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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.
'Under the Skin'
'Under the Skin'

Cymbals are part of her character and part of her world, and those are the energies of her world and the warmth of her planet. The mixture of cymbals in this fast string-playing that happens in the beginning and throughout is the alien life form. Then there's this note that starts to establish itself, and that's her connecting, her manual process. And then there's this love music, as she's breaking through her humanity, based on this synth string chord I held onto for a long time. You're starting with these darker chords, with the hunger and everything like that, and ending up at this very pure, very simple kind of chord. So the five themes are: her makeup, the cosmos, the aliens, her job music, and her feelings.

Who is Scarlett Johansson's character, and how does the music work to convey information about her?

She's just doing her job, from my perspective. She's hungry. She's after something. She's got a craving of sorts. She's on the hunt but then she gets affected by humanity and, for me, the feelings and experiences, these rushes of emotion, the measures she takes [because of them] are so extreme, in my mind. She's basically putting her species at risk. She takes a move to risk her people on the basis that she's having these really big feelings and for me the only thing I could relate that to was being a teenager. You have these overwhelming emotional experiences, and take risks that as you get older you maybe don't take, but there are those rushes of feeling that cause you to take such actions, like her love, ecstasy, euphoria.

What's different about writing music for a film? Is it like writing for another person?

The way we were working, it wasn't like it was being done for a person: it was done so that the work could be as good as possible and consistent, and that's basically the same whenever you're working. You just want to service the work. I suppose it's not as abstract, but I was guided was to be really abstract and to write what was the right thing. I found it less restrictive, in a way. You're working within style's limitations and with this, the film was pretty open.

Was there any music Jonathan Glazer asked you to hear to get a sense of what he wanted?

He wasn't specific like that. He's weary of being specific like that. He talked about the music working separate from the film. He showed me some films he really loves. But that would've been too short a process. It would have been too restrictive, and to find the film's tone you have to look at it from three different angles and the answer would come out through that. He spoke about it more like, "imagine somebody just chucked 20 bottles down a hill," or, "what does it sound like to be on fire?" Those are the questions that were getting asked…That's the sort of way to get to the right answers as opposed to using a rarefied version of that. 

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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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.