Ben Eshmade: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast I'm Ben Eshmade and in this week's archive edition, we step into a bleak gloopy bubble of dangerous darkness and relive the terrifying sci-fi drama, Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer: I think, what we've made, and what's interesting about it is looking at ourselves through this alien lens. I think there's something very striking about the mundane, the symphony of it all. The symphony of everything, you know.
BE: This was the third film from British director, Jonathan Glazer, following his critically acclaimed dramas, Sexy Beast and Birth. In Under the Skin. Scarlet Johansson stars as an unassuming alien, preying on unwary hitchhikers in Glasgow.
- No girlfriend? Really?
- Nah, I don't have a girlfriend at all.
- You're very charming. That's better.
- Yeah? Sorted?
- You have a handsome face.
- Thanks a lot. Cheers.
- Do you think I'm pretty?
- I think you're gorgeous.
- Do you?
- Aye, definitely.
BE: The film is loosely based on the cult book by Michael Faber of the same name. Back in 2013, I had the chance to speak to director Jonathan Glazer...
There was a gap of nearly 10 years between your second film Birth and your new film Under the Skin. Was this a difficult project to get off the ground?
JG: It was a difficult project to, write actually, I think, more than anything. Well, not, it was, it was a difficult project to find the way to make it... find the story that we wanted to tell, because it was attached to a novel, it was an adaptation. Very loosely, but even so you're... there's still that kind of starting point and you're kind of rooted to that on some level.
So you start off doing more kind of illustrative, adaptations of it and more faithful adaptations of it. And then you get to a point where you sort of begin to break free of it more and more, and then you’re kind of almost completely detached from it. And you know, that takes a long time and you have to be very rigorous with it.
You know, really that's just… The film that we made was really based on obviously that whole long journey of finding... Getting the material to the point where it felt satisfactory. The way we wanted to tell it.
Well, the film that we made, we came from really, I would say three very dedicated years in a room. You know, lots of action, a lot of activity around that in terms of visual conceptualization and camera development and obviously finance and all of that stuff. But all of that orbited really, the laboratory for this, which was a room, I wrote with Walter Campbell, my co co-writer for three years, where he was just sort of, in his words, kind of turning the soil of the material until it felt like it was bearing fruit.
BE: I mean, the thing about it is it's quite interesting, is it's also, you're talking about the struggle to work on the script, is the fact that it's actually, there's not a lot of speech as such in the film. It's all about atmosphere, I suppose.
JG: The atmosphere of it is obviously very, very key and you get to… you achieve an atmosphere through the kind of unity of all the ingredients, really. You have to get them to a place where they're all unified. And then you sort of present a world and then you need to be consistent with that. But, dialogue is… dialogue was very, very difficult to… in this film, the only dialogue that was required was dialogue that was part of her pick-up routine or it's dialogue because it was essential.
The rest of the time, you're with her. And there's no need for dialogue or even if there is, there's no way of articulating using dialogue. So, it relies on a visual language. It relies on how can you be lucid with pictures? How did the, how can the pictures kind of propel you forward? How can they be, how can they communicate the ideas that we're trying to convey? And that's a fantastically interesting challenge.
BE: I mean, one of the things that struck me – there’s this incredible opening sequence - but once we sort of delve into the film, you're seeing the Glasgow streets. The only difference between this being a Glasgow you might go and see now and the one in the film, is one of the elements, which is strong in this film, which is, which is the music and the sound design.
JG: You mean, were you to drive around Glasgow now it would look as it does in the film, bar the music?
JG: I'm sure that I'm sure that is true. In fact, we were in Glasgow last week at the Glasgow Film Festival and it, you know, we’re driving through the same streets, and it does feel like we're driving through the set of the film, but it's the real world. I mean, the film was, the idea was really to have the method of filming match the narrative of the story. So to kind of put her in the world as it is, not one that you've kind of retraced it as a film set.
BE: And that was obviously, quite a brave decision, I think to a certain extent, because obviously, Birth and Sexy Beast, they were hyper real. They were fake worlds that you created. Whereas now you went to elaborate lengths to, actually sort of, you know, I suppose it’s like documentary filmmaking, wasn’t it?
JG: Yeah, you’re right… I think we understood that the prize of this was photographing things as they are, and not being detectable. So we, she was in disguise and we were either in disguise ourselves or kind of absent. Because the idea of her, as this interloper in the world as it is for us to understand, to foster recognize the world as it is, and see her in it is, it just, it didn't feel like it could be improved any other way. It didn't feel like we could, we could set it up and recreate it. It felt like it would be counter-intuitive to do that. Actually, it was more obvious to do it this way around once we discovered that this was the way to do it. And you feel her… there's something elicit going on because of that. And it feels like she shouldn't be there and we shouldn't be there.
And that's all, I think that all plays into the atmosphere.
BE: Did you always have Scarlett Johansson in mind and what did you feel was sort of the alien aspects about her?
JG: Scarlett and I were chatting about this for, you know, three or four years before we actually made a film. And the script was in lots of different… had been through… We'd been, we'd taken it through lots of different incarnations really, but once we… I think once we committed to this idea of disguise, it was very exciting to think of Scarlet as she is, but unfamiliar to us. So, to sort of almost just parachute her in to the world as it is and watch, and then have her interact, you know, with some of these guys who she was talking to, and actually have her stop and wind the window down and ask for directions and then turn the conversation around to something more kind of agenda based. And Scarlett just… It wasn't, he wasn't like casting a normal film at all, we didn't really get to cast her like you would an actress in a more conventional drama. It was more like, well, it's almost like the alien is manufacturing an actress, you know, and then the character of that actress is Scarlett Johansson. It's a very, it's a very peculiar construction actually. I can't look at Scarlett in the film and think of any other film she's been in and it be an equivalent of any of those it's watching her behavior. It's witnessing her behavior.
