Under the Skin Poster

It’s fair to say that British auteur Jonathan Glazer is something of an elusive presence in the industry, with just three productions to his name across the previous 14 years, beginning with his debut feature Sexy Beast, and following it up with his sophomore picture Birth. It’s now been nine years since, but finally he returns with the striking, unforgettable Under the Skin, an abstract, unconventional offering, that is symbolic of a director always willing to push the boundaries of what can be achieved in this art form.

Glazer appreciates how long it has been since his last project, however he claims that he has been busy the entire time, working tirelessly on bringing Under the Skin to the big screen. “I know I couldn’t make anything I didn’t have to make,” he said. “If I’m going to make something that’s exactly what I need to be doing, it takes a lot of will power to make something. A lot of obstacles, a lot of things you’ve got to deal with. If you’re anchored by a deep connection and love for the the project then you can tackle all of that. So for me it’s about finding something I feel very strongly about that speaks to me on a real base level. Then growing it – you work with some fantastic collaborators along that road, and you turn round and 10 years have gone, but it doesn’t feel like that, you’re not looking at your clock in that way. I’m not the kind of filmmaker who’s going to go from one thing to the next. I often wish I was that filmmaker, but I’m just not.”

As Glazer mentions, it takes something quite special, quite unique to resonate with him on a deep level, and persuade him to undertake a project. So we asked what it was about Under the Skin – a novel by Michel Faber, that appealed to him so greatly. “I like the character in the novel, I like the atmosphere, I like the central idea. This idea of the alien lens, looking at us through an alien’s eyes – that was the thing that really felt like the spark. It’s such a rich area, such a rich idea. The plotting of the book and the other ideas and themes were less important to me, they didn’t speak to me in the same way. I enjoyed reading them, but I didn’t want to make a film about them.”

This quite exceptional piece of filmmaking is triumphant in its depiction of an alien perceiving the human race, placing the audience in her shoes. Glazer feels that the Glasgow setting, which was his idea, enhances that notion. “The Glasgow setting puts her among us, pure and simple. You get to see us. It felt like it needed to take place in the city, where we were. Let’s be around human beings, let’s see human beings, that’s how she’s going to connect to us, by spending time with us.”

The director also shot many scenes with hidden cameras, which he believes brings around its own set of challenges, despite how beneficial to the finished product it has proven to be. “Shooting people without them knowing, just being around these ideas I think, it all made sense to the project we were working on, and made sense that that’s how we should shoot this film,” he said. “The difficulties come in that these cameras didn’t exist to begin with, we had to build a camera system to achieve this, brand new cameras that had to be designed and built from scratch with very little resources, to shoot this movie. That’s a difficulty. And how to make them hidden, how to hide them in situations. How do you hide them in Debenhams? Or a night club? Or a van? The cinematographer can’t use light because if he does the guy is going to spot them, so it was very much about the method of the film, to film much of it like we were inside a Trojan Horse almost, in the way the character is, it’s about the method and narrative being the same thing.”

The marriage between the method and the narrative is evidently something that intrigues Glazer, while he explains his own way of communicating the alien’s world to the audience, and ensuring we fully abide by the supernatural elements within the picture. “If you believe the character we’re trying to present, and you understand where we are in the story, then actually the more banal the situation, the more everyday, mundane things are, the more remarkable they become, because they’re thrown into some extraordinary kind of relief by the fact we’re looking at it through her eyes, so we totally embraced the banal,” he explained. “Then, there are other parts of the film which show her realm, the unfathomable, a dream space we enter into with her, and those are inscrutable, so when you put one next to the other, there’s a real power. I think we believe the alien realm in this film more because of what precedes it and the more real the streets are. When you walk into those spaces with her, you feel like the whole world has switched off or something, and suddenly you’re in this other space and you don’t quite know how you got there, but you’re full of the reality of the world you’ve just experienced. It imbues that space, that space is troubling. We were very aware of the impact it could have if we were to get it right.”

Under the SkinScarlett Johansson shines as the lead role too, though Glazer admits it took a few meetings to completely tie her down to the project, though he’s thrilled that he managed to secure the services of the Hollywood star, admitting that her fame and stature actually lends itself to the part at hand. “She wasn’t always the person we had in mind because the film was scripted very differently and we wrote different versions of the film, but when we got to this version, which we understood to be the one we wanted to make, then it was clearly Scarlett. There’s an incredible point of difference between Scarlett and everything else in this film, and that plays into the idea of the character. Scarlett, in disguise, driving a transit van in Glasgow in November is kind of out of context, she’s sort of on the wrong continent somehow, so you’re already looking at an alien on some level and you use that as fuel and you take that on.

“She was always keen on getting involved, she was waiting for us to be ready with a script that made sense, and one we were committed to and ready to make. Scarlett and I met a few times over the years with less clear versions, different tellings of the same idea, and she couldn’t quite see herself in it, and I couldn’t quite see her in it. We ended up talking about other things, but it came once she saw the character at the centre of it, when we’d stripped everything down to the multicore of her character, then she really clicked with it. She’s extremely brave to have done it, all credit for her, because it’s like nothing else she has done. It’s a fearless undertaking.”

Brave is something of an understatement in this instance, as Johansson turns in a performance quite unlike anything we’ve seen her do before, though Glazer tells us that he understood why she wanted to get involved in this particular project. “There’s always more to people than you might think, and there was something about where Scarlett was at in her life and what she’d done before, what she was yet to do and this appealed to her in that moment, this is where she wanted to go next and it’s where her head was at. I was really encouraged by her enthusiasm for it, I think she really wanted to do it, and that surprised me a little bit to begin with, but not once we’d talked about it detail. We talked about it together like we’d both just read the same book, and we were sharing our enthusiasm for it, we just clicked with it, and I clicked with her, and then I told her how we were going to do it, and she just said ‘yep, let’s do that. If that’s how it needs to be done, then let’s do that.’ You could see in the film that she’s fully committed to the job in hand. It shows.”

Under the Skin is an offbeat production and embraces the abstract – but Glazer is hopeful that given Johansson’s established fan-base, her casting could bring about an audience he would have otherwise struggled to tap in to. “Scarlett Johansson fans, typically, would be less inclined to see this kind of film, and those inclined to see this kind of film, would be less inclined to see Scarlett Johansson films. If people come and see the film because of her, and then when they leave they’ve got something from the film they didn’t expect to come for, that would be a great thin,” he said.

“When you’re making the film you don’t really think the audience, it’s only when you start editing that you really start to became aware of your audience because you’re thinking of how you communicate these ideas, and how lucid can you be, and yet stay within the language you’ve established. It’s important to be really consistent with your film, good or bad, you need to be consistent – and I hope we have been. It will be interesting to see if people come. I hope they do. There will be people who hate the film, well, there are people who hate the film, and that’s absolutely as it should be.”

So finally we asked Glazer about his next project – and whether we’d have to wait another nine years for it, which, thankfully, it seems won’t be the case. “I hope not. But you’ve got to get the thing that you want to make next, whether it’s a script that lands on your doorstep or it’s a thought you’ve had, or something you’ve read, it can come from anywhere. So I’m thinking about those things right now.”

Under the Skin is released on Marc 14, and you can read our review here.