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Mica Levi on Why Composing 'Under the Skin' Was "Really Mental"

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! November 10, 2014 at 11:55AM

You won't hear a more gorgeously freaky score this year than Mica Levi's unnerving, scratchy and seductive music for Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin,' now the winner of a European Film Award.
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Mica Levi
Marc Broussely Mica Levi

You won't hear a more gorgeously freaky score this year than Mica Levi's unnerving, scratchy and altogether seductive soundtrack to Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin." Like the film, about an alien succubus among us and in the comely guise of Scarlett Johansson, the score is weird, atonal, discordant and something to get lost in.

For comparison's sake, the score's closest companions may be the dissonant labyrinths of avant-garde composers Krzysztof Penderecki and Gyorgi Lygeti, used frequently by Stanley Kubrick in "The Shining" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." But Levi's work is its own alien, and at times sounds more than a bit like far-flung Morse code from outer space. 

English, in her mid-20s and classically trained, Levi typically plays under the moniker of her band Micachu and the Shapes. "Under the Skin" is her first film score. Levi, currently in Camden, England, spoke to me on the phone about her writing process and working with Jonathan Glazer. Levi is now the winner of the European Film Award for best composer and in a perfect world, she'd be Oscar-nominated. (Listen to clips from the soundtrack below, and read our interview with Jonathan Glazer.)

"Under the Skin"
A24 "Under the Skin"

What was your first reaction when you got a call from Jonathan Glazer to score his film, and what did he ask of you?

The whole thing was surprising. It was out of the blue. He talked about the film and said that it wasn't finished, and that anything could change. He asked me to watch it, and then we got started immediately, really. The whole film observes her through these scenarios, basically trying to follow her trajectory, and he wanted the music to be doing the same thing. I haven't got experience in writing films. But I have seen a lot of films and know the way that works, so I just to tried to stick with her and not stray from that.

And what were your initial impressions of the film?

I thought it was weird, and dark, because it was really. It's quite a dark film anyway but I was in a room with windows and the film hadn't been graded, so it was just really dark.

I understand that you dreamed about the film heavily while writing the score. How did the film change and evolve for you over the course of watching it so many times?

It was incredible. Really immersive. It was really in my brain, and it was really mental how the film changed and how I was sort of grasping with trying to get to know it and trying to be thorough and understand the material. It was weird how you thought you knew something a certain way and if you tried something radically different, it would change. 

'Under the Skin'
'Under the Skin'

Viola comes up a lot in this score. How did you incorporate this instrument, and in what ways did you distort it to produce such eeriness?

It's a lot of harmonics, and distortions of speed--which is a distortion I'm really interested in, anyway--and then just doing impressions of that. But it depends on what it needed. A lot of the sound is a mixture of bad recording technique, on my part, and not-fine playing. Violas are so harmonic because they contain a lot of air. A viola is not solid, the sound it produces is like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of something, because you get an airiness, and creepiness, and there's a struggle in that. The vibrato doesn't ring out. It's dead. A lot of the score uses microphones, and any sort of difference of expression there is created by the clashing of microphones. I find that I love that. Those are the things that ended up happening. I couldn't come up with a plan. I wish I could've. But that's what we ended up with.

From whose point-of-view did you want to situate the music?

The audience. Mainly, it's supposed to be coming from her except for the music that's in the black void. That's the makeup that she's put on. Everything else is coming from her alien stomach. 

Talk about that scratchy, sexy, seductive but scary catcall, which you've just mentioned, that plays in the black void. It comes up a lot.

The way I see the whole film is basically in five themes: that theme is her outfit, her makeup, she's playing in that scene to seduce the men. It's like her perfume, it's something fake and not something she's really feeling. And by the time she's alone, she's a bit worn out, [the music] is a bit tired, it's not as strong. The makeup is old.

This article is related to: Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer, Interviews, Interviews , Mica Levi, Awards, European Film Awards, Awards Season Roundup


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.