Body swaps are usually bad news in movies. I was a real estate agent close to a big deal, now I have to find a date for junior prom? Then, a wacky journey back to status quo — because the way things were is how they should be.
Or not, forwards “Skin Deep,” the intimate and slippery debut feature from German Kazakhstani director Alex Schaad. Adopting a high concept usually fit for farce, Alex Schaad and his brother, co-writer and actor Dimitrij Schaad, take on the body swap premise in search of more, destabilizing their characters’ notions of gender and bodily autonomy along the way.
More from Variety
Releasing stateside in New York and Los Angeles theaters this month, “Skin Deep” debuted at the Venice Film Festival in 2022. The premiere was already a dream come true for the brothers; then they won the Queer Lion, a prize voted for by a jury of critics and journalists to recognize festival selections with LGBTQ themes. The recognition came as somewhat of a surprise to the Schaad brothers: two heterosexual-identifying cisgender men who sparked their filmmaking ambitions at a young age while watching the works of Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers and “The Simpsons.” But they also understood early on that queer themes came part and parcel with the body swap premise that they were compelled by.
“This was always something that, from the very beginning, we tried to take seriously. We did not want to make any assumptions or kinds of statements that we cannot fully stand behind,” director Alex Schaad tells Variety, accompanied by a German interpreter. “We tried to be very gentle with that.”
“I was afraid that people might have taken it the wrong way: two straight white boys trying to tell the drama about a person that doesn’t belong in their body,” Dimitrij Schaad adds. “I was deeply moved that queer magazines in Germany have written about this movie … It could have also been possible that we were criticized very badly.”
“Skin Deep” focuses on a heterosexual couple — Tristan (Jonas Dassler) and Leyla (Mala Emde) — embarking on an island excursion hosted by a clan of friendly, swinging body swappers. Tristan is amenable to the experiment, but the procedure represents something more grave and pressing for Leyla, who seems distant and out of sorts. Both are humbled and renewed in the coming days.
“It’s a wonderful idea,” Alex Schaad says, affirming the film’s optimistic depiction of the body-swapping community. “I personally would like to know how another person feels and then be myself again.”
“I even think that it is the deep wish of humans to become another person,” Dimitrij Schaad adds. “At the core of storytelling lies the wish to become the other person we hear about. This urge is in all of us. It would be a good idea — of course, assuming that it’s very safe.”
Guardrails are an early emphasis in “Skin Deep,” with a key rule of consent established early on: if either party participating in a swap becomes uncomfortable, they must promptly revert. While developing the film, the Schaads dabbled in more dystopian versions involving a busy Berlin setting and even foreboding science-fiction facilities. But the pastoral environment that they landed on, as Alex Schaad puts it, conveys “a modern fairy tale.”
“We didn’t want it to feel like a horror experience,” Dimitrij Schaad says. “We wanted it to be very gentle and inviting, so the spectators could be lured in.”
“We did not want to be in an environment where you are reminded of daily problems. We wanted to get away from this profanity and create this special artistic environment,” Alex Schaad says.
Dimitrij Schaad gets more pointed: “I don’t need to see people doing their taxes in a movie.”
Much like their characters, the ensemble underwent their own investigations into each other’s physicality — leading to some changes to the film in its development. Dimitrij Schaad first appears in “Skin Deep” as Mo, a libidinous and antsy buffoon who serves as a big burst of comedy next to the soft-spoken Tristan. After the two swap bodies, Mo (now played by Dassler) pounds his chest and bellows that his new body is like a Ferrari. The brothers had initially planned for Dimitrij Schaad to lead the film as Tristan, then get buffoonish playing Mo. But the film’s careful development and lengthy rehearsals led them to vice-versa casting.
“We mostly collected people that work in the theater — that are used to playing something beyond realism or larger than life,” Dimitrij Schaad shares. “The most painful part wasn’t seeing how another person is acting and then trying to copy them. That’s easy. The hard part was when something works for you really well, but your counterpart cannot actually play that. Then you have to cut it.”
“It was about trying to find the common denominator,” he continues. “It was a very special experience to use this body swap genre in a dramatic way. Everybody can copy another person in terms of comedy: to mock you and try to make an impression. Instead, the task was to find out what is at the core of another human being.”
“Skin Deep” certainly circles dysphoric darkness — being outside one’s body isn’t for everyone, as it turns out. But the ending doesn’t put everything back as it once was, seeing the film’s pragmatic position on body swapping through and reaching an ambiguous, but hardly cynical ending. It’s a destination that the Schaad brothers had decided on early on — even before fully creating the people that would end up there.
“At some point, we had more than 100 different characters in our world because we’d written so many different drafts. But we knew the end, even if we didn’t know what it meant,” Dimitrij Schaad says. “It has a nice ambivalence to it. There are several people who say that this is a very, very dark ending … but for both of us, it is a very positive one. I like that about movies. I like that feeling of, ‘This just feels right.’ It’s like strolling through the thrift shop and then thinking, ‘This might work well somewhere. I just don’t know where to put it yet.’”
“Skin Deep” is playing in New York City and opens in Los Angeles on Feb. 9.
Best of Variety