Before Making Features, These Filmmakers Cut Their Movies Down to Size


Put the director Guy Nattiv and his wife, the producer Jaime Ray Newman, on a short list of people who received Oscars for a side gig. “Skin,” this year’s winner in the live-action short category, has a twin movie that opened Friday. Running feature length, it has the same title as the short and similar subject matter (a white supremacist faces the implications of his racism). But it has a markedly different focus.

Features, especially from independent filmmakers, often have their origins in shorts that screen at film festivals. In recent years, “Pariah,” “Short Term 12” and “Whiplash” have traveled that path. What’s more unusual with “Skin” is that the feature is not simply an expansion of the short, but, in Nattiv’s view, its opposite.

“One has hope; the other doesn’t,” he said by phone. “One is grim; the other one is a redemption story, in a way.” And the redemption story — the feature — is the one that Nattiv, a 46-year-old filmmaker from Israel, had planned for his American filmmaking debut.

The initial idea was to make a film about Bryon Widner, a former skinhead who, after renouncing his racist beliefs, went through a painstaking process of removing the hate-filled tattoos that covered his body. In the film’s version of events, Bryon (Jamie Bell), raised by white-supremacist “parents” who took him in (Bill Camp and Vera Farmiga), must choose between his surrogate family and life with Julie (Danielle Macdonald), a mother of three who grew up conversant with hate groups but has distanced herself from them.

According to Nattiv, his pitches of Widner’s story before the 2016 presidential election, Charlottesville or the Tree of Life synagogue massacre were met with skepticism. “Everybody said, look, it’s a great script, really,” he recalled. “But we don’t see how this thing is relevant.”

After Newman pointed out that, with two of his Israeli features, having a short film helped to get a feature made, Nattiv resolved to make a smaller “Skin.” But Widner’s life story couldn’t be compressed into 20 minutes, and he didn’t take the approach used in “Whiplash.” (The short version of that film is essentially one scene from the feature.) When his friend Sharon Maymon, who shares writing credit on the short, gave him the idea for an ending, he moved into pure fiction. The resulting movie concerned a racist (Jonathan Tucker) who, after assaulting a man outside a supermarket, is kidnapped.

While the short, completed in 2017, did help get the feature made, it wound up having an afterlife of its own. It qualified for the Oscars just as the feature, finished in 2018 and first shown at that year’s Toronto International Film Festival, was making the rounds at film festivals.

Such happenstance isn’t in itself unusual. The Jenny Slate comedy “Obvious Child” (2014) began as a short that its director, Gillian Robespierre, posted to Vimeo in 2009. She said the short was never meant to be a calling card for a feature, but more of a counterweight to depictions of unplanned pregnancies in other movies. “It was really just a gut reaction to what we felt was lacking in movies and in our culture and in the conversation,” she said.

But word of mouth attracted the attention of Jezebel, one of a handful of news media outlets that praised the short, at around the same time that Slate, who starred in both versions, made her first appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” Robespierre said Slate’s exposure helped to create a stir around the movie, and that the positive response led to the writing of a feature that fleshed out details of the heroine’s job and family. (It also filmed at a Planned Parenthood, as opposed to Robespierre’s mother’s podiatrist’s office.)

“The Babadook” (2014), directed by the Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, took an even longer journey from short to feature. It began as a 2005 short called “Monster,” filmed at a time when, Kent said, it was “a miracle to get something made and have it be similar to what was in my head.

“I was inspired by a friend who was having difficulty with her son, who kept seeing a monster everywhere,” she said. “So I had the idea, what if that monster was actually real?”

Depending on your interpretation, “monster” might even refer to the child. In the feature, though, the monster, a behatted imp known as the Babadook, became even more blatantly allegorical — a stand-in for the mother’s grief and depression.

Kent said the seed of that idea was in the short, “but you just don’t get the time in a short to explore all those elements.”

By the same token, not every feature can be a short. In Kent’s latest film, “The Nightingale,” which opens Aug. 2, the sustained intensity of the violence over 136 minutes is crucial to the film’s impact. Kent couldn’t picture a miniature version.

“I don’t know where you’d start,” she said. “The short films that often don’t work — they’re trying to tackle too many subjects in the one short.”

Nattiv thinks the two versions of “Skin” stand alone, but believes that they complement each other.

And coming up on his wish list of projects? A narrative short inspired by one of his fellow Oscar nominees: Marshall Curry’s short documentary “A Night at the Garden.”

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