With an affinity for potent imagery that transcends mediums and forges new cinematic ground, Jonathan Glazer’s body of work has a visual and psychological language all of its own. Whether he’s pushing television boundaries with chocolate ads of Denis Lavant as the Devil, crafting music videos for bands such as Blur and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, or giving us the arresting films Birth and Sexy Beast, the British director has an affinity for audacious cinema that seers itself into your mind. And after almost a decade since his last feature, Glazer has returned with his long-awaited followup, the visually-stunning and masterfully-crafted existential science fiction wonder Under the Skin.
Based on Michel Faber’s 2000 novel, Glazer’s latest haunting film penetrates the world of an extraterrestrial woman of unknown origin (played by Scarlett Johansson) who drives through isolated highways and city streets searching for men to seduce and prey on, then drag back to her unearthly lair of unknown darkness. Exploring both literal and metaphorical worlds of alienation, Under the Skin is as tactile and textured as it is psychologically stimulating, bringing to life a strange and fascinating juxtaposition between the everyday streets of Glasgow with an otherworldly realm of horror. Sparse in dialogue but rich in atmosphere, Glazer’s film may he been culled from he text of another, but what he’s created on screen bursts forth into a world of his own making.
Earlier this week I sat down with Glazer to discuss the evolution of his script, making Johansson fit into a crowd, and his unconventional approach to storytelling.
Although your film strays greatly from Faber’s novel, what was it about the book that captured your attention and became something you could see cinematically?
Her viewpoint, really, and the idea of being alongside it. I remember in the book, I liked the way she described us and how she was trying to fathom the complexities of human beings. She wrote about humans and was mystified. So I suppose that was the thing that connected with me—how to make a film from her viewpoint, and take her perspective and tell a story through that lens.
Like when she’s in the mall in the beginning of the film, just seeing everyday human life in an alien way.
Exactly, seeing human life and how removed she was from it. Also alongside that, the elements as well—the landscape, the color and smell and sound and the rest of it. It was just a very great challenge for a filmmaker.
The film is very tactile—the dampness, the cold, you can feel all of that. Was that a feeling that came from the novel, or was that simply added to your vision of the story?
I don’t know, the novel was a jumping off point for me, It wasn’t anything I really paid direct attention to. I read it and then I put it down and started work. Actually, my cowriter on the script, he never read the book at all. So we moved forward with the knowledge of what I felt from the book, rather than any direct dramatization of it. It was not a faithful adaptation at all. The book is very, very dissimilar. Have you read the book?
I have not. But from what I’ve read of it, your film appears to be stripped down to the essence of what that was. You worked for so long on the script and there have been myriad iterations, so how did the film evolve from your initial conception?
It evolved away from the source material. The original adaptation, the first steps of the screenplay were to linked quite closely to it, and was more of an illustrative adaptation in the early days—but something about that made me realize I didn’t want to simply film the book. So it moved away more and things fell away more. Certain things felt like they were best left in the book, and it evolved over trying to find a language to tell it. Again, committing to her point of view means you have to tell the story through those eyes— you can’t rely on the conventions of storytelling.
With the film’s minimal dialogue, it becomes so much about the atmosphere and visceral nature of it all. Did you want to create a sense of space in the film in order for the viewer to be able to feel all of that and really sink into it?
Yes, also because there’s no exposition in the film, there’s no scene that stands outside of the plot somehow.
And adds so much to feeling alien yourself, just being dropped into the story.
That’s the thing, and you read the film two ways—well, lots of ways hopefully. But in other words, you could look at it like something that’s done bad conventionally—like why doesn’t this work the way I expected, this isn’t how I expect a film to work, and so it doesn’t. Or you might look at it like something done unconventionally, and approach it openly and be open to that and watch it and let it carry you. I think that’s the best way to view it.
Can you talk about the dichotomy between the naturalistic scenes of real people on the street and how that was portrayed in comparison to the highly-stylized and otherworldly moments with Scarlett and her victims. Was that a contrast you’d always set out to make?
