Unfolding over the course of one long, hot night in the Sydney suburb of Newtown, Skin Deep, directed by Jonnie Leahy and penned by co-star Monica Zanetti, finds two strangers Caitlin (Zanetti) and Leah (Zara Zoe) flung together in a funny and affecting work that shares common ground with Andrew Haigh’s queer hit Weekend as well as Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy.
Leah’s in denial about her melanoma diagnosis, with little help from an unsupportive boyfriend, when she bumps into an extroverted Caitlin, also struggling to cope with suicidal tendencies after a messy break up with her girlfriend.
“It definitely came from my experience being diagnosed with melanoma a few year ago,” Zanetti said.
“I was definitely one of the lucky ones, but I remember the feeling of pure fear I felt during that time, completely undiluted. There was nothing the barriers I’d built up for my life could do to keep back. It was bare.
"Leah is a product of that fear.”
Caitlin draws on Zanetti’s own experience as a self-identifying sexually fluid 30-year-old living in Sydney’s inner-west.
“There’s a scene early on when the two girls pick up the same CD in a King Street shop, the 'meet cute', and that was the first thing I wrote,” she said.
Skin Deep had its debut at the Austin Film Festival in Texas in a line-up that celebrated Linklater’s 21-year career. After screening at both Sydney’s Mardi Gras Film Festival and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival last year, it will enjoy a limited Australian release this month and next. Zanetti hopes it reaches audiences beyond the queer community too, with the chameleon-like nature of the relationship between Caitlin and Leah one of the film’s savviest selling points, subverting traditional romantic tropes.
“We’ve worked so hard in this film to make Caitlin’s sexuality just part of who she is, not the most interesting thing about her,” Zanetti said.
“We’re talking so much about getting more women in film, and then you hear ‘oh, but you need one man and a woman so you can have a romance in the story,’ and I just think that is so not true.
"If you have these two female characters and you’re not sure what this relationship is going to be, you at least want to be curious the whole time and for the audience to care about them and their relationship together. The chemistry between them was really important.”
While acknowledging the delicate balance of supporting queer cinema and access to it, Zanetti and director Leahy are also reluctant to pigeonhole Skin Deep.
"Is it a good thing that we’re always labelling films LGBT? I mean, Netflix has a whole category for that, and it’s handy if that’s what you wanna go looking for, but in another way, is it segregating instead of saying ‘this is just a film’?
“Is it a good thing that we’re always labelling films LGBT?” Zanetti asks.
“I mean, Netflix has a whole category for that, and it’s handy if that’s what you wanna go looking for, but in another way, is it segregating instead of saying ‘this is just a film’?”
After graduating from Redfern drama school The Actors Pulse, Zanetti had the hunch that if she wanted to get a head start in her career, then the (comparably) easiest way was to make her own films.
“Everyone was getting agents but, for some reason, I just kinda knew If I wanted to work in the industry and do the work I had to do, I was gonna have to make some stuff,” she admits.
“We are the luckiest generation of filmmakers because technology has never been more accessible, it’s never been cheaper to get these beautiful results. If you’ve got a strong story, you can go out there and make it.”
First up was comic short Guardian Elf, debuting at the Boston Film Festival, which she also co-wrote and starred in. Then Zanetti took out the Best Play award at the 2012 Sydney Fringe Festival for dating agency-set romantic comedy Still Seeking Other. An auspicious start, her disarmingly light touch also secured her an Awgie Award nomination for first feature, Skin Deep.
Leahy, who worked as an assistant grip on Candy, says there was precious little tension between his role as director and Zanetti’s as both actress and screenwriter.
“Monica was really good 99 per cent of the time in turning her writer’s brain off, and then there was the odd time being really staunch as a writer, which created some great friction on set that was never nasty. We shot the film in 13 days, so things had to move quick. If you can convince me, you win.”
Predominantly filmed on location, at night, on bustling Newtown streets provided its own challenges, suggesting the handheld approach favoured by Linklater and Haigh.
“It leant an authenticity and an excitement, being on the streets with quite a small crew,” Leahy said.
“The wonderful people of Newtown put us up quite well and took us into their hearts. Even with the gentrification over the last twenty years, within Sydney, Newtown is very much its own personality.”