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In Conversation With Jonathan Glazer: Under The Skin

Total Film waits in the reception of a fancy PR office for Jonathan Glazer to arrive. He's not late, we're early, and we've just been told that when Mr Glazer does arrive, the priority will be to settle him into the interview room before we're sent for.

The usual set-up, basically. But then Jonathan strolls in, spots us, asks if we're from Total Film, and immediately sits down next to us on the sofa, launching straight into a chat about what films we've been watching.

He's looking forward to seeing Boyhood at the weekend, as are we. It leads to a discussion of Michael Apted's classic BBC documentary series Seven Up - which played with a similar concept to Boyhood , following a bunch of kids from childhood to adulthood - and one particular young man who resonated with Jonathan.

That young man is Neil Hughes, who went from being a confident little boy to experiencing a period of homelessness, before moving to a council house on the Shetland Islands, and eventually becoming an MP. But more about Neil in a moment. 

Because this is all before we've switched the dictaphone on.

The PR arrives, and starts to take Mr Glazer to the room. He stands up, and follows. We do as we've been told, and wait - slightly awkwardly - where we are. That is until Jonathan stops, turns and asks us: 'Are you coming?'

We were expecting intensity and distance, not immediate camaraderie. There's a complete lack of a sense of superiority with Glazer, which is fairly surprising considering that he's one of the most awe-inspiring British directors currently working.

As it turns out, the intensity - of purpose, of thought - quickly arrives. But, thankfully, not the distance...

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Okay, we're on the record, I've turned my dictaphone on...

… It's funny, when you have a conversation with somebody and one thing takes you to another thing. [The writer of Under The Skin ] Walter Campbell and I talked about the character who shows Scarlett's character human kindness, the man she meets at a bus stop who takes her in and makes her a cup of tea and the rest of it. Neil from Seven Up became our touchstone for that guy.

I found that character fascinating because there was a lot of tension in that sequence for me, because, you know, what’s he going to do…

What is he going to do and maybe what’s she going to do? I don’t know, did you feel that? Because of course I know what he’s going to do.

I was worried about her even though in the rest of the film she's been the predator…

Maybe you know she’s not anymore.

She's a bit lost at sea at that point.

Yeah, I’ve never read it or thought anybody would read it as that. I’ve never read it as that because obviously I knew who he was and what was going on, but there's a sequence where she follows him upstairs in the rain to his house and there were some shots of his back and he’s carrying the shopping bags and when we were cutting that, the editor and myself we were talking about whether that might mirror the situations we’ve seen her in before and feel that she’s in some way predatory. But obviously not.

No, I was worried about her and it's interesting that I felt protective of her at that point in the piece obviously she’s a really powerful creature and in pretty much complete control throughout, it's something about her being thrown out of that routine that’s scary. But, anyway, the film shares key elements with the book, obviously the central character, but it’s very different, what was it that attracted you to the project, to that book? What made you decide to do it?

When I first read the book I remember feeling immediately like I wanted to make it. Jim Wilson the producer sent me the book originally. I’d just finished Sexy Beast - which is how far back this goes - and he’d sent me the book to read and I just remember seeing myself wanting to make it, feeling like ‘I could make this’, rather than ‘Anyone could make this’.

You sometimes think when you read a script 'Well, there’s so many people out there who could make this and they could make it better than I could,' but I thought 'I could make this.'

I suppose it came more from spending the time that you do in the book with her than anything else. In other words, any of the other thematic aspects to the book somehow fell by the wayside over time and it was her, it was spending that time driving with her in her thoughts, watching her or listening to her or reading her thoughts, the way she viewed things and the way she interpreted the world.

I was drawn to that I suppose, I was very much in her head. That’s the genesis, and that’s the thing I think we have very vigorously distilled the book to which is just that time with her, her lens, her view of things.

It reminded me of the adaptation of American Psycho in a way, in that they’re both companion pieces that bring something out of the book. I feel like there’s definitely a core there, an atmosphere in both.

