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Family Matters

Two Sisters Sow Their Oates

Lisanne Skyler's Getting To Know You was one of many movies that left Sundance this year without a distribution deal. An impressive first feature, it receives its New York premiere May 2 at the Gen Art Film Festival, the Amerindie showcase that, in previous years, screened Tim Blake Nelson's Eye of God and S.R. Bindler's Hands on a Hard Body months before they received a theatrical release.

Visually elegant, psychologically detailed, and emotionally credible, Getting To Know You combines three Joyce Carol Oates short stories into an ambitious, relatively seamless whole; it avoids the obvious pitfall of coming off like an awkward pastiche of vignettes. The 29-year-old Skyler, a documentary filmmaker and onetime Sundance programmer, cowrote the film with her younger sister, Tristine, who's been acting professionally since age six and is featured in the ensemble cast.

Lisanne Skyler says the screenplay started out as "an experimental anthology," intercutting and drawing parallels between three female protagonists—Judith, an emotionally wounded but resilient teenager (Heather Matarazzo); a twentysomething (played by Tristine) on an Atlantic City weekend; and a thirty something (Mary McCormack) married to a religious nut job. "We saw the two older characters as potential futures for Judith," says Tristine. But the structure proved elusive until they packed all the characters into a bus terminal.

"I was doing a play in upstate New York during winter and the theater company's housing was right across the street from the bus station," says Tristine. "Every day I would walk through the station to the theater just to keep warm. Some of the characters in the film were actually inspired by people I was kind of spying on, the regulars, like the police officer, the homeless woman." Lisanne, whose two documentaries were anchored in public spaces—a Mission District bar and a pawnshop—says the bus station was an apt setting in that "it seemed to be carrying on the theme of American institutions and places that link people." The Skylers also created a new character, a fast-talking young man (Michael Weston), who corners Judith while she waits for her bus, and serves as the mouthpiece for the other two stories—which appear in flashback and may be partly or entirely imagined, giving the film an unexpected layer of ambiguity.

As a documentarian making her first fiction film, Lisanne says the experience was as challenging as she'd anticipated, but also liberating. "With documentaries, there's a subtle directing that goes on between director and subject, where you're trying to coax them into being the most interesting versions of who they are. Working with actors was refreshing, because basically you can be very direct." Getting To Know You is easily one of the best-acted indies in a while, with, among other strong performances, a heartbreakingly believable Matarazzo and an indelible Bebe Neuwirth as Judith's delusional mother.

"Part of our approach to financing was to get actors to be part of the movie early on," Lisanne says. "When it was time to shoot, there were people that were sticking with us and people that were going off to do movies with Demi Moore." The 22-day shoot was, she says, "surprisingly cohesive," though the three days in Atlantic City presented some difficulties. "Maneuvering around hardened gamblers is definitely a serious operation."

As it happens, Dreamland, the documentary she's currently editing, is a portrait of Las Vegas "through the eyes of residents, looking at the challenges of living there when you're prone to excessive gambling."

The New York–born sisters (Lisanne has lived on the West Coast since attending Berkeley) say they plan to collaborate again in the near future. "It can be creative in an almost telepathic way," says Tristine. "There's basic genetics, and then there's the fact that for whatever reason, we're in sync creatively. But it can be volatile—because you're sisters, you don't edit yourself when you speak." Lisanne adds, "The hardest thing for two sisters writing about family is that it always brings you back to that primal place of childhood. And the creative process is such a primal one anyway."

 
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