Guy Nattiv originally tried to make a feature. The Israeli-born director had already accomplished this feat many times over in his home country, but nobody in the States wanted to fund his controversial idea about a homegrown white supremacist. So he thought he'd make a short instead.
Then, as Nattiv told Uproxx, "Trump gets elected and Charlottesville happens." With hate crimes now in the political zeitgeist, Nattiv got the feature funded, but he still wanted to make the short. That's how he ended up with both a feature and short version of Skin—the former of which premiered at TIFF, and the latter of which recently won an Oscar.
Skin, the short, is a fable about what happens when a kid gets indoctrinated with hate. We meet the young Midwestern boy as he and his skinhead father bond over rough and tumble play. As we follow the family over a matter of days, we hear the father spew racist invective. Then, when the family encounters a black man at the grocery store, an altercation ensues, and a series of events is set into motion that will change the boy's life irreparably. The film is a harrowing cinematic treatise on the nature of hate, told from the perspective of a youngster who doesn't yet fully understand the beliefs his father has modeled for him.
No Film School caught up with Nattiv after his Oscar win to discuss the current state of the short film in the industry, how winning an Oscar means you just have to hustle harder, what's next for him, and more.
No Film School: I read that your film was inspired by a true story. How did that form the basis of what became Skin?
Guy Nattiv: A good friend of mine, Sharon Maymon, who was also my co-screenwriter, came up with the original idea of learning how it feels to be a racist in this country. Then, I saw an article in the newspaper about a father who taught his 10-year-old son violence and hate. This 10-year-old took his gun and shot his father after he thought that he was an African-American intruder.
Skin is also a feature film, you know. I started writing the feature before the short. But no one wanted to put money in the feature originally, so I wanted to make a short before. [Sharon and I] wrote it together over a weekend.
"The second you win an Oscar doesn't mean that you're going to have success again. It's not a blank check. You need to work hard—even harder than you worked before."
NFS: Wow. Over one weekend. That's incredible.
Nattiv: Yeah, you know, sometimes things take more time. Sometimes [ideas] come fast. But yeah, we wrote it and we had the perfect ending. We just felt that we got it. So my wife and I put all our retirement fund into this short, and we decided to make it happen before the feature.
NFS: Did you try to raise money independently before you put your own money in?
Nattiv: Actually, we didn't, because we wanted to do it fast. When you start raising money for a short it can take years and years. Plus, we thought that after we did the short, we could always [license it] and get our money back, or at least get a little bit of our money back.
NFS: How did the other elements, such as casting and locations, come together once you had the financing in place?
Nattiv: Jessica Sherman our casting director, came on board, and she brought on talent. Johnathan Tucker, Danielle McDonald—we knew them from before. And [Jessica] cast the kid. It came together kind of quickly, I would say.
NFS: Did you encounter any unexpected creative challenges as you were getting ready to go into production?
Nattiv: Well, this is not a short about two ladies in a room in one house drinking tea. We had dogs. We had tattoos. We had kids. We had fist fights. We had couch surfing. I mean, this was a hard short film to produce.
NFS: How did you tackle some of those challenges?
Nattiv: Well, we brought professional people that my wife knew, because my wife is an actress and she has been working in the industry for 14 years. She was able to bring on some of the finest people in the industry.
It was a big, big production. Most of the people worked for almost no money. It was a big hustle. But everybody thought it was a very important movie to make, so they came with a purpose. We weren't just making a short for entertainment. It was to educate people about what's going on in this country.
NFS: What kinds of conversations did you have with the actors about what it's like to portray somebody who has learned hatred?
Nattiv: My actors did so much research. They really dove into this and understood the importance of [the subject matter]. They met with people. They saw documentaries. They were in their own space of researching. So, I didn't need to talk to them too much.
"A short is a way to massage your filmmaking muscles. It's almost like running a short course before the marathon."
NFS: Did you learn anything new while directing this film that you'll take with you on to your next project?
Nattiv: Well, this is not my first movie. I've done three features and five shorts before in Israel. It was my first U.S. short, but I'm kind of a veteran in Israel. But, I did learn a lot about working in the American system, with American actors, because it's quite different than the European system.
NFS: Were you surprised by the ways it was different working in America?
Nattiv: Yeah. Here [in America], everything is about not being sued. You need to have permits for everything. In Israel, you can film improvised fighting. You can't do that here because you need stunt doubles. You need them to not to get hurt. If they get hurt, they can sue. That was something I needed to get used to here—there's much more order to everything.
Also, working with kids, you're limited to a few hours. I don't think that in Europe and Israel it's so limited. There's more freedom about working with kids.