Yeah, there is an atmosphere in American Psycho, I remember reading the book and actually ending up skipping pages, I don't know whether you did that?

Yeah.

But at the same time not being able to put it down. I was surprised by how good the atmosphere in [the film version of] American Psycho was actually.

Yeah, I felt that in Under the Skin even though obviously you lost the human farming and the allegory element of that, was that tough to lose?

You sort of chop things away, sometimes you just move away from something it just doesn’t hold your attention and you don’t think it’s significant to the way you’re going to tell the story.

And there are other things that you feel are and should be, and then you find different ways of approaching and interpreting them until you’ve looked at every single card and option and you like none of them and then you move away from it. And then you realise you didn’t need it. And then you come back to it.

It’s a strange process, it’s not a linear one when you adapt. I’ve never adapted a book before and you know in a way it’s not really an adaptation. I want to one day go back and read the book just to see what kind of companion or bedfellows they remain.

But my co-writer Walter and myself we wrote away from the book. I think I opened the book three times in the two and a half years we spent in a room together, and he never even read it.

So it was very much about finding a new telling, a telling all on its own I suppose, that was nothing to do with the book in a sense. But I know that there is a clear connection with the book, a tonal, spiritual, whatever it is, connection.

Obviously it's taken a long time to put together, and you talked to Scarlett Johansson quite early on in the process, is that right?

Yeah, we talked to her around four years before making it together. She’d read an early draft of it, we talked about that, then I think we met again and talked about everything but that I think, we didn’t talk about that at all.

I can’t even remember how much about the project we’d discussed, I just know that the script wasn’t ready to say ‘This is the one, this is what I want to make’ and ‘This is it now, this is the one we want to go and shoot’.

That took a while to get to. But when we did get there, then we sent her the screenplay and we had a long phone-call about it. And in a funny way it wasn’t like a business chat.

Neither of us were working at it: I wasn’t trying to do it and she wasn’t trying to be in it. We were just talking about it as if we’d both read something we’d just enjoyed, like you and I if we’d both read the same book.

Like, if we were going to stop and talk about American Psycho now, we could probably talk for twenty minutes. It was like that, it wasn’t about the film, even, it was about the story and the character and I think the way she talked about it, her enthusiasm, she definitely had a tacit, kind of, reading of it, an understanding of it, and I remember just thinking ‘it’s her, it’s absolutely her’ as she was talking about it.

And then I asked her if she wanted to do it. It’s a weird one, because you're committing to something together that’s very… it’s a commitment and we were both aware of what that meant, I suppose.

 

Did you follow her career, did you see The Avengers for example?

No, I didn’t see The Avengers . I saw her in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and I thought she was brilliant in that. I loved her in that film, she had the hardest role I thought. I really loved her in that. I liked her work with Woody Allen very much, she’s very sharp, she’s a good comic actress. She’s a good character actress as well and I really like her in that flow, so I enjoyed her in those sorts of films. But I haven’t seen her in a superhero film, no.

Obviously she’s one of the most famous people in the world, how much did she get recognised during the process and were you surprised that it wasn’t as much as you were expecting?

Well, she’s in disguise, and that helps. For anybody to see how she looks in the film driving a van and say ‘Hello, are you Scarlett Johansson?’, you know, it didn’t happen.

But there was one guy who once asked if she was a movie star, someone who she was just talking to through the window in one of those sequences when she was driving.

He looked at her pretty oddly and asked ‘Are you a movie star?’ She poker-faced it pretty brilliantly actually, and she just went ‘No’ and he carried on telling her where the M8 was or whatever it was and that was I think because she’d had her picture taken as the character, and it had been in the local newspaper . So the thing we were worried about actually was that.

Because that was quite early on wasn’t it?

