Interview: Jonathan Glazer delves ‘Under the Skin’

When Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) was given its world premiere at last year’s 70th Venice Film Festival, the UK director was hoping for a powerful reaction and he duly got one. As part of the audience started to boo, a larger section cheered and applauded. Glazer’s films often provoke extreme responses amongst audiences and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Inspired by Michel Faber’s novel, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a nameless alien who drifts across modern day Scotland in a van picking up and seducing men before luring them to their death. Glazer was intrigued by the premise of the book – an alien living amongst us – and over that decade of development searched to find the essence that he would take from it for the screen.

You’ve taken Under the Skin to Venice, Toronto and London, where it’s provoked extreme reactions. How did you feel about that?
Jonathan Glazer: My perfect distribution would be to get the cast, crew and a few friends together, watch it, go for a pint and then go and torch it and bury it under a tree. It’s all about the journey. The finished film is almost a surprise. It seems like you could go on and on, looking for the essence of it. You never really finish it. More so it’s that you run out of time. I’d still be in that van driving around if I could be. Also of course once you finish something you have to talk about it, explain yourself, that’s when it gets difficult. The enjoyable part for me is the process. Starting with a spark. A feeling you’re trying to express. And in the search for that you get to enjoy intense collaborations. Walter [Campbell] and I working for years together was wonderful. Then the development, then Scarlett [Johansson] and the shooting, the editing, the sound, the music. It’s a new thing at each stage. You get so immersed in all of this you forget that you’ll have to show it one day. And so taking the film to a place like Venice is a real shock to the system. It was obviously a good thing but I found it terrifying. If I could do what I do on a canvass or write a piece of music or sculpt instead, I would. And then I could do it in a garden shed. But films aren’t that”. “The premiere was quite fiery. Simultaneous booing and clapping is something I’ll never forget. It’s a beautiful sound.
Why is it a beautiful sound?
JG: I read Jean Renoir said that if his film caused an argument between a husband and wife then he’d know he’d done alright. I’d rather make something that had that about it than something that didn’t. It’s part of what this is and it would have been ridiculous to think it would be any other way.
Scarlett has said that when you first started talking about this three or four years ago the script was very different. How did it change down the years?
JG: The scripting involved three different writers over a ten year period. I knew there was something great about the book that I wanted to make but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. With the first writer, I wasn’t co-writing it in the way that I was later. I was purposely at arms length.
Can you explain why?
JG: Because I wanted to see what an adaptation of the book would look like. I wanted to see what it was that I was facing. And I understood then that a faithful adaptation of the book was something I didn’t want to make. But I also understood that I wanted to keep going. I became obsessed with it. And I was very fortunate to be supported by producers who let me find it, whatever it was. And then I worked with another writer and we worked together very closely in a room for probably a year and a half, two years.
Who was that?
JG: Milo Addica. We put it in abeyance for a while though in order to make Birth. It was a very different interpretation. A departure from the book though for sure. Then lastly I worked with Walter Campbell, who I knew very well from advertising. This period was the kind of well- spring that the film came from. Once we’d found finally the core of the story, the alien character, and a way to tell it, we had a draft I could talk to Scarlett about. She responded to it very enthusiastically. And then it all happened quite quickly.
She’s a big star and she has put herself on the line with this role.
JG: She was challenging herself and the people who enjoy her work. She knew this would be an adventure and that she’d go somewhere creatively she hadn’t been before. She welcomed the risk and I’m fortunate she did. She immersed herself. She inhabited the role. She committed herself wholeheartedly to everything asked of her. There was no way I could have got what I did had Scarlett not been as dedicated as she was. Also she understood tacitly that the bravery of the character in the film needed to be matched by her own. 
We could talk about the themes – about fear, loneliness, sex, and belonging – but do you want each audience member to make their own minds up about that?
JG: The cinema I respond to is stimulating because I’m involved in a dialogue with what I’m watching. I have an emotional response, a personal response, and it affects me in a certain way, which might be very different to the way it affects someone else. You don’t write themes or direct themes and you don’t cut themes – they come through the cracks. We wanted each scene to give us something, to stimulate and challenge us. We wanted ideas rolling into new ideas and more ideas and new images, more of this and more of that. I obviously have my own view of what I think it is but I really do resist talking about them. Not because I’m trying to be oblique but I think someone coming to watch the film would enjoy it more knowing less. Because it’s experiential I think. If it was music, I’d say it was an album not a single.
What was the concept?
JG: The central idea was about disguising the actress and dropping her in the real world. Everything had to serve that. So we built a bespoke camera system with heads that were small enough to be hidden, and positioned them according to the action we wanted to cover. Then the crew would effectively walk away and Scarlett would step in. This way there was no evidence of a film being shot. Also her character spends a lot of the film driving and I didn’t want that to be simulated either. I wanted her immersed in the function of driving. So we built the cameras into the cab. This way she could drive and we could film everything she did and everything she drove past. We were photographing her and her points of view simultaneously. The cameras become an extension of her own eye almost.