Very early on, actually. I wanted to have our reality and our realm with hers cheek by jowl with one another so you really did walk in off the street and into this space where it felt like the world had fallen away and you were in this nothingness.That was an early conception, and had been in the script since the early stages of development.
Did you know from the beginning that you would be using real actors and filming in this way?
There are discoveries you make along the way when you’re wrestling with the problems of: how do I tell this story, how do i make this credible, how do you really make a story about an alien, what’s the approach? It felt like the methodology of shooting like that and the story became the same thing, so that’s when it came together. At that point everything began to make sense and everything had to serve that concept.
How long had Scarlett been involved in the process with you?
Scarlett and I started chatting about the project probably four or five years before I actually made it. But it was in different stages, I hadn’t found it yet really, I hadn’t worked out what we ended up making, and it was a very different thing. So our conversations were about the script and sometimes not about the script, and we were circling each other for a little while. And then when we finally got the script to what we made the film from, I sent that to Scarlett and then we talked about it on a different level. You could see she understood it and was inside it, and she talked about it very insightfully. So I came out here and we talked and that was that.
Were you aware from the beginning that you wanted her specifically for the role? Was there a certain type of woman you imagined when reading the novel or originally conceiving of the idea? She had to be someone who could walk a delicate line between being extremely alluring, while also being able to fit into a crowd.
Yes, that’s true—she had to do that and be both of those things. At different times it was different film, and the scripts we wrote along the way to the one we made, they required different casting propositions. So Scarlett wasn’t in my head during those early stages because I was thinking of using a non-actor. It made so little sense to me, the idea of casting the film with anybody people knew or were familiar with from other films or magazine covers—it felt so counterintuitive, really. But then I really started thinking about having a well-known actress in disguise, and that started to make sense with everything, and making that idea equivalent to the alien idea. So once that concept was kind of clear to us, then it was no question that Scarlett was the perfect candidate for that.
How did you set out to disguise her? Was there a certain look you were trying to achieve that wasn’t obviously a disguise, but more so the camouflage of making someone so recognizable blend in?
We had this thought about dressing her a bit wrong, dressing her without quite understanding the nuances about how people dress or the choices people make when they wear clothes. We were kind of using the idea of maybe somebody who had recently immigrated to Britain who was just putting clothes together in a way that wasn’t quite right. It was the kind of gap in what’s obvious to all of us—or to most people—and what isn’t obvious to her—and clothes factored in there.It was quite interesting dressing her and working that out, actually.
It was also important to have her doing one thing, I didn’t want her changing her clothes. I just wanted her to have this one uniform, so it was about what that uniform could be across the whole film. I loved the idea of this pink sweater inside the fur, it felt very much like an insect or inside the wrong continent or something—like a shocking color in that landscape, just incongruous. Then the fur is this practical warm coat to hide another skin, another layer. And then these very femme fatale red lips. this primary colored visage.
How did Scarlett adapt to filming in this style? It’s a much different way to go about making a film than you’d done in the past.
Totally, it was. Her attitude was just, bring it on, really. She didn’t meet anyone before we shot, and sometimes she didn’t meet anyone until they got in the van. So if I cast somebody, she’d meet them as they were getting in. And in terms of the other people we were shooting with hidden cameras who did’t know they were being filmed, and she just had to poker face that. I think she really enjoyed that stuff. It’s a very exhilarating way to work because you’re just constantly on this high wire and can fall any second. And again, that’s equivalent to the kind of story we’re trying to tell.
Was that thrilling as a filmmaker as well?
Yeah, it was a very intoxicating. But the idea of shooting real people is not a new one, obviously that’s been around for decades, but what was exciting here was who she was playing. So this idea of an alien entity among human beings, it was perfect. It felt, to me, the perfect concept to have a reason to do that—it wasn’t an aesthetic choice, it was a narrative one.