by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Guy Nattiv has been creating short films in his native Israel since 2003. His first American film won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short last year and gave him the opportunity to turn the project into a feature, which interestingly had been written first.
Nattiv sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about the process that lead to the film getting made as well as his own creative practice.
John Bucher: I understand that you actually had the script for the feature version of Skin before you created a short film out of it. Can you talk about how you take the story that’s in the short and move that to a feature without losing the emotional punch that the original has?
Guy Nattiv: So, not every feature film can be a short film, and not every short film can be a feature film. When the (feature) script was ready, Obama was President and people told me that Neo-Nazi skinheads are not really a thing anymore in the States. It’s like only a couple of people in the Midwest. I did my research and I saw that’s not the case.
All my features were shorts before — Strangers and The Flood and Offside. I didn’t have anything moving here in Hollywood and I was frustrated. My wife told me, “Let’s make a short like you did with the features in Israel.” I saw an article about this Neo-Nazi’s skinhead father who taught his son how to shoot Mexicans at the border in Arizona. Then one night, the father came home totally drunk at two am and the son thought he was an African American intruder and he took his father’s gun, exactly like the father taught him, and shot him in the head.
We wrote it over a weekend. My wife and I put all our retirement money in the short. We brought in Danielle McDonald, who is our neighbor, and Jonathan Tucker, the amazing Jonathan Tucker. Everyone came together just to make this story happen. And then Trump got elected, Charlottesville happened, the synagogue massacre… and it became crazy. The US was on fire, and that’s when producers sold the short and understood that’s in the zeitgeist, and they agreed that it’s important to tell the story.
There were three people with goals and vision. Oren Moverman, who is an amazing producer. He’s producing my next film and he’s just a big brother to me. Trudie Styler, who is Sting’s wife, and Celine Rattray, from Maven Pictures, who said, “Sting saw the short and he said it’s one of the best shorts he’s ever seen. He told his wife we’ve got to be involved in the feature.” So they came on board and we made the feature happen.
While we made the feature happen, we sent the short to film festivals. We didn’t get into Cannes, we didn’t get into Sundance, we didn’t get into Berlin, which is my second home. And I was like you know what, whatever, it made the feature happen, fine, you know? We shot the feature and it was amazing. While we were in Toronto, I’m getting this phone call from the Academy that we got onto the Short List. And I was like “What?” We sent it to more film festivals and then the rest is history.
John Bucher: The thing that kept coming to mind for me as I was watched the film, was about our concepts of mythology. The main character is trading in the mythology that he’s embraced for all these years, that’s an embodied mythology with the symbols that are on his skin, and he becomes a man without a mythology, trying to redefine who he is. I saw that as a parallel to what the United States is going through right now — shedding our past mythology and having no new mythology to embrace. How do you see mythology in the film?
Guy Nattiv: The funny thing is that they (the Neo-Nazis) believe that they are Vikings, but they actually don’t have any connection to Vikings. And Bryon Widner (who the film is based on) actually told me, very secretly, that his great, great grandmother is Jewish. They wanted to believe in something, and they took the Viking bullshit, but they don’t have the bloodline, they don’t have any connection to Norse mythology. They are just reading about it. But people need a sense of something to believe in and a leader.
John Bucher: They need a mythology.
Guy Nattiv: Exactly. You can live years and years on mythology.
John Bucher: How do you take this story of a man who’s actually had these experiences in real life and trim away things? You’ve got to compress time. You’ve got to still keep the heart of the story, the narrative that’s happening. How do you approach that?
Guy Nattiv: What I did in the feature was actually look at a documentary called Raising Hate, that I had seen before. Every twenty-five minutes in the film, they stop and go into a body treatment — a kind of physical transition that I did in the feature, which helped me to jump cut in time. So that’s what I did, and you’re going through this physical and mental transition without you even noticing it throughout the movie until he’s completely blank, until he’s completely free of tattoos.
There’s another film that I love — it’s called Five by Two. It’s a French film. It’s about a couple and they are going backwards in time, but it jumps in time, and I kind of like this way of telling stories. I feel that the audience is more open to that.
John Bucher: Are you someone that writes every day? Do you put some stories down and come back to them?
Guy Nattiv: I love those questions because that’s what I ask other screenwriters. Everybody has their own way. I’m like a Rabbi — like a student in a synagogue. I wake up every day, I drink my coffee, and then go and write. I like music. I like people, so I write in a WeWork office. I’m writing and writing and writing until five pm.
I’m on a mission, I’m writing every single day. Sometimes on Shabbat, sometimes on Sundays. I’m a worker. That’s why my wife (Jamie Ray Newman) and I work together. She’s producing my films because we understand each other. I work every day because I believe in the marathon. You need to keep running because if you stop — and there are stops, you know — getting back to it is hard. So, I need this day by day by day by day, and sometimes I take a weekend off just to go back and read it, to have perspective, but I love to write. It’s a blitz for me.
Skin will be in theaters and On Demand July 26.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.