Interview: Jonathan Glazer delves Under the Skin
In addition to Scarlett Johansson's alien character, the film features secretly-filmed Glaswegians
Under the Skin is a startling new film from British director Jonathan Glazer. Paul Gallagher speaks to him about casting Scarlett Johansson as an alien predator travelling through Scotland.
Under the Skin is nothing if not accurately named: once seen, it will burrow into your consciousness. It has been described as both sci-fi and horror, but the word that most accurately captures its unsettling tone is ‘alien’. That’s apt, because in the film Scarlett Johansson plays an extra-terrestrial predator in human form, travelling around Glasgow and then rural Scotland, picking up random men and enticing them to a thoroughly disturbing fate.
The self-confessed ‘twisted mind’ behind the film’s unique look and feel belongs to Jonathan Glazer, the London-based director of Sexy Beast and Birth. Adapted from Michel Faber’s cult Scottish novel, Glazer describes Under the Skin as a ‘companion’ to the book, but also ‘very much its own thing: a very “found” film.’ He goes on to explain: ‘I didn’t want to make an illustrative version of the story. There was something about it, a deeper aspect that was more interesting than the plotting of the book, and it was really about her.’ This ‘her’ is the enigmatic alien character, named Isserley in the book but never referred to by name in the film. Glazer and his co-writer Walter Campbell decided to strip away much of the novel’s story and focus solely on the alien’s experience, to create a film that offered a genuinely ‘other’ perspective on humanity. ‘I wanted there to be a freedom and a randomness, because our commitment was to her point of view, and this was all fresh to her, so it needed to be fresh to us.’
To achieve this ‘randomness’, Glazer decided to put Johansson in character in public spaces and film with hidden cameras. ‘There was something enticing about the idea of Scarlett in disguise in Glasgow; having her looking as she did, coming from where she does, inhabiting this character, immediately felt like an alien.’ Locating the story initially in Glasgow was also a key change to the novel. ‘The book wasn’t set in Glasgow but I didn’t just want it to be about lonely roads. I wanted it to be about a community: her among us.’
Glazer’s intention was to capture ‘something that we were maybe not seeing for the first time, but we were “re-seeing”.’ For Glasgow audiences, this may prove to be the film’s most striking aspect. While the city has recently hosted several large-scale film shoots, in each instance its own unique qualities have been disguised to allow it to pass for another location. In Under the Skin, the opposite is true; the film offers a portrait of Glasgow that is truly ‘unadorned’ (Glazer’s word), showing the rough edges of the city and its people in a way that is uncannily authentic, and may not delight Glasgow City Marketing Bureau. ‘It was about witnessing rather than filming,’ says Glazer.
‘Somebody said to me, “I bet the people of Glasgow aren’t going to be happy about how you’ve presented them”, but I don’t think I’ve “presented” the people of Glasgow at all; they’ve presented themselves. This is what the cameras were pointing at; there’s nothing that you see that was put there [by me]. It was witnessed. And I think the beauty is in that unadornment, that unselfconscious presence. That’s what I found.’
Contrasting with its jarringly real vision of Glasgow, Under the Skin’s most startling imagery comes in surreal sequences in which Johansson’s character ‘seduces’ her victims. One stunning moment envisages a body suddenly losing all of its mass, the empty skin left floating and stretching in space. The image recalls the film’s title and points to its undertone of existential enquiry, as Glazer explains: ‘The human skin in their [alien] eyes is similar to a carrier bag of shopping. It’s a vessel, it’s nothing, it’s not what they want. So this thing that we worship, the beauty of that skin that we judge everything on, for them the absolute opposite is the case.’ But as the film progresses we see Johansson’s alien becoming more fascinated by and connected with her human form: ‘She believes – or rather ‘it’ believes – that ‘it’ has become a ‘she’ because of what it sees in a mirror. The evidence it has is physical, and it begins to believe in that identity as its own.’
Taking the alien perspective allows Glazer to explore what it means to live in a body, and the result is a palpable tension – Johansson’s alien is both fascinated and disgusted by her body’s limitations. ‘I like the idea of the limitation of the body, this idea of uncontainable spirit,’ says Glazer, ‘[but I also] read a theory about how human beings are like the universe’s way of being able to look at itself; to stop and turn back and see itself. The universe sees itself through our eyes, and I always thought that was an interesting idea.’
Under the Skin is on limited release from Fri 14 Mar, and will screen at GFT, Glasgow on Sun 2 Mar as p[art of the Glasgow Film Festival.