Jonathan Glazer interview: Under The Skin, Scarlett Johansson in disguise

Interview Ryan Lambie 14 Mar 2014 - 06:22

We talk to Jonathan Glazer, the director of Sexy Beast, Birth, and now, the terrifying, fascinating Under The Skin...

There are many, many unforgettable images in Under The Skin - the first among them being the sight of Scarlett Johansson wearing a black wig, fur coat and heavy lipstick, driving a Ford Transit van around Glasgow in search of men. Why is this alien femme fatale with a cut-glass British accent hunting males in the middle of Scotland? You'll have to watch director Jonathan Glazer's film to find out.

It's the loose adaptation of Michel Faber's novel of the same name, and Glazer's film actually looks and sounds like an artefact from another planet. Yet the director himself, whose previous films include the fabulous Sexy Beast and Birth, is entirely down-to-earth, thoughtful and articulate.

We sat down with him to talk about the brave and difficult process of making the film with ordinary members of the public and hidden cameras (an "existentialist Beadle's About" was how The Telegraph's Robbie Collin described it), and the critical reaction to his unique piece of work.

What was it about the book that made you interested in it, because this isn't a typical novel-to-film adaptation.

I liked the central character in the book, and seeing the world through her eyes - her being an alien. There’s a description in the book of how she views the world and the people in it. I remember being very taken by that. What we’ve ended up with, I hope, is a very cinematic interpretation of the book rather than a literal interpretation of it. There’s a connection to the book, but we’re just running with that character.

It struck me that it’s very unusual for films to be so unpredictable, which this is. It’s a rare thing, isn’t it, to genuinely not know where a film’s going to take you next?

Yeah. But sometimes there’s a delight, actually, in knowing exactly what’s going to happen, or certainly being able to predict what might happen next. Sometimes I enjoy watching films that do that for me, you know? Then I know how it’s all going to play out, and I’m watching it. I enjoy the parlour game of it, or something. But the films I’ve responded to, that I really carry around with me, are outside of genre and somehow full of questions.

You used hidden cameras a lot in this film, so what was the process of that like? Presumably, you’re filming these people, but then you’re having to get their consent afterwards.

Yes, exactly. There are lots of moments you see in the film that are filmed with hidden cameras. The van scene, where she [Scarlett Johansson] speaks to the men through the window, and asks for directions or gets into a conversation. But there’s also the people you see in nightclubs or walking along the street, or in restaurants or shopping centres. They’re all people who just happened to be there.

It becomes very complicated on one level, from a production point of view, but it’s also very simple on another. You’re not dealing with extras or background action - it’s all live. Then there are scenarios where you have production assistants that, when you cut, have to respond to the people she might have spoken to, and follow them down the street, tell them what happened and ask them whether they’d be happy with us using their image. Some said yes and some said no. So it was quite wild like that.

Did anybody recognise Scarlett Johansson?

Yeah, there were a few times people recognised her. But surprisingly few, actually. I think it might have been more the case if she hadn’t been in the disguise. Because she’s not very familiar to people, really, the way she looks. Now that we can see her in the context of the film, it’s perhaps surprising that she wasn’t recognisable to people, but when you’re not in that context, when she’s in disguise, driving a Transit van in Glasgow, it doesn’t occur to people that she’s Scarlett Johansson. 

It reminds me a bit of JG Ballard, the way you juxtapose the extraordinary with the mundane. You see Scarlett Johansson walking past Greggs the bakers or Specsavers or something like that.

There’s something really terrific about that, though. Putting her in the world as it is - that was a really important conceit for us, and everything served that, really. Her as a Trojan horse.

And that sense of anonymity as well. The idea that you can move around like a ghost in these places. And perhaps even the notion that the cities themselves are ghostly, because they’re kind of all the same. The shops are the same everywhere, in the UK at least.

Yeah. That’s true now, certainly. And yes, it’s a sort of ubiquitous backdrop, isn’t it? But even so, you have to get clearance from those companies. Once you’ve shot that stuff, you have to be able to get permission to use some of that stuff. But we didn’t want to fake anything.

So were there any sticking points? Was there any footage you couldn’t use?

Yes. There were conversations she had where the person didn’t want to give their consent. And it’s heart breaking, because what you’ve just witnessed is very special, and you’d like to be able to include it. And it’s a real wrench, because you know how well it encapsulates something that you could never contrive. Another thing that the film could express. There’s lots of different nuances of human behaviour that are shown in the film, and you could keep shooting that forever. 

It was so unusual, I thought, to see men helpless, or out of their element in a film. That’s something you don’t necessarily think about until you see a film like this - how unusual it is to see a man subjected to a withering gaze, if you like. Was that one of your aims, perhaps?

Um... [pauses for thought] I suppose it must have been. The fact that you’ve singled it out makes me wonder if it was one of my aims. I can’t categorically say it absolutely was or absolutely wasn’t. But I think what you see is quite surprising, because a lot of the guys she speaks to, they don’t all respond the same way. Some were immediately intoxicated on some level, or engaged, while others were quite frightened - shy, or whatever. You see lots of different reactions, and they’re truthful because they’re all real. There’s no one way a man responds in that situation.

Some of the people we did cast, where she takes them away and we see what happens to them. The important thing is that they didn’t feel different to the men you saw on the street. They had the same texture, the same tone. There was a lot of effort involved in achieving that.

How did you come up with the really nightmarish moments in the film? Where did the inspiration come from?

Nightmares!

Really?

