Lisanne Skyler has been pretty busy lately. Between trips to European film festivals with her first narrative feature, Getting to Know You, and a move into a new apartment in Los Angeles, she’s also been cranking away on an edit of a new feature-length documentary. Finding time to talk in person about the path leading to forthcoming theatrical release of Getting to Know You has been a bit of a challenge. But on the morning after her thirtieth birthday party, precariously squeezed between yet another European festival and some much needed family time in New York, the statuesque Skyler sits down to discuss the nefarious ins and outs of literary adaptations, collaborations with family members, and the never- ending personal and financial gamble of making independent films.
By most standards, Skyler has been lucky as a filmmaker. Lucky in the sense that she’s been able to make the films she’s wanted to make when she’s wanted to make them. And lucky, too, in that she’s succeeded in making a name for herself in both the documentary and feature narrative arenas.
A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Francisco State, Skyler’s independent filmmaking career began eight years ago with Oldtimers, a poignantly beautiful black-and-white verité short revolving around the lives of a handful of regulars in a neighborhood bar. Oldtimers toured widely and successfully on the festival circuit and propelled Skyler onto her next film, No Loans Today, an hour-long documentary look at the economics of small businesses in South Central Los Angeles, and at one pawnshop in particular. No Loans Today premiered at Sundance, garnered much praise, and was then featured in PBS’ P.O.V series.
In 1995, right around the time Skyler finished the festival circuit with No Loans Today, she moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and began development work with her actor/writer sister, Tristine, on a screen adaptation of several Joyce Carol Oates short stories. Long-time admirers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, the Skyler sisters had written to Oates to ask about the possibility of optioning several shorts from her collection entitled Heat. Encouragingly, Oates replied to the correspondence and requested copies of Lisanne’s documentaries. The author’s response to these films was so favorable that the Skylers then paired up with independent producer Laura Gabbert (then a UCLA graduate student) who worked with them to legally option the stories.
With help on the producing front, the sisters were then able to sit down in earnest to work on a script. "Working with family is always emotional; the stakes are obviously very high," says Lisanne. "But we both knew our strengths and could help each other bring to life the literature we both loved. We didn’t really have set roles. Sometimes she’d write a scene and I’d respond. Other times, I’d write a scene and she’d respond. It really was a collaboration in the truest sense of the word."
A first draft emerged which was promptly sent off to New York-based producer George LaVoo. Recognizing the potential of the script and the creative team behind it, he signed on with Gabbert as producer. "The two of them were essential to the script," says Lisanne. "They strongly encouraged me to bring in my experience as a documentarian—my abilities to look at real life situations and people and create stories from these observations of public spaces. That documentary experience is what enabled us to make the script come together as whole." After many more drafts, a script evolved which gave the team the solid footing needed to seek funding. Says Lisanne, "The biggest challenge we had was convincing people of the narrative wholeness of the film—that it wasn’t just three really great Oates stories strung together. With the bus station and the character of Jimmy, Tristine and I had the structure around which to focus the stories."
Told in a combination of flashback and present time, the script with which they ventured out into the world of finance and for which they found crew, cast, and funding centers around Judith, a highly astute and observant sixteen-year-old girl, during a day of waiting at an upstate New York bus station. A series of traumatic family events have brought Judith and her older brother, Wesley, to this bus station where they must now pass the day. Wesley is off to college and Judith is returning to a group home in a nearby town. In transit and in transition, Judith and Wesley are also returning from a visit with their mother, Trix, at the state mental hospital. Taking that trip as an initial point of departure, this day at the bus station becomes a source of both beginnings and endings. Judith meets a charming though enigmatic local boy named Jimmy. Through Jimmy’s eyes we discover the stories of the characters whose lives have also brought them to this transitory place. Quintessentially Oates-like in its setting, tone, and fascination with the line where public and private meet, the script intertwines Oates’ short stories, told through the character of Jimmy, and his interactions with Judith at the bus station. True to Oates, the characters are highly articulate and sensitive outsiders who are trying to make sense of their own lives. And true to the strength of the script and the production team behind it, the characters were very appealing to the seasoned actors whom the Skylers and their producers approached.
Late in 1996, the Skylers sent Heather Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse) a script through her manager. She liked it very much and agreed to star if funding came through. As Lisanne explains, "We basically found our cast by sending a solid draft of the script to the actors’ agents. Agents are looking for good parts for their clients—parts that have depth and dimension." Bebe Neuwirth and Mark Blum (who plays the parents), Zach Braff, Mary McCormack, Chris Noth, and Celia Weston all came to the production this way. The stellar cast also features the exceptional talents of two rising film stars with very solid stage experience: Michael Weston in the part of Jimmy and Tristine Skyler in the part written specifically for her, Irene.
With notable talent attached, the producers started approaching production companies. In March of 1998, coinciding with the American Film Market in Los Angeles, a meeting between the producers and ShadowCatcher took place. This Seattle-based production company founded by David Skinner, Larry Estes, and Scott Rosenfelt was the driving financial force behind Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals. Recently they had initiated SearchParty, an on-going filmmaker-mentoring program with the specific mission of identifying talented filmmakers early in their careers and teaming them with like-minded professionals to successfully make low-budget films.
