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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Interview: Jonathan Glazer On The Birth Of UNDER THE SKIN


Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, and his first in nearly a decade, Under The Skin, reduces Walter Faber’s 300-page-plus 2000 novel to a quintessence: how would an alien see our world if it were to walk among us, if it were to hijack a human form and harvest us by exploiting elemental desire?

The form the unnamed creature assumes is Scarlett Johansson’s, and in the production and post-production of the movie, plot and narrative peeled away in favor of sound and image, and the alien’s encounters on the real-life streets and nearby beaches of Glasgow, Scotland. It’s maximal minimalism, of the manner of heightened sensation you’d expect from the maker of Sexy Beast and Birth. In a way, the character is the ultimate consumer, shopping for men among the faces on the street, who will be literally taken by desire?

“Oh, yeah?” Glazer says, smiling slightly when I offer that interpretation. Then she is, too, as she begins to take pity on her prey. “Yeah, there is something interesting about the fact that for someone to live, someone else has to die.”

Glazer worked with several writers in a long process. The 49-year-old writer-director says that the way to complete the film didn’t come, however, until most of that draft was scrapped in favor of putting Johansson in a guerilla situation, driving a van with multiple tiny cameras in the cab, and a crew in the back, around the gray northern city, approaching strangers in hope a connection would spark, and then the nonprofessionals could become part of the film.

RAY PRIDE: All this time you spent searching for the right approach, it’s akin to the lore of Michelangelo looking at a piece of marble and saying, I only have to carve away the part that isn’t David.

JONATHAN GLAZER: Yeah, it’s a big block of marble. The example you have just given is very beautiful, actually. The film, the process of making this film, was quite sculptural. It was about starting with a feeling, an image… Well, not an image but a feeling, a very clear feeling, and then trying to reveal that. Trying to articulate that. And until you feel like you’ve articulated it, you keep going, you know? And then you walk away at the end, when you feel you have got some way to putting that feeling up on a screen. And it looks very different to how you may have imagined it.  And the form is, you know, it has its own thing, and the feeling is what you set out to and try and articulate.

RP: And then?

JG: And then you are finished.

RP: The process of writing and preparing that I’ve read about sounds arduous, starting with reading the novel then supposedly not reading it again, writing a script, writing another script. I’ve seen the 2008 script, but I stopped reading after the opening introduction.

JG: Did you?

RP: Such dense poetic description. This draft opens with “A vast black surface runs back in infinite blackness.”

JG: [Laughs.] Right!

RP: Are there times you walked away? What motivates you and gives you the willingness to keep burrowing away? Many crap screenplays are written quickly, you’re told if you take more than 12 weeks to write your first draft you’re wasting your time. You need to move onto the next thing.

JG: Well, those things, the twelve-week thing, I mean, how can there be any truth to that? It might be true to the person that wrote it. But each of us are different, we have our own approach and have our own methods. Neither one is more correct than the other. It’s the paring away. It took a long period of time to find, to articulate it, to find it. Be aware, the methodology and narrative are the same thing. To get to that point, where it all became very clear. It’s like where the film has eyes and ears kinds of thing? The film is the body somehow. We spent a long time writing it, and the script ended up being fifty-odd pages long and it was mostly description. Like reading a novel, a short version, a short novel. That’s still writing. That’s writing. You are writing with images.

RP: With movies, you’re getting to dream someone else’s dream. Not every filmmaker or reviewer is attentive to that. It’s a visual medium and the aural qualities and behavior all combine into this plastic object that is also this experience.

JG: Yes. I like for a film to be quite transporting. I’ve always been drawn to, or got the most from, films that take me away from my reality. And I travel when I’m watching a film that is told that way. So yeah, those kinds of films always connected with me. And they also explore the medium. And it’s a remarkable medium. It’s often, you know, ignored really. It’s often sort of filmed theater. The power of the medium is there to be investigated. That’s what keeps me hooked for such a long period of time, the knowledge that starting, the spark of the story was enough to go on that journey.

RP: And, ideally, the audience isn’t aware of anything but the experience. All this backstory is fascinating and has encouragement to certain people, and identification for other people. Talking about the density of his process, Mike Leigh has something he called a “crap koan” about his controlled improvisation. He said, “A piece of string is as long as a piece of string.” In terms of process and duration, this is the thing.

JG: Fair enough. You are right. You are not looking at what you are doing, you are just in it. It becomes your laboratory.

RP: There is something so human, futile and jarring, when your alien discovers what I presume is human female genitalia. That was sort of a top-level pulse-pounder for me. It’s sort of like she has a reverse angle on the painting Courbet’s  “The Origin of the World.”

JG:  I don’t know the painting…

[I show him the painting on an iPad; link NSFW.]

JG: Oh yeah!

RP: Your shot, it’s a silhouette of a woman wanting to look in a mirror. But to me it’s this whole idea of the shock she, we get.

JG: Yes.

RP: It’s a kind of death of innocence.

JG: Is that the painting?

RP: No, it’s “The Origin of the World,” which is a cheeky title. It discovers its female form, but also its fall, it won’t know human love, it becomes weak because of human compassion. It’s tantalizing.

