As the director of music videos for Radiohead, Jamiroquai and Massive Attack, Jonathan Glazer cultivated a reputation early in his career for creating distinctive and emotionally resonant imagery. As a feature director, he has expertly shaped those muscular visuals into powerful stories, in Sexy Beast, Birth and now Under the Skin.
In his latest, he razes the machinery of science fiction by turning an invasion story – albeit by one alien – into a visceral journey through its main character’s discovery of humanity. Played by Scarlett Johansson, the character lays herself bare and sheds her preconceptions as she accomplishes her dubious tasks, seducing her victims even as their interactions awaken her consciousness, and her empathy.
Glazer spoke with Spinoff Online about eschewing so many of the conventions of genre and even familiar storytelling structures and convincing Johansson to trust him on a journey that would require her to be naked, both literally and emotionally. He also revealed a few insights about the film’s mysterious, thought-provoking tale of human vulnerability, viewed from a perspective seldom seen.
Spinoff Online: I read an interview where you described this as a movie about a feeling, but you weren’t quite sure what that feeling was. How difficult or easy is it to convince your collaborators to follow you on that journey when you are kind of being deliberately nonspecific about some of the ideas underneath what you’re doing?
Jonathan Glazer: Well, it starts with an idea that I’ll be able to articulate, an idea which is, which connects with the people I collaborate with – so they can see maybe that there’s a fertile idea there. And then it’s about almost putting that idea in a laboratory and looking at it and inspecting it and dissecting it – and it’s a long process. It’s an investigation, really, that idea. And then the story and images and things grow out of it. It very much seems to be like we grow it from the inside out, you know. We don’t start with a story, we start with a feeling. It’s a bit like reverse engineering – as far as doing things backwards. But it’s about your sort of North Star – that feeling. And really the purpose of making the film is just to sort of get to that, to articulate that feeling somehow and show it there on the screen.
I feel like the aesthetic mandate on this film was “gradual.” How difficult was it to refine this narrative so that it avoided genre tropes or even sharp turns but still had a form that was kind of discernible by the audience?
Oh, it was very hard. It was very hard to refine that actually. I mean, we spent a long period of time writing, but the form is was a very big part of this film. We used to talk about it sort of like as if the film had eyes and ears. So we sort of thought of the form of the film quite viscerally, and it had her viewpoint. In other words, it wasn’t just about photographing a character, an alien character looking at the world, but it was about experiencing that through her lens that meant that the film had to have to its own unique form, really, and that was a constantly evolving shape.
How easy was it to reduce or streamline the mythology of the film so that it just felt visceral – to take the tropes of science fiction and then just make each of those something that would be felt without needing to have whatever sort of technology we might normally associate with these kinds of ideas?
Well, I think because it was an alien’s perspective it meant it kind of couldn’t be excited – none of this was news to her. What was news to her is what is everyday life, but what is ordinary to her is something which is extraordinary to us which is her alien realm, if you like. So I couldn’t rely on science fiction, or we didn’t have any alien technology and engineering and design and all of that stuff, which I like in films, you know, where it’s appropriate. But this it didn’t require that. Myself and my co-writer Walter [Campbell] we spent many thousands of conversations trying to find a way of showing things that was unique to this perspective. And really the only thing that felt right to us having jettisoned all of those tropes were the black screen, nothing – the absence of everything. Absence of form. Absence of light. And then from that black screen then we then worked on the idea of how to make things manifest from that black screen, whether it was the form that the aliens take on or the material that the men would succumb to the reflectivity of those faces. Basically, you’re working with so little, you only need to investigate one thing, and in that case it was the black screen.
You have sort of confessed to borrowing liberally from Kubrick, and I definitely noticed some of that in the early sequences but I admit no longer sure how much people are even deliberately borrowing from Kubrick and how much his influence has permeated cinema as a whole. How careful do you have to be to use an influence, much less the influence of Kubrick, in a way that still makes the end result your own as opposed to merely copying an idea of his for your own purposes?
