In the 1990s, British director Jonathan Glazer established himself as one of the world’s premier commercial and music-video directors, with credits including Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” and Radiohead’s “Karma Police”; the latter won him an MTV Director Of The Year award in 1997. His 2000 film debut, Sexy Beast, carried over his bold visual style to a nasty British gangster thriller that’s vibrantly colorful both in its photography, and in its profane dialogue. His peculiar follow-up, 2004’s Birth, divided critics with the bizare story of a woman (Nicole Kidman) who becomes convinced that her late husband has been reincarnated as a 10-year-old boy. But there was no doubting Glazer’s meticulous craft, which has lately drawn comparison to Stanley Kubrick.
In Under The Skin, Glazer’s third film, and his most accomplished work to date, Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien who’s taken the form of an attractive young woman to lure men into a trap, though her mission’s purpose is unclear. She spends much of the film driving around Scotland in search of fresh victims, but her dispassion gradually morphs into curiosity, which leads her into trouble. Though the film was partly photographed with hidden cameras, much of Glazer’s formalist beauty remains intact, enhanced by gorgeously bleak views of Glasgow and the Scottish countryside, and a complex sound design and score (by Mica Levi) that tells much of the story on its own. Here, Glazer talks to The Dissolve about his hidden-camera interactions, the fluid coordination of every aspect of the production, and his determination that audiences get the movie that’s been promoted to them.
The Dissolve: Much of the film follows Scarlett Johansson as she’s driving around in a van, having conversations with young men, many of them non-actors. How did you handle that technically?
Jonathan Glazer: Much of the film was shot with a camera called a OneCam, which we built to make this film. We needed a camera that was small enough to hide, but had the quality that we needed to project and do the visual-effects work. It didn’t exist, so we built it. We built 10 cameras. Sometimes we used two, sometimes we used 10. We shot much of the film like that, where we could build the cameras into the dashboard in her car, or hide them in street furniture to watch her walking down the street, and not alert the general public that there was any filming going on at all. Much of the film was shot covertly like that.
The Dissolve: Were you inspired at all by Abbas Kiarostami’s films while you were shooting?
Glazer: It’s funny, I haven’t seen Kiarostami yet. But somebody mentioned the film Ten. Of course I’ll look at that now. No, Jafar Panahi is the Iranian filmmaker I’ve been watching recently. This Is Not A Film is amazing.
The Dissolve: What’s your history with this novel? Once you got it, what did you decide you wanted to use and discard from it?
Glazer: Consciously, at the time, I didn’t really know. It’s only in hindsight now, or retrospectively, that I can see where we ended up, how far we deviated from the novel. It just got to a point where we detached ourselves from it completely. The writer who wrote the screenplay [Walter Campbell] that we basically went off to shoot with hadn’t read the book at all. In fact, he didn’t want to read the book, and I thought that was a really good move. The book had almost left my consciousness, so we started with no knowledge of it. Still, the central things in the book are in the film. Not dramatically, but spiritually there’s a fundamental thing that holds the film and the book up the same.
The Dissolve: The book’s political component has gone by the wayside.
Glazer: The political component to the book was to do with eating meat, and it was a satire on corporate greed and crime. It was quite interesting, and I enjoyed reading it, but that wasn’t the part that resonated with me at all. The part that resonated with me was this idea of seeing things with her, experiencing things with her, having her see things for the first time.
The Dissolve: Have you encountered any resistance from the author, or from fans of the book, for altering it so radically?
Glazer: Not from the author. I met him recently in London at a screening. I hadn’t met him ever. It was great to meet him, and very strange, very intense. We met after he had just seen the film at this big screening at the BFI Theatre on the South Bank in London. I met him and his wife, and they were very fearful of what the film might be, as you would be if you were an author and you sold the rights to your book to be made into a film. I don’t think I could ever do that. Well, maybe. Anyway, they were very relieved at the fact that it was its own thing entirely, and it was a spiritual bedfellow, or soulmate. He was very taken by the fact that it was a true adaptation. I don’t think you need to film the book to make an adaptation of one. I was never going to do that. This is a long, long way from it.
The Dissolve: Sexy Beast, Birth, and large sections of this film suggest you direct with a clear, meticulous vision for what you want, yet you were willing to give up sections of this film to hidden cameras and semi-improvisation. Was that hard for you to do? Were you certain you could get the results you ended up getting?
Glazer: I was absolutely clear that it was going to work, conceptually. There was no way it wasn’t going to work. It was more, “What could we get? How good could these interactions be in the time we had to shoot?” In other words, it’s the kind of thing you could shoot forever, because it’s going to be different every day. If you went out with the task of shooting her driving around in the van with hidden cameras—picking people up, or talking to people on the street, or walking down the street, or falling over in the street—each time you do that, it’s going to be completely different, and completely wonderful.
