The story of a young boy being brought up in a family of white supremacists, Guy Nattiv’s short film Skin packs an almighty punch. One that unflinchingly strikes at the self-destructive and cyclical nature of racism.
Guy joins us on Close-up Culture to discuss his film, working with Danielle MacDonald, growing up in Israel, and much more.
Q: ‘Skin’ is an incredibly timely short film. What prompted you to tell this story about the cyclical and destructive nature of racism?
A: I am a 2nd generation decedent of Holocaust survivors. All four of my grandparents came to Israel in the late 1940’s having survived the worst of humanity, so I’ve always been intrigued by what causes a culture of bigotry.
When I moved to America four years ago, I did extensive research for my feature Skin, which is a true story about reformed neo-Nazi Bryon Widner, and the rise of white supremacy hate groups in the USA. I was shocked to find how prevalent these ideas were. We all grew up with assumption that America was a safe haven for Jews, immigrants, a real melting pot of acceptance. This was in 2014, and it dawned on me that ideas people thought were in the backyard of America, may just be creeping into the front lawn.
Then one day I read this crazy article in the news about the son of a racist man, who shot his own dad just because he thought he was an African American intruder when he came home late one night and was locked out. My filmmaker friend and collaborator Sharon Maymon came up with the other “core idea” (I won’t give it away), and combining those ideas we decided it could be timely short. We wrote it over a weekend, and after asking every favour from every friend and colleague we had, I shot it over four days.
This was soon after Trump took office, and on the heels of Charlottesville, so I think our friends felt it was a worthy story.
Q: The film opens with a haircut that reminds us of the influence parents often have over their child’s appearance – both outwards and inwards. What do you think is the most effective way to break these cycles of hate?
A: I am not a particularly religious person, but this sentence in Judaism has always stuck with me: “The fathers ate immature fruit, and the teeth of their sons became rotten.” Which means the present generation pays for the sins of previous generations.
The most effective way to break the cycle of hate is first and foremost education. Kids are like a clean sheet, and I see that now more than ever since I have a newborn daughter. What I teach her now will shape so much of her adult life, for better or for worse. I want her to see this movie one day when she’s older and understand that intolerance is taught and can be perpetuated or broken by only one generation.
Education is the key for a real change.
Q: The film has a striking finale. Have you had any standout or noteworthy responses to that ending and the film?
A: At the first friends and family screening we did, there was five minutes of just silence as the credits rolled. Even people who knew the script just kind of sat there with their mouths open. It’s definitely a conversation starter!
Q: Young Jackson Robert Scott does a terrific job. What caught your attention about Jackson when casting for the film?
A: Jessica Sherman, our amazing casting director, sent me the trailer for IT right after the film came out. I knew immediately that Jackson was our boy, but I had to convince his family as the themes are pretty mature. I think they were more worried about that opening haircut – his hair was really long!
His snake monologue was all improvised. He had just given a speech at school on his favourite animal and his mom sent it to me. I knew immediately that I wanted it incorporated into the film.
And Lonnie Chavis, our other boy, I knew from This Is Us. One night on set the two kids had a breakdancing battle. It was fierce, and I’m still not sure who won. They really loved each other. Enormous talents, those two.
Q: You’ve had ‘Skin’ the short film and ‘Skin’ the feature film release this year. How have you found that experience?
A: Almost all my features were shorts before, but not every story can be a short film. In this case, Skin the short and Skin the feature are cut from the same cloth but are totally different stories. Shooting a short before your feature is always very helpful to me. It’s an efficient tool that exercises specific muscles to prepare you for the marathon.
The short is also my first American narrative work. I’d never worked before in English, with American crew and actors, and it helped me greatly before diving into the feature. As a team it helped us recruit actors and producers for Skin the feature.
Q: Danielle MacDonald stars in both films. What interests you about Danielle as an actor and what is your working relationship like?
A: The crazy thing is that I’ve known Dani for years, we share a close mutual friend and she used to hang out at our house. Once I saw her brilliant performance in Patti Cakes though, I knew I wanted her to play Krista in the short. I saw how she was becoming much in demand after that, and knew that the feature was a really different kind of role for her.
She is such a fresh presence on screen, and doesn’t have a diva bone in her body. If I could make every movie with her I would.
Q: You worked with producer and your wife Jamie Ray Newman on ‘Skin’. What is your dynamic like behind the camera?
A: Everyone knows that working with your spouse or family member is usually very tricky. But Jaime (who is an enormously talented, veteran actress) and I are basically the same person. We think the same, we have the same taste in art and we jive together on so many levels.
Jaime is involved in the primal process when there is only an idea or a concept in my head, through writing, production and post production and the end result. She’s my artistic muse, mental support and my “secret” weapon. It’s so rare to have not only the love of your life but your business partner who you trust so much. No ego, just straight pure creativity and joy.
Q: I was fascinated by the work of director Veronica Kedar at Raindance this year, particularly the impact life in Israel has had on her work. How has your upbringing influenced your work?
A: Growing up in a tough country like Israel, full of conflicts between Arabs and Jews, the secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, where war bursts every few years and busses and coffee shops explode in your neighbourhood, definitely shaped my work and who I am as an artist.
I grew up hearing Holocaust stories from my grandparents. I was required to do military service at 18 for three years, like all other Israelis, and though I did it begrudgingly and probably hated every second, it forced me to mature and focus on what I wanted in life. And now it breaks my heart to see the values I grew up with morph and melt away. The middle class is slowly disappearing, and I see it amongst my parents, my siblings who are struggling to make ends meet.
There is so much anger and divisiveness and blatant racism in Israel today, that I see a direct correlation to what’s happening in America. In many ways, I don’t recognise the beloved country I spent my whole life in.
Q: What does it mean to you to be making films in the US? How does it differ to making films in Israel?
A: The movies I grew up on. The music I listened to. The culture that shaped my life in the 80’s and 90’s was mostly American.
When I came to America at the age of 10 for the first time to visit, I was overwhelmed by the culture, diversity, history and opportunity this country had to offer. It left a deep impression on me. I actually told my parents I want to move to the States.
The main difference is the system. In Israel, there is a government committee that read scripts and grants the budget based on the quality of your material. They don’t care about how much money the movie is going to make, or who you want to star in it.
In the US, it’s all about the numbers. Israeli movies are seen by almost no one outside of the country. American films have a much bigger potential audience. I am extremely proud to have made several features in Israel.
Q: What has been your reaction to the acclaim ‘Skin’ has received, including shortlisting for an Academy Award?
A: Ten years ago my very first short film, Strangers, was shortlisted for the Oscar. I was in Israel and it didn’t seem real, this tiny seven minute film that we basically made in our backyard, but was seen by so many people. We didn’t get a nomination, and it completely broke my heart.
I never imagined I’d be here again, so thrilled and honoured is an understatement. But the truth is, I just really want people to see the short and feel their reactions. The Oscars is the best platform in the world for short films.
Q: What do you hope the future holds for you? Are there any subjects or issues that you are waiting to tackle through film?
A: My next feature is a script I wrote about my grandmother who joined a women’s cult in the 80’s, moved to Virginia and is still buried there today. It’s a crazy, wild story, with 35 women on a compound in the woods. My grandmother left our family when I was a teenager for a truer happiness in Virginia, and it was devastating to us. I wanted to explore what the cost of “happiness” is, and who suffers from it.
I am drawn to real life stories and attracted to material that pushes your mind. Not seeing any light rom coms in my immediate future!