The texture of the film, of the casting had to be very carefully considered because so much of the footage is shot through the windows of a moving vehicle or, or at people on the street, you know, going about their business or interacting with some of those people or in nightclubs, shopping centres and so on. And these are, just you and I are going about our day, completely unguarded, completely unaware. And so any actor or non-actor that was pre-cast and was kind of aware that they were been used in a film production, had to kind of had to match, had to have the same truths about them.
And that's really about, you know, looking at the right energy in somebody, actually, when you're casting. Looking at the character and what that actor or non-actor, or, you know, brings to that and constructing it in such a way that you're not aware of the join. You're not suddenly going from the reality, the truth of things to a kind of lie. You don't want to ever, feel like there's a lie going on apart from her. She's the lie, she's the conceit. Everything else needs to be completely real-world around her. So, yeah, that was a difficult process. Absolutely. It was. You know, it's the skills of my casting director rater Kahleen Crawford and the people that we did cast
BE: A lot has been said about obviously the realism that you went for. But what's quite interesting in the film is those moments where it switches from the realism to somewhere else. And I think maybe from speaking to you, that when it does suddenly switch into the supernatural is more effective.
JG: Yeah. Yeah. It was about putting the alien realm cheek by jowl with ours. The more real the world was, the more we recognize the world as being real, when we enter these spaces, the kind of the reality of that floods in the room with you. And it's a very… The context of those spaces become imbued by what's preceded them in the film. So suddenly you're in these dark spaces and they are, I hope they come across as being how they were intended to be, which is sort of very unfamiliar and where you have no compass.
In fact, the only compass you have in there is her or the only compass that the men who follow her into this room have is her. And they keep their eyes on her. But what we see around them is the kind of world having kind of fallen away as we recognize it. And it's very… You're kind of thrown out of your comfort zone. So yes, Walter and I understood the buzz between those two realities were, you know, part of the pleasure of watching the film.
BE: It’s also a film where you're obviously, you're never quite sure - I certainly wasn't - where the story's going. A little bit scared where it's going as well.
JG: Well, it's a very subjective experience and it’s… there are no… Your hand isn't held through the film. You are kind of alongside her and you experience things as she does. You learn, you, you see things fresh again, or you re-see things when she sees them. It was important to the way that we felt and thought of it and constructed it, that you, you were kind of falling through these experiences. You didn't have more information than she had. And I, because I know.. I obviously know the story and I know the construction of it and everything else, it's kind of, it's quite difficult for me to see just how disturbing that that experience might be or how frightening, as you said, it might be. I don't know. I'm not frightened by it because I know what's coming next, but I can appreciate what you say. I think it must be that way because we've really spent a great deal of time and energy on committing to this alien point of view. So once you've committed to an alien point of view in the way that you tell it, tell this film, the perspective of this film is her perspective. So we have to be with her and to be with her is to be outside of where we normally are.
So the experience has to stand alone, somehow stand outside of everything else to work. And that that in itself is an alienating experience.
BE: You can look at this film in the context of your other two films, but I think that's interesting to, to mention is obviously that you've come from this history of making, you know, adverts and music promo videos, all of which are extremely visually rich. Obviously with a film, you've got more time to expand on that.
JG: I mean, making television commercials and music videos are quite different actually. I mean, from each other. With television commercials I've been lucky enough to be involved with, they were very much… we were approached as a kind of singular pieces of work. You know, I looked at them as films. I didn't really look at them as TV commercials. So I thought, well, I want to do this as well as I can do them and tell a story as well as I can tell one. And so you're not kind of changing the way you think about them a bit, just because there are television commercials.
So there's something very strong about having to communicate an idea or a feeling a very short space of time. You're given very limited, very, very clear margins. And I liked that kind of the freedom within those margins, to make something which can, you know, affect, and be compelling.
But to actually tell a story in a very short space of time, it's, I think it's a very good discipline and you understand, you learn about, you know, the power of images and the power of context as well, and how you can change the emphasis of something, depending on the order of events that you show it. It's not that you make a film when you edit it at all. I mean, it has to be in, has to be in your intention. Your intention has to be in there… you have to photograph your intention. But when you edit you really can emphasize and steer and I think that really was my film school. I mean, I never went to film school. My film school became that, making music, videos and television commercials and, you know, I'm pleased.
BE: As, as people leave the cinema, what do you hope they will get from this film? Is there a sense of sort of maybe re-examining the everyday?
JG: I hope that people enjoy where they've been. I know that when I go to the cinema, I like to be taken somewhere, like to be taken out of my life. And I like to enter another world and be immersed in that world and feel like I’m being shown something I haven't seen before. And taken to places that challenge me and excite me and surprise me, you know. That's really… it's the immersive experience that I look for when I go to the cinema, and I hope people come out of this and feel like they've had one of those. I think what we’ve made and what’s interesting about it is this perspective is how is looking at ourselves through this alien lens. And there's something kind of, I think there's something very striking about the mundane and what we're also familiar with, and kind of, you know, the symphony of it all. The symphony of everything, you know… I think there's something very beautiful, I hope there's something very beautiful in the film. And I hope that, I think that's the thing, that the character is you know, a pull towards - this is what it is to be us, whatever that is.
BE: Thanks to Jonathan Glazer for speaking to me. For me, it was a unique mix of Solaris, 2001, and the Man Who Fell to Earth, with a jaw-dropping score by Mica Levi. Though, to be honest, it's still a film you need to see for yourself. I'm Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series.
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