In February Israeli-born writer-director Guy Nattiv and his producer-wife Jaime Ray Newman celebrated winning their first Academy Award for “Skin,” a 20-minute film about racism in America. The couple sunk all their savings into the short as a showcase for a feature they hoped to make on the same subject. Now only a few months later, those dreams have been realized in the feature film which opened July 26.
The two films may be focused on broadly similar subjects but they are very different: The short is a sort of frightening fable that leaves audiences in a dark place, while the feature explores one man’s rage and ultimate redemption.
The 46 year-old writer-director is well known in Israel but relatively new to the Hollywood scene. Nattiv’s previous features, including Strangers, which competed at the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals in 2008, began as shorts, a form Nattiv particularly favors for the challenge of delivering an intense emotional wallop in a condensed period of time.
Dedicated to his grandfather, who survived the Holocaust, Nattiv chose as his first American feature the true-life story of Bryron Widner, a tattooed neo-Nazi skinhead who renounced his white supremacist lifestyle and cohorts, named names and consequently had to entered a witness protection program where he remains.
The film is inspired by an article Nattiv read about Widner in an Israeli newspaper and his discovery of a television documentary entitled Erasing Hate, about Widner’s two-year ordeal to have the massive tattoos removed from his face and body.
Nattiv shopped the feature script for Skin around for four-five years, consistently getting nos from studio heads and backers who rejected his premise that white supremacy was a threat. But then, Nattiv told me, “Trump got elected. Charlottesville happened. Suddenly there was an urgency.”
Jamie Bell, in a role that is the polar opposite of his character of Bernie Taupin in Rocketman, stars as Widner and Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$, Dumpin), who also appeared in the short, plays his wife, a devoted mother instrumental in inducing her husband to abandon his violent lifestyle. Mike Coulter (Luke Cage) portrays the real life character Daryle Lamont Jenkins, an Air Force veteran and activist who helped extricate Widner from the white power movement.
At a special screening in Manhattan, I asked the soft-spoken Bell, who is naturally wiry but bulked up for the part, how he found his way into the role of a violent neo-Nazi.
“The hardest thing to really tap into was just a level of detachment, detachment from compassion, detachment from empathy, detachment from love, companionship,” Bell told me. “Inhabiting that and walking around with that on top of the fact that you look like a monster, literally. Just wearing that every day it was extremely disheartening and uncomfortable and unpleasant.”
I also spoke with writer-director Guy Nattiv, who discussed the inspiration for Skin, how difficult it was to get it off the ground and now as an Oscar winner his next film is a feature and not a short.
Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What is the genesis of Skin, both the short and feature? And how difficult was it to get off the ground?
Guy Nattiv (GN): I moved to the States and I read this article in Haaretz, the New York Times of Israel, that had a collage of Bryon Widner’s face being tattooed to a clean face. I read the article and was blown away by the story, so I went to my grandfather and I let him read the article and he said, “This is very powerful story to tell.”
I traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I met with Byron and I started writing the story. When I sent the script to producers or my agents, I got a lot of no’s. They said “Look, the script’s great but it’s not something to worry about now. Hillary’s about to become President. There’s not really neo-Nazis in the States, it’s a myth.”
I said, “I did the research, it’s not true.” But no one wanted to hear the truth, because you take people from New York and L.A., they live in bubbles. And so I was bummed, I was heartbroken. My wife told me, “Look, all your features were shorts before, so why don’t we make a short? We’ll put all our money in the short and maybe it will allow the feature to happen.”
So that’s what I did. We put all our retirement money into the short. The short was inspired by an article I read about a skinhead who taught his son how to shoot Mexicans at the border, and one night he brainwashed his son and made him into a war machine. He was only 10 or 11 and, and the father came back home one night at 2 a.m. and the son thought he was an African-American intruder, he took the father’s gun exactly like he taught him how to, and he shot his father in the head.
So we completed the short in a weekend and sent it out to the world. Then Trump got elected, Charlottesville happened, the synagogue massacre in the East Coast, and we were getting a different response from people. Some people were still afraid, the others like Trudie Styler, Celine Rattray, and Oren Moverman said, ”We’re in because it’s important to tell this story.”
We shot the feature in upstate New York. The short went to play film festivals and it’s almost like parallel walls. The short garnered attention, and we traveled with the feature to TIFF. While at TIFF, the short won first prize at HolyShorts in L.A., making it eligible for the Academy Awards. The short was submitted to the Oscars where it made the 10 shortlist, then the 5, and then the feature went to play Berlin and Tribeca. So the two films ran parallel.
MM: Why have all your features have been short films first?
GN: I love the short format, because a story that can work in 15-20 minutes that’s done well, can have an impact that’s unmatched. People have less tolerance and patience now, so they can see something in 15 minutes and have a “wow!” reaction.
I always say that features are a marathon whereas a short is a sprint. So it’s necessary to stretch this muscle before one dives into a feature. Between features there’s a lot of time, a lot of years between each feature, and you want to feel that you’re riding this bike, and you can try stuff. You can always sell the next project as a short and show producers, “Look this is the DNA. This is the experiment. Let’s do a long one right now.”
MM: Jamie Bell is not the obvious choice to play a white supremacist. How did you come to cast him?
GN: When I met him, I understood that he has so much emotion. When I portray an evil man, I don’t want him to look and feel only like a monster, because that’s flat and uninteresting.
I wanted a monster that when you dive into his mind and soul, you can feel that he’s breakable and human, and emotional. If I’m dealing with a protagonist who’s a monster, I want to find the layers that Jamie Bell brings with him as an actor. He came to the role and rewrote a lot of stuff concerning his actions and words—there’s a lot of improv I let the actors bring to their roles.
MM: Could you ever imagine when making the movie that the subject matter would be so timely?
GN: No, because I started before Trump. I didn’t know the movie would come at the peak of craziness. But it’s not only America, when you look at the world—look at Israel and at how Israeli police treat Ethiopians Jews. How we treat the Muslims, the Arabs in our [Israel] country. They’re second-class citizens. It’s a long discussion, but I think it’s not only in America, I think you can see it in Hungary… even Greece, the Red Dawn in Greece. You can see it all over the world, so while America is the setting of the film, if you look at the entire world we’re fucked.
MM: Is your next movie a family story?
GN: It is. My next film is about my grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor. She was part of the Czestochowa ghetto. And she escaped Czestochowa and lost all her family in Auschwitz.
It’s her story but it focuses on the period after she came to Israel; she became a cult member. After she had this depression from the Holocaust she met a woman who told her, “I’m going to make you happy.” And she made her happy but also she took all her money and made her divorce my grandfather. So it’s a story about post-traumatic stress. She died in the cult. It’s called “Harmonium,” and it’s an insane story. This will be my first feature that will not be a short first. MM
Skin opens in theaters and on demand July 26, 2019, courtesy of A24 and DirecTV. All images courtesy of A24.