With Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer boldly cements himself as one of few directors deserving of being called a master despite having a markedly slim filmography. It’s been 10 years since the release of his last film, Birth, a romance about reincarnation that’s gradually amassed one of the greater art-house cult followings of recent memory. What seems much less discussed, though, is that Under the Skin, a virtuoso audiovisual experience whose comparisons to the works of Kubrick, of all people, actually feel reductive, is only Glazer’s third film (his first was 2000’s Sexy Beast). Yes, the 48-year-old Englishman cut his teeth directing music videos for Radiohead and Jamiroquai, and helmed commercials for everyone from Guinness to Nike, but rare is the filmmaker who turns out as transcendent a feature as Glazer now has with only his third crack at it. (Hold your tongues, Steve McQueen fans.)
Adapted with an audacious looseness from Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien newly inhabiting Earth—and a human female form—in an effort to attract and entrap unwitting men for the benefit of her own race. Of course, none of this intel is explicitly shared with the viewer. Most often, Under the Skin is pure, intoxicating cinema, its story told via Daniel Landin’s graphic (and surprisingly guerilla) cinematography, and bolstered by Mica Levi’s indelibly eerie, haunt-your-daydreams score. Glazer, however, isn’t one who puts form at the forefront.
Meeting me at the lobby terrace of New York’s Bowery Hotel, the writer-director shares a preference of viewing formal details as afterthoughts—elements that, fittingly, find their place as the whole takes shape. It’s a somewhat alarming thing to hear from a director so adept at presenting such an awe-inspiring finished product (if you were so inclined, you might deck your walls with blown up, Under the Skin stills), but it is, of course, what makes his latest so exceptional. Just as there’s something terribly captivating lurking beneath virtually every surface in this movie, so, too, is there something thematically dense beneath the marvelous style of the film itself.
So much has been discussed about the long gestation period that stretched between Birth and Under the Skin, and I wanted to focus on this theme of gestation, and birth, and rebirth, because it certainly seems to crisscross between the two films. In Under the Skin, there’s even an element of anti-birth, with victims caught in a fatal sort of amniotic fluid. Why do you think you’re drawn to this theme?
I don’t know. I’m very bad at detecting themes in my work. Well, I can detect them, but I don’t think about them. I don’t analyze them. I can see that there are things that repeat, and things that I’m interested in, but the truthful answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know why I do that, or why I think that way. What’s your analysis?
Well, my take is that, whether consciously or not, the notions of birth and gestation are clearly influencing your work, and I was wondering, since you were already working on the Under the Skin screenplay while making Birth, did the production of the latter influence the tweaking of the former?
I was working on the screenplay for Under the Skin even before I did Birth, and I was only very briefly faithful to the novel. I was faithful to it for about 10 minutes. And then, for the next seven-and-a-half years, I wasn’t. For me, the novel was just a jumping-off point, really. There were many ideas in the novel that I didn’t feel interested in dramatizing. I don’t know if anything happen during the making of Birth that incited these liberties, though.
Maybe there was something you learned on the production of Birth that affected the approach to your next film.
No doubt. But the thing is, when you’re making a film, you’re in an absolute black hole of that film. So my experiences of making Birth must have informed my experiences of making Under the Skin, but I didn’t pick that up until after Birth. I wasn’t even thinking about Under the Skin while I was making Birth. I was too preoccupied. I wasn’t conscious of any lessons I learned.
Well, that’s an interesting choice of words, “black hole,” considering what befalls Laura’s victims.
Yeah, yeah. Indeed. [laughs]
In the film’s press notes, you describe the alien’s transformation as being from an “it” to a “she,” and you cite that as being the core of the movie. Were there any concerns about how you might be depicting female sexuality on screen, for a viewer who didn’t read this as a discovery of humanity and identity, but as, say, a cautionary tale about female libido?
Well, it wasn’t meant to be a cautionary tale at all. I think the female sexuality in the film is something which is objectified. The creature that Scarlett plays in the film exists to be objectified. She’s there to be objectified. And what she does in the course of the film, in her own discovery, is she reclaims that—she de-eroticizes her own image, actually. Thinking about that now, that’s nothing that I would worry about. It seems to me to be somehow in line with Scarlett’s life as an actress, and in the way she’s objectified. There’s a parallel idea of her reclaiming her image, and her sexuality in this film, which I think she does.
That’s really interesting to hear. Have you seen Her?
