The love story behind Skin, a film about conquering hate

Skin is a fact-based American drama about Bryon Widner, a skinhead who underwent dozens of operations to remove tattoos from all over his body after he left the white supremacist movement.

Jaime Ray Newman, Guy Nattiv and Pnina Blayer, the artistic director of the Haifa International Film Festival (photo credit: ZIV AMAR)
Jaime Ray Newman, Guy Nattiv and Pnina Blayer, the artistic director of the Haifa International Film Festival
(photo credit: ZIV AMAR)
“For years, I was going to every film festival in the US just to see Jaime,” said Guy Nattiv, the director of the Oscar-winning short film, Skin, talking about his wife, Jaime Ray Newman, who produced that film as well as the full-length version, which was just screened at the Haifa International Film Festival and which opens throughout Israel on October 24. 

As Nattiv and Newman walk around the press room at the Haifa film festival, greeting old friends and new admirers, they show people pictures of their baby daughter, Alma, who is a little over a year old and who is napping with her grandmother. As they speak, it becomes clear that the story behind the success of Skin is inextricably linked to their love story. 

Skin is a fact-based American drama about Bryon Widner, a skinhead who underwent dozens of operations to remove tattoos from all over his body after he left the white supremacist movement. The Oscar-winning short version was co-written by Israeli writer/director Sharon Maymon.

The feature-length film stars Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Defiance) who underwent an extraordinary transformation for the role, gaining weight, shaving his head and wearing makeup that makes it look as if most of his body is covered in tattoos. The supporting cast includes such distinguished actors as Bill Camp (The Night Of), Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Bates Motel) and Danielle Macdonald (Unbelievable, Pattycakes, Bird Box). Mike Colter, who played Lemond Bishop on The Good Wife, portrays Daryle Jenkins, an African-American political activist who helped Widner leave the skinhead community. The movie received rave reviews when it was released in the US and in parts of Europe earlier this year. But getting both the long and the short version of the film made was quite a struggle, one which was not without stress but which seems to have strengthened the director/producer couple’s relationship.

“When we first met, we bonded over things we had in common,” said Newman, an actress who who appeared in such films as Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. “And part of that was a shared love of foreign and indie cinema,” she said, citing the films of directors Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve as some of the movies they discovered together.

Nattiv is an Israeli director whose films, Strangers, Magic Men and The Flood (Mabul) were critical and commercial hits both at home and abroad. Newman had seen and enjoyed Nattiv’s short version of Strangers, but didn’t meet him until years later. They had a long distance relationship for several years, even after they married.

“I knew that I needed to a create a US feature so that we could be in the same country,” Nattiv said. 

He stumbled across the story behind Skin by accident, when he read an article about Widner and the documentary, Erasing Hate by Bill Brummel. “I called my wife and said, ‘I think I found my my first [American] feature.’ ”

First they had to convince Widner, who had once been part of an extremely racist and anti-Semitic group, to entrust his story to an Israeli and an American Jew. Arranging a meeting with the former skinhead wasn’t easy, because “he’s still in something like witness protection” after breaking with his former white supremacist comrades, who might want to get revenge on him.

While he was expecting “a psychopath,” Nattiv was pleasantly surprised by Widner. “He had been a damaged street kid and one of these [white supremacist] gangs took him in . . .He was normal, he was intelligent but he had a lot of demons. If he hadn’t become a skinhead, he could have been a professor of Norse mythology. .  . My grandfather, who is a Holocaust survivor, taught us to accept damaged people.” 

Widner said, “If I’m gonna give you my entire life, at least I’ve gotta know who you are,” so they spent time together. Nattiv spoke passionately about his commitment to tell Widner’s story with sensitivity and accuracy, and Widner signed over the rights to his life story on a napkin in a diner. 

Newman, who was as committed as Nattiv to bringing the story to the screen, decided to become one of the producers of the film.

“Producing was a natural progression for me,” said Newman,“As an actor, you’re at the mercy of that ringing phone. . . Producing gives you more control. And it was something I was always interested in. I used my bat mitzvah money to put on plays.” 

But getting the rights to the story was only the first hurdle, the couple would learn. “I didn’t want to do a shmaltzy  version of a redemption story,” said Nattiv. Widner, who, ironically, works as a tattoo artist today, did not have any easy time breaking away from the skinheads and still struggles with drinking. So while the story was strong, it was not a typical Hollywood story. 

Nattiv and Newman’s agents sent the script for the full-length film to 55 producers and all of them passed on it. 

“They said, ‘The script is great, we love it but Hillary is about to become president and there’s not real skinhead problem in America today.’”

Feeling stuck, Nattiv realized that he had had great success with short films in the past, and he enlisted Maymon, who had co-written Magic Men with Nattiv and Erez Tadmor, to co-write a short film.

“I brought in my Israeli posse,” he said, talking about Maymon, as well as editors and sound technicians and others. They shot the short in five days and edited it quickly. 

Nattiv and Newman financed the film together, “using all our retirement money,” said Newman, and they were able to attract some investors, including Trudie Styler, the producer and actress who is married to Sting.

“I sent it out to the world to show that this is what I can do with American actors,” he said. “In the meantime, things had changed. Trump had been elected and Charlottesville had happened.” Suddenly, a film about an American skinhead made sense. “Producers had the guts to finance the movie,” said Nattiv. One of those who got on board as producer was Oren Moverman, the Israeli director/writer/producer who now works mainly in the US.

Life got really busy once the full-length version was finished and had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018 and they learned the short film was on the Oscar shortlist and then was nominated for an Oscar. They campaigned for the award in earnest. “We turned our dining room into a war room,” said Newman. They were also taking care of their baby, who was just a few months old, “So we just weren’t sleeping.”

In spite of their efforts, they didn’t think they would actually win an Oscar. When the winner was announced, “Everyone who was there from the film stormed on stage, we celebrated as a unit,” Newman said. You could see their smiles of happiness tinged with disbelief, as they accepted the award. 

Although they obviously delighted in reminiscing about this moment of triumph, Newman, ever the producer, took this opportunity to bring up their next project. “The great thing about Guy is when Skin wasn’t getting made, he wrote his next screenplay.” 

It’s a strange, fact-based story about a cult that his grandmother joined, and the film will be set abroad, not in Israel. 

Newman had more to tell me, but this couple, who are both extremely down to earth and yet have also become part of the glittering Hollywood scene, had to go do a television interview. It couldn’t be postponed, because they had something else important on their schedule: They wanted to be there when Alma woke up from her nap.