In some ways, Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under the Skin is quite straightforward. It involves Scarlett Johansson, an alien, cruising around Glasgow in a little white van, picking up men. In other ways it’s less straightforward: You should see what she does with the men.
In any case, this oblique sci-fi allegory is a welcome return to the big screen for Glazer, who’s sort of a cult filmmaker if only for the infrequency of his films. (But also for their excellence). His career began at around the turn of the last century: a great Guinness ad here, a Radiohead video there, and then in 2000 the movie Sexy Beast, with an adorable Ray Winstone as an ex-gangster having his cozy retirement shattered by a batshit-crazy Ben Kingsley. After that came 2004’s Birth, in which a boy announces to a Manhattan widow played by Nicole Kidman that he’s her late husband reincarnated. Now after too long a wait here Glazer is again with another strange and amazing interloper story, this one told entirely from the interloper’s point of view. Recently, he met to discuss it.
So, what have you been up to this past decade?
This, really. I mean, there’ve been times I’ve taken on other things. But I’ve been very much in the service of this. Because I’ve been quite obsessed with it, and it’s taken a long time to find a way. Even though it’s based on a book, it’s very loosely based on it. It comes from a feeling, and from images. It takes a long time to construct. Some films take two years, four years, six years. I think the ten-year label makes it seem extreme. Maybe it is.
Did it get harder after a certain amount of time has passed? Especially with changes in technology or in the movie industry, was it hard to keep sight of what you liked the most?
The easiest thing was keeping sight of it. The hardest thing was articulating that. You start with a feeling, then you go on a journey — a long journey, this time — to see what that looks like. Then you put it up on the screen and see if it looks the way it felt. I know it doesn’t look anything like how I probably thought it would look six years ago. It’s been through so many different incarnations. But I think you walk away from it. They say you don’t really finish a film, you abandon it. I think there’s some truth to that. I could’ve carried on. I could still be shooting. So at a certain point you’ve got to call it quits. If it feels the way you anticipated, then you’ve done it. Good or bad, you’ve articulated that film.
This one differs from your other films, which of course differ from each other — and that’s part of what your fans enjoy about them — but there are points of connection if we look. Are you able to talk about how Under the Skin fits into a body of work?
I try not to look behind me, really. I’ve always had a kind of fear of repeating myself. But it’s not just for the sake of it; if you feel like you’ve done something, you know it. You want to add to that knowledge. You don’t just want to fall back on it. The thing that keeps me excited is the idea that I haven’t done yet. It’s important to have a challenge. To actually go into something where I feel like I’m going to fall on my ass. I need to feel that the risk is significant.
How did you feel that way this time?
Oh, loads of ways. We built a brand new camera system. We shot covertly, with hidden cameras and with people not aware, at the time, that they were being filmed. So we were shooting scenes that we might not have got permission to use. We had Scarlett in disguise. The whole approach is deeply unconventional. A total lack of exposition. Sparse dialogue. Impenetrable motives. I mean, loads of risks.
So how have viewers responded, and how does the response affect your relationship with the film?
From what I’ve heard myself, there are people who are engaged. But equally there are people who feel abandoned when they watch a film like this. They don’t have the patience, or they’re not engaged in it. They want it to do all the work. But, you know, how you read the film is how you read it. I know how I read it, but I don’t know if my interpretation is more valid than yours. The way the film is made, it does require your attention. I sound like I’m being really evasive. I probably am. On purpose, it’s a reflective film. I think you’ll get what you bring. As will I.
Tell us about the music. It’s extraordinary.
The composer Mica Levi was on this film for ten months. So it wasn’t like a more common six weeks. Normally with a composer, it’s: “There’s the film, it’s a locked cut, off you go.” And there was no locked cut here. Everything was in a constant state of flux. The music would inform the cut, the cut would inform the sound, the sound would inform the visual effects, and so on. You don’t go in with a map, you come out with a map.
Which must be challenging with work that takes so much time and money and other people’s resources.
It is, but it’s also a labor of love for the people involved. Thankfully, the people I work with are very committed to the task, and they know we’ll do it until it’s right.
Presumably that includes Scarlett Johansson. This seems like an important moment in her career. Can you talk about working with her?
We’d been chatting for three or four years about the film. She reminded me I met her once without even thinking about casting her — sometimes I was asking about other actors. But we were sort of circling each other somehow. Eventually she read a script, and we discussed it the way you’d discuss a book you’d just read that you’re both really enthusiastic about. Just enjoying the idea of it. The character. In that conversation, I really heard her connection to it. Now I wouldn’t even try and imagine anyone else in it. It’s her film.
It does at least seem very plausible that if Scarlett Johansson drove up to you and started chitchatting, you might want to get in her van and go wherever she took you.
You would think that. Although you might be surprised. People are more complex than that, when you really do experiment. When you do what we did, which was sort of a sociological experiment, you see that it’s actually not the case each time. Some people are frightened or suspicious, or not bothered.
Yes, and you do give us a glimpse of that too. Could this film have been made without shooting some of it covertly?
It all came from the idea of disguise. The interloper. The Trojan horse. She walks among us. That type of thing. What we were really interested in was this osmotic change toward some difference in her — being human almost is like a virus, like something you catch. It’s growing in her, and it’s something that she doesn’t understand. Human impulses happen to her, and obviously confuse her. For those things to mean something, those changes, if they come from real human behavior, witnessed, rather than actors acting, then it’s something that we recognize as real, and it has value to it for that. So she’s the only lie in the film, in a sense. She’s witnessing the world as it is, not the paraphernalia of a film set. She’s witnessing people. And how strange we are.