After touring festivals around the globe, Jonathan Glazer’s stunning sci-fi Under The Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious alien figure hunting men while discovering humanity, finally comes to UK cinemas on Friday.
Glazer made his name directing stunning commercials and music videos for bands like Radiohead and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, before directing the now-cult-classic Sexy Beast in 2000, starring Ray Winstone and Sir Ben Kingsley. He followed that with the Nicole Kidman drama Birth (2004), which was dismissed at the time but is now regarded by many as a forgotten gem. Nearly ten years later, Glazer is back with Under The Skin, which is undoubtedly his finest film to date and boasts a career-best performance from Johansson.
We spoke to Glazer about finding the alien perspective, Scarlett Johansson’s star turn, shooting from the hip in Glasgow and why connecting with an audience is more important to him than good reviews. (Although you can read our five-star review here)
How did you first come across Michel Faber’s book?
It was actually my producer who came across it, James Wilson, he was deputy head of Film4 at the time and they had optioned it and I was working on Sexy Beast (2000) at the time and he said to me “I think you’d like this book I’m reading” and so he gave me a copy of it, and I read it, and I did.
So it goes all the way back to Sexy Beast?
Yes, it does actually.
What was it that about the story that spoke to you?
I think the idea of looking at the world through an alien lens, and the opportunity of being able to think of how to show that, how to express that. Re-seeing the world through a fresh pair of eyes.
There’s really not a lot of dialogue and a lot is left up to the audience. Did the script go through several incarnations, being pared down?
It did, yeah, we had been through several incarnations. More than several, and the further on we went the more distilled it became. It got to the point where it became clearly about her as the molten core of it all. And also once you commit to the alien point of view and watch it with her at her speed, you experience things along side her, she doesn’t really need to talk. Not until she has to, until it’s essential for her to talk to the men in the street. Everything else is more watchful, more silent.
Because we see the story through her eyes it’s quite a cold film for some time. Ws it daunting to present a point of view that’s not human?
Well it’s a human viewpoint, I mean it becomes…Well, yes, it’s looking at us through this dispassionate lens. It was absolutely a challenge, and at times daunting, and always difficult, but also part of the pleasure of it was thinking of it, us thinking about how to tell the story, how to express it. How that dispassionate gaze gives us the alien, how we see her in terms of our responses to things. Like the beach scene for instance, how we as human beings watch and read that scene as opposed to how she sees it and it’s in those demonstrations that you can measure the distance between her and us. That’s how you get to the alien.
Did you always want a star in the lead role?
No, having a very well known actress like Scarlett wasn’t really in our thinkinng until it made sense, the idea of Scarlett in disguise really. The method of filming Scarlett in disguise making sense to the narrative, almost being the same thing as the narrative. Then it became self-evident. But there were other times, other incarnations where there were different thoughts entirely. Sometimes I was convinced that it would have to be unknown, someone we weren’t familiar with. Once it was clearly Scarlett then it was clearly no one else.
Scarlett Johansson is fantastic in the film…
She is, isn’t she?
Was there any trepidation either from yourself or from Scarlett about her taking the role?
From Scarlett’s point of view you’d obviously have to ask Scarlett, but I mean Scarlett was completely committed to the task, to the role and I think that shows, you know?
You shot the scenes of her in the in the van approaching men for real, with non-actors who didn’t know who she was. Was that a nervewracking experience?
Yeah, because it’s nervewracking, it’s exhilarating because you’re driving around Glasgow in a Trojan horse, really. It’s exhilarating, I wouldn’t say it’s nervewracking. For Scarlett, probably, it’s different because she’s got to poker face the whole encounter.
It’s exhilarating because there’s so many factors involved in that, there’s all the technology that allows it, and so she’s driving us and that in the wrong side of the road in a black wig in a white van, using an English accent. It was a thrill watching her immersed in all of those functions and photographing that as it happened. The randomness of it. Turning left and one thing happened, turning right and another thing happened. It was exhilarating.
The sound design and the cinematography and the music combine to create this immersive experience. Did you have a very clear idea of what you needed when you started shooting?
Well I think if you have an aim, if you have a clear aim and your colleagues are all very close collaborators and you’re all kind of looking for the same thing, then you all sort of find it together. The overall aim of it is proscriptive but how you get there isn’t.
How you get there is about making, creating happy accidents for yourself and that’s a really important ingredient, having very clearly defined aims that comes really from the time that Walter [Campbell, co-writer] and I spent with the material working out how we were going to do this, what we wanted to see and what we were going to go up there and get, and then understanding those margins very very clearly. Like the scene needs to achieve X, but then how you then achieve X, you enjoy the randomness of how that might happen or the unpredictability of how that might happen. You embrace all of that.
So on the one hand you’ve got something quite formalist and on the other hand you’ve got something very free and found. And it was the combination of those things that was so exciting to be involved.
Some of my favourite scenes were of the character just on the streets of Glasgow, or on the beach, listening and observing, I imagine some of that was found on the day.
Yeah, some of that stuff was found on the day, absolutely, a lot of that stuff was found on different days and edited into form. The beach scene was a different example because the beach scene was set up much more like a conventional film would do, but the viewpoint had to remain consistent from the found stuff. So it couldn’t suddenly become a different style of photography, it’s important to be very consistent with the language you establish.
