British cinematographer Daniel Landin first met director Jonathan Glazer when he did a one day pick-up shoot on “Sexy Beast.” Since then, the two have collaborated on various projects, mostly commercials. Over the years, the two continued to talk about Glazer’s planned adaptation of “Under the Skin” based on the novel by Michael Faber. Inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkofsky, in particular “Rashoman” and “Andrei Rublev,” respectively, Landin and Glazer eventually collaborated to create a startlingly real and yet wholly foreign environment for Scarlett Johansson’s mysterious and predatory character in “Under the Skin.”
We recently spoke with Landin — who has worked as a lighting designer for Alexander McQueen’s fashion shows and as a DP for music videos for Radiohead, Robbie Williams, Madonna and others — about the unique challenges he faced in bringing Glazer’s vision to the screen, including working with existing light sources, filming non-actors (without their knowledge) and camouflaging a Hollywood star.
You worked with Glazer on “Sexy Beast,” but at what point did you begin to collaborate on “Under the Skin?”
The original cinematographer was Ivan Bird. After they finished the initial rough cut on the “Sexy Beast,” Ivan couldn’t do the pickup shoot so they asked me to come and do it. Since then, Jonathan and I have collaborated on a lot of different things – mostly commercials. As you know, Jonathan doesn’t make that many feature films and he’s been working on “Under the Skin’ in preparation for about 10 years. We’ve talked about it for a long period of time. The reason the gestation was so long was because he very much wanted to do it on his own terms. The film that you see is the fruit of that. It’s a testament that it’s a director’s film.
But when did he ask you to shoot the film?
It was 18 months or maybe 2 years before we started shooting. We looked at earlier drafts of the script together and started discussing methodologies and influences. The script went through several different changes during the time we were discussing it and the final draft was very much based around Jonathan’s vision. He reduced some of the more conventional narrative and explored the more psychological journey of the alien.
How does Jonathan like to collaborate?
We worked very closely in pre-production discussing the way that Scarlett would be in that environment and looking at various photographic references and then once we found the locations, we talked at length about how much we would show of them an how we would represent them. What was unusual was the sense in which we had the freedom to move in our van which was like a mobile studio. So in areas where there wasn’t enough natural light, I’d augment street lamps and position our own extra sodium lights on top of existing street lamps and fundamentally, we didn’t really change the visual nature of some of the places so that the general public walking by weren’t aware there was a film going on. We had to obviously create enough light in order to make the film possible, but it was done with a minimal touch. We tried to let the real environment dominate.
How did the photography capture Scarlett’s alien nature?
One of the strong tenants of the film was that just by putting Scarlett in that environment was putting an alien on earth. Jonathan wanted to protect that juxtaposition as being unreal and he didn’t want to pollute the actual real life scenario and turn it into a mini-feature film environment. So we were tasked with making sure that our actual footprints on the ground were very light so we could put her into those situations without influencing them and changing them more than we had to. In terms of lighting, we made sure we used as much was there and we augmented it rather than totally reshaping it.
I would say the alien qualities were not inherently dependent on the lighting. They were more dependent on the manner in which we captured her, the fundamental alien existed in the way she was placed by Jonathan and our mission was essentially to capture that allowing the alien quality to be within her interaction with the environment and allowing her to have her own space and giving her performance and non-performance her own space as well. And maintaining a cinematic quality to that without it becoming near documentary. There’s a tipping point at which that becomes not a film, but a document. The important essence of it was to retain the cinema. I think that is achieved.
A lot of the filming was done stealthily. How did that work on a practical level?
Preceding the shoot, we explored the possibility of using very small cameras. What was available to us was either not small enough or not good quality enough. As a result, we ended up developing our own camera which enabled us to record very high quality raw data on a very small camera. Initially, that took the form of putting Scarlett inside the van which she drives with 8 cameras hidden within that van. So she could drive into any situation without it appearing that there was any kind of filming process going on.
Conventionally, car work involves quite a lot of support vehicles – trucks with cameras mounted on them – you end up with the action car on a low loader or a flat bed truck. That involves having quite a high impact in any surroundings. It also generally because of the restrictive nature of car work, you end up having to repeat the scenes several time. Jonathan really wanted to retain the spontaneity of the performance particularly with non-actors. That enabled us to work with people who were not aware they were being filmed at the time. And where Scarlett could have a low profile and not be recognized. She could pick up strangers in the street. Afterwards, they were definitely asked to authorize their use in the film, but they were very surprised by it. It was in a fairly seedy area. There were some quite bizarre scenarios.
Tell me about this camera that was developed specifically for this film.
(Visual Effects Supervisor) Tom Debenham who is a long-time collaborator with Jonathan and his company One of Us, put a lot into researching a small camera. It was then when they came up with One Cam, which is essentially about the size of a household box of matches in which you could fit 16 mm lenses on it. It has a very good quality image. The image we generated we ended up liking so much, we would have shot the entire film on that camera if we could have made it rugged enough to withstand all kinds of weather.
You have a background in music videos and commercials. How did that experience inform your work on this film?
I started out as a filmmaker myself and essentially fell into music videos at a point when they were quite experimental and were very much director-led short pieces that would go along with music. As a result, I had a very good opportunity to explore lots of different techniques of filmmaking, which is essentially where I started the process – being more influenced by experimental cinema, primarily early Soviet cinema, expressionist German cinema, post-WWII French cinema. I don’t really see in essence that influence by commercials and videos, but rather that I’ve been able to work within those areas in ways that are creatively satisfying.
The film is quite experimental in many ways.
It’s testament to the fact that people underestimate the cinema-going public. I was asked if I was surprised at the audience reaction – I’m not at all surprised. People underestimate what audiences want to see. There’s a terrible tendency for people to essentially dumb down their expectations in cinema. I think it’s very important that directors are given the freedom to retain what they bring to a film – which is not saying it’s not collaborative work.