughs and Ariana, dejected and angry, flings the punch to the floor.
It takes about six takes to get the scene right, and that’s not counting all the false starts — getting the extras into position, making sure all the punch from previous takes has been wiped off the floor, and so on. While director of photography Jonathon Millman gets the camera ready, assistant director Mike Ficara makes sure everyone is where they need to be.
The film crew has the gym only for a few more hours, and everyone is feeling rushed. It’s a difficult scene, and it’s clear that Skylar is frustrated. Tricia is standing nearby; between takes, she comes over and takes a selfie with Skylar. After another take that isn’t quite right, Skylar walks over and falls into her mother’s arms.
But, a few minutes later, she’s back to the wall and ready for another take. Ficara ducks out into the hallway, and Skylar takes over. She looks around the room, sees that everyone is ready, and, suddenly, she’s not a bullied girl huddled against a gym wall; she’s the person in charge. Skylar stands up straight, shouts “Action!” and the production springs to life.
“It’s hard. She’s 12 years old and wants to do this big thing, but it’s like, how do I tell adults what to do? She’s learning how to step up,” Tricia said. “She’s getting to a point where she’s taking control and doing what she wants.”
“It’s my way of standing up to the bullies.”
— Skylar Burke
What Skylar wants is to help other kids like her who’ve been bullied. “I’ve been writing ever since I could write. Writing is my way of coping with things,” she said. “Frenemy,” she hopes, will let other kids who have been or are being bullied know that they’re not alone, and that there is help. It will also let bullies know how deeply their words and actions impact their victims.
“The script is a lot worse than what happened to me. But what did happen to me really did (have an effect on me),” she said. Skylar’s bullying coincided with her burgeoning acting career. Her first role was as Tiny Tim/Skylar in a production of “A Christmas Carol” at The Players’ Ring three years ago. A few months after that, she landed an agent in New York, and a few months after that, picked up her first major role as Young Ila in Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah.” She spent a summer in Iceland and New York filming with Russell Crowe and Emma Watson, and then returned home. While the acting world was kind to Skyler, her classmates at school were not.
Watching her daughter’s acting career suddenly blossom has been “surreal,” Tricia said, but also rewarding.
“It’s just amazing, seeing her be nervous about stepping up and telling everyone what to do, and then finding her voice,” she said.
For now, Skylar is taking a break from the New York acting world and focusing on “Frenemy.” The film’s major scenes have been shot; now, she’s waiting for the snow to melt so the crew can shoot outdoor scenes. Throughout the production, she’s worked closely with Millman and Ficara on setting up shots, figuring out camera angles, managing time, and all of the other details, big and small, that come with directing. Mostly, she’s excited to see her script come to life.
“It’s my way of standing up to the bullies,” she said. “Being on set, and seeing it on screen, is a great, great accomplishment.”
You can follow “Frenemy” online at facebook.com/frenemythefilm.