The book doesn’t take place in Glasgow; how important was that setting to you?
Well, the book wasn’t set in Glasgow at all, the book was set on the A9 actually, lonely roads, really. Certainly the first half of the film needs to be set in the city, because then we get to be among, she gets to be among us, that’s where the fish are. So the commitment to shooting in a city was very important but then the fact that we were in Glasgow and that city was Glasgow added something again. It was an endlessly fascinating place to film.
I was just there for the first time for the film festival and it was a bit uncanny!
Yeah, it was funny, I was up there for the festival as well and then I went back again a couple of days ago for the Scottish cast and crew and yes, you are in those streets, aren’t you?
There are some powerful themes in the film, such as loneliness and connection, that come from the city setting, and there’s some body horror too. What do you think the overarching theme of the film is?
Well, the overarching theme of the film, I don’t really think it’s for me or I’m not able to give you that, but I would say that the paradox of body and soul really looms large, I would say, in terms of something that I’m very interested in and is running through the DNA of it.
There have been some comparisons to The Man Who Fell To Earth, and some scenes reminded me of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Were there any direct points of reference that you were using?
Yeah, I need to go and see Man Who Fell To Earth again, I saw Man Who Fell To Earth years ago, I loved it because I like Nic Roeg’s films very much but I was also a big David Bowie fan and it was all during the whole Low period, wasn’t it? But no, it wasn’t ever really in our heads at all when we were writing it and any of that stuff. I think there’s a very long tradition of British kind of outsider horror or science fiction and the films you mentioned come from that, but no direct references.
Quite the opposite, I think what we were trying to do was tell a story from this alien perspective and once you’ve committed to that you really do have to kind of try and work outside of eveyrthing. You have to find another thing entirely in order to express something alien, you have to step away from the pack.
The scenes in the house where she takes the men are certainly not like anything I’ve seen before. Could you talk about your intention with those sequences?
Well the houses are sort of different derelict spaces, they’re only really clearly defined once in the film, they’re different spaces. The idea of dereliction, the idea of this frayed edge of a street, which is the kind of place that we’d all walk past without giving it a second look really, becomes this kind of if you like a portal of sorts, somewhere which is kind of hidden in plain sight.
But the idea of what that realm consists of came from really eliminating all of the science fiction hardware, paraphernalia, design, that’s kind of very much from that genre. It’s almost like you wanted it to come from something other than a human imagination for it to work, you know. So it was of course an impossible task, and that you end up in a sort of dream space I suppose is the best way to describe that.
Somewhere which was entirely unfamiliar and foreboding but also seductive in another way. You really felt like you’d come to the edge of the world.
There’s been a polarised reaction to Under The Skin, as you had with Birth, which I think is a great film. Does it bother you that your films do provoke such contrasting views?
Thank you for saying that, I’m pleased you liked Birth. I wouldn’t say it bothers me. To be honest with you, you’re really just worried that what you’re doing is good. You really hope what you’re doing is good and you want to not bore people. How it’s received is not related to whether it’s good and I think that’s a mistake that can be made, “Well, if a lot of people like it, then it must be good.” I don’t think there’s any truth in that at all. I think all you’re really concerned about is “Is this good?” And I think a story like this, told the way we have, inevitably that’s not going to find a consensus.
It’s been about 10 years since Birth; do you have anything in the pipeline or are you planning a bit of a break?
[laughs] I’ve never had a break! There has been no break between Birth and making Under The Skin, believe me they were back to back as far as I’m concerned. It just took that length of time to make it, for countless reasons but that’s just what it took. You’re not really looking at your watch while you’re doing it, you’re just getting on with it and dealing with things as they come up. In terms of another project, there are things I’m interested in, thinking about.
Do you think you might make a film that’s more firmly rooted in the science fiction genre, or are you more interested in keeping that real-world setting?
I wouldn’t discount it, you know, I don’t know yet. I don’t know what that might be; I don’t think I’m on the look out to make a genre films. A lot of the films that I like the most are films that go beyond genre in a way. But I love great science fiction, there are very few examples of great science fiction but the ones that I do love I really love and it’s a fantastic conduit for big ideas, that genre, and it’s a fantastic genre. I don’t know whether I’ll get involved with it again, or more directly.
Finally, there does seem to be a real love for Birth now in the film community, especially on social media. How does it feel to see it being re-evaluated?
I don’t know, I haven’t seen any of that or read any of that so I don’t know what they’re saying! But I think at the same time it’s a nice thing to…even though you’re not shooting for an audience, you’re just trying to do something which you believe in yourself, and if you believe it you hope others will believe in it too, I think that at the same time there’s something very nice about the idea that something is communicating, is somehow shared. That it’s working on less of an intellectual level, you’re kind of bypassing the intellect, you’re trying to get to the inner consciousness of it all, trying to communicate on a level where people can share something or recognise something. I think that’s good…sorry, I’m rambling on, man, I don’t know how I feel…yes it’s good. Birth was not loved at all when it came out but that didn’t really surprise me.
Under The Skin is released in UK cinemas 14 March. You can buy Birth on DVD for £5.73 at Amazon.co.uk.