Of late, a heavily pregnant Scarlett Johansson has happily been far from her sex symbol image. Even if post-baby the Hollywood star will undoubtedly go back to her voluptuous form and her grandkids will one day look back and marvel at her sexy personae in Under the Skin. She’s meant to be the perfect woman, the perfect seductress, and is, in fact, an alien sent down to seduce Scottish men who cannot believe it is their lucky day. When, of course, it isn’t. She’s here to harvest body parts.
Under the Skin is a film with little plot, little dialogue and a lot of atmosphere, thanks to Mica Levi’s eerie electronic music and Johansson's ethereal performance. British director Jonathan Glazer, who made his name on award-winning music videos for the likes of Nick Cave, Radiohead and Blur, always goes out on a limb in his movies, whether it be with his wry take on violence in Sexy Beast (2000) or eliciting a rarified performance from Nicole Kidman in his austere psychological horror film, Birth (2004).
With Under the Skin, a very loose adaptation of Michael Faber’s 2000 novel, Glazer was captivated with the idea of looking at the world through an alien’s eyes and the intuition that grows in the (unnamed) character throughout her journey.
“She experiences an awakening,” Glazer explains. “There was a sense of that in the book and that’s very much the thing that drew me to it. But from the time I started working with [co-screenwriter] Walter Campbell, we removed ourselves from the book and focused on the central pillars: the release of one of her prisoners and how that tapped into her bourgeoning consciousness. That’s really all that remains of the novel now, and then it became a much more abstract undertaking.”
Under the Skin, not to be confused with Carine Adler’s fine 1997 study of British working class suburban angst starring Samantha Morton, was never going to receive wide distribution (especially here where it screens in seven cinemas nationwide). Scarlett Johansson has to be commended for her bravery in placing herself in Glazer’s assured hands.
“I didn’t have any preconceived idea for the role or how to prepare for it,” Johansson explains. “All the pieces were coming together day by day, moment by moment, in Jonathan’s mind as his vision of the story as a whole was taking shape. Any ideas that I had of how to go about playing this character were completely irrelevant and it took us a couple weeks to find our footing. In a way, it was about abandoning any judgement as she has no intention, no evil at all. Everything she does is for a purpose and she’s only turned on, so to speak, when she needs to be and then returns to a state of being or observing.”
Cruising the streets of Scotland in a white van, Glazer shot the film almost entirely with hidden cameras and non-actors who didn’t know they were being filmed—even if the following scenes were then planned.
“The world into which she is being assimilated needed to be real and without the world knowing that it was being filmed,” Glazer notes.
Johansson’s appearance helped with the anonymity as she speaks with an English accent and sports tight jeans, raven hair and thick eyeliner. “We didn’t want her to feel like an alien or to have strange alien movements like you would see in a Tim Burton movie or something,” notes Johansson.
The first crack in the framework comes when the character has a fall and is caught off guard. “We did that on the street with the public and had six or seven takes during the day and had amazingly different reactions," Johansson continues. "Some people would stop and look at you and continue to walk, while others would come rushing to take pictures with their phones and not help you. Then there were unbelievable acts of human kindness where people were genuinely concerned. So the dichotomy was fascinating. I think it’s a huge part of the experience of watching this film.”
Probably the most difficult scene to film is when she recruits a man with a deformed face, the neurofibromatosis sufferer Adam Pearson, who she ultimately sets free.
“This scene was scripted, of course, but Adam’s not an actor, he’s more an advocate. It was hard for him to let his guard down, the ideas he has about himself, the ideas others have about him. He was protecting his vulnerabilities so trying to find the key to unlock that was difficult. But like a lot of the scenes, once the door was pushed open, it swung open and everything fell into place.”
Johansson has developed quite a following of late as the Black Widow in the Avengers sci-fi franchise. Under the Skin, she says, is in another ballpark.
“It's not a science-fiction film; it's a film that asks existential questions. Making it and watching it feels like an experience. I don’t think it fits into the thriller or horror genres just as it doesn’t have any specific morality. It doesn’t seem to fit within the confines of all those labels we place on films. Every film is a different type of experience and this certainly was a whole other challenge.”
“I’ve always enjoyed filmmaking as a more personal pursuit,” says Glazer. “I love to be challenged by the material and I like to push the form as much as I can. This story felt to me like it was a fertile idea for finding a visual vocabulary to tell a story, hopefully in a very unexpected way. The emotional journey of the character required an unusual language and I suppose it’s experimental for that reason. It’s not experimental for its own sake.”
Watch 'Under the Skin'
Wednesday 27 October, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies / Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Adam Pearson, Krystof Hadek