Anthony Fabian’s “Skin,” which premiered in Toronto in 2008, and was a finalist for the Audience Award, arrives in US theaters today. The film follows the life of Sandra Laing, a phenotypically black woman born of a white couple in South Africa. indieWIRE spoke to Fabian via e-mail, asking him some questions about his experience bringing “Skin” to the screen and to America.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I first stumbled onto a film set at the age of seven. My mother was an actress and had been cast in a bank commercial, which was looking for a little boy to play her son. I auditioned and – unaware of nepotism and type casting – got the part. That day of filming was probably the most exciting of my life and I was hooked. I spent the next ten years immersed in film, television and theatre and remained committed to the idea of being an actor until my late teens, but few projects I auditioned for held much appeal. I started writing, thinking I could do better.
By the end of my sophomore year at UCLA, my passion had shifted from acting to writing and, having written a feature-length screenplay, I decided to try my luck at the Film and TV School. Given the highly competitive nature of the department, I was astonished to be accepted. Although my focus was screenwriting, I thoroughly enjoyed the courses on film theory, history and criticism. The auteur course – focusing on Orson Wells, Max Ophuls, Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski and Joseph Losey, had a powerful influence on my development as a filmmaker. I discovered the importance of finding one’s own voice and vision. Not long after graduation, I realized screenwriting would only satisfy my creative hunger up to a point: like most people with crazed, megalomaniac tendencies, I felt I had a calling to direct.
But in order to direct, one needs to know rather a lot about a lot. I set about constructing my knowledge base through a number of disciplines: working in script development (I was a reader for a literary agent, a production company and then a studio), exhibition (Landmark Theaters, where I wrote blurbs for the monthly Calendars and shipped prints), production (as an assistant director, as well as a music supervisor) – but also in other disciplines, notably the theatre and opera.
I finally bit the bullet in my late 20s and made my first post-film-school short – a half-hour drama called Bach & Variations. I went on to direct and produce four more shorts, four full-length documentaries and over a dozen classical music promos before I got my first shot at directing a feature: “Skin.”
Please discuss how the idea for “Skin” came about and evolved.
Early one morning in July 2000, I was in my kitchen listening to BBC Radio 4, when, over breakfast, I first heard the story of Sandra Laing – a black child born to white parents, unaware of their black ancestry, living in apartheid South Africa. The BBC’s blind broadcaster Peter White had gone to Johannesburg to interview Sandra as part of his series, No Triumph, No Tragedy, exploring the particular forms of prejudice experienced by the disabled.
“No one in their right mind would consider being black a disability,” he reported, “Not until, as in South Africa during apartheid, the whole apparatus of the state was employed to exclude and disempower, in the same way that disability is often said to do.”
Sandra’s testimony left me stunned. For days afterward, I had a lump in my throat whenever I thought about it. As a director seeking a strong subject for his first feature film, I recognised its socio-political and philosophical significance, its mythic qualities, and its emotional power.
What most compelled me was the dynamic between this child and her parents – the complex web of acceptance, rejection and reconciliation woven by each character. The need to be loved and accepted is very strong in all of us. So, too, is the search for identity that lies at the heart of Sandra’s story: “Who am I? Where do I belong?” (Perhaps not surprisingly, these are also the central questions of Barack Obama’s affecting memoir, Dreams from My Father.)
Why, then, did it prove so difficult to bring such a fascinating and important story to the big screen – and once completed, to get it seen? Very few films have an easy ride – but I believe the obstacles blocking this one were, and continue to be, the same obstacles Sandra experienced throughout her life: people’s inherent distrust of ‘otherness’. The other side of tribalism is exclusion. And therein lies our character’s central dilemma, with which we, as filmmakers, have also been burdened: the assumption by most of the world’s distributors that the public is too racist to see a film like “Skin” – and that it would be a box office failure.
The twelve prizes we have received to date, and Sophie Okonedo’s recent nomination for a BIFA Award for best actress, suggest to me the public might, after all, have the last say.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making “Skin,” including your influences (if any).
