INTERVIEW: "Getting to Know" the Skyler Sisters
by Emily Bobrow
Taking a break from their film's sold-out New York opening, the Skyler sisters sit back, breathe deeply and exclaim "Thank God for Mike [Maggiore] and Karen Cooper" of the Film Forum. As is the case with so many ambitious indies, a theatrical release for "Getting to Know You"-- the critically acclaimed feature debut for director Lisanne and co-writer (and featured actress) Tristine -- had been a long time coming. However, this Sundance 1999 competition entry is finally reaching its audience, thanks to ShadowCatcher, the Seattle-based production company that originally helped finance the film.
Based on three short stories from Joyce Carol Oates's "Heat," "Getting to Know You" examines different people grappling with the slow erosion of their American dreams. Set in a bus depot in upstate New York, the film centers on a developing friendship between two teenagers -- Judith (Heather Matarazzo of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" fame), who quietly mourns the demise of her family (Bebe Neuwirth and Mark Blum star as her fame-seeking, failure-soured parents), and Jimmy (Michael Weston), a shady but engaging peddler of tall tales. As they fritter away the day waiting for the buses to arrive, their passing conversations eventually chip away at their hardened facades, revealing painfully buried truths.
Before "Getting to Know You," Lisanne made her name in documentaries --"No Loans Today," a film about a Los Angeles pawn shop, premiered at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, and "Dreamland," an examination of chronic gambling that she directed while fundraising for this film, will be broadcasted on POV this August. As for Tristine, we can expect to see her on the big screen again this October in a little project by Joe Berliner called "Book of Shadows," the sequel to "The Blair Witch Project."
Tucked away in a quiet Film Forum office, Lisanne and Tristine talked to indieWIRE about the nuances of mixing family with filmmaking, the perils of marketing a "dark" film, and the significance of the color blue.
indieWIRE: What originally inspired you to make this film?
Lisanne: I had read Joyce Carol Oates's "Getting to Know All About You," the story that became the centerpiece of the film, and just loved the character Judith so much -- loved that she'd gone through an incredibly traumatic and difficult fallout with her family and yet was a survivor, wasn't a victim. So I took these three stories and showed them to my sister and was like "I think we can make a movie out of these."
Tristine: Lisanne's background was in documentary film and mine's as an actor so we got to kind of synthesize our energies and try to create something together.
iW: So that was what prompted you to move away from documentaries?
Lisanne: Definitely. Well, I was ready to make a feature -- I had made two documentaries, loved making films, and just really wanted to move more into narrative, more into telling stories.
Tristine: I always used to tell Lisanne, "I wish I could just portray someone in one of your documentaries." As Frederick Wiseman said, "When you watch documentaries, it captures the complexity and ambiguity of ordinary existence"-- as an actor, that's what you want to achieve.
Lisanne: We always wanted "Getting to Know You" to feel like a documentary. We always talked about the sound, like the cars going by, the stray sounds that you hear in a public space. We really conceived of it as a documentary because it was about watching people. So in terms of the storytelling, there was a kind of documentary aspect, a cathartic aspect, of people revealing themselves.
iW: Given that this film focuses on the strength of storytelling -- as a source of self-discovery and catharsis -- how has the power of the storyteller attracted you to becoming a filmmaker?
Lisanne: I think it's about a desire to make people feel something that you're feeling. When I would make documentaries, it's so much about trying to capture this ultimately elusive conflict or emotional memory from the people I was interviewing. I think you're a storyteller as a director, and it definitely comes from trying to bring people into the dark and make them feel something that you're feeling as a person and as an individual.
iW: What kind of relationship did you have with Joyce Carol Oates for this film?
Tristine: Just after her first documentary feature ["No Loans Today"], Lisanne just wrote a really earnest letter to Oates saying, "I love your writing and I would love to try to adapt this into a film with my sister." Oates wrote Lisanne back, and I'll never forget when you called me and said, "She said yes."
Lisanne: And then of course we had to option it.
Tristine: [Oates] didn't have any input in the script. She read one draft, made one or two comments about mid-way through the writing, but she was very supportive. I think there's this nurturing aspect to her wanting to help develop young talent -- as if she knew that if she stood back a bit, we would go through this learning process.
