Alien Surveillance: Jonathan Glazer on Under the Skin

It's been ten long years since Jonathan Glazer's last feature. His jaw-dropping new film, the Scarlett Johansson-starring Under the Skin, shows there's no sign of ring rust. The director talks surreptitious filmmaking and challenging audience expectation

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 17 Feb 2014

It’s always reductive to glibly compare one filmmaker to another, but if I were to commit that cardinal sin for Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer I would evoke the late, great Stanley Kubrick. Glazer has literally cribbed from Kubrick in the past (see his Clockwork Orange-inspired promo for Blur’s The Universal), but more subtly the pair share a steely control over their images. This is most clearly seen in Glazer’s 2004 masterpiece Birth, which calls to mind the likes of Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining in the way its camera glides around the Manhattan home of the wealthy family at the heart of the film. Unfortunately for fans of his work, Glazer also seems to have developed Kubrick’s production snail's pace. His third film, Under the Skin, has been over a decade in the making.

When I speak to Glazer by phone ahead of the film’s long-awaited release, the 48-year-old is in a London editing suite. “I’m cutting a TV commercial,” he says sheepishly. “Paying the rent, you know.” If he sounds embarrassed about his involvement in the advertising game he shouldn't be. It is Glazer’s bracingly inventive commercials of the late 90s and early 00s that have most effectively seared his distinct vision on to our collective consciousness. Think of his Guinness ad in which surfers tackle a giant squall of stampeding white horses, his Levi’s ad in which a young man and woman demonstrate the jeans’ flexibility by running at breakneck speed through walls, and his Sony TV ad that features candy-coloured globs of paint exploding all over Glasgow tower blocks. 

Under the Skin sees Glazer back in Glasgow with a very loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, in which an alien disguised as a female motorist abducts strapping male hitchhikers. From the moment he read the darkly comic novel he was “absolutely struck” that he wanted to make it into a movie. So why’d it take so long to get to the screen?

“When you’re doing it you don’t think of it in those terms," he explains, "you’re just in it and it takes what it takes.” A large reason for this extended pre-production was Glazer's figuring out how to visualise the material. “There were ingredients to it that were very powerful to me,” he says, “and I needed to find out what they were, and once I understood those, that’s the film I wrote and made.”

The chief ingredient became the psyche of the alien. “I suppose that was the molten core of it all: the idea of being really in her point of view and seeing human beings from her angle.” Through her eyes, Glazer paints the human race as grotesque and perplexing. When she drives around the streets of Glasgow in her Transit van scouting for prey, it’s the chain-smoking, mobile-phone-obsessed natives who look alien.

The casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead adds credence to this fish out of water scenario. In Faber’s novel, there are tell-tale signs that his protagonist is not of this world – massive eyes hidden behind spectacles with milk-bottle lenses, long scarred fingers and a short torso. In Glazer’s version, Johansson’s glamour is equally conspicuous: “There’s something exotic about [Johansson] there,” explains Glazer. “I used to think of her like an exotic insect on the wrong continent. Like her character, she stood out but she was desperately trying to blend in at the same time.”

This friction is accentuated by the sly techniques Glazer used while filming. Many of the men whom Johansson’s character approaches to pick up in her van were unaware at the time that they were flirting with a Hollywood A-lister and performing in a sci-fi film. Using a combination of hidden cameras and distant camera crews with long lenses, Glazer observes Johansson as she walks and drives the streets of No Mean City interacting with its oblivious inhabitants.

“We were concerned about whether Scarlett would be recognised,” explains Glazer about his approach. “If your cover’s blown then it all collapses. But we got away with it.” This system of filming gives a freshness to the interactions, but Glazer’s singular form also mirrors the themes of the film. “The idea, really, is about surveillance: her being this kind of operative who is watching us undetected, and undetectable,” explains Glazer. “It made perfect sense to film it that way – once we understood that then everything really served that objective.”

From its very first image, Under the Skin confounds. It opens on an expressionistic light show – shades of the final section of 2001: A Space Odyssey – that slowly takes the form of a human eye. Things only get weirder from there. With barely a handful of lines in the entire film, Glazer blends sleek visuals with the grainy images of Glasgow he shot on the hoof to create a feverish audiovisual assault. When I ask him about some of the jaw-dropping imagery in the film, Glazer, like Under the Skin, doesn’t give up his mysteries easily. “You don’t really start off with something schematic: I just immerse myself in the world of it and then the ideas and the themes come through trying to find a specific atmosphere and visual language. It’s always in flux: you put down markers but they soon become superseded by new thoughts.”

“The booing and clapping combination is, to my ear, a phenomenal sound” – Jonathan Glazer

This approach, however, hasn’t been to everyone’s taste. When the lights went up at its premiere screening at the Venice Film Festival, Under the Skin became the last in a long line of masterpieces (from Antonioni’s L'Avventura to Malick’s Tree of Life, and Glazer’s own Birth) to receive boos from the pack of small-minded critics who haunt the international festival circuit. Not that these cat-calling Statlers and Waldorfs bothered Glazer any.

“I was at that screening and I thought that sound was great,” he says when I bring up his film’s notorious press screening on the Lido. “The booing and clapping combination is, to my ear, a phenomenal sound. I’ll never forget it,” he says, before pausing to recall his previous feature’s reception on the Lido: “Well, actually, it’s the second time I’ve heard it,” he laughs.

Why does he think his last two films have divided audiences so? “When I make a film I’m very locked into the idea of what does come next, rather than what should come next,” Glazer observes. “In other words: when I make a film, I don’t sit down and think, ‘what would an audience like here?’”

Certainly Under the Skin defies expectation, but while the protagonist’s backstory remains opaque, Glazer’s dream-like imagery, Johansson’s mesmerizing performance and its nerve-shredding score (by Mica Levi) render the alien’s loneliness and curiosity with our world in bold, lucid brushstrokes. Glazer doesn’t need reams of expository dialogue or a soundtrack peppered with Mumford & Sons to create narrative or character empathy – he uses cinema. “I like the fact that you can watch something and think at the same time," he says, "You don’t have to do one or the other. I try and make films that respect an audience. I think a film should talk to an audience, not talk down to or up to an audience but to them. I think there are some people who just don’t like that – they go in with a preconception about what they think they’re going to see and if they don’t see it it pisses them off.”

One audience it will be interesting to gauge while watching the film is a Glaswegian one. The city, and the western Highlands, where much of the second half of the film takes place, is rendered in a way that’s unlikely to please the Scottish Tourist Board. Glazer will find out for himself when Under the Skin closes the Glasgow Film Festival on 2 March. He isn’t too apprehensive about its reception, however. “I didn’t want to shoot like a tourist,” he explains. “I wanted to feel like I was really showing the city through her eyes, as she finds it, and obviously the film is made by whatever we happened to pass in that moment – who she spoke to or walked past – and that was the film, that was the city. There’s obviously much more to Glasgow and Scotland than what we captured, but what we were lucky enough to photograph up there was – I think – very powerful.”

Under the Skin closes the Glasgow Film Festival on 2 Mar; Jonathan Glazer will introduce

Under the Skin is released across UK cinemas 14 Mar