"We had approached ShadowCatcher because of its literary connections. We wrote to them after I saw Smoke Signals at Sundance in January of 1998. I thought that if anyone was going to understand or appreciate this film, it was going to be them," recounts Lisanne. "So, we’re at this meeting and we sit down to talk. Roger [Baerwolf, ShadowCatcher’s VP of Development] starts ripping apart the script immediately. He was so enthusiastic. I didn’t know what to make of it. By the end of the meeting it was pretty clear that they were going to come through with the financing. The meeting was a good lesson for me that sometimes the people who are the most critical or detailed in their criticism are the ones most likely to be involved in the production because they take the time and energy to really think about the script." ShadowCatcher then teamed with Cineville and within months, cast, crew, and director were shooting on the East Coast.
Looking back on the whole quest for financing, Lisanne reflects, "One of the biggest things I learned in the process was the importance of making sure that what you put in front of potential funders and seasoned actors must be something you’re sure is strong enough to produce. I had great contacts from my experience with my other films at festivals and through my work as a program consultant to Sundance, but you only really get one chance when you present a script to a production company or actor when you’re a first-time maker. You’ve got to make sure that you use that chance well. You should always wait until the script is at a point where you’re really confident about it. Don’t rush. Wait another month. Send it to friends first."
The actual shoot went quickly and smoothly. With little to no time for rehearsals because of schedules and prior commitments, the neophyte helmer seized the moment in directing veteran actors. "I basically followed a ‘less is more’ approach and trusted the actors to be in the moment," she says. "Usually the night before shooting a scene, I would speak with them and try to articulate what I wanted by describing images and feelings. I was fortunate in that I found actors who were very much part of my vision. Working with Tristine required a shift, of course, but she really understood that even though she had written the lines she was speaking, she was now part of the puzzle and not the whole thing."
As to the differences between a documentary shoot and a feature shoot, Lisanne is quick to respond: "They’re very similar in many ways. In both, the director must lead a crew with confidence and share a vision of storytelling. In documentaries, you watch for the story to reveal itself and capture it on film, returning to the editing room to fine-tune it. In narrative films, you craft the story in a script and then work with actors to fine-tune it. Making documentaries really prepared me well for shooting low-budget features. In both, you’re always working with chance and looking for ways to embrace happy accidents."
Back in Los Angeles and working with the 1999 Sundance entry date as a deadline, editing began. Foremost in Lisanne and editor Julie Janata’s minds was the presentation of a cohesive feature. Seamlessly linking Oates’ stand-alone stories which Jimmy introduces to Judith and which come to life in their minds’ eyes became the principal challenge. Intersecting narratives and a cast of several central characters required thoughtful and creative editing.
Two work-in-progress screenings and a fresh-from-the-lab print later, the producers arrived at Sundance, garnering critical praise and great audience response. Distribution deals, though, were short in coming and the film has since undergone one more edit, becoming shorter in length and structurally tighter. "It’s hard to think about the things we had to lose to make the film more ‘distributable,’ " says Lisanne. "But I think what we ended up with is strong. The film has now played all over the world. It’s in theatrical distribution in Italy, but for some reason, no one wants to take the risk of distributing it in the U.S." ShadowCatcher is now handling the theatrical release of the film itself, which should begin this winter.
So what does the future hold for Lisanne? "Well, we just finished cleaning up from last night’s party. That’s something!" she jokes. "But seriously, right now I’m busy editing Dreamland, a feature-length documentary about the lives of chronic gamblers. I tried unsuccessfully to get it funded through ITVS and ended up finding a new production company called Caldera Productions to come through with the money. I shot it on 16mm with cinematographer Rob Bennett (Hype) and I’m hoping to have it done in time for Sundance 2000.
"My sister and I are working on a new script," she continues, "but I can’t really talk about that. Basically, I want to keep making films for the rest of my life. I don’t really have very many other marketable skills. I’ve spent the last ten years training to be a filmmaker. It’s what I do. Eking out a living is hard when you’re an independent filmmaker, but it’s worth it in terms of being able to make the films you want to make. Don’t get me wrong," she quickly adds. "Many independent filmmakers make the mistake of thinking that the studios are somehow the enemy. They’re not. It’s not a betrayal to do work that enables you to survive. I’d gladly be a hired gun for a little while—as a director on a music video or commercial—in order to pay the bills. I mean, I did temp work and was Peter Bogdanovich’s personal assistant while I was writing Getting to Know You. Making independent films is not easy. It’s an economy in which every little beer counts. I firmly believe that filmmakers shouldn’t have to sacrifice originality or doing something differently in order to work for a studio, but in my experience those kinds of sacrifices aren’t always necessary. Anything good is commercially viable. Look at The Blair Witch Project or the release of Getting to Know You in Europe as examples. If a distributor spends the money on getting a film out there and the film is good, it will make money."
Is it a coincidence that her latest film is about gambling? Laughing, she responds, "Well, I’m a filmmaker, aren’t I?"