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Director Jonathan Glazer and producer James Wilson talk about casting and filming Under the Skin, their audacious adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 science fiction novel starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien in human form, while musician Mica Levi describes the processes behind the film’s extraordinary score.
It was, I think, an exceptionally long production period. I think, Jim, you first optioned the book, didn't you? When was that?
Well, I worked for the company that optioned at Film 4, with the original producer that can't be with us tonight, an American producer, called Nick Wechsler. And he became the producer on it. So, I think, I think that was 2001. I think I read the book, I was sent the book. Michel Faber's novel, Under the Skin, by an agent and read it. We read it there. We really liked it and thought it had some really strong cinematic elements that could make an interesting film. And I think, particularly, attract an interesting filmmaker, who was interested in film language. It felt like a very cinematic and atmospheric novel. So, yeah that was 2001.
And you got involved around the same point.
Yes. Jim gave me the book to read. So yes it goes back to that.
So, I think, I mean, I think the thing that interested me, is how many incarnations did this project go through before you - what was sort of the light bulb moment when you realized what you wanted to do with the essential idea of the book? Because I mean, the book, which I like very much, is a very different entity. But I couldn't actually think, I couldn't see myself revisiting the book. Whereas, you know, we've already seen the film twice, and I definitely would watch it again. I think it's a real key to the difference between the film and the book, is the fact that you can come back to this and sort of learn more about this world and this character.
Well, I mean when we first started trying to adapt the book it was much more faithful to it. More illustrative of it. And that was successful to a point. You know, I'd already seen the - you know you read the book and you see that in your head quite clearly. And it took a while to be happy to leave it in one's head. And use the great idea at the centre of the film, which I was - centre of the book, which I was particularly interested in. Which was her and her point of view in this idea of discovering things that move alongside her. It felt like a really vital exciting challenge, really. I think we just became committed to that and somehow... But at the same time there's a... I think they're connected in spirit still... I very much think that. Also I don't think to adapt to the book necessarily means you have to film the book. I think here is an example of how it can be a very important spark of inspiration, but you go off on your own journey from it.
So, was there a moment where you just, when it clicked and you realized the way forward, or was it an organic process? Or gradual process?
I can't really remember a click moment, no. There are days when you have, like, where you feel like you're clearer about where you're going. It's hard to retrace my steps, you know, for me it's hard to sort of retrace my steps. But it does feel like when it became about her or when we, when we committed to the molten core of it. It suddenly made, it just became, everything became clearer.
So, one of the key things, one of the key decisions was this very naturalistic way of filming. That sort of ties into one of my other questions about the casting. When you've committed to this way of filming, is there not a temptation to go for a non-recognisable face? Rather than one of the most recognisable faces that there is.
Actually when we started it, we had lots of conversations about who was going to play the role, who could play the role. I was always put off by the fact that I knew the names of the people to begin with. You know, you're familiar with the actress, you know either from films or magazines covers and it didn't feel right. I couldn't imagine anyone in that role really. But we ended up understanding there was something very powerful about using that familiarity actually and disguising it. Then essentially parachuting it into the world as it is, undisturbed and watching what happened. It felt very, like a very simple solution. Where the method of filming and the narrative we were going for were one and the same.
Jim, I mean, much has been written about this way of filming, which is covert.
It's using hidden cameras, it's a very sort of unknowable way of shooting.
As a producer isn't that actually terrifying?
Yeah. Yes. Yes. That's the short answer, yes. Yeah, it was, yeah, I mean I suppose that might be an interesting point in terms of a penny-dropping moment. I can't remember exactly when that was. When the idea of that way of filming the, became real, you know, to put the multi cameras in the vans and that. But yeah, absolutely, it was terrifying. It was, it was scary because you know it'd be one thing if you could, the exigencies of filmmaking because it's an expensive medium. Time is very expensive and you can't shoot films for long amounts, endless amounts of time. And in some ways, Jonathan's idea about filming covertly with multiple hidden cameras built into that van and seeing what would happen. You know the perfect way of doing that would be if you could shoot for an incredibly long time and you know see what happy accidents you get.
So, yeah, the worry from a producer point of view was like "Well what if what you want to happen, or what is useful to tell the story doesn't happen? What if people recognize her and the spell is broken? The cover is broken?" Those were, we used to have lots of debates about the, philosophical debates about the nature of artifice and reality and filmmaking. I'd keep saying, “Well all filmmaking is artificial. It doesn't matter whether they're extras or not. It's all..." but you really drilled down on that idea. And the fact is it did work and it was successful. We were able to do it. She wasn't recognised. That spell wasn't broken in fact it created that spell. So, it worked.
Were there any surprises from doing that? I mean you must have had expectations of what was going to happen. Did anything surprise you?
I think we were pretty clear that it was going to work conceptually.
I think that was, Yeah, I mean, it's, I wasn't surprised that it worked. I think, I knew it was going to work it was just, how much could we get away with before she was spotted. That was our preoccupation. And you know she was at times. But I think we got enough, just about, before she was, in each case. And I think we became bolder with it as well once we understood that we were going to get away with it.
Like when we did the stuff in the street, when she falls in the street, and stuff like that.