Yeah, day one I think, or day two. When Scarlett came to Scotland, I think she flew to Edinburgh airport and then they drove her to Glasgow. We were trying to sneak her in, but you know, these things get out don’t they?

I don’t think we could have done that in London, I don’t think we could have made the film we made in London, that being one of the reasons.

Glasgow is a very special place, there’s a strange atmosphere of beauty and violence that’s almost constant...

[Laughs]

...Were you ever scared of having Scarlett in that situation?

There were a couple of times, you know in the driving sequences, when I would definitely ask her if she could hear me in an earwig while she was driving and I would see the options in front of her as she could see, and I could say ‘What about that guy on the right?’ and she would say ‘I’m not going to because he’s drunk’ or whatever. She used her common sense I think more than I used my common sense.

But on the whole, no. The moment when someone gets in the van and they don’t know they are being filmed, that’s just… it’s electric. And I suppose you’re frightened, well, I don’t know if you’re frightened, it’s just… it’s such an extraordinary atmosphere at that moment.

It’s so electric. It’s electrifying. Electrifying or electric or electrical, one of the three, but it’s like nothing else, because this idea, this method of filming the way we did and the fact that we understood that as an equivalent to the story we were telling… you saw it all in that moment. Live.

You were watching that conceit live and capturing that, and that was, you know, really powerful. They were very powerful situations.

It’s really hard to tell who’s on hidden camera and who’s an actor. One example is the guy that rolls down the window and puts his scarf there. When he first got in the car I thought, ‘This guy, he’s someone that they found, he’s an amazing guy they found,' but then he goes in the house, and so you think, 'Well he has to have been cast because this is quite an elaborate scene…'

You’re not going to not see that.

Yeah, so…

Are you going to ask me who’s who?

Well, no, because I don’t want to spoil the magic, but maybe a percentage of how much of the cast was natural?

You know, when you’re trying to photograph real life, and people as they are, unguarded, unaware of the fact that they are being photographed, you see people as they really are, which is a very beautiful thing to witness.

And then of course you have to follow that, you can't go from that to someone that you are familiar with, because the spell is broken at that point, all the benefit of the way that you approached the first will be completely undone by the second.

So when you cast people you have to think of how they’re going to marry, to match that texture that tone. And you know sometimes, yes, you cast somebody but you don’t necessarily let them know what they are doing there. You don’t necessarily tell them…

I didn't tell anyone what the film was about, or what happened beyond their scene or before their scene. So anybody that we did cast essentially turned up as a day-player. So they would be ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, what you want from me, or what I'm supposed to be doing’, and sometimes by the time they had that conversation with me we’d have already have filmed them.

So sometimes you filmed people without them knowing they were being filmed even though you’d cast them. And other times you told them the scene was about one thing and actually it was about another.

And sometimes you’d tell them what they were doing the following day the night before. It was really about trying to keep things as present tense as possible and that’s really one of the ways that it works, as you say, that you’re not sure who’s who. It’s not by accident.

Just in terms of the practicalities of choosing people that don’t know they are being shot, how did that work? You captured moments, and then did you have people running after people with forms?

Yeah, exactly that. There’s different ways of doing it. I means if you’re shooting someone who gets in the van, not even gets in the van, someone who has a conversation with us through the window of the van, what would happen then is that after that conversation you’d have a production assistant who would be in a follow van. I mean, we didn’t look like a film crew, you have to remember.

There was nothing around that would tell you we were a film crew. So then you’d have a production assistant go up to someone and tell them we’d been filming, would they give us the permission to use the film if we wanted to? And you’d have to do that each time, and some people said 'yeah' and some people said 'no', so there were scenes we shot which I couldn’t use because we didn’t have permission to do so.

And there were other occasions where you were in somewhere like Debenhams, or a shopping centre, or a nightclub, or the street you know where she falls, and you know, those kinds of scenes, and they require different permissions. I mean this is a conversation to have with a film lawyer, not me, but there are different levels of permission that you need.