Lisanne: She was intrigued too. I mean, she knows all the many different intricate thematic connections and personas that reoccur in her work, and I think she was intrigued with which thread we were going to pick up. And the thread we ended up picking was very much [one of] storytelling and survival. We have this young woman who's trying to transcend what she's going through and we focused on that. All these women in these incredibly traumatic and almost insurmountable situations.
iW: As for these women, how did you make some of your casting decisions?
Lisanne: Well, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" came out as we were writing, and we were really intrigued with Heather. It was almost slightly surreal how her character was visually designed in that film -- she was such an extreme character. George [LaVoo, our producer] suggested her and I met her and I was just completely taken by her. She's so different from the character in "Dollhouse," and very delicate -- that was the central quality for Judith, this delicate vulnerability.
Then Bebe Neuworth was always the model for Trix because she has an incredible sense of humor and she's a virtuoso performer. I always like to cast a little bit against type, and so I thought it would be really interesting to have Bebe play a character who's similar to what her life is but also different in [regards to] the failure the character is experiencing. She also has the glamour that I wanted -- this 1940s kind of nostalgic, movie-star quality and the body of a dancer. And a wonderful sense of irony, which was exactly what the character needed.
iW: How did you attract actors to this film?
Tristine: Our producers were very script oriented, and when they felt it was at a good point they would send it to agents. I guess a lot of people we sent it to were familiar with Oates and I think it's quite an opportunity for an actor to play one of her characters. So we got lucky attracting some good people.
iW: Where did you find the money?
Lisanne: People looked at it and they thought it was too gritty, too "dark" -- that was their big thing -- and I don't get that at all. For me, when I go to a movie, I want to feel something, and sometimes things that are sad, you know, they're sad because you're feeling it. [Another setback was] that it's an ensemble. With an ensemble cast, you can't market an actor as much.
iW: So how did things work out?
Lisanne: Well, we were lucky because there was the movie "Smoke Signals," and from that film -- though our film is very different, there are some basic similarities, like storytelling, family, a father-son relationship, past and present, real and the imagined -- we set up this meeting with [ShadowCatcher Entertainment, producers of "Smoke"] and literally said "you are the people to make this movie." Luckily they agreed, contingent on their approval of the script. So then we became involved in a very intense rewriting process, spearheaded by Roger Baerwolf and David Skinner, and we just worked at it, constantly peeling at the layers.
Tristine: It was an incredible education. The script is the result of an enormous collaboration among ShadowCatcher, George [LaVoo], Laura [Gabbert], my sister and I. Everyone worked really hard at integrating the stories into what was essentially the story of Judith and Jimmy one day at a bus station.
iW: The film certainly has a distinctive visual style, with its rich colors and careful framing.
Lisanne: The red and blues. Well, it was very influenced by Robert Frank photography --his portraits of a declining America -- and also Edward Hopper's paintings. So Jim Denault, the Director of Photography, worked with that a lot. And then color, you know, how do you tell a story through color? To me this movie was just blue -- the dreamy, ethereal, yearning, that kind of dream-state that blue puts you in. So Jim and I kind of devised this idea that the bus station would be very blue and kind of dreamy and offer possible connections to these other worlds, while the stories would be very warm, kind of very red and very rich and saturated.
Framing-wise, as far as the specifics, Jim and I would work out a shot-list together and design everything. Because there was very little rehearsal time [for the 22-day shoot], I really had to focus on the performances. So we used the shot-list as our guide and I really had to trust Jim. In a low-budget situation, where you're moving so quickly, I felt so lucky to have that kind of collaboration with Jim. We could sort of be together but independent at the same time.
iW: So what was it like working together as sisters?
Tristine: It takes over your sisterhood in a lot of ways. Then again, I think having so much shared experience in our lifetime, growing up in the same family, gave us this incredibly fertile area to work with.
Lisanne: There were certain things we didn't have to explain to each other.
Tristine: Yeah, we just understand on a very emotional level.
Lisanne: Especially with the sibling relationship, it was just so natural for us to write that because we've argued like that. And I think probably by working on this together, it made us focus more on the theme of family. They're all yearning for relationships and connections and things that seem so elusive. And so by being in the same family it was a natural progression to focus on that theme.
iW: Are there other ways in which the two of you can relate to Judith and Wesley?
Lisanne: They're outsiders, they're kids that grew up fast. I think we both felt we grew up fast and I think that was definitely part of why we loved them so much.
[Emily Bobrow is a film critic for Film Journal International and has written for the Village Voice and The Independent Film and Video Monthly.]