Jonathan Glazer, whose new film Under the Skin marks his return to the filmmaking after a decade-long absence, is recalling the moment he told its star Scarlett Johansson that he wanted to covertly film her chatting up guys in Glasgow. “She didn’t actually [take much convincing],” says the Sexy Beast director, on the phone from his studio space in London. He’s referring to Johansson’s willingness to submit to the guerrilla shooting style he deployed in order to bring his long-gestating adaptation of Michel Faber’s Scottish-set sci-fi oddity to the screen. “In that conversation we went through all of the things that were going to be required of her and what she was going to have to do – and she committed to that very solidly in that moment and never wavered.”
Starring Johansson as a siren-like alien dispatched to Earth to hunt and seduce men for nefarious purposes, the film is set largely in Glasgow and at points required the actress – semi-disguised in a dark wig and speaking with a plummy English accent – to drive a van around city’s dodgier areas, giving the come-on to random men who had no idea they were being filmed.
Given that she couldn’t possibly know how they would react, it says a lot for her that she was willing to wing it in this way: would she be recognised, for example? (She was, once). Would it even be dangerous? “Oh, in those moments you just use your common sense,” says Glazer, who had security on hand at all times, just in case. “She used her common sense much more than I used my common sense.”
Although Glazer wasn’t interested in doing a literal adaptation of Under the Skin, the book did influence his approach. Stripping away the more elaborate elements of the plot, Glazer honed the story, putting more emphasis on the point-of-view of the main character (occasionally referred to in the film as Laura). “It allowed us to consider what things look like and sound like through the eyes of this alien interloper. It was an opportunity to re-see things through this new lens.”
Filming Johansson on the fly was a crucial part of this. “You can make a choice to create a movie set and have all the paraphernalia that comes with that, or you can film it in a way that we thought was much more thoughtful and pertinent – which was to witness it and put her in the world as it was.” Here, Johansson’s movie star baggage helped too – the occasional double-take from passers-by heightens the slightly exotic quality the character is supposed to have in the film. “That was central to it,” confirms Glazer. “Having Scarlett in disguise in Scotland… she’s almost like an exotic insect who finds herself on the wrong continent. All of that is fuel for the character.”
It’s also fuel for a more interesting readings of the film. Where other recent Scottish-set movies such as Filth and Sunshine on Leith have shown little interest in reflecting the potentially huge political and constitutional changes on the horizon, Under the Skin’s abstract tale of an extra-terrestrial visitor observing modern-day Scotland with a curious, disconnected gaze feels oddly appropriate now that the impending referendum is inviting a lot of external scrutiny of Scottish society.
“That may well be the case,” says Glazer, who grew up and continues to live and work in London. “From my point of view I look at Scotland as an outsider because I am from somewhere else and looking at things from kind of a detached, impassive place suits the narrative I’m trying to make a film about.
“You don’t want to shoot anywhere like a tourist, so I think it’s important to feel like you’ve got your eyes open. The way we shot the film allowed us to re-witness things as we came upon them. Part of that was being aware of the referendum this year and that actually made it’s way into the film via the radio.”
He’s referring to a scene in which Johansson’s character is listening to a debate about independence on Call Kaye, BBC Radio Scotland’s morning phone-in show. “We had conversations about whether that should be in the film because it was so specific and it might date the film.
“But what I loved about it was that it was something that she could hear. I loved the idea that she could hear debate in the film: she could hear a difference of opinion and learn how human that is and how important that is to us. There was something exciting about having her listen to that. And the fact that it was something that was happening then and there – to me that just felt like well, this is when we made the film; this is when it was set; this was when she was present.”
While all this suggests Under the Skin is some sort of über attempt to make a naturalistic science fiction film, that’s not entirely the case. Very much in evidence is the striking visual imagination that first brought Glazer to prominence in the 1990s as a music video director for the likes of Radiohead and Blur and, later, as an ad promo director responsible for the Guinness “Surfer” ad (still widely regarded as the finest advert ever made) and the Sony “Paint” promo, for which he exploded 70,000 litres of colour paint across an about-to-be-demolished Glasgow tower-block (he used some of the same crew for that shoot on Under the Skin).
Did he feel that the more wigged-out elements of Under the Skin – the startling opening sequence, the gloopy abyss into which Johansson casts her victims, the cacophonous score (by Mica Levi) – were an opportunity to marry the style of his promo work with his cinematic work?
“It actually feels like the end of a period of time for me – or the end of using a certain kind of visual language,” he says. “I love being able to tell a story with pictures, entirely with pictures really, so it lent itself to that.”
It’s ten years since Glazer’s last film, Birth, and even though he’s been working on Under the Skin in some form or another since then, he says he doesn’t really see himself as a film director. Considering this is only his third film since making Sexy Beast back in 2000, I wonder if he even has any interest in making more movies? “I don’t know really,” he says. “Probably, but I’m not a film bod in that way. I enjoy working in the medium very much, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find other ways of working or expressing ideas.”
He will, however, be attending Under the Skin’s Scottish premiere when it closes this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. Is he nervous about the home crowd reaction?
“Oh well, you know, it’s always a nerve-wracking experience to show a film. I don’t know: should I be nervous?” I tell him it will probably divide opinion in much the same way that it has done at every other festival. He seems happy with that. “I like the fact that the people who have seen it so far come down quite firmly on one side of the fence or the other. I’d rather that than somebody not minding it.”
Under the Skin will screen at the Glasgow Film Festival on 2 March and at cinemas nationwide from 14 March, glasgowfilm.org/festival.