That's alongside the fact we were filming with hidden cameras and the hidden cameras were often tiny little things in the palm of the hand but with wires coming out of the back into a backpack and out of the sleeves and stuff like that, you know. Again, I don’t think you could walk the streets of London like that and get away with it, but in Glasgow we could.

At one stage you thought about making a mask for Scarlett…

I did, yeah.

How far into that process did you get? Did you have one made, or did you abandon that?

No, I abandoned that. I was very intrigued by it, I’m sure we could have made it work, but actually I don’t think the mask requires a mask.

Yeah, absolutely.

We made that decision I suppose. But again, part of the journey of getting to where you get is you go through those things. The mask was a kind of very primary colour idea, and yeah, the mask was there anyway. The difference between what was being shown and what was being thought.

Ok, huge question: What did you learn about human nature making this film?

What's interesting is if you look at, say, the seduction sequences or the way people relate to a beautiful woman who winds down the window and asks for directions, and have flirtation, which is what we witnessed, I think if you were sitting in a room and writing that you’re sort of writing the same scene, give or take, and that’s not the way it is at all. You see the full spectrum.

Some people were taken in immediately, other people were scared, other people were polite, and other people were lascivious. You see it all. I suppose, what do you learn about human nature? Not to generalise. Not to judge.

Another interesting sequence that relates to your question is when she falls in the street. I remember saying to my production team we need to do it this way, and we need to hide ourselves, like we’ve shot so much of the rest of the film, we’ll pick a spot, she’ll fall, we’ll have our cameras concealed and we’ll wait and see who picks her up. And my producer said to me 'what happens if no one picks her up?'

And of course you say that human nature is, thankfully, such that somebody will pick her up. You see somebody fall in the street, they will be picked up, somebody will go to their aid and again, that’s not always the case.

When we first did it, there was a guy who crossed the street not to pick her up. And then there are other people who just come straight to her rescue, as it were. People are very complex. I would say not to generalise.

Did it feel like you were making a nature film at certain points?

At those times, yeah, as I was just saying that I was thinking it’s like a sociological kind of experiment, and it was at times.

Again they had to be real, I mean the value of seeing Scarlett helped to her feet by people purely out of the goodness of their heart is a completely different thing than an actor who has been cast and dressed and directed doing the same. It won't have value.

You’ll watch someone go through the motions of it but the beauty of it, the value that we recognise and we feel is I suppose in a way part of our currency as human beings. And it’s the thing that she sees in the film. So all of that had to be done for real.

A lot of comparisons have been made with The Man Who Fell to Earth which is a little bit dreary for me, if it was going to be a Nic Roeg film it reminded me more of Performance, Scarlett’s got kind of a Mick Jagger look and he has that alien presence. But were there any films which influenced Under The Skin?

The Man Who Fell to Earth   absolutely didn’t. I mean, I love The Man Who Fell to Earth.

It’s a wonderful film.

It’s a wonderful film. I can see why people have said that, of course, and why wouldn’t they, but it certainly wasn’t in our thinking.

I think when you’re making something like this you try and stay away as much as possible from any reference. But at the same time you cant unsee things you have seen. I’ve seen a lot of films and I can't unsee them, so maybe some of them subconsciously come through.

I think most things are connected really, or renditions of ideas that somebody has had down the line, but I would say absolutely not consciously.

In fact if anything reminded us of a film we’d jettison it. We were trying to make a film in which the alien aspect of it remained inscrutable. We wanted the alien to remain alien and unknowable, so anything that somehow got in the way of that or compromised that was jettisoned.

The actual only reference I think which we actually mentioned and embraced in a sense was the very opening scene, and the idea of 2001 , not a literal imagining of that but the idea was that we were aware that what we were showing was you could look as the alignment of planets or the docking of spaceships. And we wanted that. We wanted that familiarity.

