‘Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies’ director Danny Wolf reveals all

by Nick Spacek on August 18, 2020

in Blogs,Features,General

Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is out on VOD today.

We were big fans of director Danny Wolf‘s three-part documentary series which released earlier this year, Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All Time, so when we saw that he had turned his eye toward creating the first-ever film to trace the 100-year history of onscreen nudity, we knew we had to check it out. Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is a fascinating and illuminating look at how social mores have changed, as well as how the industry itself treats the subject. Therefore, it was really great to speak with director Wolf about his recent spate of work, and the art of presenting underrepresented topics onscreen.

This is your fourth documentary for the year, so good on you, sir.

Well, yes, technically though Time Warp is three volumes. It just came out so long. I mean, it was six and a half hours, so we had to turn it into three volumes. So, yes: technically four docs but genre-wise, two.

There is some overlap between some of the guests that are in Time Warp and some of the guests that are in Skin. Did you conduct some of these interviews simultaneously, where you covered a lot of ground?

No, not at all. When I was doing Time Warp – which took two years to shoot because there’s 115 interviews – we weren’t thinking about Skin. Skin came up towards the later end, so Amy Heckerling, I went back to interview again. Malcolm McDowell, I went back to interview again. Erica Gavin, I went back to interview again – and they were all cool. I mean, they’re all willing to do it. I think Martha Coolidge from Valley Girl was the only one I used a line from her Time Warp interview in this one.

You say that Skin came up towards the end of working on Time Warp. Did it come out naturally, given the sheer amount of skin on display in so many of those genre pictures?

No, actually the executive producer of Time Warp is Paul Fishbiin and he is friends with Jim McBride, who’s Mr. Skin, and some point when we were shooting or editing Time Warp, Jim and Paul said to me, “No one’s ever done a documentary on the history of nudity in the movies,” and I’m like, “No! You gotta be kidding – every documentary’s been done about everything.” No, believe it or not, no one’s ever done like a definitive, historical look at nudity. I’m like, “Well, we better jump on that, because someone’s going to do it.” That no one’s done it, I couldn’t believe it.

So, we kind of rushed to get it going and start our research and get the cards up on the wall as fast as we could before someone else did it. We’ve got a couple documentaries we’re going to do next. Same example: we can’t believe no one’s done two other topics. In the age of everyone making documentaries, it’s hard to believe not everything’s been done. I just looked the other day and there’s no documentary ever on Neil Diamond and there’s no documentary ever on Barry Manilow. That might be their decision, but sometimes you go, “How has no one done a documentary on Neil Diamond?”

In terms of the the tone of Skin, you walk this very fine line between acknowledging the purient nature inherent in talking about naked people on a gigantic 35-foot screen but also really humanizing the story of these these actors, as well. Was that a decision that you made going into this or did it sort of evolve over the course of speaking with everyone?

Absolutely. That was a decision. I asked the same questions, generally, to everybody and one was, “How did doing nudity impact your personal life and how did it impact your career?” That’s the question where you start getting the really personal, interesting stories, like Erica Gavin from Vixen talking about, “After I went to the premiere of Vixen and saw myself on the giant screen, I didn’t like the way I looked,” and she became anorexic because of it and almost died – went down to 70-something pounds.

You really get interesting answers just when you ask, “What did nudity do to your personal life or how did it, in fact, affect your career?” Those two questions, we got a ton from, but we really just wanted to lay out kind of a definitive historical, educational – but fun – story. You have to have the nudity from the beginning to the #MeToo today. The one thing we just said starting this was, “We can’t make something exploitative. This can’t be a breast fest. No one’s going to watch it if it’s exploitative.”

We made a very conscious effort all the way through to include all the history: to interview authors and critics and experts about the Hayes Code and the pre-Code movies and really make it thorough. It’s easy to do things chronologically. It was easy to go from the ’60s to the ’70s, because things were changing. Political and social changes obviously predicated a more liberal attitude to nudity so that, we wanted to cover. Really, all we set out to do was make something historical and definitive and not just a breast fest.

In terms of it not being a breast fest, the one thing the the one thing I noticed missing from this is what’s become a joking trope: for some reason, in ’80s and ’90s action films, it seemed like every male action star had written into their contract that there was supposed to be a butt shot.

That’s funny we didn’t. That’s not something I thought about putting in, but you are right.

Diane Franklin in ‘Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies’

You do tackle like male nudity and what’s intriguing about it is that the way that it is portrayed on screen is that frequently, male nudity is used in a comedic way as opposed to a salacious way. I’m curious as to what your view on that is. Is it just the male anatomy is inherently hilarious?

I think that nobody wanted to see male anatomy. Males and females go to movie theater. Male likes to look at female because it’s a beautiful body. Female likes to look at female. Then when you go and see a man, usually men don’t want to see men naked and women generally don’t want to see men naked. The ratio for the longest time was mostly all-female until really the late ’60s, when it opened up with Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy.

