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Mica Levi on Why Composing ‘Under the Skin’ Was “Really Mental”

Mica Levi on Why Composing 'Under the Skin' Was "Really Mental"

You won’t hear a more gorgeously freaky score this year than Mica Levi’s unnerving, scratchy and altogether seductive soundtrack to Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.” Like the film, about an alien succubus among us and in the comely guise of Scarlett Johansson, the score is weird, atonal, discordant and something to get lost in.

For comparison’s sake, the score’s closest companions may be the dissonant labyrinths of avant-garde composers Krzysztof Penderecki and Gyorgi Lygeti, used frequently by Stanley Kubrick in “The Shining” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But Levi’s work is its own alien, and at times sounds more than a bit like far-flung Morse code from outer space. 

English, in her mid-20s and classically trained, Levi typically plays under the moniker of her band Micachu and the Shapes. “Under the Skin” is her first film score. Levi, currently in Camden, England, spoke to me on the phone about her writing process and working with Jonathan Glazer. Levi is now the winner of the European Film Award for best composer and in a perfect world, she’d be Oscar-nominated. (Listen to clips from the soundtrack below, and read our interview with Jonathan Glazer.)

What was your first reaction when you got a call from Jonathan Glazer to score his film, and what did he ask of you?

The whole thing was surprising. It was out of the blue. He talked about the film and said that it wasn’t finished, and that anything could change. He asked me to watch it, and then we got started immediately, really. The whole film observes her through these scenarios, basically trying to follow her trajectory, and he wanted the music to be doing the same thing. I haven’t got experience in writing films. But I have seen a lot of films and know the way that works, so I just to tried to stick with her and not stray from that.

And what were your initial impressions of the film?

I thought it was weird, and dark, because it was really. It’s quite a dark film anyway but I was in a room with windows and the film hadn’t been graded, so it was just really dark.

I understand that you dreamed about the film heavily while writing the score. How did the film change and evolve for you over the course of watching it so many times?

It was incredible. Really immersive. It was really in my brain, and it was really mental how the film changed and how I was sort of grasping with trying to get to know it and trying to be thorough and understand the material. It was weird how you thought you knew something a certain way and if you tried something radically different, it would change. 

Viola comes up a lot in this score. How did you incorporate this instrument, and in what ways did you distort it to produce such eeriness?

It’s a lot of harmonics, and distortions of speed–which is a distortion I’m really interested in, anyway–and then just doing impressions of that. But it depends on what it needed. A lot of the sound is a mixture of bad recording technique, on my part, and not-fine playing. Violas are so harmonic because they contain a lot of air. A viola is not solid, the sound it produces is like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of something, because you get an airiness, and creepiness, and there’s a struggle in that. The vibrato doesn’t ring out. It’s dead. A lot of the score uses microphones, and any sort of difference of expression there is created by the clashing of microphones. I find that I love that. Those are the things that ended up happening. I couldn’t come up with a plan. I wish I could’ve. But that’s what we ended up with.

From whose point-of-view did you want to situate the music?

The audience. Mainly, it’s supposed to be coming from her except for the music that’s in the black void. That’s the makeup that she’s put on. Everything else is coming from her alien stomach. 

Talk about that scratchy, sexy, seductive but scary catcall, which you’ve just mentioned, that plays in the black void. It comes up a lot.

The way I see the whole film is basically in five themes: that theme is her outfit, her makeup, she’s playing in that scene to seduce the men. It’s like her perfume, it’s something fake and not something she’s really feeling. And by the time she’s alone, she’s a bit worn out, [the music] is a bit tired, it’s not as strong. The makeup is old.

Cymbals are part of her character and part of her world, and those are the energies of her world and the warmth of her planet. The mixture of cymbals in this fast string-playing that happens in the beginning and throughout is the alien life form. Then there’s this note that starts to establish itself, and that’s her connecting, her manual process. And then there’s this love music, as she’s breaking through her humanity, based on this synth string chord I held onto for a long time. You’re starting with these darker chords, with the hunger and everything like that, and ending up at this very pure, very simple kind of chord. So the five themes are: her makeup, the cosmos, the aliens, her job music, and her feelings.

Who is Scarlett Johansson’s character, and how does the music work to convey information about her?

She’s just doing her job, from my perspective. She’s hungry. She’s after something. She’s got a craving of sorts. She’s on the hunt but then she gets affected by humanity and, for me, the feelings and experiences, these rushes of emotion, the measures she takes [because of them] are so extreme, in my mind. She’s basically putting her species at risk. She takes a move to risk her people on the basis that she’s having these really big feelings and for me the only thing I could relate that to was being a teenager. You have these overwhelming emotional experiences, and take risks that as you get older you maybe don’t take, but there are those rushes of feeling that cause you to take such actions, like her love, ecstasy, euphoria.

What’s different about writing music for a film? Is it like writing for another person?

The way we were working, it wasn’t like it was being done for a person: it was done so that the work could be as good as possible and consistent, and that’s basically the same whenever you’re working. You just want to service the work. I suppose it’s not as abstract, but I was guided was to be really abstract and to write what was the right thing. I found it less restrictive, in a way. You’re working within style’s limitations and with this, the film was pretty open.

Was there any music Jonathan Glazer asked you to hear to get a sense of what he wanted?

He wasn’t specific like that. He’s weary of being specific like that. He talked about the music working separate from the film. He showed me some films he really loves. But that would’ve been too short a process. It would have been too restrictive, and to find the film’s tone you have to look at it from three different angles and the answer would come out through that. He spoke about it more like, “imagine somebody just chucked 20 bottles down a hill,” or, “what does it sound like to be on fire?” Those are the questions that were getting asked…That’s the sort of way to get to the right answers as opposed to using a rarefied version of that. 

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