JG: You’re right, I think so. Brilliant painting title, it’s unflinching… Some other people have responded to that image that you have that she was looking at female genitalia, and others have looked at the fact that she has no female genitalia, that there is nothing there.

RP: Because the gentleman that is bumping into her and she discovers “you’re knocking but you can’t come in.”

JG: Right, right.

RP: Whatever she sees, or the lack thereof. I am human, I am not human, it could be either one, but you don’t show it. You just pointed it out.

JG: That was sort of the driving interest with this film. The journey of it was that sort of idea, the paradox of body and soul and an account of the existential unease. This idea of her, being a literal conduit for what it is to be human. It’s just a fascinating character to explore. It’s unending. I never run out of interest for it. We never stop talking about it, or trying to turn over the ideas until they all felt balanced. It is important to me to pick something I know I will be interested in for as long as it takes. You know making a film is quite a big undertaking. And if I’m going do it, I have to feel that I am certain how fertile it is. It will need to grip me as long as it takes.

RP: Well, yeah, if you understand it straightaway, the result is going to be easy, banal, surface.

JG:  Yeah, but sometimes the clearer something is, the more mysterious it is, actually. So it can be… there are films I love that are made by filmmakers that made… Fassbinder for example, made God knows how many? Fifty films, fifty-five films?

RP: Forty-four, I think.

JG: Forty-four films. I’ve seen as many as I can manage to get my hands on but, probably most of them.

RP: And the surfaces are unyielding, they are beautiful and sculpted—

JG: And you watch them like pages of a diary, really. Those films are there because that is how he felt. He was on planet earth, and this was his experience of being on planet Earth. I wish the way I thought meant I could just roll films out back-to-back like that. I don’t seem to be able to do that.

RP: I just got the Criterion box set of five of Fassbinder’s first seven films. I want to just sit down on some rainy-day Saturday and gorge.

JG: Oh yeah, people talk about a box set of “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad,” my box sets are more things like Fassbinder, and I will watch them back-to-back. It is absolutely extraordinary.

RP: I’ve seen Berlin Alexanderplatz a few times. The threading of the score throughout—

JG: Peer Raben is his music guy, right?

RP: Like the piano in Berlin Alexanderplatz, there is this one refrain that goes for like twenty-seven minutes. And it’s only a handful of notes.

JG: “Biberkopf’s Theme,” isn’t it? Beautiful.

RP: Mica Levi’s score gives Under The Skin an otherworldly pulse, but almost in the sense that it feels like anxiety is comfort to the alien, or an alien form of comfort. It’s not a traditional score, there’s like a bed of sounds that recur.

JG: There were three themes in the music that we ended up with. Lots of music and melodies. Mica would just keep writing and writing and it would begin to make sense thematically and they would stick to the film. In the end, she went on her own process and journey, just as we did. She was on the film for about ten months. The three things that she wrote were  the alien music, which was this kind of hive, this force, this consciousness. Then there’s the capture riff, this beautiful melody where she brings the men into the house and then it really twisted, erotic, a strip club sort of thing, and it has a perfume. We talked about it like her perfume, and then the third piece was more to do with her sense of the human impulse. The burgeoning consciousness with feelings. Which you hear in the scene where she is delusionally falling into the idea of being able to lie and kiss and make love.  And the music is sort of manufactured, it’s fake in its synthesized-ness. It’s sort of her.

RP: Looking and seeing and surveillance are so threaded into the film. We are looking at individual lads in Glasgow who glimpse her, and this beautiful woman, what does she see? The distance between seeing and being seen? Which of course is a simple metaphor of how to watch movies. Yet the film doesn’t insist on that, or hide it.

JG: The eye is the first image we see in the film. Construction of the eye. And the eye is always a way of saying “we are going to be, this film is going to be about looking.” You know? It’s an interloper in a human eye isn’t it? It’s the Trojan horse. It’s a very dispassionate viewpoint. She’s like the sea, really. She’s cosmic, she’s just dispassionate. There is no empathy, no individuation, no nothing. That’s the thing she wears. What is that phrase? “The suit wears the man, or the man wears the suit”? In the end, she is a man that wears the suit rather then the other way around. It’s a sense of what she sees in that mirror. And what she sees, she begins to believe is her own identity and is trying to take ownership.

RP:  And you have a close-up of the iris and intricacy of the colors. It looks like coral, it looks like the sea, it looks like a beehive. It looks like cancer. She’s the virus.

JG: She kind of is. When she first walks into that shopping center at the beginning and she wanders off and out of our view it feels like injecting a virus into a body. Yeah, then she is taken over by it! I also think the ending is interesting, because to me the ending is quite happy. I think it’s a happy ending. [Laughs.] The very ending, you know, the snow.

RP: The camera is looking directly up, and the snow blots its vision, you mean? The point of view occluded by the snow that cleans and forgives and hides everything?

JG: And also her being somehow here now. She can exist in death somehow. She’s the definition of a kind of paradox and she can’t be what she was, she can’t be what she wants to be. In death, there is something very peaceful and something about her that remains present somehow in death. She’s become part of the world.

RP: The film opens on black, ends on white, with a life in between.

JG: That’s right. Exactly.

[Transcription services by Julie Gavlak.]

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon