While director Jonathan Glazer has given us two quite worthy film efforts (SEXY BEAST and BIRTH) in the past 15 years or so, his true accomplishments have been in the field of commercials and most impressively in music videos for acts like Radiohead, Blur, Massive Attack, Nick Cave, Richard Ashcroft, and perhaps most memorably Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity." His latest film UNDER THE SKIN (based loosely on the novel by Michel Faber) took nearly 10 years to pull together, three screenwriters (with the credit going to Walter Campbell, with Glazer doing a pass as well). And the reason he rejected the first two drafts of the screenplay was because he didn't capture the essence of what he loved so much about the source material.
On the surface, UNDER THE SKIN is about an alien that steals the skin of a young woman (played by Scarlett Johansson, in easily her most compelling performance to date) and sets out to capture random men in Scotland for reasons I don't want to give away here. The men think they're being seduced, which in a sense they are, but not for sex. But what the film is really about is a creature (we don't even know if the alien is male or female or either) who is slowly learning about how earth and its inhabitants work, and how sights and sounds that we would react to might have no significance to someone from another world.
The fact that this alien even figured out that men would respond to someone that looked like Johansson seems like an easy lesson, but there's a sequence involving a baby crying in a particularly disturbing setting that has rattled some audience members, but if an alien didn't know what an infant looking or sounded like, how would it know what crying even was? The film has a haunting, hypnotic, ethereal tone to it, and Johansson manages to pull off being charming and slightly seduction, while also having a cold, ruthless look in her eyes.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the production is the Glazer sent Johansson out to seduce real, non-actors using hidden cameras and an earpiece to give her occasional direction. The results are often funny, but there's a tension in watching her make polite, bordering on suggestive, conversation with the ultimate goal of getting these men in her van, which she's driving around from pub to pub.
The sci-fi elements are no less fascinating, and when we finally do see the ultimate destination where these men are being led, it's as dark and empty as the alien's eyes. An encounter with a severely deformed man somehow makes the alien more self aware of the skin she is wearing, and there's a moment in front of a mirror where the creature fully examines the shape it has taken on. The film is about many things, but discovering what it means to be human is certainly at the top of the list, and I was surprised how emotionally responsive I was to Glazer's vision of UNDER THE SKIN and how disturbingly predictable we are as a species (at least men are).
Glazer came to Chicago recently, and I got a chance to sit down with him and pick his brain about his approach to this material, the delays in getting it made and why on earth, he would select Johansson to be a seducer of men. Please enjoy my talk with Jonathan Glazer…
Capone: Hi Jonathan, how are you? Nice to meet you.
Jonathan Glazer: I’m good, how are you? Nice to meet you too. Alright, let’s see if I can make some sense of this.
Capone: I think you must be tired of trying to make sense of this for others. I can imagine a lot of people in these Q&As are like, “What did that mean? What did that mean? Who were those guys?”
JG: Yeah, they can turn into inquisitions. But they can also be quite funny as well. They’re kind of ludicrous, aren’t they? The idea being interviewed is pretty ludicrous.
Capone: The idea of getting up there and having to interpret your film is ludicrous. If you'd wanted to have said that way, you would have made a different movie.
JG: Right, right. That’s true.
Capone: In like all great science fiction, there are things to think about in our society that come to mind when you watch this film about--things like sex, objectification, loneliness, humanity and isolation. It’s all there. Clear cut answers don't seem necessary.
JG: Excellent. So, are we done? [pretends to get up]
Capone: Sadly for you, no. I’ve read enough about the making of this film to know for a lot of the scenes where we see Scarlett talking to these men, a lot of those people aren’t actors. Would you rather have audience members not know that going in? I didn’t know watching it.
JG: Who was who?
Capone: I didn’t know that’s what you'd done at all. I didn’t do any research until after I saw the film.
JG: I think the fact that we live in a day and age now where you and I need to sit here and talk about it, it’s just a reality now, isn’t it? I don't think it de-mystifies the film. I don't think it would spoil your viewing of the film. There might be people sitting there thinking "Who’s real and who’s not?" But then they’re not really in the film; they’re analyzing it before they’re watching it. It’s a reality. It’s just the reality of this day and age.