“Skin” is an intimate family drama, set against a vast canvas: the last 30 years of apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa. Despite our budgetary restrictions, my aspirations were admittedly more David Lean/Dr. Zhivago than Oren Peli/Paranormal Activity… There were some big set-pieces and lots of sets and locations (over 60), lots of speaking parts (77) and very few shooting days (45) – but somehow, I think we managed to give the film a sense of scale and an authentic period feel.
Swimming against the fashionable tide for biopics, my approach was to tell the story in an (almost) linear fashion and to be transparent as a filmmaker. The story itself is very complicated, full of information that is not known to most audiences – to do with genetics, apartheid, the race classification system, and Afrikaans culture. I thought it was important not to impose myself visibly as a director, but to make the story the star, and try to do it justice, adopting a classic, fluid style; I didn’t want the audience to be aware of fancy camera moves, but rather, to concentrate on the characters. Racism is a tough subject to do subtly, which was another huge challenge.
“Skin” is also a deeply emotional story and its impact, I believe, relies on the cumulative effect of going on Sandra Laing’s journey. Much as I admired Marion Cottillard’s performance in ‘La vie en rose’, I remember feeling nothing much by the end because there was no emotional structure to the film. Had we split up SKIN’s story and messed around with the timeline, I doubt we would have had the overwhelming, visceral response we’ve been getting at every screening.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
The development of the script took five years and five screenwriters (including me). Need I say more?
US distribution was completely unforthcoming – we had the misfortune to premiere in Toronto in the year when all the specialty divisions of the studios were closing down, so despite being a finalist for the audience prize – beating out 295 other movies – no one picked us up. But I’m thrilled that we have found, in Mike Thomas/Jour de Fete, a passionate advocate and careful nurturing that will, I believe, benefit the film more than if we’d been mishandled by a studio more concerned with its higher budget pictures.
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
We tried for a long time to cast two big name actors to play the parents, with a view to making a South African discovery in the lead role of Sandra. But we soon found no A-lister was willing to play second lead to an unknown actor, in a low-budget independent film set in South Africa, by a first time director…
After we’d spent two years going down a lot of blind alleys, Sophie Okonedo – nominated for an Academy Award for Hotel Rwanda – became one of the three or four black actresses able to inspire confidence in distributors and investors. And luckily for us, she loved the script and committed to the project in a matter of weeks.
Thereafter, it was a matter of trying to pool together the often incompatible pudding of funding sources that most European, independent films rely on: presales from several territories, including a cornerstone sale to UGC PH in France; some equity; some gap, and a bit of government funding. It took more or less two years from the time the script was ready to go until the cameras rolled. Some people would say that’s quick – except that getting the script ready was a very lengthy and time-consuming process. But it was certainly better to take time over writing a good script than speed into shooting a bad one.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
There are so many influences, it could fill several pages. In brief – apart from the already directors mentioned above – and all the art and theatre there isn’t time to describe, I will list, (in alphabetical order, lest undue meaning is construed by the sequence) a few directors whose work I’ve studied and admired: Robert Altman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Bob Fosse, Michael Hanneke, Eric Rohmer. I guess you could say I’m ‘old school’ – but most recently I loved Lee Daniel’s Precious, Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (haven’t seen Fish Tank yet) and I did admire the directing of Slumdog despite all the hype.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
My current slate – projects I’m writing, developing with other writers, or scripts that have been sent to me since “Skin” began the festival circuit – includes a wide range of stories and genres – a romcom, an eco-thriller, a drama set in Mississippi, a ballet movie, a Regency bodice ripper, a social history set in 1950s England… What links them all, I believe, is that they are all character driven, and, I hope, have something to say, something that will remain with audiences after the lights go up.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
If you are serious about being in the business – persevere, persevere, persevere. To put it another way: never give up.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Screening “Skin” for the South African Parliament – who immediately requested a second screening, so that all their members could revisit their recent history. And last night, we screened the film at the United Nations Headquarters. Apart from the difficulty of getting in and out of the building – it was a powerful occasion and felt as though “Skin” had landed on its feet.