The most striking thing about Under The Skin isn't Scarlett Johansson driving around in a van picking up men on the street and taking them to her lair. Rather, it's the film's weirdly dispassionate viewpoint on some really upsetting scenes. We talked to director Jonathan Glazer about turning his camera into an alien eye.
Minor spoilers ahead...
We were lucky enough to talk to Glazer in a roundtable interview with just one or two other press outlets. And we were eager to ask him about the strange process that went into creating this film — in which he had Scarlett Johansson drive around Scotland in a van with hidden cameras, trying to pick up random men who had no idea who she was. (The men were given release forms to sign afterwards.)
Not only that, but the film went through a long, crazy process, with the script taking a lot of vastly different forms, and the budget originally being much bigger. So here's what Glazer told us about the making of Under The Skin:
Surprisingly few people recognized Johansson
They considered using prosthetics and other radical changes to disguise her, but in the end she's just wearing a wig, going around Scotland interacting with random people. And surprisingly, only a couple of people recognized her, especially after paparazzi had photographed her in that wig and coat just a week earlier and it had been in the Glasgow newspaper.
When people did recognize Johansson, "she just poker-faced, and said, 'No, no, not at all,' and just carried on talking," says Glazer.
But it was dicier when they had to film in big public places, like a Glasgow nightclub on a Friday night, with all its usual patrons dancing around. Or a shopping center in the middle of the day — Glazer needed to get a few different angles of Johansson walking, and so she needed to cross the nightclub a few times, "and after three or four people, there were people who were all pissed up, but they're all like, 'Who's that?' And then you realize that you haven't got long."
In this day and age, with social media, it would just take one person tweeting that Scarlett Johansson was at the mall, and it would be a mob scene. "But it just didn't happen," says Glazer.
"I think we just hid very well," he adds, meaning the camera crew. "We were well hid, and she was well disguised. It wouldn't occur to you to think of her up there [in Scotland], looking like that and driving a van. It wouldn't occur to you."
In the film, "Scarlett's character is made to attract men," says Glazer. "She performs that function. She's a machine, she's a tool, in a way." But a lot of the people she tried to pick up didn't respond "in the way you would expect if you were to write this as a piece of comic-book fiction. Scarlett Johansson pulls up, [and] in you get... some were suspicious. Some were wary. Some were frightened. You see a whole range of complexity of how men do respond to that scenario."
This film was a beast to edit
After shooting all of the footage of Johansson in Scotland, and all the other stuff that happens in this film, Glazer ended up with 270 hours of footage to turn into a two-hour movie. "It felt like a lot," he laughs. "The editing was a very rigorous process."
Glazer needed to see everything he'd shot and be able to edit in his head, and after a 15-hour day he would call up editor Paul Watts in the middle of the night and say, "What if we try that after that," and Watts would understand what he was talking about. "You need to get a place where you have a shared language" with the editor, and "you almost share a head."
"This film is very much about its form," says Glazer. "I think the editing is an enormous part of the writing about this film." In this film, "its content and its form are one thing. We talked about a film that had eyes and ears." The way this movie propels forward, "its logic [and] its rhythm" are constructed unconventionally, and thus this movie's storytelling wasn't just about bringing the script to life, but rather about finding the story in the footage that Glazer had shot, and molding it like a piece of clay.
Speaking of which...
This film's script went through many weird changes
Glazer worked on Under The Skin's script for seven years, based on the novel by Michael Faber — the last three of them, collaborating with cowriter Walter Campbell. "We got to the point where the script was a much bigger script, and a more elaborate script, than we ended up making." This more elaborate script was about two aliens living in a small town together, one of whom was Johansson's character. And there were a host of other subplots, which ended up being dropped.
"We could never raise the money" for that more elaborate version of this film, adds Glazer, "and I'm pleased we could never raise the money for it, because we got to what it should have been, in my opinion. That was really the molten core of what we'd written, the bigger story. It was like taking the scaffolding off, all these scenes that we ended up just throwing away... we reconnected with what it was about, which was her."
Glazer works hard to show an alien point of view in this film
Part of the reason for the documentary-like style of Under The Skin is to show the real world, the everyday world, from an alien point of view. Glazer says he was committed to "experiencing things as she did, really — by being alongside her, by committing to her point of view." He wanted to be "with her, and away from the world. We felt the film would work like that if we stood apart, the film needed to stand alone."
This was "a visual vocabulary that we found through shooting the world as it is — really I think that was critical. [With Johansson] being this sort of Trojan horse in it." He wanted to capture the real world instead of "fucking with it," or "setting up a kind of movie set, with all this paraphernalia." That was why it was so important to take her out to interact with the real world and be as unobtrusive as possible — to show the alien among us.
"You see human behavior," says Glazer. "You see what we are, in those moments. There's no fiction. It's documentary, almost."
But when it came to the scenes were people go inside the alien's lair with Johansson, those scenes were story-boarded carefully and mapped out meticulously, since they involved visual effects.
Dispassionate camerawork and hysterical music
Even as Glazer is trying for a very dispassionate, documentary-like style, the music in Under The Skin is very intense and sounds, at times, like a horror-movie soundtrack. This is especially jarring when the camera seems unmoved in the face of some horrific events, but the music is shrieking.
This contrast is very deliberate, says Glazer: "The music is volcanic in places and emotional, while the frame remains dispassionate and formal."
The film's camera style is all "about witnessing," adds Glazer. "The camera's not excited. You know." This allows the alien to witness things we do "and watching her reaction to those things." There's a very horrific scene on a beach, which we watch from a distance with Johansson, rather than getting in the middle of the action. It's shot in a deliberately non-Hollywood way, as if you just happened on this terrible event.
"The horror is supposed to be described by the reality, and what she sees in that scene," says Glazer. "All corners of what we have and what we are. The scene is full of love and tragedy and nobility and courage and selflessness. It's unfathombable, I think, to her." She doesn't respond to any of this like a human being — and "it's in those moments that we see the alien, I suppose, the kind of gulf between her reaction and ours."
But meanwhile, the music by Mica Levi is designed "not to work against [the camerawork], but to multiply the experience," says Glazer, and to depict "what the pictures couldn't do. If the pictures are just witnessing these events, what the music is doing is describing."
There are actually three musical themes in the film. There's an alien "beehive" sound that is like horror-movie music. Then there's her "capture riff," which is Johansson at work, capturing humans, which is sensual, "almost strip-club music. It's erotic and it's charged and twisted," and the music is almost like Johansson's perfume, "a scent that's described musically." And then the third piece of music conveys "the burgeoning sense of self and love and identity and moral intuition and all those things that she's grappling with."
So the music describes Johansson's alien character "in the way the camera can't, and that we don't have words [for]."
A real-life birth defect
One of the most striking things in the film is when the alien picks up a man with a birth defect — which is real, not special effects. That man isn't an actor, but a television researcher named Adam Pearson who has suffered from neurofibrosis from birth. In the film, Pearson's character is shy and traumatized, but in real life, "he's very funny, and very socially involved and an incredibly ballsy bloke," says Glazer.
This was about reclaiming Scarlett Johansson's sexuality
"She's objectified, often, for her sexuality [and] the way she looks," says Glazer. "We put that to a better use — she put that to a better use, I think — by reclaiming that in this film. And I think she actually de-eroticizes her image in this film, and reclaims it by doing so."