Capone: It felt very real. I thought "Well, these are just good actors." What’s funny is that I had a hard time getting through that impenetrable Scottish accent that a lot of these guys had, and I’m thinking, “I can't even hear them.” And then when it was over I realized that doesn’t even matter what they're saying most of the time.
JG: Right, right. You’re absolutely right. It’s the intent.
Capone: You can hear enough to like know that they’re bad pick-up lines. When you first conceived this idea with Scarlett to have her approach these people or have her in a place where they can approach her, what did you charge her with doing? What was her intent?
JG: Get them in the van. Obviously, we had more conversations about it, but essentially that’s what she’s doing is behaving like a predator. She’s driving and looking and making a decision about who she’s going to go talk to and pulling over, negotiating the traffic, and honking the horn and over they come. She has to ask them for directions, perhaps, and then while they’re talking, she’ll try and steer the conversation around to her objectives. The delight of something like that, of making something like that, is the methodology of it and the story you’re telling arethe same thing. So it’s a good place to be for her as well, because she’s in it. She’s doing it for real.
Capone: Presumably you had to get their permission at some point to use this footage, these men. Were there really good pick ups that they wouldn’t let you use? Were there some heartbreaks when you were denied the clearance?
JG: Yeah, there were some things that happened. You keep your fingers crossed that you shot something because what would happen is, let’s say the guy got out or the scene where she falls in the street for instance and people pick her up. She fell in the street seven or eight times, and you’d wait for the street to clear and go back to normal between each take, and then you’d set her off again, and you’d be sitting there with your three cameras waiting for it to happen with hidden cameras, hidden sound equipment, and so on.
Then there’d be the people that you would interact with her and ask, “Are you okay? Do you need a glass of water? Can I help you?” And then they would all disperse and go back about their day. You then have production assistants coming out from behind the skips or garbage bins with release forms. And they’d be chasing them down the street asking them, and you’d be sitting there with your fingers crossed hoping that you would get the permission of all those people. And sometimes you would get the permission of four but not the fifth, and then you couldn’t use it. So there’s plenty of stuff like that, but it was a calculated risk.
Capone: With the films that you’ve made and the videos and the commercials, you have a really great visual style that takes a certain amount of control to get. But when you have scenes like what you’re talking about, you almost have to release control over it visually to a certain degree. You can place your cameras, but you can’t control movement, you can’t control accents and line delivery accents. Was that freeing, or was that scary to have to let go?
JG: I’m in touch with Scarlett in an earwig, and I’m in the back of the van. She’s driving, and I’m in the back. You can’t see me, because I’m behind the bulk head with all the equipment, but I can see eight images of the cameras that are photographing from the scene, and she can hear me in her ear. So, if I say something to her to help her with the moment or feed her a line, I do. But, no that lack of control is actually being in control and out of control at the same time, and that’s exactly where you want to be. It’s a bit like a high-wire act is what it is. So, you have to be in control, but there’s also the constant danger of falling to your death.
Capone: An example of a very controlled situation is you have this amazing soundscape. You open with this black screen and these noises, and then the visuals kind of kick in, but there are some real unusual sounds being plugged in here. Talk about developing those, and what were you trying to do with the sound, outside of the music?
JG: Sure. The great opportunity here was, we thought of the film as a body that had eyes and ears, because it was all being told very much from her perspective. So, it wasn’t just what she was looking at, it’s what she’s hearing, and sound is so interpretive. We can hear a sound, and you can imagine it being five or six different things. Whereas images, what you see is defined when you see it. So, sound was always this fantastic opportunity for us to make the world stranger. Johnnie Burn, who is the sound designer, he was on the film for a year or maybe more, working full time on the film for a year. He invented microphones that we would shoot in certain ways, an umbrella mic for instance. Like, if I’m speaking to you and we’re filming with a hidden camera that you don’t know about, we need to record your voice as well as your image, so there’d be someone over there with an umbrella over his shoulder with a microphone and headphones looking like he’s shuffling through his iPod, but he’s actually recording our scene.
