Holding on to who you are by the skin of the teeth – a powerful and unsettling film
For his debut feature, filmmaker Matthew Wollin gives us The Skin of the Teeth.
When Josef arrives at John’s apartment for a date, their prickly energy slowly gives way to genuine chemistry. But, after swallowing a pill, Josef is soon plunged into a surreal interrogation of everything he is.
We caught up with Matthew Wollin for a behind-the-scenes look at the film.
What was your inspiration for this story?
My inspiration for The Skin of the Teeth comes from two places. The first was the idea of identity. How do we decide who we are? How much of what we see is really there, and how much is what we expect to see? And how do these questions play out within marginalised communities for whom the formation of identity is already such a charged endeavour?
It was also inspired by the mood in the air after the 2016 presidential election, which is when I wrote the script. I wanted to express some of the frustration I and others were feeling around topics from race to sexuality to the criminal justice system, and to do so in a way that was unsettling but still energising. To achieve a kind of catharsis through storytelling.
Are you drawing on any personal experiences for these characters?
I don’t think you can write anything that’s honest without drawing on personal experiences. Even when you’re writing characters who aren’t obviously similar to you, it’s a question of finding the strangeness in familiar parts of yourself and then articulating that in someone else’s voice.
In particular, the growth the main character Josef goes through—from thinking he’s one thing to realising he’s something else entirely—is definitely pulled from my personal experience of coming to terms with my own sexuality and identity. The film extrapolates on that theme so that every character is revealed to be just a little different than we thought at first. And more generally, I sympathise with Josef’s struggle to pinpoint the line between perception and reality—I think seeing, hearing, and understanding the world around us as it actually is is a deceptively hard thing to do.
What was the production process?
It took about a month to write the first draft of the script, and we shot the film in 13 days. My main memory of the shoot how is how incredibly hot it was. We were shooting in August in NYC in a windowless, air condition-less room full of hot lights and too many people. It was like filming inside a sauna.
But the production went smoothly, even with all the physical difficulties. We had only a few days of full pre-production and no rehearsal, and time for only a few takes on each setup. The actors nailed it from the get-go, and the crew was wonderful. The set was a relaxed and fun place to be, which is essential when you’re shooting in such gruelling conditions.
What was your casting process?
Casting was pretty straightforward – we posted an open casting call, had our favourite candidates submit video auditions, and had one in-person audition with the finalists. With all of the four main parts—Josef, John, Locarno, and Matthews—I knew which actors I wanted as soon as I saw their tapes. Each of them clicked with their role in that ineffable way where I could suddenly see the movie come to life. The in-person auditions served mostly to confirm that our working styles meshed, and that we’d be able to adjust the character quickly and productively, since we wouldn’t have a lot of time once we started shooting.
What does the film tell us about how gay men navigate identity?
I see The Skin of the Teeth as fundamentally being about identity in two ways. First, the general – how do we decide who we are? How do we decide who others are? I wanted to showcase the trickiness of those questions with a narrative that emphasises just how fluid our perception of identity actually is.
Second, the specific – how do people within marginalised communities—whether sexual, racial, or otherwise—decide how to articulate their identity to people external to that community? And, even more importantly, how do we articulate who we are within our own community?
For marginalised communities in particular, I think it can be intensely difficult to separate out the stereotypes that are placed on you from your own perceptions of yourself and others. Queer identity is often discussed monolithically, as though all gay people are the same. I think that’s both wrong and boring. I wanted to talk about how people decide who they are within their own community, and then how those identities then get translated to outsiders. I think the construction of queer identity is a beautifully complicated and multifaceted thing, and that’s where The Skin of the Teeth takes place – watching an identity being built and dissembled in real time, and feeling every little bit of it.
What do you hope that people feel when watching The Skin Of The Teeth?
I hope The Skin of the Teeth surprises and grabs people, that it sucks them in and takes them on a wild ride. I hope that it keeps people on the edge of their seats, that it makes them feel emotional when they least expect it. I hope that it lingers in people’s thoughts after they see it, even if they don’t know why. And I hope people have fun! The Skin of the Teeth has everything from sexy dancing to police interrogation to animal masks. Really, what more could you ask for?