How a Childhood Photo Inspired Filmmaker Lisanne Skyler’s Exploration of Risk and Reward

The director of Brillo Box (3¢ Off) on growing up in New York’s art scene, appreciating Warhol, and remembering her family through pop art.

HBO: What connection did you have to the Brillo Box? Why pursue a story like this?

Lisanne Skyler: For many of us, our memories of our childhood are derived from photographs. That picture of me when I was a baby, draped over our Brillo Box, shaped my memories. When I looked back at that photo in the family album, it amazed me that we once owned a Warhol. It prompted questions about how we purchased it and where it went.

While I don't remember the box, I remember spending rainy Saturday afternoons sitting on some couch in a gallery while my parents were talking to art dealers. I can recall looking at the art and wondering why it interested my parents and wanting to know more.

My past documentary work often dealt with economic cycles, risk and reward decisions and the things we decide to gamble on. However, in my fiction work, I was always drawn to stories about families. Brillo Box became a way to fuse those two interests while celebrating my parents for the adventurous lives they led as young New Yorkers.

HBO: How did your past filmmaking prepare you to tell this story?

Lisanne Skyler: When I started making films, I was at first drawn to documentary filmmaking, particularly that of Frederick Wiseman. I was driven by the idea of capturing these fragments of life that would go unseen or unacknowledged.

Also, my docs have featured locations and themes I believed were iconic parts of American life, like an Irish bar in San Francisco's gentrifying Mission District (Oldtimers) or a pawn shop in South Central Los Angeles (No Loans Today).

Brillo Box gave me an opportunity to feature an American story, in this case, American pop art, while expanding my range by creating a personal film.

What was it like growing up in New York's art scene?

Lisanne Skyler: Even though my mom wanted to live a bohemian SoHo life, my dad was far more practical, so we settled in Manhattan's Upper East Side, where the schools and doctors offices were.

Still, every weekend featured a trip to a SoHo gallery, and we brought it home with us, too! Having all this unique, sometimes-disturbing art was unusual in our neighborhood. I remember asking my parents, "Mom, Dad, really? Why did you put this in our bedroom?" Their response was usually something like, "It's art! Think about what it means so you can appreciate it."

HBO: What was it like working with your parents on the film?

Lisanne Skyler: It definitely brought us closer together. My parents have always been supportive of the career path I chose, so they became close collaborators throughout.

My parents were so engaging during the test shoots that they reminded me of their knack for telling stories! They took a lot of ownership in explaining the Brillo Box purchase and the unique way they raised their kids. They're not active collectors anymore, which makes Brillo Box more poignant for me. Filming their story helped me preserve their passion for art.

HBO: Why do you think the value of Warhol's art fluctuated so heavily?

Lisanne Skyler:
Part of Warhol's genius is the multiple layers he placed in his work. His mystery is similar to most iconic art that stays with us. Like the Mona Lisa, why is she smiling? We still try and interpret her smile because we know it's more than a simple portrait!

People interpreted him as simplistic. You can look at what he did and say, "Oh, he just copied a soup can!" or, "He just painted a Marilyn Monroe picture from a fan magazine!" But he held a mirror to our own culture and really, to ourselves.

We all love celebrities, but no one wants to feel superficial for loving, say, Brad and Angelina. But Warhol makes us ask why we we fixate on celebrities, or resonate with soup cans and supermarket boxes. He turned these familiar faces and objects and showed us how much they connect with us. It took us a while to catch on.

HBO: What do you hope viewers take away from your film?

Lisanne Skyler:
I hope people consider the role of art in American culture. Sometimes, people don't go to museums because they fear they won't "get it," so I hope Brillo Box makes the art scene more accessible. Experiencing art, whether that’s at a museum, a gallery, or a visit to an artist friend, is an experience that connects us to our culture and to each other.

I also hope it will encourage creative people to keep creating, regardless of the immediate response to their work. Time is the greatest teller of value, the best indicator of what's important. It's about persisting. Warhol never stopped. He kept making. He had the ability to tune out criticism when he needed to create.

Do you know where the box is now?

Lisanne Skyler:
Oh, we'd all like to know! Coincidentally, we found out the box was going to sell again the day we decided to move forward with HBO. We were wondering if it would sell for $5 million, maybe $10 million! It ended up selling for over a million dollars less.