UK music video star Jonathan Glazer took a decade to follow up his first two films, 2000's paeon to kinetic violence, "Sexy Beast," which earned raves and gave Sir Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone careers as villains, and 2004's reincarnation drama "Birth," starring Nicole Kidman, which met a more mixed reaction. (For his part, TOH's Ryan Lattanzio defends it.)
So what took Glazer so long to finish the visually stunning "Under the Skin," starring Scarlett Johansson as an alluring alien trawling for human specimens in the foggy crags of Scotland? The director insisted on making his own the film adaptation of Michael Faber's 2001 novel brought to him by longtime producer Jim Wilson--while testing his ideas on various music videos and commercials. Over the years he worked his way through various writers including Milo Addica and then ad writer Walter Campbell, who moved from two characters (Brad Pitt was going to play one) and a big-budget VFX concept to a smaller movie focused on the POV of one female alien, as well as a list of prospective actresses including Eva Green, January Jones, Abbie Cornish, and Olivia Wilde.
Finally it was Scarlett Johansson who stayed on board the project for four years before it reached completion. Backed by a hodge-podge of financiers (including Film Four, BFI, Scottish Screen, Silver Reel and foreign sales company FIlmNation), "Under the Skin" opened stateside in select cities on April 4th. (Trailer, 1996 Radiohead "Street Spirit" video, Guinness surfer ad and Nike "Risk Everything" spot below.)
Whatever your taste, you've never seen anything like this atmospheric sci-fi thriller before. It meant a lot to Glazer, he told me in an interview, to not only be able to shoot the haunting film he wanted--unique and not overtly commercial--but for it to be embraced in Britain. After the film played Venice, Telluride and Toronto last fall, where it earned both claps and boos, A24 scooped it up, betting that stateside arthouse audiences are also looking for something completely different. In the end, reviews were more upbeat than box office enthusiasm.
From the disorienting opening frames, "Under the Skin" is clearly more akin to the mysterious and provocative "Birth" than the more conventional genre film "Sexy Beast." Glazer shot the movie with unrehearsed non-pros who responded live to Johansson's queries as Glazer captured them with specially designed multiple video cameras carefully hidden in places like umbrellas and prop buckets. "Under the Skin" leaves the audience guessing as to why this strange alien is luring men to a house with an inky black interior and deep pool to trap her prey. In one of many arresting shots, a victim, as if suspended in amber, gazes up at her feet crossing overhead.
In another sequence, our lonely alien, who neither eats nor sleeps, gazes implacably at a violent tableau as the ocean surf breaking on a rocky shore swallows up a man trying to save his wife as their baby howls on the beach. Our virtually silent creature slams the heroic swimmer who tried to rescue them on the head with a rock and drags him, past the screaming infant, to her van. The role has one similarity to Johansson's OS in "Her": can this entity absorb what it is to be human?
Anne Thompson: Why did it take you ten years to make this movie? I have the impression that you are very stubborn.
Jonathan Glazer: I am stubborn. You have to have a strong will to do anything, really, to stand by what you are trying to do. It's made a lot easier when you are inspired by something. Ten years? It was very easy to spend that much time on the film. That's what it took, from an immense amount of time thinking about it to completing it. I wanted to keep going until we were going to make something that in itself was a kind of experience that matched the perspective of the character. I was trying to make a film that could stand alone, in order for it to be her POV. You can't fall back on convention, on things you've seen. You have to make your own language.
And your own cameras! Are they going to be made available to other filmmakers?
We built our own cameras to shoot it. There was no camera out there to do the job we needed done. It's not out there yet, we've stood down because it required investment to be used by other filmmakers and crew. They're not in the market yet. We hope they will be.
Were you working on other things while you developed this movie?
My day job was "Under the Skin," that was committed to. If I stepped out to make a commercial it was because I'd have to pay the rent. Commercials interest me, some were used as sketches for the film, we were testing out gear. I did a couple of music videos and set projects. At times I wanted to get out of the room and point the camera at something. It was isolating writing for that length of time, even with friend of mine. It's a head-fuck, working on that kind of material for that length of time.