But the idea of it was to assemble all of these sounds--the sound of a spade scraping on the street or bottles being rattled together. These are just sounds that we constantly are recording and then encyclopedically categorizing, and going though all of those sounds as rigorously as you would your visual rushes. So you had your sound rushes and your visual rushes, and they were both significant edits. And then you're actually using all the things that most sound editors would chop away, because they’re just too noisy. And you can construct quite sculptural out of all that stuff.
Capone: With something like this that you had been working on for so long with different writers, was this a difficult film to finally step away from and say, “It’s done"? How did you know that you didn’t need to add another layer of special effects or sound design to it?
JG: How do you know when you're done? [laughs] Well, you’re not done. I think you abandon it, really.
Capone: It escapes.
JG: Yes, it does. Someone rips it from your fingernails at 10 ‘til midnight. I could still be cutting it. I could still be shooting it, to be honest with you. But I think you walk away, I suppose a little bit like you might a painting when you know. It’s to do with the fact that when it feels right overall, when the whole thing feels like it should, it’s the feeling that you had that got you started on the project to begin with. It’s at that point that you walk away. It might be a very different form. It might have come out in very different ways than you anticipated. In fact, it always does. But when it feels like it should, then you know you’re done.
Capone: Compared to the other two films you made, was this the hardest one to let go of, or did you just say, “Enough. Nine years. Done.”
JG: No, I never do that really, because you’re not looking at your watch. It’s like if you enjoy yourself, you don't. Time flies when you’re having fun. But was it harder? It’s the most recent hardest.
Capone: You went through a couple of different writers, and I noticed that there’s not a lot dialogue for large passages of the film. Was part of what you were aiming for in the script, peeling away the unnecessary dialogue? Or was that something that happened as you were filming it?
JG: Both. Dialogue peels away when you’re writing, it peels away when you’re shooting, it peels away when you’re cutting. You’re constantly trying to distill it down into…what’s that thing expression? A perfectly working machine is the one with the fewest parts. You’re trying to tell the story, you’re trying to tell it with as little embellishment as possible to get to the root of it, the essence of it. So, it wasn’t a typical script that we shot, but much of it read like a novel, because there were pages of description rather than dialogue. Sometimes there would be one line of dialogue across 10 pages. Dialogue is in the film when it needs to be, when it’s essential, and at no other point, because we’re using visuals and sound and music to communicate. I wonder what a Charlie Chaplin script would look like. What would the script of CITY LIGHTS look like? It’s still a script. It is not a theatrical script. It’s not a script that relies on words; it relies on pictures. And those pictures still have to be written, thought about, considered, auditioned.
Capone: I bet it would be a fascinating read, that script that you ended up with.
JG: It is a good read.
Capone: Can you talk a little about the alien realm designs that you came up with? What were you trying to capture?
JG: Well, you know how in science fiction films, I’m trying to think of examples…You know, there was a boiling sea in SOLARIS? And there was the monolith in 2001.
Capone: Were you shooting for something that iconic?
JG: You're always shoot for that. But why those two things stayed in my mind, I think, is because they are inherently mysterious and inscrutable. On one level, they are familiar, and on the other, they are unfathomable. They remain alien, and I think the important thing about a film that you’re trying to make about aliens is it needs to remain inscrutable. Film in some respects needs to be inscrutable, because you’re telling it from the perspective of the alien. You’re dealing with a visual language that has to stand apart from everything else. You can’t be into the kind of Giger monster, alien technology, engineering, spaceship design, which I enjoy when I see those kinds of films, but it just wasn’t the language that would have worked here.
