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Under The Skin: An Interview With Jonathan Glazer

What is one of Hollywood’s hottest actresses doing driving a Transit van and dragging unsuspecting men back to a rundown council house in Glasgow? As Under The Skin comes out on DVD, director Jonathan Glazer explains all

Under The Skin: An Interview With Jonathan Glazer

Jonathan Glazer kidnaps your eyes. For 20 years he has trailblazed his way through commercials, music videos and cinema, pioneering techniques, winning countless awards and creating consistently arresting images along the way.

“Iconic” is a word misused all too often, but much of Glazer’s work can be described as such. Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” video: iconic. The Guinness “Surfer” ad: iconic. Sexy Beast’s Don Logan: fucking iconic. Remarkably, Ben Kingsley’s unforgettable turn in the latter, playing the most terrifying nutjob in cinema history, came in Glazer’s first feature film.

Four years later, in 2004, he followed up with Birth, a meditation on eternal love and reincarnation starring Nicole Kidman. Now, 10 years on, Glazer is back with the artful, abstract, intoxicating Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson as you’ve never seen her before.

The movie, out on DVD this week, is based on Michel Faber’s novel about a female alien who takes on human form to seduce and ensnare unsuspecting men in Scotland. Glazer took his time developing a screenplay (he embarked on the project almost a decade ago) and worked with different writers on various drafts before teaming up with Walter Campbell, with whom he’d worked on his Guinness ads. Together they produced a script which stripped the story to its core.

Scarlett Johansson, who was cast at the very beginning of the process, remained devoted to the project even as it evolved over the years. The final screenplay, Glazer explains, was only about 50 pages long. He wanted to show the world through the eyes of his protagonist (Johansson), and as such decided to film much of it with tiny concealed cameras. He wanted realism, he says, to have it feel like a nature documentary.

The result sees Scarlett Johansson in disguise, wearing a dark wig, speaking in an English accent and driving a Transit van around Glasgow while interacting with ordinary men who had no idea who she was or that they were being filmed. If Glazer got what he wanted, they were asked if they’d give their consent to appear in the film.

Johansson was filmed like this on the streets, in shops and, in one of the most daring sequences, in a club rammed with real Friday night punters, all of whom remained gloriously oblivious to the fact one of Hollywood’s hottest actresses was making a film right under their noses. Cameras were concealed in walls and loudspeakers, while Tom Debenham, the film’s visual effects supervisor and second unit director of photography, was on the dancefloor, dressed as a clubber with a camera concealed in a record bag.

Somehow, Glazer, Johansson and the crew pulled it off, producing one of the most striking, divisive films you’re likely to see for a very long time. Here, Glazer tells us how he did it, and how it now feels.

Scarlett was attached to the film for years. Did you keep her in the loop with your drafts, and did she have any input?

“I did keep her involved in it over the years actually, and we did meet a few times, across different incarnations of the story. Sometimes we met and didn’t even talk about the script. We were orbiting each other, I would say, for a few years. I was struggling with the idea of using somebody well known, and the credibility of that in the role. If we were going to shoot the story of an alien in the real world, then it wasn’t about creating a movie set and all the paraphernalia that comes with that, it was about shooting in the real world. It was about hidden cameras. And then it was about disguise. And only then was it OK to shoot somebody we’re as familiar with as we are with Scarlett.”

Is it true one idea was to have her wear a mask?

“Yeah, there was a period of time when I was thinking of putting her in a full face mask. Not a V For Vendetta mask, but human skin, essentially.”

Like Hannibal Lecter wearing someone’s face?

“Not literally… a prosthetic, but different features, so you have just her eyes coming through different features.”

What did Scarlett say when you told her you wanted her driving a Transit van around Glasgow, talking to real people on the street?

“There’s a point in a project when it’s going to happen, you feel the momentum. The script, the budget, the economics and the creative endeavour – it all felt unified. The art and the business were aligned. And at that point I went to New York to see her. We spent the day together and I went through all of those things. Hidden cameras, casting choices, how I was going to shoot it, what she would need to do: nudity, violence, all the factors. I had a list of situations I knew I was gonna put her in. And I needed to know she was going to be committed to that. And she was. She never flinched or wavered.”

What did her people say?

“I sometimes joke with Jim, my producer, that they were saying, ‘Oh, let her get it out of her system. Let her do this one then we’ll get her back on the rails.’ But it was exactly where she wanted to be.”

How did you you guarantee her security?

“She had a bodyguard. You use your common sense in those situations, and he was cool about it: ‘If that’s what you need to do, you should do it.’ He was in a ‘follow van’ with his hand on the door, waiting.”

In an early scene she’s driving through an enormous crowd leaving a football match…

“Yeah, Celtic.”

What did her bodyguard make of that?

“She was driving into it, against the tide! They’re all coming towards her and she’s driving a van through a football crowd. But she’s in a van, she’s alright. And what you get from that are the nuances of that reality. You get her alertness. You get her hunting, that face. Those sensations are right there, they’re present, very powerful.”