We felt 'Let's start from familiarity' and then as you realise the thing that is actually the construction of an eye it takes you somewhere beyond where you thought you were going to go and so on, so its really about lowering the audience into where you’re going to go, rather than chucking them in, it’s a lowering.

I want you to talk about that opening sequence because it's extraordinary and it’s fascinating. I love the story that you sat in on Scarlett’s voice coaching, recorded it, and that’s what we hear at the start. She’s learning an accent and the character is learning a language - they're both actors. Those parallels are fascinating in the film, was that an intentional thing? Do you want people to know that or does it not matter?

I don’t mind. I think with the time we are living in it’s all there to be found out if you want to look for it, and I hope that the film that we’ve made won't be demystified by people understanding that, there’s still a journey to go on regardless, and its all a construct, of course, I’m not pretending it isn’t, but equally I think something like that, and what we recognised much earlier, before we started filming within the later stages of our writing process, was the methodology and the narrative being the same thing.

So actually you then embrace everything, and even watching Steve Noble the costume designer dressing Scarlett, was our story. Steve Noble was an alien dresser, and I was an alien… god knows what I was but I was, you know, Davros or whatever.

But we were all, somehow or another, preparing her, this Trojan horse who was complicit, and then we were just pushing her out into the world. And we were watching. So it was a direct equivalent.

So when Scarlet said to me ‘I’m going to go and do my voiceover things’ and of course I said ‘Well, I’m going to come in and listen’, not because I thought ‘I’m going to come and listen because I want to use what you say.'

I think when you direct a film you should never sit down, you should always be on your feet, you should always be around what is happening when it is happening. Don’t for a second think you have the answers. You don’t. You’re lucky if you have the right questions.

So you have to be alert to everything that’s going on because it is all orbiting this thing that you are making. And you pluck from it.

You mentioned the construction of the eye, that initial shot looks like it could have been an exploding planet, an exploding star, which is a beautiful representation of one of the key elements of the film, which is that idea of alien perception. You mentioned asking the right questions, what did you ask yourself going into this film, what were you hoping to explore?

I think I was what she was, I was learning as I was going along, I was watching and being educated by those events and then moving forward with that knowledge. That’s really what I was doing.

The themes come through the cracks, the themes aren’t the pavement slabs, they’re the weeds between the paving stones. I certainly don’t think we sat down and said ‘Okay, these are our themes, this is what we are making a film about’.

Other people talk about the themes of the film whilst at script stage, of course they do. ‘Well we think this film’s about identity’ or ‘we think this film is about the paradox of body and soul’ or whatever and they’re all valid, but you don’t go into it with such grand objectives. Your preoccupation, your obsession, is the behaviour of that character. Putting that character in certain circumstances and watching.

The beach scene is one example, you know exactly what that’s about before you shoot it, so I know exactly what that scene’s about, it’s exactly about what I thought it was going to be about. What are you looking for when you write stuff like that or you make stuff like that? I don’t even know. I really don’t know.

I’m not a painter but I think if you sat looking at a blank canvas and you had an image for something, or have a feeling for something, and you want to portray that so you just begin to slap paint on a canvas, you get to a point where somehow you've expressed whatever that thing was you were feeling. You’re not painting themes, it’s an expression of something, of a feeling I would say. Then the themes come from an analysis of that. The themes follow, they don’t lead, I suppose.

When I look at that painting I see a film that’s about filmmaking as well as the process. The main character is an actor that’s moving amongst ordinary people both metaphorically and literally, and she leads them into a space with a black reflective screen that could be a TV screen, or a computer screen, and you can get lost in that screen if you let yourself.

It looks like film as well, that floor, it looks like celluloid.

Exactly. What’s your interpretation of the film, what do you see when you look at that painting? I mean, obviously you made it, so that's not easy…

You know, I can't look at that painting yet. That’s the truth of it. If I do I look at it but I don’t see it. I mean what I see are the cameras, decisions and brushstrokes and all the rest of it. You have to let time pass really, before you can have a look at it and think ‘Ah fuck, that’s what it is’, ‘Oh, ok that’s what you were doing’.