When we were in an alien world, we needed to be in a world that we believed just as much as we believe our world that she catches these men from. And we enjoyed this thought that the more real the world was, our world, as it is, not the paraphernalia of a movie set, but as it is, people unaware of being filmed, unadorned, picking their nose on their phone, eating a doughnut, whatever they’re doing. That’s who we’re filming. That's who she’s walking amongst. And when she goes into their realm, it’s cheek by jowl with that reality. So when you go into that black screen, it’s almost like the rug is being pulled. You come to the edge of the world, and you’re looking at this drop, this void. So, it came from an idea of almost jettisoning all of that science-fiction trope. All of that, “We can’t do that, we can’t have form, we can’t have technology, we can’t have this, we can’t have that,” and really when you look at what you can have, what you can have is a black screen, and then the black screen becomes fantastic. And the black screen becomes the alien entity--the formless, lightless, terrifying mystery.
Capone: It is more terrifying because there’s nothing recognizable there that we can assign identity to.
JG: Exactly that. We’re without a comfort. The only comfort actually that we have in that space is her. So, we are going in almost like the men are going in, and the men aren’t aware of where they are. We’re aware of where the men are, like a pantomime. We’re aware of where they are, but they’re not, because they’re locked onto her. It was about dream space or nightmare or something which psychologically felt familiar to it somehow. But, it wasn’t a built space; it was the absence of everything.
Capone: Well, it is the place where she/it feels like the most in control. She is locking eyes with those poor saps and pulling them in; that’s her realm. We have to keep reminding ourselves that she’s somewhere that she’s not that familiar with. The scene that I think a lot of people are going to react to is that scene on that rocky beach, where she leaves the crying baby, but she doesn’t respond to a baby crying the way that we would.
JG: Why would she?
Capone: Yeah, exactly. That’s a nice, subtle way of saying that it is not an evil thing; it’s just she has no frame of reference or instinctual reaction to that sound.
JG: You’re absolutely right. You’re completely right. And that’s how you show the alien, by showing the fact that she has none of the impulses we have. So it’s exactly that. It’s there, it’s our way of doing the spaceship sort of thing.
Capone: You turn a tide at some point with that one man, who I understand is not an actor.
JG: With the disfigured face?
Capone: Yes. What is his name?
JG: Adam Pearson.
Capone: He’s great, but the film turns there. She lets him go and becomes more self aware.
JG: Off she goes.
Capone: The scene where she’s in that man’s house and she’s looking at herself in the glow of the heat lamp, it’s almost like she’s seeing herself for the first time. She’s taking stock in the skin that’s on her. Why is that moment so important?
JG: It’s exactly as you said. You’re asking me an almost rhetorical question because you know the answer--I think which would be my answer. It is the discovery of her craft, of her anatomy, and the scene is about her taking ownership of that, actually. This thing that she’s wearing her combat suit. She’s saying, “This tells me this is me. That is my identity. It’s like what do they say? Either the suit wears the man, or the man wears the suit. Is that right?
Capone: Yes, exactly.
JG: So the scene here is where the man wears the suit. You know what I mean? It’s not an excitable camera. It’s not about the eroticism of Scarlett Johansson’s body. It’s about the ownership of her body. It’s about her owning her body, I think. I hope that’s what it’s about.
Capone: It feels like even as an actor, she might be doing the same thing in that moment, saying, “Look at me. People haven't really seen this. Here I am. This is it.”
JG: Absolutely, I totally agree with you. And I think I’ll stand up and clap for her doing that, because I think she reclaims it.
Capone: Are we going to have to wait another decade before what ever you do next?
JG: God, I hope not.
Capone: As much as the film came out very well at the end of this, I’m guessing that you didn’t necessarily enjoy every minute of that waiting
JG: No, you’re absolutely right. There are times when you feel like you’re ready, and then you're not, and then a year goes by. Looking back though, films find their level. They do find where the cast, the script, the budget, and their intention all get to that point, and then there’s the money. Suddenly, you’re making a film. And you can become too attached for too long to things that ultimately you’re just going to throw away. There were times in this scripting process where we would throw away 40 pages that might have taken six months to think about. And they’re just gone. They no longer become important. As you’re finding the molten core of them. I hope to find the molten core of what I’m going to do next sooner.
Capone: As a child of the '80s, I made a habit of paying attention to music video directors' names. So it’s great to finally get to meet you.