The Dissolve: That’s just faith in mankind, basically.
Glazer: It is, and I think that’s precisely what the film was about. Shooting the way we did was about understanding that the methodology and the narrative were the same thing, and they were equivalent. It’s a kind of perfect storm of all of those ingredients, and when you go into it, you’re absolutely clear, conceptually, that what you’re doing is right.
The Dissolve: What did Scarlett Johansson have scripted for those scenes? Did you have certain lines or triggers she was trying to use each time?
Glazer: There were definitely lines and triggers for her, and occasionally for the guys in the van, as well. Sometimes there were people in the film who were cast traditionally, like I’d meet a bunch of people and say, “I want that guy to play this role,” and give him his scene and talk about it and go. And there were people in the film who were told they were in the film after we shot the footage, just members of the public. What I was very conscious of was making sure the texture was such that you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which, who was cast and who wasn’t. Sometimes with Scarlett, for instance, we’d pick up somebody who doesn’t know they’re being filmed, and they’d wonder why she’s driving this van around. “What’s a woman like you doing driving a white van around in Scotland with an English accent?” and we would give her some key lines, like a spy with a cover story. Sometimes she would have that, and sometimes there would be a script, where we would have written three or four pages of dialogue with one of the guys who I did cast, and they would go about that, and within five minutes, I’d chuck it away and say, “We need to keep this and this, and that’s it. The rest of it’s just going to be that you two just chat.”
The Dissolve: How did you talk to her about approaching this role? Were you intent on using her as other films hadn’t?
Glazer: I always intend on doing that, really, with any actor, because everyone involved needs to go on a journey. Everyone involved needs to be engaged in what you’re doing. I’ve never cast anybody who’s sort of just done what they do.
The Dissolve: This seems to be self-consciously playing with her image. She’s an icon, like David Bowie is more than just an actor in The Man Who Fell To Earth. She has an otherworldly quality.
Glazer: Well, we use that for sure. We’re using how Scarlett’s objectified, the glamour of her image. And she’s using all of that as well. There’s a deconstruction going on.
The Dissolve: How much of the sound design and the score was worked out before you started shooting?
Glazer: The score wasn’t worked out at all before we started shooting. The theory of how we were going to use the sound in the film was long worked out. For the sound, it was about capturing everything we needed, that more conventionally in a film, you wouldn’t bother with. All the sonic chaos of the world that we tune out. If we stop for a second and become aware of the air-conditioning unit [points to hotel-room vent], there’s clicking going on down there—we block all that out. The role of this was to use all those things and have those things somehow becoming symphonic, just bubbling away in the background. All of the things you would normally cut out of the soundtrack for being noisy would be the things we used and pushed to the foreground. There were a lot of developed microphones to achieve that stuff.
Again, when you’re shooting people who don’t know they’re being filmed, you’ve got a guy standing there with a camera that might actually be in a wheely case at the exact angle you want. You also need your sound man to be standing there as well, but he can’t be holding a microphone, so he might be with a pair of headphones, and he’s looking like he’s playing a tune on his iPod, and he’s got an umbrella under his arm, and the microphone is in the umbrella as he’s just standing there waiting for a bus. All of that stuff is very worked out, very planned, very plotted. Then an analysis of all the sounds you recorded, encyclopedic, like 24,000 hours of sound, and you would go through all of it. Johnnie Burn, the sound designer, and myself would go through and categorize every single thing, and then look at the sound rushes the way I would my photograph rushes. It was a very obsessive task. Music came in later. I always knew we were going to use, not a film composer, but somebody who had the right voice, and Mica Levi was her.
The Dissolve: What was that process like?
Glazer: We were trying to all be in a room at one point, or all in one building, where we’d have the sound design going on, we’d have the music being written, I’d be cutting, and we’d be doing the visual effects, too. Even though we didn’t ever get to a point where we were all in the same room, we were all in the same square mile, and I would be going from place to place, and we would be regularly meeting, and the information would be exchanged. The music would inform the cut, the cut would inform the sound, the sound the effects, and so on. I wanted the film to remain in a permanent state of fluidity. It was in flux constantly, alive and where one thing would inform the other.
The Dissolve: The score doesn’t seem canned; it adjusts to whatever is happening.
Glazer: It was a living thing. Ten months, Mica was working. Peter Raeburn, the music producer, a longtime collaborator of mine, was instrumental in all that as well.
