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UNDER THE SKIN
Cinematography : Daniel Landin
Music by : Mica Levi
In early 2001, Jonathan Glazer began planning his next film. The director was then 35, a wildly sought-after maker of music videos and adverts who had just released his first film, the singular gangster movie Sexy Beast. His next was to be an adaptation of Michel Faber’s cult novel Under the Skin. The project ended up on ice. Work didn’t start until 2004.
Ten years later, Under the Skin is finished, and Glazer is in a publicists’ office in Soho, a well-preserved Londoner with a thicket of dark hair, tall enough to verge on the looming. Having spent almost all his 40s getting the film made, he must feel like a different man from the one who began it? “Well. Hmm. I … God. That’s a teaser.” He stalls. “I want to be honest. It’s just hard to articulate. I need to scratch my chin about that one. Can we pick it up later?”
He clearly finds interviews akin to visiting the dentist. “But I want to stand behind the film,” he says. The thing is, Under the Skin does invite you to ponder its creator. It concerns an alien in Glasgow, preying – obliquely but chillingly – on single men. They co-operate because the alien is played by Scarlett Johansson, who is still Johansson even in a mangy fur coat and wig. There is footage from cameras hidden in the van in which she tirelessly cruises; elsewhere, visions of her black, amniotic alien realm. Many will loathe it – the premiere at the Venice film festival was met with boos. It will also blow minds, its punk experimentalism and raw sensuality making pretty much everything else seem hopelessly quaint. Masterpiece is the word.
Interview phobia aside, Glazer is affable and open. He has the fractionally dazed air of a rescued castaway. “I’m a bit bereft without the film. It’s like falling in love. You think, what do I love? I love this.” He puffs on an electronic cigarette. The boos don’t matter: “Some people love it, some are repulsed. Fair enough.” We talk about literary adaptations. “I don’t think I’m the right man to adapt a book,” he says.
To recap: at the dawn of the noughties, he was cinema’s coming man, adored for his witty, ingenious ads for Nike, Guinness and more. Sexy Beast, with Ray Winstone playing a saveloy-tanned safecracker retired to the Costa Brava, was hailed as a surreal-ish modern classic. With Under the Skin shelved, he swept on instead to his 2004 film Birth, an uneasily gorgeous tale of a young boy who might be the reincarnated husband of a New York widow (Nicole Kidman). It was also booed at the Venice film festival. It was also a masterpiece. Fans claimed him as the new Kubrick. The world wondered what was next.
For a decade, he vanished behind a door marked Under the Skin, where events fell into three acts. The first involved a faithful adaptation of the novel that producer Jim Wilson sent Glazer while the pair worked on Sexy Beast. Glazer liked this early script, with its rendering of Faber’s carnivorous aliens. He just had no interest in making it. “I knew then that I absolutely didn’t want to film the book. But I still wanted to make the book a film.”
Puzzled, he sought to find out why. The longest phase in the process saw endless versions of a story assembled and dismantled. “It was the job. It wasn’t a hobby.” Days and nights slipped by. Weeks became months. Memories of normal life dimmed. Three years in, one co-writer Milo Addica made way for another, Walter Campbell. Eventually, the script revolved around a pair of aliens masquerading as a Scottish farmer and his wife. Brad Pitt signed to play the husband. There was still never a workable budget. Anyway, Glazer wasn’t ready. “I said I was giving up many times. I don’t think I ever meant it.” Others around him suggested he should. Wilson says he grew “convinced this just wasn’t going to happen”.
Then came the Eureka moment. What Glazer wanted, he realised, was to make a film representing, as purely as possible, an alien view of our world. Everything clicked. “We took years to get there, and suddenly it was obvious.”
Pitt moved on. Work focused on the female character alone. Glazer and Campbell took their 100-page script and deleted the 60 in which she played no part. Elaborate special effects sequences were tossed. “It was like a big, extravagant rock band turning into PJ Harvey,” Wilson says. Glazer obsessed over how the world might really look to new eyes. “I liked having it in my head. Finding the logic, the images. It’s like learning an alphabet, then a language, then writing in it, then trying to write poetry in it.” His face falls. “This is why I don’t like interviews. I sound batty.”
The desire to capture an alien perspective became, he says, his “North star”. Why did it mean so much?
"I suppose I must have that alien thing in me to start with. Yeah. Probably. I do feel outside. Not entirely, but I do. I’ve had that about me since quite a young age I think." He looks perturbed.