Probably. The alien realm stuff you’re referring to - using science fiction design, those tropes, of technology, weaponry, vehicles, all the stuff I really like, didn’t feel right for this film. It all felt completely unnecessary, but nevertheless, we had to find our version of that, because we needed to go into these spaces.

These spaces had to feel unfamiliar and alarming and alien. Through elimination, actually, over long periods of time, you just begin to strip all those options away, and the thing you become comfortable with is a black screen. In other words, you get rid of all objects, so there’s no form, there’s no engineering, there’s nothing familiar. You’re then dealing with a black screen, and that black screen is the alien entity, so you work from that. How an object is reflected in that space, what you see beneath that space. We wanted to create something that seems as lost and bewildered as the victim.

When you’re choosing to tell a story from an alien point of view, you’re really creating a rod for your own back, because you’re trying to make something feel truly alien. The experience needs to be inscrutable, unfathomable. Something you don’t recognise, that you feel but you don’t see. We didn’t want to make a film where that’s explained away somehow. It had to be outside our understanding.

Other-worldy.

Yeah, other-worldly. Exactly.

I feel it ties in with everything else you’ve done, in the sense that it’s fleshy and existential. It’s about the forces bodies go under. Like your advert, Surfers, where you see the strength it takes to surf. Or in Sexy Beast, the physical gulf between Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley. Is that right?

If they’re connected. I see things in a certain way, and that comes through. There are certain themes and similarities, so I’m sure there must be connections.

Did your transition from commercials to features feel difficult?

Making the first film, Sexy Beast, I was eager to get going. I was blessed with the opportunity to make that script, actually. It was such a brilliant piece of writing. Such unique writers. My approach was, I think I understood it, I could see it - they’re very visual writers. I thought it was the perfect place really, the beauty and flow of the words. The control and the anarchy as well. And how strong and rich their visual ideas were. In that sense, i didn’t feel like it was a leap into an unknown place, I knew the language of it all. It felt like a continuation.

I don’t feel as though I’ve graduated from commercials or music videos. In my mind, they aren’t compartmentalised. I don’t put on my best clothes to make a film, my Sunday best. Not that I have any best clothes. But you know what I mean? 

Then you have the amazing performance from Ben Kingsley. Did he take much coaxing to bring that performance?

You’re asking questions about a long time ago now. I can’t recall the history of that. We met and he surprised me, I remember. He was completely the right actor for that role. When I met him, it was his within seconds. We got on really well. There was calibration. When you’ve got a script that good, you have to calibrate, try not to fuck it up. Don’t get fussy, understand where the strength of the scene lies, and photograph that. Sometimes you have to do very little.

It was a long process making this film. How does it feel to have it finished, to know it’s completed?

It’s odd. I’m pleased it’s done, really pleased. I loved every second of it, really. But it’s peculiar that we’re sitting here chatting about it - that is odd. The length of time it took was because it was a difficult project to make in the way we made it. It was difficult, very rigorous. We wanted to make something that was outside everything else. The alien eye had to exist outside the pack. It had to feel alien, which was difficult to try to achieve. But I’m pleased to be having new ideas now.

Are you pleased with the critical response so far?

Well, it’s been really encouraging to read the favourable reviews, they’re really encouraging. But for balance, there are people who’ve... who hate it, and that’s fine. You get both. That’s the way it is with a film like this.

I think it’s fascinating to see how strong the reactions are. I think that’s the sign of an interesting, complex film if people react powerfully to it.

I think so. I agree. Yeah, it’s doing something. Something’s going on. Something’s happening, and that’s really good to feel that I played a part in that. That there’s debate, rather than it coming out and people thinking, “Well, it was alright.” 

It makes you feel uncomfortable, and I think that’s good.

Does it?

I think so. Because you have to - or you should - analyse why it made you feel that way. “Why is this scene making me feel uncomfortable?”, you know? That’s what it does so effectively.

Did you feel that way when you were watching it? Did it make you feel a bit lost, like you didn’t know what was happening next?

Genuinely. Genuinely.

What was that feeling like? Because I don’t know. I know what’s coming next.

As I said before, it’s unusual to feel like that. It’s a horror film, in some ways. But also it’s exhilarating, because it’s exciting to be told a story where you don’t know where the storyteller’s leading you. You can feel things moving under the surface, under that blackness, and you’re not sure what they are. You’re forced to examine your own reactions to it rather than say, “This is the story of X, Y and Z”

Yeah! I think some people enjoy that and others don’t. They don’t want that, they want it all explained.

I think it’s scary for some people, ambiguity. And I think it’s rare for a filmmaker to even be allowed to be ambiguous. Did you have anybody to convince, or were you given free reign?

Oh god, yeah. You’re trying to convince people all the time. If you’re in a healthy, creative environment, you are challenging and you are being challenged. That’s how it works, otherwise it’s stale, you know? It’s got to be like that.

I think, when we’re writing or when we’re cutting, you want to get a reaction. You want, “God that frightened me.” Or, “Jesus, I loved that bit.” Whatever. You need those responses along the way to just chart what you’re doing. Because you’re so immersed in it. You need to know how it reads to people, how it comes across, and that's often a surprise. You need, occasionally, to get those reactions from the people you work with, whether it's a piece of music you play that someone hasn't heard yet. The whole process is very intuitive, I suppose. You build it up. 

It's abstract, in a way.

This one was absolutely. It was abstract. It was all about form.

Have you had a chance to see it with Scarlett Johansson yet?

I have, yes. We saw it in Venice. She was well into it, well, I think she was. She was quite proud of what we've done. And she should be, certainly in terms of what she's done.

Jonathan Glazer, thank you very much.

Under The Skin is out in UK cinemas now. You can read our review here.

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