If I told you what I thought it was about now I don’t think that’s what it is about, it’s just what I think it’s about.

I’m genuinely not sure I’m the right person to ask the question. In ten years time, maybe, but even then I don’t know.

We made Birth ten years ago and I saw that on TV a little while ago and what was interesting was being able to forget the next cut, I didn’t know what was coming next. And that’s really interesting, because then you’re really outside of it. And then you can begin to sort of try and see it as others see it.

And how did you feel about it?

Like I wanted to re-cut it. No, I like that what it was about was not visible, and I think this is similar.

How did you feel when you first watched Under The Skin with an audience?

Well Venice was the first time I watched it with an audience. I’d watched it with Jim and Tessa and people who had been involved in the making of the film of course, a number of times, which is always very painful.

But you learn an enormous amount about what you’re making when you are in a room with other people, because you can’t stop it. If it's just you and the editor you go ‘Hang on a second, you know that shot or that scene, that doesn’t work because…’ You can't do that, so you have to suffer it but you learn an enormous amount about what you’re making when you show it under those circumstances. How did I feel watching it in Venice? I mean, it was terrifying. Horrible experience really.

The reaction?

Oh not that! No, I didn’t mind that part. It was actually watching it. It was the tension of seeing people watching the film and, you know, people with their shirts and ties on, everyone’s all done up and stuff.

I was with my wife, and I was holding her like I was on a long-haul flight, like I was on a plane in turbulence, that’s what it felt like. ‘Just when the fuck is his flight going to end? When are we going to land?’ That’s all I was thinking. 'This is terrible weather, when are we going to land?'

And then when you land I was like, ‘Fuck, thank god we landed’. So the landing in terms of people booing and stuff like that, no, I quite like that.

It’s a weird old sound that, when you hear that and clapping together, it’s a strange sound. It's hard to articulate what that’s like. There are people in there who like it, who are really into it, and there are people in there who really hate it, and you hear both simultaneously.

I could try and remember exactly how I felt about that for you, but… I liked it. I think. It was all right. I felt quite relieved that that was the response. Not one or the other.

Quite punk rock.

Maybe. Maybe it is. A mate of mine said that about it afterwards as well. Let’s say you got a bunch of people standing up and clapping. I know for a fact that I would be thinking ‘I’ve fucked this up’. You know? And if everybody was throwing vegetables at it I don’t know what I'd feel about it then.

I do feel that if I like it and the people who I care most about like it then it's fine if nobody else does, actually. It's better that way than the other way. I wouldn’t like it if everybody enjoyed it and we didn’t. Personally, I’d feel like I’d done something that wasn’t genuine.

How do you move on from a project like this? How do you let it go, because I imagine it was so intense. Would you film this way again?

I’ve thought of filming this way again and I’ve thought of stories to film in this way again but at the same time I think that what worked very well here is the fact that we’re looking at things through the eyes of the character, through the eyes of an alien.

And so the idea of seeing things as they are and not as you would manufacture them were you to be shooting them as a conventional film, that works here, that’s the thrill of it, for me. Yeah, that was the right move. It was the correct move and I feel very satisfied with that.

The idea of me taking that on and doing that again with a lesser character… what reason would I be doing that for. What would I have been doing that for because it worked this time. Unless I can see a way beyond that for another project, with that device, if you like, then I wouldn’t bother. Because we’ve done it.

What I'm looking for now is something that I haven’t done. And that will be the thing that I go ‘Well, now I’m making that.’ And then I’ll feel probably about that exactly the same as I feel about this. But it won't be the same thing. It would be repeating yourself: I don’t see the point. The work is too hard to go into it knowing what you want to achieve. You’re just executing, I’m not interested in that.

Under The Skin is out on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday. And you can watch an exclusive clip below.

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