I tell him that though I love his films, I know almost nothing about him. Where does he live in London? Near Camden. Married with three kids. And he grew up in – “A place called Hadley Wood. Near Barnet. Yep. Knocked around with mates on my street, messed about on the railways, in the woods. Motorbikes, skateboards, CB radio. All that.” He pauses. “Arsenal fan.” Another pause. “I’m Jewish. Went to a Jewish school.” Do you feel Jewish? “Yeah. I mean, I’m not fanatical. But I do.”
His father was a film buff, with whom he watched David Lean movies. As a teenager, his circle included the comic actor Paul Kaye; the two ended up going to university in Nottingham together, Glazer studying theatre design. Back in London, he found himself unhappily editing trailers for multiplex movies. He started making shorts, music videos, breaking into commercials. But while the corporate world fell for his grand designs, his inspirations were spiky – such as the incendiary 1968 satire If …
"I saw it on TV when I was 12, 13, and it shocked me. Scared me. It probably fucked me up a bit. To see something with the questions left in, it’s powerful when you’re young. You think: ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were allowed to do that.’ It stays with you."
Glazer still needed a movie star – and one who was very, very game. If Under the Skin belongs to him, it also belongs to Johansson. Her beestung femininity gives the film a lushness among the cold surfaces. Besides learning to drive a van and mastering an English accent, she also had to cope with his second epiphany. For life to feel real, he decided, they needed real life. Extras shouldn’t just be non-professional actors, but people who didn’t even know they were being filmed, caught on hidden cameras when she pulled up at the roadsides of Glasgow. (Glazer and crew were concealed in the back.) She was hardly ever rumbled; who expects to be accosted by Johansson on their way to the Asda in Govan?
She was, Glazer says, “devoted. Unflinching.” And as she chose where to drive next, Glazer – as with most directors, used to being in control – gladly gave up his film to the random.
"There were times I said to Jim, Let’s just dump the last two-thirds of the script and stay in the van. Because I loved the idea of leaving the door open to reality. The surprises. The treasure."
There is more to Under the Skin than the van. Besides the abstract social realism is a skeletal story, heartbreak, horror, extraordinary sweetness. But if the goal was to make the humdrum lurchingly strange, it worked. As Johansson totters through a Glasgow shopping centre, passing between Clinton Cards and H Samuel, the human environment looks so unshakably weird, it became one of the most disturbing moments I’ve had in a cinema. Glazer looks pleased when I tell him this. He himself, he says, had a similar experience in Debenhams.
Wilson pleaded with him to book conventional extras, have a scripted Plan B. Wilson explains: “I was saying: ‘What if Scarlett drives all day and nothing happens? What if there are no happy accidents?’ But Jon was insistent. And he was right.”
Glazer’s iron will is nothing new. Even before Sexy Beast, he walked away from his planned debut – the film Gangster No 1, later made elsewhere – after disagreements over casting. His relationship with advertising is strained these days. In 2010, he shot a commercial for Cadbury Flake, in which the French actor Denis Lavant cavorted as a crimson, Byronic chocolate demon. The ad never ran; when it surfaced online, Cadbury’s lawyers demanded its removal. Glazer says that in commercials now, “fear abounds”.
He knows it is time to let go of Under the Skin. “I won’t know if it’s good until I see it on TV one night and can’t remember what comes next.” That, of course, might take 10 years. He smiles. “Another 10.”
I mention Faber, whose novel Glazer once called “great but trashy”. He winces. “I did say that. Well, one day I hope to meet Michel, and I hope he sees the film, and I’d be very interested in talking to him about what he wrote and what I made. I think there’s a rhyme there.”
It is a curious thing, Glazer’s relationship with words. He wonders aloud if somehow film peaked with Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights.
"I’m still obsessed by images. Not intellectually. Practically. How they sing, how they sync. And I wonder what cinema could have been had it not gone down the word road. But we always want to know what’s going on. We hate to not know."
Wilson remembers conversations with Glazer in Scotland when the director was chasing pure realism. Filming, Wilson argued, itself made things unreal. “And these talks we’d have became very philosophical. I found them fascinating. But I think they only interested Jon up to a point.”
Later, I listen to the tape of the interview. One of his own answers, Glazer says, is “nonsense.” Another is “baffling”. I realise I never returned to my first question. Apologetic, I email: “Are you a different Jonathan Glazer to the one who started making Under the Skin?”
Next morning, he replies: “Yes.”
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