You may have heard that Under the Skin is an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel. It is and it isn’t; at times the film strips away much of the book’s plot and details, leaving a very bare-bones abstraction.
You may have heard that Under the Skin is the third feature film from writer-director Jonathan Glazer. But stylistically it’s a major departure from Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004). Instead the new film shares more cinematic DNA with the music videos Glazer created for Radiohead in the ’90s.
And given the banal, leering nature of our Celebrity Media Complex, you’ve no doubt heard that Under the Skin is the film in which Scarlett Johansson gets naked.
Under the Skin is technically all those things. But more importantly, it’s one of the best films of the year so far.
Johansson plays a mysterious woman–or rather, an alien being trying to disguise herself as a beautiful human woman–who cruises the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, in a plain white van, picking up male strangers, luring them back to her home, and then… collecting them. For something. It’s a fantastic (and fantastical) performance from the actress, in turns both deadly seductive and dangerously naive; knowing and confused.
Co-written by Walter Campbell and lensed by Daniel Landin, under Glazer’s direction Under the Skin is also an ethereal, eerie, deeply atmospheric cinematic treat, hovering between on-the-street naturalism (thanks to the film having been shot, in part, with real Glaswegians on hidden cameras) and abstract strangeness. It’s pensive and quiet, often humming with both existential dread and visual marvels.
Several other writers and I sat down with Jonathan Glazer a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about the film, the adaption process from the novel, the secrets of shooting a film in secret, and, of course, the sexualized iconography of Scarlett Johansson.
Under the Skin opens in select theaters today.
Jonathan Glazer: It was over drafts. The first couple of iterations of the script were more illustrative and more faithful to the novel.
It’s almost like I needed to see the draft to know I didn’t want to make that film of the book. And then you just begin to detach more and more from it, and move further and further away from it.
You still have that link to it in some way; there are still things about it which were remained, obviously–why she’s a woman, what she’s doing as a woman, Scotland, mercy, the idea of escape. Those were the pillars of the book that we took.
The design of the film is very different, much more sparse and abstract than the very sci-fi elements of the novel.
Glazer: The further we got away from the book, the better it felt. Once you go off on your own trajectory, then you have to keep going in that direction. It was probably halfway through the entire writing process that we got to how to visualize this space where she deposited these men and how she did it. I was never attached to the mechanics of it all in the book.
It took a long time to get to the design and plot of the film. I look back at it now, and I think, “Well, we could have come up with those ideas in five minutes.” It took a long time to get to something very simple, and I wanted it to be very simple. I wanted it to ground the idea of an eye witnessing us, but still have some logic and architecture to it. It’s a very complex process to get to something very simple.
Glazer: You have the elements, the weather, the light, the color. It’s all there, it’s mythic and unpredictable. And then you have the idea that all this is being experienced by an alien, from her point of view.
So the idea was for us to feel like we’re seeing it for the first time. But I didn’t want her to give up that alien-ness–she has to remain alien. I wanted her to be as mysterious at the end as she was at the beginning. If we understand it, it’s not alien.
Can you talk about your process of collaboration on the film score with the musician Mica Levi (Micachu)?
Glazer: I hadn’t heard her music. She is the youngest resident artist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra at South Bank. My music producer is Peter Raeburn, and I have been working with him for years, and we talk about soundtrack very closely and about what the soundtrack should be. He is a big part of how that whole process developed, and I’d told him a couple years before that I was looking for a composer who hadn’t done it before–that it would come from an unconventional place. Mica was introduced to him by his business partner, and then I then heard some of her music and I knew it was her.
I was looking for a voice from the score, because we really needed the music to articulate things in the film that we couldn’t do with dialogue, like the atmospherics and the narrative breaks. Mica worked on the music for ten months, day-in and and day-out. I learned loads from her because she’s in her 20s, out there immersed in pop culture, doing it now.
Under the Skin moves away from science fiction tropes, but then you have that recurring seduction theme that sounds like an eerie 1950s sci-fi film. Was that intentional?