Well, I tried to get rid of every recognizable influence there is. I wasn’t interested in referencing other films at all. Like I was saying earlier, the film would only work if it stood apart, or it has to stand apart to provide that perspective, so you can’t be dragged back by things from other films or books. So I was kind of rigorously staying away from comparisons. But in terms of references and things like that, you’ve watched a lot of films and you’re not really conscious about how references kind of come about or how they reveal themselves. But in this film it was absolutely not conscious at all. The only aspect of it which was conscious was the very first few shots of the film, so that there was a feeling of trying to take an audience on this journey – you kind of lower them into it. And looking at the first few shots of the film, it seems like you’re watching a science fiction film, and [as the eye is forming] it looks like an alignment of planets, the docking of a spaceship and all of that sort of stuff. It seems like you’re looking at that, and then of course we reveal that what you’ve been watching is the construction of an eye, and that [indicates] that the film will be about looking. So you get a feeling that maybe, okay, I understand the language of this film, I understand this is science fiction, but you understand where the film will push you – that this is like a science fiction film, in order to help lower people where we wanted to be.
People are making a big deal about the fact that this is sort of Scarlett’s first big role where she takes off her clothes. Because a lot of actresses take that chance on movies they hope are artistically successful but don’t always turn out that way, what do you do to convince someone to put that kind of trust in you?
Get them drunk? (Laughs) No, we had a lot of conversations — I think the key thing to do is we talked about why the story involved nudity. And also the other thing that was that there’s a democracy of nudity in the film – the men are naked as well. But it wasn’t a kind of objectification, at all and I think what was interesting is that Scarlett understood that, that it was actually about looking at the naked form as a craft, anatomically. And it wasn’t about a kind of excitable, titillating, voyeuristic kind of look at her. It was the alien looking at the nudity, not us looking at the nudity. So she understood that, and I said to her that if it wasn’t that or didn’t turn out to be that, then I wouldn’t want it in the film anyway because it would take us out of the film. And so we trusted each other, and then I also explained to her that I wouldn’t disrespect her.
Although she’s the aggressor in these situations, there’s an early scene where a group of teenagers sort of attack her van, and I found myself feeling sort of scared for her. How much were you interested in testing our empathy towards her as this story goes on, because there’s an interesting relationship between her objective goal of accomplishing these tasks, and then also just her form as a human being, much less as a woman, who’s put into potentially dangerous situations?
I think that we respond to those situations as human beings, so we have a natural empathy for her plight and for what’s happening to her. And even though she’s demonstrated in the first what 35 or 40 minutes of the film a complete lack of empathy for us, I remember we talked about very simply thinking of her arc, if you like, as “we’ll hate her, we’ll love her, we’ll miss her.” But the other thing is I think that if you just try to portray a character as truthfully as you can, then empathy follows. It’s not about looking to root for someone or, having to kind of ingratiate a character to an audience. If it’s truthful behavior, then I think empathy will follow.
Well, do you look the whole story as the evolution of her empathy toward her victims, or do you feel like the gradual transformation that she goes through is just the result of her increasing interaction with humanity?
I think the way we charted it was thinking of it as a kind of osmosis. Almost like the experiences that she has, whether they’re interactions with people, or the sound of things, the shape of things, the color of things, the smell of things, it’s like she’s porous and these things enter her and they make her develop almost human impulses in response to it. And you’re watching a kind of an awaking of sorts, sort of [overloaded] by curiosity or memory. It’s like she’s being flooded slowly. And it’s not that she’s even aware of what those things mean, they’re these impulses that she can do nothing about. She responds to the impulses. So it’s a gradual thing, I think. And also, it’s a gradual thing – it happens as she sort of drifts away from that objective. And one of the greatest pleasures in making the film was charting that drift.
Playing now in select cities, Under the Skin opens wide on Friday.