Well, there’s an interesting parallel there too, as we basically have two back-to-back movies in which Scarlett plays a not-quite-human entity coming to terms with being at a remove from humanity.
Yeah, I suppose it’s in the air or something.
Tell me if I have this right: The audio of Scarlett practicing her British accent was also used as the opening audio of the alien practicing human speech, correct? So Scarlett becoming the character coincides with the alien becoming human?
I love that. For me, that method of seamlessly parlaying your raw resources into something fascinating relates to the irony of your use of guerilla-style filmmaking, and remote cameras, to help produce such gorgeous, painterly imagery. Did you always have a particular aesthetic in mind? Do you often lead with a specific look?
No, I don’t lead with that ever, actually. That has to follow the atmosphere. The first thing you’re trying to do is create a world, and the aesthetic is a component in how you do that, but I don’t think aesthetics should lead anything. Because then it’s like you’re retrofitting something. The aesthetics have to flower to form the essence of what you’re trying to do. Like the aesthetic of Birth, for instance, in my mind, needed to be this kind of porcelain, muted palette. I wanted the images to be photographically exceptional, and quite formalist, and still—with volcanic emotions happening within those frames, rather than to those frames. And that all came from the emotional center of the piece. Likewise, with Under the Skin, the emotional center of the piece here was really about how to put her in the world, in disguise, so that we could be undetectable doing so. We wanted to film people close up without their knowledge, and have her interact with people without them knowing they’re interacting with a character in a film. Everything had to serve that.
And I understand you and your visual effects team had to have a small, highly sophisticated camera developed especially for this purpose? The One Cam?
Yes. We were talking about how we were going to do this. At one point, we talked about shooting on iPhones. With the aesthetic of this film, I was very much after something unadorned—that was the key word in our vocabulary as we were putting this together. It had to feel unadorned, it had to be without affectation, it had to just be the world as it is; light had to be as it was. And even with the cast—we brought the film to the cast, we didn’t bring the cast to the film. It was all about being in the present tense. So the aesthetic of this film comes from those designs. We built a camera because the camera we needed for those things just didn’t exist. And there’s a bit of formalism in the film, absolutely. Photographically, I wanted everything to feel like it was witnessed. The camera was dispassionate, and the camera wasn’t excited. So all that stuff comes from finding the right visual vocabulary of the story you’re trying to tell.
Well, that said, since it is, ultimately, such an intense visual experience, I did want to get a couple thoughts from you regarding specific images and sequences, starting with the opening involving circular shapes like planets and irises. It’s so effective because it gives us all the backstory we need, and so effortlessly: where she comes from, what she is, what she’s becoming.
Well I’m very pleased that you read that as backstory, because that’s exactly what it is. And the thought is, “Okay, she’s an alien, but what kind of alien?” The important thing is that there’s this thing coming into being, and it’s coming from these sort of dark corners, you know? And the language of that sequence, I wanted it to feel like the alignment of planets, or the docking of a spaceship—something which, when you sit in the cinema and you watch it, you might be thinking, “Oh, okay, I know we’re going. Of course. I’m in a science-fiction film. That’s good. Let’s watch these [orbs]. What are they? Are they planets, spaceships?” It’s a language that’s been beautifully and brilliantly established in the past by other films. And then we take it, and turn it, and suddenly, that isn’t a planet, that isn’t a spaceship, that’s an eyeball. And our character—this interloper, this Trojan Horse—is going to be in the center of our eye. She’s going to inhabit, malevolently, the center of our being. And that’s a scary place, really, for an interloper to be. And also the point of the eye is just to say this is a movie about looking.
And there’s the imagery of both reflections and suspension. We have that popular still of Scarlett and the compact mirror that’s been circulating, as well as the glassy surface Laura walks across once she’s ensnared her prey. And then, of course, there’s the prey beneath, who float, fully erect, and doomed.
Hmm. Reflection and suspension. Well, certainly, mirrors are featured in the film, and they’re waiting for her to find her reflection, really. The mirrors are kind of latent—waiting for her to notice them, and to notice herself. And also the fact that this void, that is described by this black screen in this place where she takes these men, is just…there’s nothing there. And whatever is there is reflected, so an object or a subject becomes reflected, but if they’re not there, you’re looking at nothing but a black screen. So, thematically…it’s very involved. I can’t really sit there and distill it. But I’m pleased you asked the question.
In all three of your films, there’s an element of alienation, wherein characters are removed, or ostracized, either because of their behavior or their very nature. Do you often feel a sense of alienation yourself?
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