The Dissolve: The beach scene made it look exceptionally perilous to be out on the water. [An early scene has Johansson watching as a woman paddles out to a raging sea to save her dog, and her partner goes out fully clothed to save her. —ed.] What were those days like? Was it the toughest scene that you had?
Glazer: I think it was. It was a scene that took an enormous amount of time to cut, actually. The first cut of that scene was 16 minutes long. I don’t know what it is now, but it’s nothing like that. It’s maybe five. It was an extremely difficult scene to film, but we were very fortunate. You have to have luck on your side to be shooting something like that and get away with it. It’s foolish, because there’s so many things you can’t control. For instance, when we visited that beach the three or four times before we shot there, the sea was flat. I would say to my production designer, “You’ve found the beach,” and it was going to be, “Okay, I’ve found this, I’ve worked it out, we’re going to get waves,” and we went back and back and never got waves. The day we turn up to film, the waves are as you see in the film. The day we left, it went back to the pond it was before. It’s something to do with the westerlies becoming easterlies, and that’s what brought the peril into the bay. The actors who are in the sea are open-water swimmers, but they’re fully clothed. It was a dangerous few days. It looks perilous because it was perilous, and [the woman] was too close to those rocks, and she was struggling to get back in.
The Dissolve: There’s no cheating on your part in terms of the way you photographed it, either.
Glazer: No, there’s no cheating, because it needed to match the style, or the method, of the rest of the film, which is about her witnessing. Everything feels witnessed. There’s a formalism to the way the film is shot so that everything is witnessed. Even the stuff we set up needed to feel like it was witnessed. Maybe, more traditionally, you might go in on a boat with a camera, or have a diver and shoot some underwater shots of [the woman] struggling. I wanted to shoot it all like a piece of news, like you were seeing it from a rock, and it was all happening over there. I hope there’s a reality to it, as a result.
The Dissolve: One thing you did take from the book was the idea of setting it in Scotland. What about the city of Glasgow and the countryside did you want to evoke? Was there any point where you were imagining doing it somewhere else?
Glazer: I never imagined doing it somewhere else. Somebody said to me, “Look, if we’re going to get the budget for this film, we’ve got to shoot it somewhere like Romania,” And I said, “Fine, we’ll shoot it in Romania, but then I want to shoot it in Romanian. I’ll shoot it as a Romanian story. I’m not going to shoot it where it’s not set and pretend that it’s there, because that’s ridiculous.” I dug my heels in about shooting it in Scotland, because, from reading the book, it had the atmosphere in my head that was so connected to my interest. It felt so right, I could see it. I could never remove it from there, and I never wanted to. There had to be a kind of wilderness to the film, and there isn’t much of a wilderness anymore to most of the British Isles, because there’s 75 million people. You can’t do a road movie in Britain the way you can in America, but you can in Scotland, because I think it’s the least populated part of Western Europe. There’s a wilderness there, and there’s also something mythic about it. The landscape is extraordinary, and the weather is extraordinary, all those elements and the light and the four-seasons-in-a-day that Scotland is famous for. The unguarded, real beauty of the people who live in Glasgow that brighten the edges of this wilderness, it just had everything for this story. We wanted to put it where we were to begin with, and then we wanted her to flee into a wilderness from there, and it has both in abundance.
The Dissolve: Do you have a hand in how your films are promoted? Is how to sell a film something you think about?
Glazer: I do, very much, because I don’t want the film to be misrepresented to an audience. You just do it from what you feel. I don’t want to be fucked with, or lied to. I don’t want somebody to get me to a cinema because I think it’s going to be one thing, and it turns out to be another. I want to be invited, and I want the people promoting the film to represent the film, and be proud of what they are representing, not trying to hide what they’re representing. I want them to be happy with what they’ve got, rather than what they wish they might have. I’m very attuned to doing things like the images around the film.
The Dissolve: Since it stars Scarlett Johansson, there are ways you could promote the film that would make it seem like more of a commercial enterprise than it is, or give people a false impression.
Glazer: Absolutely. It’s terrible when you see something and you just think, “I didn’t make that. That’s not what we did. That’s not true.” It’s very difficult in this day and age to do that, because there’s such a proliferation [of marketing material]. It’s like a monster that keeps needing to be fed. They keep wanting more images, more scenes, more of this, another trailer. We cut as much of that ourselves as we could, and some of that went out there and established the feel for it, the vibe of it. I think it’s very important for a filmmaker to be connected to that stuff.
For more on the film’s music and the composition process, check out our parent site Pitchfork, which recently talked to Glazer and Levi about how the music behind the film “perverts your comfort and your reality.”