At the core of every film is a director’s intent–some kind of exploration. For Peter Skinner, it’s about figuring himself out, and perhaps along the way, other people too. “If I had to think of a fundamental idea of why I do what I do, I think it’s trying to understand why I am how I am,” he says. “And why people are how they are.”
The Sydney-based writer/director has slowly made a name for himself with acclaimed short films like Stranger (2019) and Lost Boy (2020). The latter winning him the prestigious Best Short Film award at this year’s St Kilda Film Festival. A showcase that in its history has featured the early work of Australian and Kiwi filmmakers like Jane Campion, Cate Shortland, Adam Elliot, and Richard Lowenstein.
Beginning his creative career as a sculptor, Skinner eventually found his way into film–a love hiding beneath the surface. “I saw sculpture as a way to express myself,” he explains. “But I realised that I could perhaps do that in film.”
Skinner dove into film school to pursue his newly realised passion and creative outlet. “I applied and got in as the art sculpture kid, thinking that I knew everything about films–but I didn’t know how to make them.”
Some years later, with Masters degrees from Sydney University and AFTRS under his belt, and a few films to his name, Skinner is comfortably in control of his craft. His work continues to be a personal investigation of self and an exploration of the human experience.
“I definitely prescribe to the Paul Schrader approach–you find an issue that you’re having in your own life, you find the metaphor for that issue, and then you find a plot that explores that metaphor.”
Despite the importance of plot or setting, it’s Skinner’s focus on character that makes his work so special. With each film, our focus is subtly coerced onto a person, their emotions, and interactions. Skinner places us in a room with two people and asks us to see their vulnerabilities–as well as his own.
“The mystery of vulnerability is far more interesting than the façade of strength.”
Starring Australian actor Michael Sheasby as the titular character, Lost Boy follows a young bartender throughout an eventful night, facing the impact of his self-destructive behaviour. For Skinner, everything finally came into place to create the award-winning short–from the performances to his supporting team.
The drama also signalled a new level of professional self-trust. “I think it was the accumulation of understanding how to use craft in a way to tell a story, really being emotionally honest with myself, and trusting in the relationships of the characters that you’ve created.”
In Michael Sheasby, the director has found both a great friend and trusted professional partner. The Philip Seymour Hoffman to his Paul Thomas Anderson we joke referencing one of Skinner’s directing idols. Skinner only needed to watch one self-tape of ‘Mike’ looking into a mirror and slapping himself while casting Brother (2015) to know he’d found his guy. Like PTA’s “love at first sight” when watching Hoffman in Scent of a Woman (1992).
You’ll best know the Sydney-based actor from his harrowing performance in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (2018), as well as roles in Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and Australian series A Place To Call Home. The pair have already worked together three times with intent for more collaborations, including a feature currently being penned by the director with Sheasby in mind for a leading role.
“He’s kind of like my avatar in film,” he says. “I think I met a soulmate that just happens to also be a talented creative who I can funnel my feelings through.”
“The thing that I’ve learned from him, I think, is the most I’ve learned about myself from another person outside of a romantic relationship.”
It’s no surprise that Skinner is also writing a long-form TV series expanding on the unexplored Aussie world of Lost Boy’s RSL setting, heavily influenced by his time working at Kingsford’s South Juniors Rugby Club.
If Lost Boy announced what Skinner could do with a lot, Staring Contest (2021) shows us what he can do with very little–perhaps an even greater feat. While the former plays with camera movements, big settings, a large cast, and a generally more involved touch, the one-day shoot lockdown experiment is a masterclass in restraint.
Sheasby stars opposite Sydney-based actor Laura Brogan Browne, whose name you might recognise as a contributor to this publication. Staring Contest explores the emotionally fraught reunion of a recently broken relationship, finding the confusing middle ground between joy and sadness.
Through two outstanding performances, Skinner conveys the heartbreaking universality of mourning a potential future–with a sense of both disconnection and affection. “I find it quite unhuman to think that everything will always be good forever,” Skinner says. “I think dealing with bad things equips you to better deal with good things than the other way around.”
The title references an interaction from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017), a film that also subverts romantic ideals and stylistically inspired the short in ways. But the idea for it came to Skinner after receiving a text from an ex-girlfriend. Imagining the conversation he wished he’d had with her, he again presents the ever-fascinating idea of creatively analysing self.
“If you want to be honest about how people are and how interactions happen, I think your self will seep in no matter what,” the director says. “I enjoy investigating myself–I feel like it’s trying to connect with other people, feel less alone, but also explore and understand yourself.”
However Skinner figures it out next–I’ll be keeping a keen eye on his work and expecting big things. I suggest you do too.
The Sydney Underground Film Festival is a truly unique experience that showcases obscure, thought-provoking cinema or as I like to say, films you wouldn’t take home to meet your parents. It’s a one-of-a-kind festival that features eclectic storytelling from across the globe as well as our own backyard.
What starts as a stroll through the English countryside, soon transforms into something otherworldly. After donning outerwear from the luxury fashion house, four friends are swept up by a magical breeze that carries them across golden fields and lofty woodlands, destined for the coast.