More than 10 years in the making from stem to stern, Jonathan Glazer’s enigmatic, genuinely unnerving sci-fi drama “Under the Skin” starring Scarlett Johansson was unleashed last week at BAMcinématek with the director on hand along with producer James Wilson. It’s a visionary, deeply engrossing piece of filmmaking, with minor echoes of Stanley Kubrick and louder reverberations of Nicolas Roeg, but still a wholly unique and hauntingly distinct piece of cinema. Featuring little dialogue, a fierce and immersive sound design and a mind-disquieting score by Mica Levi, “Under the Skin” is all sensory sound and vision, as close as we get these days to pure cinema. Ostensibly about the female that fell to earth—an alien predator on the loose in the cold, wet fringes of Scotland—the movie is about as far as possible from “Species” (the superficially similar sounding sci-fi ’90s film) as can possibly be and its preoccupations are much more philosophical and oblique with themes centering on consciousness and how they apply to ignorance, empathy, fear and loneliness. It’s actually both a chilling and complex exploration of humanity from a being that ostensibly doesn’t have one.
Told through the alien’s dislocated POV, the movie is uneasily dispassionate, de-eroticized (Scarjo’s naked, but it’s really anything but sexy) and divorced by much recognizable human emotion. That is until traces of empathy begin to appear, challenging the audience’s view of some of the more detached and inhuman actions. A bold, striking piece of work, “Under the Skin” takes time to unpack, and its layered, complex mysteries will simmer in your subconscious for some time. Such is the genius of Glazer, the director of “Sexy Beast” and “Birth,” who cements his status as a true iconoclast with his latest film. As I said to him briefly after the screening: “You need to make more movies,” to which he countered, “Yes, I know, but it’s hard,” alluding to the decade-long gestation of “Under the Skin,” to which I ignored and said, “In fact, I think you need to make all the films.” Indeed, he is a rare breed, like an endangered species we should all give plenty of breathing room for whenever he deigns to lay his next egg.
A post-screening discussion moderated by David Fear (who did an admirable job of trying to coerce answers out of the taciturn director), Glazer and Wilson spoke about the making of “Under the Skin,” but if anyone was looking for direct answers about what the movie is about, its motivations, or the filmmaker’s crystal-clear intentions, they probably came to the wrong place.
Starting development before “Birth,” the filmmaker spoke about what drew him to making an adaptation of the Michel Faber-penned novel in the first place. “It felt like an opportunity. I was taken by that character in the novel, and the idea of spending time with her and the idea of looking at things through her eyes. That was a very exciting proposition.”
Glazer said they wrote many versions of the screenplay over the course of a decade (one version included another central male alien once pegged for Brad Pitt). “We couldn’t raise the money for that version and I’m really glad we couldn’t,” Glazer said of another version of the movie that featured an alien couple living secretly amongst people in Glasgow as human beings. In the end, Glazer says they came full circle. “It really did come down to removing all the embellishments around [Scarlett Johansson’s character] …in order to end up with her and that felt truer.”
Casting proved to be difficult, with Glazer saying for years the movie was “uncastable” because it needed an unknown, but no budget of any merit would have been approved without some kind of star to anchor it. With the character as an alien, “it seemed to absurd to cast someone famous.” But as they developed the movie and the notion of masks and concealment rose to the surface, and it was slow revelation that turned a light bulb on. “We eventually came to this idea of disguise and through disguise—hidden cameras and the methodology on how to make the movie suddenly made sense,” Glazer said. “And so suddenly Scarlett became an automatic choice and one that felt ideal.”
A movie so anchored by the performance and perspective of one person—Scarlett Johannson—trust was necessary beyond the candid nudity in the film, because if the performance didn’t work, arguably the whole movie would collapse. “Scarlett wouldn’t have done the movie without that trust,” Glazer said about their important pre-production conversations. And experimentation and failure was a key element of cultivating that process. “It’s actually about fostering an environment where you can fail and that’s really important and I think that was really supportive of that. With Scarlett it was a partnership. I put her in these situations and she rose to them. She never hesitated. Anything I asked her to do she was never reluctant to any of it. She might have been reluctant, but she never let on. She was very whole hog.”
The movie is noted for its aforementioned Mica Levi-penned score, a discomfiting piece of work so strange and abstract, perhaps the perfect piece of musical grammar for a character that doesn’t fully understand the language around her. But remarkably, unlike the majority of most filmmakers out there, Glazer said he does not use temp music and cuts his movies without the use of music. “I cut dry,” he said. “Music can be a false lead when you’re editing, if you bring it in too soon. So we try and leave it to as late as possible.” Glazer said he knew from the outset that it had to be an original, not established voice to soundtrack the movie, and sure enough he found what he wanted. “[I] was played a little bit of her music and it towered above else we heard,” he said, and it’s interesting to note in our own interview last year at TIFF, Glazer said his producers brought him the music of Hans Zimmer and Zbigniew Preisner [Krzysztof Kieslowski’s amazing composer] as possibilities.
Abstract on the surface, and elusive to many, what’s so remarkable about the movie is that because it’s mostly told through images, it’s actually pretty straightforward and linear—this is a movie you could arguably watch with the sound off and still understand the narrative. “There is a rigorous logic as far as its architecture,” Glazer said about the movie’s editing patterns. “There are rigorous choices, but I think maybe the top layer of the film isn’t revealing those choices necessarily, but they are there. And I do care about ambiguity in a film, of course, but you have to own your own ambiguity, you have to understand what it is. And I’m hopeful that the logic [to understanding the movie] is there if it’s not necessarily communicated on the first viewing quite as directly as some would like.”
What is the significance of a certain central sequence to the film? Glazer winced at the direct question trying to elicit something tangible out of his mouth. Perhaps because he wants you to unload the film in your own mind, he didn’t say. But he did eventually relent a little bit. “It’s quite a complex scene with a lot of aspects to it,” he said of a scene we won’t describe because you just should experience it for yourself. But as a clue to where his head’s at, Glazer says: “I think it’s about whether you read it literally, as if she’s a human being, as she is responding the way we would respond, but also maybe she just sees nothing in that skin and she has no judgment whatsoever.”
Glazer might be a bit cagey, but it’s perhaps because he doesn’t want to box you into one specific reading of what is a truly thought-provoking piece of filmmaking that has several discoveries to be found under its many layers. “Under the Skin” is now playing in limited release.