And it makes sense for the character…

“Yeah it does, exactly. Scarlett in disguise in Scotland was equivalent to the narrative we were telling. It’s a beautiful marriage. Everybody involved could see the sense of that.”

Were there any moments with people on the street that you really wanted to use but couldn’t because they didn’t agree to it?

“Yeah, there were a few. Always after you’d filmed something, there’d be this moment that production assistants would come out of doorways or from behind bins, with release forms. It was like an episode of Beadle’s About. And they’d go off around the corner and you’d sit there with your fingers crossed hoping that you’d get that permission, because what you just shot was great. Sometimes you got it and sometimes you didn’t.”

The most exciting part must have been the nightclub scene. Where were you for that?

“We took over the VIP section of the nightclub, that was our control room. Scarlett would go out with Tom and Stuart, the camera operator. We’d rehearsed it that day before any clubbers arrived, so we had a plan. I had a monitor, so she’d come back in and we’d talk, then she’d go out again. I’d be out there with her sometimes. But yes, what you see there is all what was happening that night – she’s in a nightclub with people getting drunk and having fights all around her.”

And she’s also walking around on her own looking really hot…

“Yeah. In a fur jacket.”

And to do it, you perfected camera technology you had been working on for years...

“Yes. Using surveillance cameras on this film, shooting live, shooting eight cameras simultaneously, knowing that if it rained it rained in all eight cameras and I didn’t have to repeat the action – it was very freeing in that sense, it suited improvisation perfectly. If we had someone in the van with Scarlett who was pre-cast, I would say what I wanted to get from the scene. They’d both have little earphones and I could talk to him or I could talk to her; I could influence the conversation from sitting hidden in the back of the van while she was driving.”

You previously used such a set-up for a Motorola ad [which utilised 40 cameras simultaneously]. Does making adverts allow you to try things out, to experiment and pioneer things that then feed back into your film work?

“It’s phenomenal. It’s been my lifeblood. I might have a disquiet about the fact that ultimately they’re television commercials, you don’t have final cut, you’re working for companies – it’s not the same as making a film in that sense, but you have to approach it as if it is. I approach everything I’ve ever done as my film. I’m not gonna lessen my hunger for it because it’s a commercial or music video – there’s no graduation from one to the next. And yes, it’s an incredible training opportunity. My collaborators from those areas are all the people that I work with on film. Tom Debenham, my co-writer Walter Campbell, Dan Landin the cinematographer, my editor, production designer, sound designer, music producer – these are people I’ve been working with for years. Advertising has given me those relationships.”

How does it feel now, having been consumed by making this film for a decade?

“A little bereft actually. ‘Consumed’ is a good word to describe it; it occupies every waking and sleeping moment for that time. It was a very obsessive task, and involved so many ingredients and components. Everything at every stage was so exhausting and rigorous. So examined. So to be on that kind of tip for that length of time, and then not to be – you almost want to grieve. I want to breathe now, and then commit to my next one.”

What has it given you on a personal level? Have you emerged from the film feeling different?

“I’ve come out of it differently. I must have done, to have spent that long immersed in it. I’m different. It’s taken me 10 years to make this film, one way or another. And in that 10 years I’ve grown. I’m 10 years older, and I feel in a sense that it’s the end of something. I feel like there were things I wanted to fulfil, a certain visual language, a storytelling method, or a number of methods… it feels like I’ve channelled a lot of those things into this. I think that’s the reason I couldn’t put it down. When common sense told me to put it down, or people around me told me to do something else, I knew I couldn’t come back to it. I would rather never have made a film than put this one down. Good or bad, I was so invested in it, and the journey of it. I was so deep into it that I couldn’t go around it, I had to go through it. So the great relief for me is having gone through it. Good or bad, whatever the result, on a personal level, I’ve fulfilled something I set out to that makes more sense to me than anything I’ve made previously. I don’t feel, ‘I’ve made a great film’; I feel I’ve made what I set out to make. And now I can make something else. I didn’t think I could make something else had I not made this.”

OK. We want to finish by asking you how you feel about the legacy of Don Logan…

“Well I know he’s a popular character. He turns up in different incarnations in other films, I’ve seen him in other films, ersatz versions of him. Is that what you mean?”

There are certain characters and films that remain with people constantly, that won’t let go. Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, for instance...

“But you know what, I don’t feel it the way you feel it because I know it. I was in it. I’ll feel it about Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, because I had nothing to do with it. But I can see it’s a brilliant performance and it’s a brilliant character. I had a brilliant actor and a brilliant script. I didn’t write the script. I pointed my camera at the right stuff. That’s what I feel about it!”

It’s such a shame Louis Mellis and David Scinto [who wrote Sexy Beast] are now estranged and no longer writing together…

“It’s a great shame, a big loss. And to be honest with you, we had five films to make together and I think we would have made them all by now. The stars aligned for us in some way, then not in others. We were on the rails together. Like you, I think they were exceptional writers together. Unrivalled. The best in the business.”

Under The Skin is out on DVD and Blu-ray now

 

This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our new iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.

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