All of this can create a lack of freedom. It's much hard to do an improvised film here in the States. And I'm not talking about only dialogue. I'm talking about actions and cinematography it—things that were not planned ahead.
'Skin'NFS: What kind of new opportunities have you come across by virtue of the Oscar win?
Nattiv: It's all about your next project. It took four and a half years to get my last feature done, so hopefully, now it will take less time because I will get the money faster.
I guess that an Oscar, or any big award that you get at TIFF or Berlin or wherever, it always paves the way for your next movie. That's the goal. As creators, we want to have a continuance of creation, right? You hope that people that either worked with you in the past or heard about your project or about the award would want to be in business with you. Otherwise, with every project, you need to prove yourself from scratch.
You've got to be ready with your feet on the ground. The second you win an Oscar doesn't mean that you're going to have success again. It's not a blank check. You need to work hard—even harder than you worked before because now everybody is looking at you like, "Okay, what's next for him?" You've got to be focused, and you've got to learn that it's only going to help you create the feature and bring people to work with you for the next time. Which is great.
"A lot of people asked me, 'Why are you doing another short? You don't need to. You just won the Oscar.' But it's not that I need to do another short; I want to do another short."
NFS: It is great. Do you have a next project that you're excited about?
Nattiv: Yes. I wrote another script over the last four years about my grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor and became a cult member in this women's cult in Virginia. The underlying question is: Can you be happy if you have demons, like from the Holocaust? If you have those dark, dark thoughts, is there a way for you to be happy? I wouldn't say it's just about happiness either—I would say it's also about feeling complete. That's what my grandmother went through, and that's what my family tried to help her, or help themselves, deal with: a tormented soul.
NFS: That sounds incredibly interesting.
Nattiv: Thank you so much. And I'm reading a lot of scripts right now. A lot of them are not my cup of tea, but some are. I don't want to do a bunch of movies just for money. It's not my thing. You know, when I moved to the states four and a half years ago, my good friend gave me this picture in a frame. In the picture was a sentence from Isadora Duncan: "You were once wild here. Don't let them tame you." Meaning, whatever you do, don't do it for the money. Don't do it for lack of soul. Do it because you feel passionate to tell the story. That's what I want to do for the rest of my creative life.
I don't want to do The Conjuring 5. I know it's a lot of money, but it's not my style. When I look at directors like PT Anderson and Denis Villeneuve, I see directors who are doing deep stuff. Even when Villeneuve is doing a sci-fi, it's a soulful, spiritual, poetic, and philosophical. That's what I want to be. That's my inspiration.
'Skin'NFS: What is the role of short films right now?
Nattiv: All my life, I did shorts before my features. A short is a way to massage your filmmaking muscles. It's almost like running a short course before the marathon. You know, just to try things out. What do you want to try to say? What is your visual concept?
Today, shorts today are getting to screen in cool places, including online. And we were brought by Fox Searchlight in theaters.
NFS: Tell me about your deal with Fox Searchlight!
Nattiv: Well, they bought us because they felt the social and political message was important. They wanted to help us bring this movie to awareness.
I think it's very important for filmmakers to do shorts before features. People who want to get their feature made, and they don't have a chance, or no one is giving them money...I think the short can create that opportunity.
By the way, even now, I'm going to make a short before every feature, even when I do have the money. I love shorts.
NFS: I'm so happy to hear that. I think so many people think about them as just calling cards to features. But it sounds like you really love the form.
Nattiv: A lot of people asked me, "Why are you doing another short? You don't need that. You just won the Oscar." But I'm going to do another short! It's not that I need to do another short; I want to do another short. It's fun. It's cool that a story that can be told in 10 or 20 minutes. It's so powerful!
'Skin'NFS: What do you think that Americans—or, really, everyone across the world, because this is an international phenomenon—can do to kind of change this tradition of racism and hate for the next generation?
Nattiv: The movie is set in America, but [this happens] not only in America. This move is about Israel; it's about Europe; it's about the world.
To be honest, it's all about education. You see kids who become brainwashed. It doesn't matter if it's a kid from Africa, a kid from the Middle East, or some kind of a skinhead from America. They all have the same problem. It's all about the fact that they're educated to hate. They feed them hate. So we need to educate our kids about love and what compassion is.
I have a six-month-old now. What kind of world are my wife and I bringing our daughter into? What is the education that I want her to have? You know, she's just a sponge—she inhales everything she hears. Kids are naïve. Whatever you teach them, they're just going to imitate you. So, it's all about educating your kids to be a better person. It sounds like a cliché, but it's actually true.
As filmmakers, we have a huge responsibility because we can create conversation. We have a very powerful tool and we can change things with it.