Under the Skin is one of the most unusual films to hit the big screen in years, and the shoot was just as unique, according to director Jonathan Glazer. For much of the movie, which casts Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress luring men to their doom, Glazer filmed Johansson with hidden cameras as she tried to seduce non-actors who had no clue that they were flirting with a superstar. How did he convince a Hollywood A-lister to drive around Scotland on the prowl, and how did he then exhort her suitors to sign a release form? Glazer called up Vulture to explain just how it all came together for his first film since 2004's Birth.
You've spent most of the last decade working on this film, so how does it feel to have now put it out? Is there any sense of postpartum depression, or is it exhilarating to finally have reached this point?
I suppose it's both, really. It's a complicated feeling, because I've been involved with it for so long and it's been such a part of my life, really. Now that it's over, I'll be bereft without it, I suppose. But at the same time, I'm delighted that it's finished, and it's quite cathartic and very scary to have it out there. When we made this film, I half-suspected that it would never see the light of day anyway, so it's kind of nerve-wracking to put it out and I always knew it would be.
It's not an easy film to explain, by any means. From the logline, people may be expecting a much more conventional sexual thriller.
When people ask me what the film's about, it sounds ridiculous, so I just don't say what it's about! I think people may go see it who are Scarlett fans but maybe not fans of a film like this, and then there are people who are fans of a film like this but maybe not fans of Scarlett. It's quite interesting to put those two ingredients together, I suppose. I'm hopeful that people will see it because it's quite exciting to have something so experimental to be seen.
Were any of the men whom Scarlett seduced for this movie surprised to find they had been flirting with a famous actress?
I think they were all surprised! [Laughs.] It was an interesting scenario, because Scarlett was acting, she was pretending and in disguise in every sense, and it was very tense to watch what would happen and see what might occur. It was a fantastically intense experience for everybody. When Scarlett would drop the guys off, one of our production assistants would come out from behind a car and explain. Obviously, they were surprised, and there were some people who were too unhappy to give us their permission, so we lost some remarkable encounters for that reason. But that was the game, and we understood that risk going in. It was something I was very certain of conceptually, and it was just about what we might be lucky enough to get.
Had I not known Scarlett Johansson before this film, I would wonder whether you'd found a non-actor, and I mean that as a compliment. She seems utterly divorced from her star persona here, and behaves at no point like a conventional actress would.
You find the right shots and the right line of the performance that weaves through the film, and you're left with something that made even Scarlett say to me, "I don't recognize myself in that film." She wasn't aware of the decisions she was making at any given time, in the way that she would be if she watched another film that she's made, and I thought that was a good sign. The danger is that you end up with a very flat performance, but she didn't do that. I think she's quite remarkable in the moments where she shows us nothing.
She was attached to the movie for a long time, wasn't she? And now it's coming out at a very interesting point in her career, since she's also part of this blockbuster superhero franchise.
Scarlett and I were meeting and talking about this project for about four years before we started making it, maybe even longer, and we were sort of orbiting each other at that time. She wasn't yet committed to it and I wasn't committed to the idea of her in it; sometimes, we'd meet up and not even mention the film. But as I was moving closer towards understanding how were were going to portray this character and have her be credible, it became much clearer that she was right for this film, and it became much clearer to her, too. She talked with great clarity about it because we'd both gotten to where we needed to get to. The timing for something like this is critical. People have to be ready for a project. They have to be at the right place in their lives to want to take it on, and years earlier, Scarlett might not have had the confidence to do it, nor have wanted to do it.
There are a lot of unnerving moments in the film, but the one that really seems to jolt a lot of people is that image of the abandoned baby crying on the beach, which Scarlett's alien character is emotionally immune to.
We had that scene in all the versions of our screenplay, although it changed into what you see now. What we wanted to do was to demonstrate the difference between her and us. We could show a scene that we know would affect human beings, and then show Scarlett and how she responded to that and how faraway her response was from ours. It measures the distance, really, between us and the alien. It's in the savagery and the brutality of that moment that we see the alien.
And I can't imagine it was easy to shoot.
It was a difficult scene for everybody. Just on paper, even before we shot it, it was a scene that people talked about. The baby's mother was obviously distressed because the baby was crying, but the image is intensified through its context in the film: On set, the baby's mother was just out of frame, a foot and a half away, and the baby is only crying for 10, 15 seconds. I mean, when we were casting the baby, I had wanted a toddler, but when you have that little window of opportunity to shoot that shot, you have to be able to rely on the child to cry when you need it to. So we went younger, and I remember in the casting, as soon as the mother put the child down and walked away, the baby would cry. Obviously, we could then rely on that to achieve what we needed.
Ten years ago, your film Birth was rather controversial when it came out. How did you feel then? Did it prepare you for whatever the reception to this film will be?
When Birth came out, I suppose I … well, I don't know what I felt. I think the thing that's important to remember is that something being good, and something being well received, are not related. It's important to see the distinction between those two things, so I never quite felt like, "Oh, I've made something terrible." I just thought, People don't like it. I think it's okay. I'm pleased with what we made. We did our best and tried to make something to the best of our ability, and that's enough for me, really. The thing is, Kyle, when I'm making a film, I'm not really thinking about the audience until I'm much further along in the film — probably not until I'm editing. That's when you decide how much of the story you want to show, but before that, when I'm shooting something, I'm just trying to achieve those shots and tell the story as well as I can. Some people will come to it and others won't, and that's that.