Combustible Celluloid

Lisanne Skyler

Talks About "Getting to Know You" and Getting to Make Movies

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

I show up at the Roxie on time for my interview with Lisanne Skyler, the writer and director of the much-delayed and finally-released "Getting to Know You". The door is locked and I knock. While I wait, two people come up behind me; the manager of the Roxie, and a very tall (six-foot-one), astoundingly lovely woman. After a heartbeat, I realize that it's Skyler.

Although she could have been a model or an actress, Skyler worked hard to get where she is. She held down dozens of cruddy temp jobs--including one for director Peter Bogdanovich, which she called "a dark period"--and worked for the San Francisco International Film Festival, the San Francisco Weekly, and the Sundance Film Festival. She also attended grad school at San Francisco State University.

She began by making short films and documentaries. Her first success was a feature doc called "No Loans Today", which screened at Sundance and led to her getting her first narrative feature, "Getting to Know You", made. The film shows an amazing talent and control for a first film, and it's one of the best I've seen this summer.

"Getting to Know You" is based on three stories by Joyce Carol Oates from the collection "Heat". Skyler, who co-wrote the screenplay with her sister Tristine, cooked up a wraparound piece in a bus station where a brother and sister await buses that will take them in separate directions. The first thing that went was Oates' trademark blonde character when Heather Matarazzo ("Welcome to the Dollhouse") was cast in the central role of Judith.

Skyler says that despite any changes to the original stories, Oates has seen the film and loves it. "She actually saw it a third time at our New York premiere. She's wonderfully supportive of the movie. She's been very loving and embracing of the film, which means the world to me. 'Cause I admire her so much. She's been a huge inspiration in my life as a director, not just on "Getting to Know You", but the documentaries I made. I always identify with her and the world she portrays."

Although Skyler did picture a blonde when she was writing, she's more than happy with Matarazzo's work in the film. "Heather's such a great actress. She's beautiful and expressive and she doesn't actually have to do very much to make an audience feel everything she felt. She's great. I can't imagine anyone else in that role."

Another major addition to Oates' stories was a new character; Jimmy (played by Michael Weston), who strikes up a conversation with Judith in the bus station and begins telling her the stories derived from "Craps" and "Leila Lee". Weston is a true discovery who brings soul and depth to the character. "As soon as I met Michael I knew. He was just the essence of this character. He had this wonderful vulnerability. He was charming in this not-obnoxious way. He was just so natural. And he came and he did a couple auditions for us and we joked around and played a few improv games. He was it. It's a wonderful thing when you discover that actor that embodies what you're looking for. People say, he's the young John Travolta."

Probably the biggest name in "Getting to Know You" is Bebe Neuwirth, best known for her Broadway work and her appearances as Frasier Crane's significant other on the "Cheers" and "Frasier" television series. Neuwirth's presence gave Skyler her favorite scene in "Getting to Know You". "The dancing scene," Skyler says, without hesitation. "She's so gorgeous and graceful. She's very talented. She can do everything." The dancing scene is used three times in the film, each time with a new meaning attached to it. "We didn't plan on using [the scene] that many times. But it just became such a great image--such a great symbol of everything Heather's character is yearning for. And it was one of our producers who had the idea to make it a backdrop for the credits, which was such a great idea, because we start and it seems very sentimental and nostalgic. But then in the end when you see it in the context of the story, it becomes almost subversive; the children spying on her parents."

The only production company interested in "Getting to Know You" was Shadowcatcher, who had a success in 1998 with Chris Eyre's "Smoke Signals". Although the producers had a very hands-on role in shaping the film, Skyler appreciates the work they did. "We knocked on a lot of doors. And they were the only ones who saw the potential because they have the creativity to know what kind of questions to ask writers to help us open up and develop our work. They helped us get from a good script to a great script. They really helped us evolve Jimmy's backstory, Jimmy's history, and Jimmy's arc. Because in the beginning, he was a device. We made up his character to help tell these stories and to seduce [Judith]. But in the end, I think he became a real person. And I think they kept pushing us toward that. They kept pushing us to develop. The hard part was that we really had to shrink down the Joyce Carol Oates stories, which was kind of the basis of the movie, the inspiration. But by doing that, it allowed it to tell a larger story. And in a movie, you really do have to tell a larger story. It's not just about vignettes. Otherwise people get kind of restless. So I think that their notes were great."

Still, it took eighteen months from the screening at Sundance to the film actually getting distributed. "It's one thing for a studio movie that has a set release date, but if you're looking for distribution, it takes awhile. There's a lot of obstacles. Things take so long. Contracts, waiting for things. But I feel we picked up momentum in a way in that there's a lot of people that know about the movie that saw it at festivals or read about it somewhere. I feel we have a loyal fan base." Skyler says that part of the delay may have been the Sundance screening itself. "In the beginning, I knew the first reel was very slow. Sometimes with pacing, you need an audience to help you decide that. When you're in the editing room, it's just a little screen. You gotta put it up on the big screen and feel it with people. And unfortunately for us, that was Sundance."

Having so much time between completion and distribution has given Sklyer an opportunity to finish another documentary, "Dreamland", and begin a screenplay for another feature film. "Dreamland", about the temptation of gambling in Las Vegas, debuts on PBS this month. Her feature film will be based on a novel by Francesca Marciano, "Rules of the Wild", about a complicated love affair in Africa. Meanwhile, sister Tristine will be starring in the new "Blair Witch Project" sequel.

Not being born into the system, Skyler is a living inspiration for young filmmakers getting started who don't have an uncle or a cousin working at Paramount. "It's amazing what's going on right now. There's a lot of opportunity. There's a lot of places to show work. You can do a whole feature on video. It's a real equal-opportunity time, whereas before, I always felt critical of the film world because it was so economically biased. But now I don't think that exists anymore."

Skyler leaves off with a bit of sage wisdom. "Film is too hard to make it for the wrong reasons. I think that whenever someone makes a movie that's truthful, somewhere there's an audience for it."

July 24, 2000

Best Buy Co, Inc.