Well that to me was a classic. That was actually quite late. We did that, that was an additional bit of shooting. I think at the beginning of the shoot we did the shopping centre the second weekend and once we got through that where she - the department store. Where we were in, it was Saturday, lunchtime. And that emboldened us.
Yeah. The other thing we were doing was we were using, these cameras didn't exist. I mean, part of the budget, a significant part of the budget, we had to convince you know people to spend on building up these cameras because they didn't exist. So we were looking at cameras. Once we understood the concept that we were, you know, our dogma for this. We needed to find out so, we tested cameras and we tested all the small, all the cameras that were small enough to hide and none of them were good enough. Then the cameras that were good enough weren't small enough to hide. So, we were with our conundrum, and Tom Debenham, one of the brilliant people I work with, said “Well, let's build a camera.” You know, and off he went to his garden shed with a soldering iron, pretty much and came back with a camera. We went into this sudden manufacture amongst ourselves of this entire camera system. And that became, those became the cameras that shot the film. So we really committed to it and I think everybody bought into it. They must have done.
The falling in the street one is a good example of it. Because that was one where I was like come on let's... she's got to walk down the street, fall over, and then the idea of the scene was that people would help her up. That would be a moment of the most paroch-, of every day human kindness and empathy. That would, in terms of the emotional journey, the story that was something that seeps into her, moves her somewhat on her shift in her character. Jonathan was like, "We need to do that for real, she needs to walk down the street, Trongate, fall over, then we'll see what happens." I was like, "Come on, we'll find some extras they'll be incredibly realistic. We'll use our amazing casting director. But how can we do that but how can we do that if people don't help her up?" We did a test in London actually, with a stunt woman who fell flat on her face on Goodge Street.
Nobody picked her up.
Yeah. We were across the street on our iPhones. Just what might happen and everyone just walked past, in London.
I was afraid you were going to say that.
Yeah. I remember that moment we were like "Oh no. What...?" Because Scarlett was coming over. And then we worked out what needed to happen to help someone up if they fall over in the street.
What was interesting I suppose, it's not that unusual, but what was interesting was that if you saw somebody fall over. But if people saw her fall, then they'd pick her up. If they turned a corner and she was already, you know, lying face down they'd leave her alone. Because they didn't know why she had fallen. They were scared. I mean, there were people who crossed the street to get away from her. But, that was an exception to the rule. Most of the time. We shot that about seven times, I think. And people were as you’d expect people to be.
And Glasgow it worked. It might be a difference between the culture of the streets of London and the streets of Glasgow.
Let's talk a little bit about the music. I mean, I've always admired the use of music in your films. I think that the soundtrack to Birth is beautiful. But I think the music for this film, which Mica Levi has composed is spectacular. It's absolutely brilliant. So, can you talk a little bit about how this collaboration came about?
Shall I start?
Well, I worked with a music producer, called Peter Raven. I've worked with him for many years. And he's produced a lot of the soundtrack you mentioned, Birth, he produced that. We got into this conversation obviously the music for this film. We had this conversation a long time before we started filming, and who it might be and what it might be. I tend to delay these decisions for as long as possible. And we got to, you know, quite a long way through the edit. And we tend to edit with no music, because I find that it's a false lead actually, it's better to cut dry, I find. And then, he says, "Come on we've got to listen to some people." So I went over to his studio and we started listening to some people. Then some of Mica's work came up that she'd done for the London Sinfonietta. Right? And I listened to that and that was that, really.
So can you tell us a little bit... This is your first film soundtrack. Hopefully you'll do some more, because I think this is great work. How did you approach it? What was the starting point?
Well, yeah, as Jon said, we were in Pete's studios and... it started by, I went into the other room and watched the film, and Jon talked to me about it. I suppose, I tried to write something to it first, which was really... you just let me take it away. That was really terrible. Then I came back and we talked about it a lot. Then you told me to go away and write some music that I was interested in writing, thinking about the film.
That was just the initial thing, then after a while... You knew where you wanted music and always talking about what it was... You talked about making the music be real time and focusing on her. Her experience the whole time. Then we seemed to throw things at it and the more we did that, the more we threw at it, the more refined the music came, after a while. Sort of, started to work itself out.
It was a long process. Wasn't it. You wrote a lot of music. You hear people talking about when you write a film, like Walter and I spent a long time writing the film and then you make the film and then it's another "writing" I suppose. Then there's editing, the same, then sound and the music. You're still writing it. You're trying to find a kind of unity of all the ingredients. Mica's sound track is... I think the aim is to make it woven, somehow. So the pictures and the sound and the music were indistinguishable from one another, there were all woven.
Under the Skin
Mitchell & Kenyon
The Guardian Interview: Jonathan Glazer
Under the Skin (Electronic Press Kit)
More about Jonathan Glazer
The Pervert's Guide to Ideology
Attack the Block
The Lovely Bones
More about James Wilson
Born: 1987, Surrey
Micachu and the Shapes
Jonathan Glazer and James Wilson on Under the Skin (Q&A)
More about Micachu
, Jeremy McWilliams
, Lynsey Taylor Mackay
More about Under the Skin
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