So what was your approach to that ‘other worldliness’ and designing the look?

JG: Stripping everything away to the point where you’re left with a black screen. Where anything familiar has been removed. So you’re looking at something infinite. Alien. Or a white screen for the same reasons. Aesthetic and technological design in science fiction film has had a real impact on the world. The genre’s been kind of front-line in that regard. But our approach was about essential minimalism. No hardware or machinery. I’d say Billie Whitelaw’s mouth in ‘Not I’ or Francis Bacon paintings were more relevant talking points for us.
How much footage did you have?
JG: From memory, about 260 hours. Multiple cameras shooting Scarlett driving around for instance meant we were accumulating a lot of footage. It was like bird watching, cameras rolling while we were waiting for the right moment. We were embracing the incredible randomness of it, the beauty of her in the real world. Also the method of filming became an equivalent to the character’s mission. So we kind of worked like thieves. Also we wanted to bring the film to the cast not the cast to the film. These became the absolute guiding principles in how to tell the story and the things that we contrived for the more ‘written’ scenes had to chime with that. They had to have the same texture and feel.
Did Scarlett get recognised a lot by members of the public?
JG: A few people did recognise her, but that was after her photograph was in the paper looking like the way she does in the film. But on the whole, not very much, no, partly because she didn’t look familiar in the way that people know her and also because she was in Glasgow driving a white van and you’re not going to expect Scarlett to be doing that. There’s a scene for instance where she falls in the street and is then helped to her feet by passers-by. No-one batted an eye.
When you are working on a project like this for a long period of time are you also developing other ideas at the same time?
JG: As far as other films are concerned, no, I’m completely occupied by what I’m making. You don’t know what journey you want to take next, until the one you’re on is completed. So other projects are very background in my thinking. When I ran out money I’d go off to do a TV ad though, or occasionally a music video would come in for an artist I was into and I’d say, “I’m going to do it,” because I needed to get out of the room and shoot. Also I completed a couple of art projects during that time.

Did you ever consider moving on to something else. Another film, perhaps?

JG: Occasionally people said to me, “Come on, put it down, do another film and come back to it.” But I knew that I had to see it through. For me, it was hard to imagine going on a different journey until this one was completed. They’re like diaries, you’re living them, that’s where you are in your head at that point in your life.
And now the film is finished will you be able to let it go?
JG: I can’t wait to put it behind me. But seeing what it is we’ve actually made will take a while. A few years have to go by. I couldn’t look at Birth until recently because of course I knew what came next.. what scene, what shot etc. You have to detach from it to really see what you’ve made. That takes time. For me though, it really is the journey, the process, the collaboration, the invention. It’s a good way to spend your time I think and once it’s done it’s done.
You aren’t thinking about what will be your next film at the moment?
JG: I’ll get the interviews out of the way and then I’ll expunge it and then I’ll be, “OK, what now?” I’ve got some thoughts. I’ve got some ideas for another art project. And ideas for films.
Birth also provoked extreme reactions when it was released. How do you look back at that film now?
JG: I re-watched it about a year ago. There was a lot about it that I was pleased with, there was a lot about it that worked for me and you know, it’s a good story. It’s ambiguous though and I can understand why some people were frustrated by that. But I’m proud of how stripped bare it is. I like what’s missing. There’s that saying about a perfectly working machine being the one with the fewest parts. I was trying to achieve that. And I think there is a companionship between Birth and Under the Skin.
In what way?
JG: I feel like Birth was the beginning of a journey. And Under the Skin is another part of the same one. It’s hard to explain. The boy in Birth remains unknowable to us. The alien too. When she looks at her face at the end of the film, at that black thing inside, that’s not the alien, that’s the next layer. You’re trying to make a film about something infinite – soul, spirit, whatever you want to call it and the paradox of that inside a body. I don’t think you think “Oh, that’s what they look like on their planet.” I think you ask, “What am I looking at?” As long as you feel like you’re in the presence of something real then it works. But you know, even if it goes down in flames I’ve had a good time.

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of the film’s UK distributors StudioCanal.