Oscar-Winning Director Guy Nattiv On How Racism, Anti-Semitism Inspired ‘Skin’

Jamie Bell as reformed skinhead Bryon Widner in the feature film "Skin." Courtesy of A24 Films

When Guy Nattiv was trying to shop his feature film “Skin,” about the horrors of racism in America to Hollywood studios he had a hard time getting his, well, skin in the game.

The Israeli director, who’s now based in Los Angeles, couldn’t get a green light. White supremacy, he was told, wasn’t a problem in the United States.

He decided to make a short film with the same name as a proof of concept. With an idea supplied by writer Sharon Maymon, the two penned “Skin” about a neo-Nazi (Jonathan Tucker, who now stars on Showtime’s “City On A Hill”) who assaults a black man. The neo-Nazi is later kidnapped by the black man’s friends, and rather than kill him, they do something that really gets under his skin.

Making the short was a gamble that paid off with the top of all industry awards, a 2019 Oscar for Best Live Action Short and accolades from critics.

“My wife and I put all our money into it,” Nattiv told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “We sent it to producers. Then we got different answers.”

Did Nattiv expect to win the Oscar?

“Not in a million years,” he said. “I always say it’s like your bar mitzvah, your wedding and the birth of your child on the same day.”




Guy Nattiv and Jamie Bell on set in the feature “Skin.” Courtesy of A24 Films

Now his feature film with the same title has just hit cinemas. This one is also about racism and neo-Nazis and inspired by the true story of Bryon Widner, a reformed skinhead. (Trailer below).

Widner became a skinhead as a teen when he joined several neo-Nazi groups and founded the Vinlanders Social Club. But in the process of getting married, becoming a father and almost getting shot he begins to question his ideology.

Helped by Daryle Lamont Jenkins (Mike Colter), an African-American man who assists white supremacists in leaving their communities, Widner left the group and cooperated with FBI investigations. The film chronicles his difficulty in leaving the group and having painful laser surgery to remove the menacing tattoos he had gotten while part of the group.

Jamie Bell delivers a jaw-dropping performance as Widner, a man who can be both ferocious and brutal, and at times caring and protective of the people he loves. (Interestingly, Bell previously played a Jewish man fighting Nazis as Asael Bielski in “Defiance,” though his brothers, played by Liev Schreiber and Daniel Craig, did a lot of the heavy lifting there. Here, Bell had to be menacing but not a caricature of evil.)

“Jamie did such an amazing preparation for the role,” Nattiv said. “I just needed to give him the platform. He gained 40 pounds. We went to the best tattoo artist… and made sure Jamie’s tattoos looked real…I told him that I wanted Byron to obviously not be a cliché. He’s a shark that is getting out of his bubble and out of his coma to be a real person.”

The movie is gritty and gripping and makes you wonder how a man could become a beast, and how a beast could return to a man. Days after the film opened on July 26, someone shot three people in California, reportedly an act of racism. A Jewish man was also shot outside a Miami synagogue last week.  More than 30 people were killed in shootings that took place over last weekend.

“The world keeps getting crazier and crazier,” Nattiv said, adding that the shooting at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year where 11 people were killed was jarring.

In a particularly evocative moment in the film, Bill Crane, who plays a white supremacist leader running for political office in Ohio, makes a chilling comment. Asians, Muslims, Jews and blacks “have right to live,” he says, but “maybe we should just make them leave.”

Asked about recent remarks by President Trump and his supporters calling for Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar to leave or be “sent home” and the rise in white supremacy, Nattiv said he was concerned about things he sees in the news, but his film was about one specific reality.

In an earlier interview, Nattiv told Haaretz that he did not feel as safe in America as he used to. Asked by this reporter to elaborate, he said he had one experience that surprised him when he was in Hollywood eating dinner with his wife and they spoke in Hebrew.

“Someone yelled at me, ‘Dirty Jew, go back to Israel!’” he said. “It shook me to my core because I believed, maybe outside of LA in a shady area, maybe. But this is my home right now and I’m getting these remarks just because I spoke Hebrew? I was shocked. That’s why I was determined to bring ‘Skin’ to the world.”

He said the biggest challenge was working on a shoe-string budget but he was determined that it not affect the quality of the film.

“It was basically peanuts,” he said of the budget. “We had to shoot 23 days in the middle of the winter with no trailers. Jamie Bell stayed with his tattoos for the entire shoot because we didn’t have the money or the time to take it off.”

Both Widner and Jenkins were both involved in helping to make the film. They “made the impossible happen,” Nattiv said. They both got a standing ovation when they showed up as surprise guests at a recent screening in Manhattan.

Nattiv first contacted Widner on Facebook after seeing the documentary “Erasing Hate” and got a response two months later. They initially chatted on Skype, and when they finally met at a coffee shop, it was the first time Nattiv had met a (former) neo-Nazi, and Widner, a Jew. (Coincidentally, the white supremacists rally in Charlottesville took place on the same day that Bell met Widner.)

The Anti-Defamation League will be showing the film to high school students. Nattiv said he’s more proud of that than a great review in The New York Times.

Nattiv said he has one small tattoo he got while in the Israeli Defense Forces.

A statement Maymon had told him really stuck with him and helped inspire their short, it was a quote from Ezekiel.

“And he said, ‘For me, it’s a sentence from the Torah…” Nattiv recounted Maymon as saying. ‘Our fathers ate bad fruit and our sons’ teeth will be rotten.’ (Chapter 18, Verse 2). It means whatever you teach your kids is going to end up biting you in the ass. It’s about education. You can preach to grown-ups, but the main thing is to go to teenagers… There’s a big mess but hopefully we can find a little light.”

Guy Nattiv

Skin

Anti-Semitism

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