Under the Skin is an atmospheric triumph. It’s an extraterrestrial thriller that consists of mainly guerrilla and found footage, capturing a disguised Scarlett Johansson lurking the streets and valleys of an uncanny Scotland. Though there are moments of horror, most of the tension is built by showing our own world back to us as strange, isolating and alien. It’s something of a departure from Glazer’s earlier films, Sexy Beast and Birth, not just because of the unorthodox way it’s filmed, but because of the sparse dialogue and chilling special effects. With it having been nearly a decade since his last film, it’s not surprising there’s been a change of focus. Glazer was serious without being severe as he spent the first few minutes of our interview quizzing me on the size of the cinema I saw it in, and especially the quality of the sound. Reassured and re-caffeinated we began.
What drew you towards the book?
What the hell was I thinking, you mean? Jim Wilson, my producer, gave me the book years ago to read to see if I’d like it and I did. I wanted to get involved in it, I wanted to make it into a film. I didn’t think too carefully about why that was. I just knew there was something about it that really struck me. But I loved the point of view of the book, I loved her and the idea of going on this road trip with an alien. I was less interested in the polemics of the book but her point of view, that alien lens, that was very thrilling for a filmmaker. So we stayed with that.
So I worked with three different writers and then I ended up working with Walter (Campbell), with whom I wrote the script that I made the film from. We spent three years working on that and it was in a constant state of flux. You might write for six months one time and then end up throwing three quarters of it away on a Monday. It was like that. I guess one day I’ll read the book again and see just how far we’ve come.
So it’s only after going through three writers that you decided to get involved?
The first writer wrote on his own. That was the faithful adaptation to that book and I didn’t somehow want to be quite so involved. I wanted to see it as a screenplay and that’s when I realised that wasn’t where I wanted to go. Then the second writer I worked with… we worked together over a long period of time and we made a lot of great discoveries together. So we were co-writers for a long period of time but then Walter and I really found the DNA of the script, very much so, and that was another three years I guess.
Yeah, each version.
When the initial press was coming out for the film, one thing that caught my eye was the was a review claiming “There’s finally an heir to Kubrick”. How do you feel about a statement like that?
That makes my toes curl up in my shoes. I think this film, good or bad, should stand on its own or fall on its own. I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t agree with it. I don’t know…
Do you think that’s a kind of hyperbolic line?
I wouldn’t use it, I wouldn’t subscribe to it. When I see a film I don’t want any comparison. I like films that just creep up on you, that you have no introduction to. I like that, I like to see a film in that way and I think when you put something in front of that, you’re being set up for a fall. It’s like a shadow that’s not of your own making.
Were there any filmmakers you were thinking about while making the film?
Of course there are influences in it. Look, I’m influenced by loads of film-makers, it’s impossible not to be influenced. There’ve been masters at work for the best part of one hundred years. So it’s not like one is short of influences, and they do take effect. You do think of those vocabularies, visual language, sensibility, spirit: the way things can be shown in pictures in all these different ways. But I think it’s important that I chart my own course. You learn your own style or find your own voice, an expression of it. That’s what you’re trying to do.
Was Scarlett Johansson always your first choice for the lead?
No, she wasn’t. In the earlier incarnations I was talking about, there were different tellings and they needed different characters. Scarlett came into the project much later on. We were talking about it a few years before we made it, even before a script, but we just talked about the ideas and kind of orbited each other a bit. Then when there was a draft that made sense to us, draft number 162, or whatever it was, that’s the one she read and she reacted very enthusiastically. I went out to New York and I asked her to do it and told her what would be required in order to fulfil her role. Surveillance cameras, disguise, driving a crew around in a van, driving the left side of the road. English accent, Scottish weather. Completely random scenarios with characters, challenging scenes that were staged, nudity. All those aspects of the film she needed to sign up to and she did and she never wavered. I have huge respect for her for seeing it through. She never hesitated and I think the strength of her performance is because of that.
Did you work with her a lot on the character or was it fairly set in stone in the script?
We worked constantly on the character. Constantly. When you write, when you shoot, when you cut. The truth of her behaviour in these scenarios. I found myself wanting to talk intellectually about what a scene is, how to approach it and then… being in a room with her and having nothing to say, smoking a cigarette and walking away. I had no words. She isn’t a character because she isn’t a she. She’s an it. She’s an it that becomes aware of being a she. So it’s very difficult to talk about what that character does in that scene. You create your own luck really just being intuitive. If she was hunting, she was hunting. If she’s driving, she’s driving. She was so immersed in the function of what she was doing that there wasn’t anything to say. It was more like a fishing expedition. She’d be earwigged and I’d say, “Try that guy”, and she’d say, “He’s drunk and falling over, I’ll try the next guy.” There’d be that kind of intensity of getting that guy’s attention. All that’s real. It’s very present tense. There’s no time for character direction. We’re in the moment.
Her character uses her sexual allure to draw her victims in, and with Scarlett being a sex symbol was that part of the casting process? Were you consciously making viewers aware that they could be victims?
Yes, I think that is very much part of it. There’s something quite interesting about the sexual objectification, perhaps compared to some of the things she’s done in the past or that her image has been used for in the past. I think she takes full ownership of her sexuality in this film in a way that I hope she is proud of.
You’ve talked about the guerrilla footage that makes up most of the film. Was that challenging?
Yeah, I’m surprised we got away with what we did. I think part of it is people didn’t expect to see her up there. She’s in disguise, she’s talking with an English accent and she’s driving a Ford Transit van. You’re not going to make that connection too easily. Saying that, she had been papped in character, so that did worry us. The reality was such an important thing. It had to be in every pore of it, everywhere. Much of the footage is found from surveillance and others that weren’t had to feel like they were. It was imperative that you felt that join. It was quite a big challenge. When people ask me which bits were real and which weren’t, that’s a great testament for me and my collaborators. So the stylised sequences, the surrealistic aspects, the more cheek-by-jowl they were, the more powerful they would be. All our efforts were for that.
It’s interesting that you managed to use ‘real’ footage, but then when you show it back to us it really seems alien. Were there techniques or tricks you used to do that?
It’s all one big trick, isn’t it? Well one of the tools you have is sound. When you’re making a film when you’ve committed to this alien lens, lots of that is interpreted via the ear. Not just how does she see it, but how does she hear it? I think those two things together create a very alienating experience of being her. The music is such a key ingredient. In many ways it’s the script, the exposition. That’s the unity of the ingredients. You need to be immersed.
Under The Skin is on general release now.
Words: Eoghain Meakin