Space Oddity: Jonathan Glazer on 'Under the Skin'

The director of the Scarlett Johansson sci-fi film talks about close encounters and the importance of leaving things unsaid

Jonathan Glazer Scarlett Johansson
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Jonathan Glazer and Scarlett Johansson.
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The very first shot of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin focuses on a brilliant pinprick of light that blossoms into a prismatic flower, evoking a homemade version of Cosmos' CGI Big Bang. The comparison is only fair, considering the movie itself feels like the dawn of a new age: Glazer's third feature arrives almost ten years after the release of his last movie, 2004's Birth, long enough to make you feel that he's starting with a clean canvas. Unlike the tough-guy surrealism of 2000's Sexy Beast or the languid romanticism of Birth, his latest combines a stripped-down aesthetic and some of the most mind-altering visuals in recent memory.

Not least of which is the sight of Scarlett Johansson in a cheap black wig and fake fur coat, cruising the streets of Glasgow in a Ford Transit van and picking up unsuspecting men whom her character harvests for their innards. Her character, we soon learn, is not of this Earth, and she's an alien in more sense than one: an otherworldly creature who's still getting used to the feel of her humanoid shell, and a movie star out among the hoi polloi. In the way that motorists can look right through a tractor-trailer jackknifed across a highway, the men in Under the Skin — many of them nonactors who had no idea they were being filmed — don't stop to consider the possibility that a member of The Avengers might be tooling around Glasgow's byways looking for directions. She's the last person you'd think of for the part, which is one reason why she's perfect for it.

Glazer is also an accomplished director of music videos — including Radiohead's "Karma Police" and the Dead Weather's "Treat Me Like Your Mother" — and commercials, the most famous of which is a legendary Guinness spot in which cresting waves mingle with the rippling forms of galloping horses. But Under the Skin has none of the slickness one usually associates with directors who do double time in the world of advertising; in fact, it feels completly unlike anything else out there at the moment. The director talked to Rolling Stone about why it took so long to make this, what's actually going in that opening shot and why he's totally comfortable with ambiguity.

You worked on the script for nine years, going through three co-writers and many more drafts — and ended up with a film that has very little scripted dialogue. What purpose did the script ultimately serve?
It's a map. Well, it's more than a map; it something that gives you an understanding of what you're trying to achieve. For instance, let's say we'd try to write the encounter scene with Scarlett and the guy with the football scarf. [Screenwriter] Walter [Campbell] and I would've written a scene with four pages of dialogue, slaving over it until it contained the movement and ideas that we were after. But I went out there in the full knowledge that that dialogue was effectively sample dialogue. Anything said between Scarlett and the football fan in that unplanned scene will always supersede what you've written. The script is very unorthodox; it reads more like a novella than a screenplay. But a screenplay can come in many shapes and sizes.

You shot much of the movie with hidden cameras, but it it doesn't have the guerrilla fisheye-lens look of, say, Bad Grandpa.
I didn't want to shoot it from across the street on long lenses, or have it look like you were shooting out of a sleeve. It was about creating a simple formalism, where the cameras feel like they're there because they should be there. Were I shooting on a stage with a blue-screen background, I still would've put the cameras pretty much where I put them.  

That's what it was about: photographing people intimately, or close to it. You were there, watching them completely unguarded, with no awareness of your presence. That fit into the idea of her looking at animal behavior as it is — not recreating it as a kind of movie scenario, but watching human beings as we are. 

The Otherworldly Charms of Scarlett Johansson

Why did you feel that Under the Skin needed that kind of documentary component? It's very different from the magisterial style of Birth.
I think that component is in both films. I'm drawn to the idea that they are on the edge of being completely insane, and the great challenge of pulling that off.  For those kinds of ideas, I feel like I really need to believe in that character and their environment entirely, so you're pushing closer to documentary, and then, I suppose, juxtaposing that reality with something not visible: supernatural in the case of Birth, or alien in this.

There's an extraordinary long take of Nicole Kidman's face in Birth where she wrestles with the idea that a 10-year-old boy might be the reincarnation of her dead husband. That shot asks a lot of her, and a lot of the audience as well; that's the moment where we decided to go along with the movie's premise, or not. 
Those kinds of moments are the moments you really aspire to and try to achieve. You're trying to push the narrative to places where it's such a high-wire act. You're asking an audience to be up there with you somehow, and some will and some won't. But I think those moments are not intellectual moments. It's something more felt than thought. 

There's a similar moment in Under the Skin, where Scarlett Johansson asks one of the men she's picked up, "Do you think I'm pretty?" You can laugh at one of the world's most famously beautiful women asking that question, or you can accept that this is a character who's not comfortable in her skin, which is literally not her own.
The film is not literally through her eyes, but it's through her viewpoint; we experience as she experiences. It's a wave we're on: Some people will ride it, and some don't want to get wet. It's asking a lot of people, but the films that ask more of me are the films that ask nothing of me. Because if they ask nothing of me, it's a real effort to sit and watch something which is carelessly presented. This is just looking to make a connection. I'm hoping people will connect.

We can guess at the relationship between the motorcycle-riding figures who seem to serve Scarlett Johansson's character, but it's never explained and it's not really important.
No, but if it's in the film, it's important. There is a logic and an architecture to this film that is rigorously considered. And while I don't think it's the top layer, I think the explanation of things like her cohorts, these alien entities as bikers — they're performing a function. We see him clearing up after her, inspecting her at one point. There's a sense in that scene that there's something not quite right with her that he's detecting, like a hairline fracture or a crack in the wing of an airplane. He's satisfied that there isn't and carries on with his day. There are clearer ways of hitting those notes for sure, but we didn't hit them as hard as other people might have.

Read Our Review of 'Under the Skin'

Does it concern you if people don't understand everything?
Not really. You can only do what you think is right. Of course, you want people to enjoy the film and get a lot out of it, but it is its own thing.  People have asked me for explanations of things. I understand you want to ask those questions and I want to give you the answers to them, but I don't know. Did you find those questions stopping your enjoyment of the film?

Quite the opposite. Though I am curious about what we're looking at right at the beginning of the film.
What is it?  It's an eye. That's the alignment of the pupil within a rod, an eyeball.

Are we looking at a real eye?
No, it's a construction.  You want to know what it's made of?

I do.
It's a model, made using model parts that had been built and moved on a motion-control device.  I think depending on each shot, it's a different model. And it's about this thing coming out of blackness, this point of light which is actually a reflection, this rod coming from space. I read a thing years ago about this idea of the universe being able to look at itself through our eyes. In other words, our origin and what we are, our consciousness, was the universe's way of being able to look back and see the existence of everything. I always thought that was a really beautiful idea. That eye is an interloper; it's a violation of something so intensely human, the human iris. It's somebody being inside us and looking at the world through this perfect disguise. It's a Trojan Horse.

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