Glazer: Yeah, it was a bit. It’s quite strip club, I think, that music. Mica would describe it that way. It has this erotic charge to it. So there needed to be something almost obvious about it;the spell, it was like a perfume. There are two other music themes in the film: There’s the alien music, the alien loop which was this inextricable sound like a hive, indistinguishable from one thing from another. Then the third is the kind of burgeoning love, the burgeoning consciousness, the human impulse.
Scarlett Johansson has become such a sexualized figure through the media and pop culture. But despite our cultural objectification of her, until now she’s rarely played such a sexualized character on screen. As a result, the film almost feels like a discussion of our culture’s attitude toward Johansson. Were you thinking about that when you cast her, and how much of that cultural baggage did you want on screen?
Glazer: Well, it’s a part of Scarlett Johansson being in the public eye, and being objectified as you say–it’s fuel within that character. But she’s fully in charge of that, as I am. It’s not like it was by accident, it’s not like I wasn’t aware of it, and it’s not like she’s not aware of it. So I think the idea of using Scarlett, or rather her deploying how she is objectified as part of this character has obviously got this great weight to that because it’s her doing it.
For instance, the scene where she looks at herself in the mirror, to my mind anyway, it’s not a male gaze sequence, it’s not titillation. I think if people go there to get their rocks off, they’re better off going to see something else.
I think she reclaims her image for herself in her decision and bravery to do what she did. It’s her body, and the character is also saying, “It’s my body.”
The dovetail between what is happening in real life with Scarlett and this story is inextricably linked, and a part of Scarlett’s power in this role, in my mind, is who she is publicly, and who she is as an actress.
Could you have made this film with a non-famous beautiful person?
Glazer: We did. Very early in casting, our first casting thoughts were exactly that. It was like, “How can we have an alien, and how can we credibly present an actress as an alien?” It’s ridiculous; it’s just a contradiction in terms. You can’t have a famous person or someone who is familiar to us. But then it dawned on me that the alien isn’t an actress, but the alien is playing the actress, and the character of the actress is played by Scarlett Johansson. It’s an actress playing an actress.
Glazer: People did recognize her from time-to-time, but not as you would expect. It didn’t occur to people that she would be up there. We got away with it. We were very lucky, I think. People knew she was around, but we got away with it. If you saw Angelina Jolie walking by you on a street in Glasgow, would you really think that was Angelina Jolie? You’d think, “That looks like Jolie,” but the idea of her walking down that street is kind of unlikely.
How did you come around to the idea of shooting large parts of the film that way?
Glazer: The idea of shooting the way we did came from a number of factors. I’d shot something in Toronto of a woman running, and I had 57 cameras and hid them all. She had to run 400 meters, and I wanted to shoot in in the street but not close the street and bring in extras.
And watching a woman run through, these cameras were all positioned so that when you were cutting something together it was real time, and life as it is. I think that was definitely a sketch for what we did with Under the Skin.
And then it was coupled with this difficulty of “How do I present Scarlett Johansson credibly an alien?” And the methodology of shooting her was equivalent to the narrative of alien there that nobody knew was there. This alien intelligence making this construction of an actress and putting her in Scotland and no one knowing anything about it and them just assuming she was a real woman. The method and the story are the same. It was a beautiful moment of realization that one equaled the other and then everything had to serve that.
The logistics were very complicated. Even when you’re going out to figure out where you want to shoot, you have to remain covert–you can’t gather in groups of more than four or five people. You feel like you’re working for the FBI, skulking around in backrooms. Your sound man has an umbrella under his arm with a microphone in it–he’s got his headphones on, and it looks like he is shuffling his iPod, but he’s actually recording what somebody might be saying to their mate at a bus stop. We made the film like that.
Your films all belong to genres but then veer off on very different directions.
Science fiction in particular is a very interesting area, a conduit for ideas that you couldn’t tell any other way? I like that about science fiction. But genre generally, I am not interested in making genre films. They have rules. I’m not into that.
So then what does draw you to the films you make? What are your thematic interests?
Glazer: It’s not that I like existential unease, but I like things that examine the paradox of being a human being; in music, art, writing, film, and everything else. I like people who ask questions of themselves and then of me. I don’t expect to have an answer. The question, if it’s a good one, is enough to resonate. And usually the questions are better than the answers. The answers are usually untrustworthy.