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Jonathan Glazer giving Scarlett Johansson some notesCourtesy of STUDIOCANAL UK

Jonathan Glazer on Under the Skin

Glazer spills on Scarlett's performance, surveillance and how it feels to split opinion

Surfers riding on waves of stampeding horses. A man and a woman running unscathed through brick walls and launching themselves into outer space. Nicole Kidman falling in love with a ten-year-old boy. Jonathan Glazer has been pushing the creative limits of filmmaking for over 20 years now. But could the director of Sexy Beast and Birth shoot Scarlett Johansson stalking Glasgow’s streets, shopping centres and nightclubs without either of them being noticed? That was just one of the many challenges he had to overcome to create Under the Skin.

DD: Was it hard to make one of the world’s most recognisable women disappear in broad daylight? 

Jonathan Glazer: There was a period of time when we were going to put her behind a mask entirely so she could be completely undercover and didn’t look the way people are familiar with her looking. We wanted to make her look like she fitted in but stood out at the same time. There’s something very slightly askew and wrong about how she looks and how she’s dressed. That was very intentional; it needed to feel like she and the people who designed her didn’t quite understand those human nuances.

DD: Did driving around sub-zero Scotland in a white transit van heighten Scarlett’s sense of alienation, and therefore her character’s? 

Jonathan Glazer: It was conceived for that reason. Getting Scarlett in disguise driving a white van in Glasgow is in itself quite an alien idea. She was out of her world and that played very powerfully into the story that we were trying to tell. The process of teaching Scarlett to speak with an English accent and how to drive a van on the left-hand side of the road – the preparation for the role – was an equivalent to the narrative. She had to learn it all. 

DD: Did she bond with the van?

Jonathan Glazer: By the end of it she loved it! We all spent so long in that van. Behind the bulkhead were myself and five other crew members with the lenses and equipment. We could communicate with her through an earplug, but she was very much in a cocoon. We used to talk about the van as a sort of spaceship, and she liked some of the sequences that we shot which involved surveillance, hunting, looking for stragglers. Once she pulled over and honked her horn she was on her own. There was something very exciting about the reality of all of that, of the hunt being real.

“You’re trying to find a symphony of the ordinary, to find things that are mundane but through her point of view are unfathomable”

DD: The alien eye’s perception of mankind is at the centre of the film. Did you attempt to re-see the world as well?

Jonathan Glazer: Yes, it’s re-seeing the world rather than seeing the world. You’re trying to find a symphony of the ordinary, to find things that are mundane but through her point of view are unfathomable.

DD: How do you regard Scarlett’s performance?

Jonathan Glazer: It’s still too soon for me to really see what it is that we’ve made. It takes a few years. You have to forget what the next cut is or the intention of the next cut, so I don’t know entirely what I think of her performance but what I do read from it is a complete dedication to the character. She understood very clearly that the bravery of the character needed to be matched with her own bravery, that she couldn’t hold back or say,
‘I don’t want to do this or that.’ When she saw the film she said to me that she didn’t recognise what she was doing in it. When she makes a film and sees it for the first time, she can reconnect with the decisions she made as an actress. With this she said she had absolutely no idea what was going on in her mind at any point. For me, that is a measure of how successful her performance is. She disconnected herself from the performance, she’s inside it, she inhabits it. It’s what you look for in an actor – an immersion, someone who can inhabit a role fully.

DD: How did you both approach the nude scenes?

Jonathan Glazer: It is massive for her, it’s a big step to take, but the important thing was not to be coy or shy about it. You’re not trying to make a point, you’re serving the story and the character’s discovery of anatomy – the body as craft, the body as an object. To see Scarlett investigate that is very powerful, as she does not play along with the public perception of her whatsoever; if anything she de-eroticises that preconceived image by taking ownership of her body as she does in the film. It’s extremely powerful.

“I have no interest in making a film that people don’t mind. I think it’s a very good sign to have people booing from their boots, you know, and others clapping as hard as they can”

DD: The film received a mixed reaction at its Venice premiere. Do you revel in splitting opinion?

Jonathan Glazer: I don’t revel in it, but it feels right. It feels like that’s what it should be. I have no interest in making a film that people don’t mind. I think it’s a very good sign to have people booing from their boots, you know, and others clapping as hard as they can. It’s a great sound when you hear those two things together. You hear the walls shake. I remember reading something Jean Renoir said about creating an argument between a husband and wife, and how if he does that then he’s succeeded in some way. I certainly want to see things that piss me off and challenge me and confound me and entertain me. Things that are too loud and too quiet. I like to experience those extremes, I think they’re stimulating. They’re alive. Why aim for a consensus on something that you don’t mind?

DD: When you started adapting Michel Faber’s novel ten years ago, did you think the film would turn out the way it has? Are you happy with it?

Jonathan Glazer: If I was going to do it again I’d do a lot of it completely differently. Am I happy? I’m proud of the journey that we all went on, and I’m not just talking about me and Scarlett. Pretty much everyone involved in that film from beginning to end went on a crazy fucking journey and I’m really proud that it represents that journey. I’m glad that the journey wasn’t compromised or lessened by second thoughts, fear or commercial concerns. I love the fact that we made what we made. Am I happy? Happy is not the right word. I’m proud of what we’ve made, yes, all of us.

Under The Skin is available digitally now and on Blu-ray and DVD from July 14