Then John Voight’s doing nudity and Robert De Niro and then Bruce Davison, who we interviewed. It kind of became more acceptable, but I just think male nudity was just not something studios were interested in putting in their movies. That wasn’t something that was going to drive anyone to a movie — people would go see Sophia Loren and people would see Brigitte Bardot and people would see Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield.

The ’80s were known for the teen sex romps or just movies that were, essentially, as you you referred to earlier, “breast fests,” and really feature heavily in Skin, so was it important to you that you get someone like Mamie van Doren because she goes back so far? Was it difficult to find people who had a perspective on this beyond like within the last 30-35 years?

Yeah, it was. You cast a really wide net of who you’re trying to get and there were a lot of names we didn’t get that I would love to have interviewed like Kathy Bates, Kathleen Turner, and Julianne Moore, but you can’t get everyone. Brigitte Bardot, we were we were close to getting. With Mamie van Doren and Erica Gavin, the older you get, everyone has their own experiences.

When you talk about the teen sex comedies it’s all pretty much the same. The stories are kind of the same. For distribution, you have to have nudity in those movies. As Martha Coolidge said, “When I did Valley Girl, I had in the script three scenes of nudity and Atlantic Releasing said we’re not going to distribute your movie unless you have a fourth,” and she had to add at the last minute, a nude scene with E.G. Daily, which E.G. Daily didn’t sign up to do. That wasn’t in the script. They had to have a long conversation with the agents about adding it and making sure it looked good and it was artistic and everyone was happy and then it ended up in the movie.

Certain movies – like the teen sex comedies and the horror films of the early ’80s or the women in prison films – there was an expectation of nudity, because that was your distribution. Doing a women in prison movie, there’s of course going to be a shower scene. As Sybil Danning said, “You would not get foreign distribution without it,” so everyone knew what they were getting into in those days.

Given that Skin and Time Warp both look at under-explored aspects of cinema in a really deep way and you gather like all of these really intriguing people, is that why you’re already working on two new documentaries? Has each one fed the next?

No, but you hit on the head what I love doing in these things and that is I like the actor or actress you wouldn’t expect to see interviewed. If it was all Julianne Moore and and Jennifer Lawrence and Reese Witherspoon, where they have all these big names, it wouldn’t be as interesting. I think it’s cool to have Camille Keaton for I Spit on Your Grave – the people you would never expect to see and hear their stories. That’s what makes these cool. Who would expect Ken Davidian from Borat to pop up in a documentary about nudity in the movies?

But why wouldn’t you? Why shouldn’t we include him? Here’s one of the most famous, hysterical, comedic nude scenes in probably the last 30 years, so why shouldn’t Ken Davitian tell his story and talk about the nudity he did? I think the most fun I have is is that element of surprise. You never know who’s going to pop up next: “Oh, I can’t believe Mariel Hemingway is in this and she’s talking about Personal Best! I would have never thought of that.”

But, again: why shouldn’t it be in there? Yeah, I mean, if I had Sharon Stone, that would be cool. We had Gina Gershon in Time Warp, but I would have liked to have Gina Gershon talk more about Showgirls and the nudity in this, but it’s it’s hard to get everyone. You try, but you can only get who you can get. But, if you’re a film freak, to see Diane Franklin from Last American Virgin now, today talking about it? That’s cool to me. Kristine DeBell from Alice in Wonderland? Where else is she appearing or talking about her acting?

That was one of my favorites. I was going to remark on the fact that Diane Franklin speaks really frankly and openly and honestly about the whole thing. It seems like almost everyone you spoke with was very forthright and honest and I wonder if it’s that they’re at that point in their career now where they’re just like, “I’ve got nothing to lose, so I’m gonna lay it all out.”

Sean Young syndrome, basically: “It doesn’t matter what I say, so I’ll just say it.” That’s why I love interviewing Sean Young, because she has no filter and if she has a problem, she’ll say she has a problem. That’s the people you want to interview: the ones that are not going to edit themselves or hold back or not kind of tell it like it is.

Everyone we interviewed was great and had no issues with any of the questions asked and had no issues talking. I mean, they knew what our documentary was, so they knew the kinds of questions that they were going to be asked. Some asked for the questions in advance so they knew what they were going to be asked, but even when Bruce Davison does Last Summer in 1969 which is one of the first male frontal nudity films, he couldn’t have been happier to talk about it and his experiences. You wouldn’t expect to see Bruce Davison pop up in a documentary about nudity, but male nudity to us was important to talk about and that’s why Malcolm McDowell is so great – to have that male perspective.

Nick is a self-described “rock star journalist,” which is strange, considering he’s married with two kids and three cats. This is just further proof that you can’t trust anyone online. In addition to his work for Scene-Stealers, Nick can be found bitching about music elsewhere on the Internet at his blog, Rock Star Journalist, and as Music Editor for The Pitch.

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