Sexy, scary, vulnerable, predatory, innocent, tough, funny, tragic: scroll through Scarlett Johansson's filmography, and you can pick out the roles where she's embodied each of those descriptions. But a role in which she plays all of those elements, in one film? It's safe to say you've never met a ScarJo character like the one that shows up in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, an adaptation of the Michel Faber novel about an alien who assumes the form of a comely female and lures horny dudes to their death.
But it's also safe to say that you haven't seen a headscratcher quite like Glazer's extraordinary movie, at least not since the cerebral sci-fi-cum-cult film heyday of the early ’70s. The former music-video director piles on the visual sumptuousness, as you'd expect—but like his previous features, Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004), his latest also adds in a moodiness and almost hallucinogenic sense of reality fraying at the seams that's leagues apart from your typical extraterrestrial-comes-to-earth tale. The 48-year-old filmmaker spoke to TONY right after Under the Skin left Toronto International Film Festival viewers with their mouths agape.
Time Out New York: How did you first come across Michael Faber's book?
Jonathan Glazer: My producer Jim Wilson gave me the book about ten years ago. It was after I'd made Sexy Beast, and he told me, "I've got something here I think you'll like." After i'd read it, I immediately started developing it with a writer named Alexander Stewart, who wrote up a remarkably faithful, very illustrative script of the book. It was wonderful, but it took him writing it that way for me to realize that was not what I wanted.
The second writer to come on board was Milo Addica, who started departing further from the book; that was the point where he and I started to tap into the thing which really interested me about the book, which was seeing things through this prism of an alien perspective. We kept turning out draft after draft, and at one point, I went off to make Birth. When I came back, it just felt like it was still not communicating the thing that I was looking for.
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Time Out New York: Which was?
Jonathan Glazer: It was still very abstract at that point, but it was this certain feeling of looking at familiar things and seeing them in a completely foreign, outsider-ish way. So it lay dormant for a while, then Walter Campbell came in and we worked rigorously on the script for about two, two-and-a-half years. By the time we finished, it got closer to the core of the story, which is the female character and her engagement with the world around her. Someone could very easily make the literal adaptation of Faber's book one day, and it would be vastly different than what you see here. I was going more for the tone of the book.
Time Out New York: That explains part of the ten-year delay in getting this to the screen, but what accounted for the rest?
Jonathan Glazer: Well, there were off-and-on money issues, plus truthfully, it took me a good year or so to recover from making Birth. I didn't know whether I wanted to make another movie after that; it can really take chunks out of you. There was a long period of time before I felt ready to commit to another movie, even though I'd started the process already.
And even once we had a script we were happy with, it just takes me a while to get the general shape of a movie in my head. I work primarily from my subconscious, which…I don't recommend people make movies that way. It just takes too damned long, though I really don't know any other way of doing it. [Laughs] I'm not a careerist filmmaker. It takes me as long as it takes to make a movie, and I can't make it go any quicker. I just can't.
Time Out New York: What, specifically, was it about "seeing things through an alien perspective" that fascinated you so much?
Jonathan Glazer: Just from a cinematic viewpoint, the opportunity to express what it would be like to see environments that are familiar to you and I rendered in this warped, strange manner felt creatively inspiring to me. Thematically, there are notions within the story that get at what it means to be human and have your sense of morality awakened, though when we were writing, we purposefully tried to avoid any baldfaced theses like that. If I could have summed it up in a sentence, I wouldn't have felt the need to delve into it by making the movie. Really, it's only after having made the film that I could even articulate what moved me so much about reading the book.
Time Out New York: How did Scarlett Johansson get involved?
Jonathan Glazer: I started talking to her about it even before we had found the way we'd want to go about telling the story. She had read one of the very early drafts, so she was very much aware of it—though, by that point, it was nowhere near being actor-friendly. But we kept talking as the project kept developing, and by the time she read the final draft, our conversations started to resemble book-club meetings: We'd delve into the minutiae and were both very enthusiastic about the same things. It wasn't really very strategic on either of our parts to keep chatting about it, but it eventually became clear that she was interested and, from my point of view, she was right for the role. I think she was up for a challenge.
Time Out New York: You both had to put a lot of trust in each other over this, I imagine.
Jonathan Glazer: I knew she was capable of doing it, but yeah: If your film is based around a character experiencing this huge awakening and your lead doesn't bring audiences along on that journey, then it really doesn't matter what I do. Viewers have to see things from her point of view. Otherwise, the movie does not work. Concurrently, actors can't do that kind of work if they don't think the director has an idea of what they're trying to communicate or that they have their performers' backs, so it was a two-way street.
Once we got the financing in place, I flew to New York and we talked it out: This is what it's going to look like, these are the areas we're going to be venturing in, this what will be involved. And she rose to it. She was nothing but committed once she said it was in, and it showed.
Time Out New York: You filmed most of the dialogue with passerbys on the sly, right?
Jonathan Glazer: My team and I actually built these bespoke cameras that we could use to film those hidden scenes. We knew we wanted to do this very early on: Scarlett in a disguise, interacting with the general public and filmed in the real world, not on a movie set. You leave a lot up to chance, depending on whether she turned left or right, whether she stopped to chat with somebody or didn't…the scene in which she falls down in the street, the people who pick her up were the people who happened to be walking by at the time. I have six different takes of that scene, and in each one, the people who help her up after she stumbles were different. The idea was to establish an equivalent to what the character is going through, in which she's a bit lost and a bit uncertain. It added so much to the film.
Time Out New York: Wait, no one recognized her?!?
Jonathan Glazer: One or two people caught on, but for the most part, no. You'd be surprised how effective wigs are.
Time Out New York: When I think of your work, there are particular images that spring to mind: Denis Levant walking in front of those cars in the UNKLE video ("Rabbits in the Headlights"), the boulder in Sexy Beast, the tunnel in Birth—and now, that Scarlett leading those men through that black room. At what point in the process do specific images start working their way into the process?
Jonathan Glazer: Well, it always starts with a feeling—I'll get a sense of something, like desire or dread, or just a mood that I can't quite put my finger on—and then visuals will start to form around that. You work from the inside out. It's a tricky one to explain, really, but you sort of audition images in your head. You're looking for eloquent images, ones that clarify what you are going for.
Time Out New York: Clarity was not a word I heard people saying a lot when they walked out of the premiere, however….
Jonathan Glazer: [Laughs] I'm actually all for clarity, really! I'm not out to confuse people. Jean-Paul Carriere once told me that "Clarity is mystery," which is amazing when you think about it. The clearer you are with something, the more you open the door to the wonder of it all.
Time Out New York: I'm not sure that quoting the guy who wrote That Obscure Object of Desire is helping your case any, Jonathan.
Jonathan Glazer: Ah, well, yes. [Laughs] It's just that a story like Under the Skin requires a certain way of telling, and you have to use the language you have to tell it that way. Things may seem a little…elliptical at moments, but that's the only way I could make this. I mean, yeah, you could do it where you have two aliens sit down together in a pub and discuss their day. Then you could go, right, okay, so we got that, let's move on the next shot. To me, that would be much weirder in the context of this movie than leaving a few things to the imagination.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear