UK music video star Jonathan Glazer took a decade to follow up his first two films, 2000’s paeon to kinetic violence, “Sexy Beast,” which earned raves and gave Sir Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone careers as villains, and 2004’s reincarnation drama “Birth,” starring Nicole Kidman, which met a more mixed reaction. (For his part, TOH’s Ryan Lattanzio defends it.)
So what took Glazer so long to finish the visually stunning “Under the Skin,” starring Scarlett Johansson as an alluring alien trawling for human specimens in the foggy crags of Scotland? The director insisted on making his own the film adaptation of Michael Faber’s 2001 novel brought to him by longtime producer Jim Wilson–while testing his ideas on various music videos and commercials. Over the years he worked his way through various writers including Milo Addica and then ad writer Walter Campbell, who moved from two characters (Brad Pitt was going to play one) and a big-budget VFX concept to a smaller movie focused on the POV of one female alien, as well as a list of prospective actresses including Eva Green, January Jones, Abbie Cornish, and Olivia Wilde.
Finally it was Scarlett Johansson who stayed on board the project for four years before it reached completion. Backed by a hodge-podge of financiers (including Film Four, BFI, Scottish Screen, Silver Reel and foreign sales company FIlmNation), “Under the Skin” opened stateside in select cities on April 4th. (Trailer, 1996 Radiohead “Street Spirit” video, Guinness surfer ad and Nike “Risk Everything” spot below.)
Whatever your taste, you’ve never seen anything like this atmospheric sci-fi thriller before. It meant a lot to Glazer, he told me in an interview, to not only be able to shoot the haunting film he wanted–unique and not overtly commercial–but for it to be embraced in Britain. After the film played Venice, Telluride and Toronto last fall, where it earned both claps and boos, A24 scooped it up, betting that stateside arthouse audiences are also looking for something completely different. In the end, reviews were more upbeat than box office enthusiasm.
From the disorienting opening frames, “Under the Skin” is clearly more akin to the mysterious and provocative “Birth” than the more conventional genre film “Sexy Beast.” Glazer shot the movie with unrehearsed non-pros who responded live to Johansson’s queries as Glazer captured them with specially designed multiple video cameras carefully hidden in places like umbrellas and prop buckets. “Under the Skin” leaves the audience guessing as to why this strange alien is luring men to a house with an inky black interior and deep pool to trap her prey. In one of many arresting shots, a victim, as if suspended in amber, gazes up at her feet crossing overhead.
In another sequence, our lonely alien, who neither eats nor sleeps, gazes implacably at a violent tableau as the ocean surf breaking on a rocky shore swallows up a man trying to save his wife as their baby howls on the beach. Our virtually silent creature slams the heroic swimmer who tried to rescue them on the head with a rock and drags him, past the screaming infant, to her van. The role has one similarity to Johansson’s OS in “Her”: can this entity absorb what it is to be human?
Anne Thompson: Why did it take you ten years to make this movie? I have the impression that you are very stubborn.
Jonathan Glazer: I am stubborn. You have to have a strong will to do anything, really, to stand by what you are trying to do. It’s made a lot easier when you are inspired by something. Ten years? It was very easy to spend that much time on the film. That’s what it took, from an immense amount of time thinking about it to completing it. I wanted to keep going until we were going to make something that in itself was a kind of experience that matched the perspective of the character. I was trying to make a film that could stand alone, in order for it to be her POV. You can’t fall back on convention, on things you’ve seen. You have to make your own language.
And your own cameras! Are they going to be made available to other filmmakers?
We built our own cameras to shoot it. There was no camera out there to do the job we needed done. It’s not out there yet, we’ve stood down because it required investment to be used by other filmmakers and crew. They’re not in the market yet. We hope they will be.
Were you working on other things while you developed this movie?
My day job was “Under the Skin,” that was committed to. If I stepped out to make a commercial it was because I’d have to pay the rent. Commercials interest me, some were used as sketches for the film, we were testing out gear. I did a couple of music videos and set projects. At times I wanted to get out of the room and point the camera at something. It was isolating writing for that length of time, even with friend of mine. It’s a head-fuck, working on that kind of material for that length of time.
How did you convince Johansson to take this on, especially with the hidden-camera interaction with unsuspecting people? She’s smart, but this took someone who was good on their feet.
She has all that. Well, we talked a few time over the years, and she kept a close eye on it. We were orbiting each other before committing to making it together. She was interested in doing it, she felt fascinated by the character, she wanted to make it. I came to NY to meet with her. She knew all the situations of what would be required. After we decided to make the film together and this is how we were going to do it, she was completely up for all of that.
Is she a confident actress?
Yes, very confident. She’s like all actors: she’s very confident and lacks confidence deeply at the same moment. She has a very strong sense of herself. She’s didn’t go into this film without understanding why she’s doing it. It was not strategic, it was about wanting to work with someone. You have to trust each other. If you don’t trust and can’t say whatever you think, there’s no point in getting out of bed.
You leave the audience trying to figure out what this alien femme fatale is doing. She lures her prey into her sticky web. How did you decide to focus on her POV?
She’s a hunter. Our intention was to never to show the alien, what they look like walking around their planet. There’s a million eureka moments and that was one of them. They sometimes lead to other eureka moments. It’s not like a light bulb goes off. It’s a constant examination of a problem and finding a solution to that problem.
Describe how you came up with the images of that inky black alien interior. Does it come to you in the middle of the night?
Part of it comes to me in the middle of the night, yeah. In the book there is a description of where the men are held, it wasn’t anything I wanted to dramatize for the film in the same way, because the languages of film are very different. It’s not out of thin air. In other words we became very immersed in the problems of how to describe that. It was a big thing to come up with. It’s our look at their world, where we create the realm where the alien can be best shown, through a rigorous process of thinking of how to achieve that, while avoiding trope. The only thing we ended up being comfortable and happy with was a black screen, which eliminated everything. Once it was the black screen that best defined without defining at all, in fact, the alien entity, there was an absence of light, of form. The alien entity wasn’t about making something evil. With a limited human imagination, the best thing you can do is to evoke the idea of that feeling.
How did you create that set?
We shot them walking into a pool using a lot of smoke and mirrors of a movie set, a reflective floor, a blackout, and a very particular lighting rig. When the men actually sink into the floor, the production designer created a pit so that the floor goes down as you walk down it, then they are submerged. It was a combination of practical effects, and skillful augmentation with computers.
You went from a big budget to a smaller one. Did this take so long because it was tough to finance?
In the end, Film Four and BFI were our main partners, and Scottish Screen. The film I was trying to make was way more expensive than their parts, so were looking for a third partner. That didn’t happen. It wasn’t until we made the film smaller that the final chunk of what we needed from a third partner was smaller. At that point Silver Reel came on board and wanted to film what we were trying to make. It was a great arrangement here. The people behind the film were behind me. No one was fighting about what we wanted, not wishing we were getting something else. I have never been able to say this about anyone before, they supported me completely and gave me the right to fail.
So you didn’t have that on “Sexy Beast” and “Birth”?
They were different circumstances and different people, a different thing entirely.
Glazer hasn’t been able to focus on what he’ll do next. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait another ten years.