When director Guy Nattiv read an article about a white supremacist, he immediately reached out to the person asking if he could do a feature film about him. Bryon Widner was a former Neo-Nazi skinhead who once had extreme views of hate and racism, but then turns his back on the violent life and hatred to transform his life.
Nattiv, an Israeli director wanted to tell his story, but this was before Trump, before the rise of Nationalism in America and no one wanted to back the film. Nattiv’s rejection was that this wasn’t America and Neo-Nazism didn’t exist here. But it did. Nattiv went on to make a short film of the same title, and would win the Oscar. He also wanted to make his film because Trump got elected. Charlottesville happened and Hillary did not become President. The film that Nattiv was making became timely and urgent.
As Nattiv tells Widner’s story, he thoroughly examines the cycle of hatred and racism. I caught up with Nattiv to talk about his powerful film Skin and how he convinced Jamie Bell to play Widner.
The last time we spoke, it was before the Oscars, but this started for you five years ago. What happened with the feature back then and what was the response?
I was in a long-distance relationship with Jamie. I was moving to America. I had read this article about Bryon Widner and was completely blown away by it. I went to New Mexico to meet him and his wife. He gave us his life rights on a napkin, and I started writing the script with him as a consultant.
It was four or five years of me writing it, and the response we got was, “Listen, it’s a great script, but it’s not really reality-based. We don’t have so many skinheads in America. It might be good in Germany, but not for America. Obama is President, and Hillary is about to become President, and it’s not a real thing.” I thought, “Guys, I did the research. I know what’s going on, and I’ve seen those groups.” People didn’t want to put their money in a story they didn’t think was real.
We did the short. Oren Moverman, Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler saw the short, and they knew it was something special and they wanted to be involved in the feature. While we were shooting it, Trump got elected and Charlottesville happened. The synagogue massacre happened and other incidents happened. The producers suddenly saw something different, and the reaction was different.
We sent the short to the film festivals, and the feature was in the making. That’s how they met each other. It’s a completely different route for both of them.
How much did it change after Trump got elected, and after Charlottesville happened?
It changed dramatically. Especially with the rise of the right-wing, it changed the attitude to the movie and the subject, especially how important it became for the young people to see the movie. It almost became an educational tool, but not only. It’s not only about entertainment. It’s about bringing those stories to the audience because it’s important for them to see. Part of what we’re talking about is a dialogue and change. It became important, and that’s why we had all the reactions from the Christian and Jewish communities, of being able to show this film in many places.
It’s what we did with the short. The short got into over 100 film festivals. The feature has been bought by over 55 countries around the world and is about to be shown in colleges. We are now invited to give lectures in colleges and do Ted Talks, and we’re invited to talk about change and redemption about someone who used to be a monster but now wants to be a human.
How much time did you spend with Bryon, and what about him resonated with you?
To sit with Bryon and talking to someone who is reformed, that was already an amazing experience. When I met him, I saw Erasing Hate, the documentary. That was about his transformation. I got him after that.
I was scared to meet him at first, but it was my grandfather, who is a holocaust survivor, a hero grandfather who said, “You have to do this movie. You have to meet him. You have to see if he’s real. You have to see if his heart and his intentions are real. If it’s real, you have to tell the story. If it’s bullshit, don’t.” For me, I met him with my wife. He Skyped with my grandfather, and he spoke to him. That was a tremendous moment for my grandfather.
You cast, Jamie Bell. A most unexpected choice. What was it about him, and what did you say to him?
It was Owen’s idea to go to Jamie. He sat with him for two weeks before I met him. He saw a man; he didn’t see a kid. Then he said, “Remember Billy Elliot? Forget about it because this is not the man I saw.” I drove from New York to Virginia to meet Jamie. We talked for hours and hours. I told him he could pull it off. He didn’t think he could do it. He said, “Look at me. I’m scrawny.” I told him to trust me and go down this path together. He was a man. He had a kid. He had a dark past with his father, and he said, “I’m afraid, but it’s a good thing because I need to feel something when I’m getting into a role, and being afraid is part of that.”
He gained 20 pounds. He walked around in the tattoos. He met with Bryon and spent two weeks with him. He went into the mental mindset of what it means to be a monster. It was so fascinating to see him. He was so humble, and he’s such a hard worker. I learned so much from him, I want to work with him again.
Skin Is In Theaters and On Demand July 26