Event Review: Q&A with Under the Skin director Jonathan Glazer

BFI Southbank

13 March 2014

Director Jonathan Glazer, Producer Jim Wilson and composer Mica Levi interviewed by Wendy Ide.

The following is an edited version of a Q&A hosted at the BFI with director Jonathan Glazer following a preview of his beguiling and divisive sci-fi drama Under the Skin, which Ive reviewed here.

Where there any cinematic reference points, lodestones you referred to?

JG: Obviously you cant unsee films you’ve seen…but we really tried to commit to this outsider perspective. For that reason it did seem to feel that it needed to stand apart.  So you challenge every decision based on that unique perspective.

It was an exceptionally long production period, I think Jim was the first to option the book?

JW: I worked with the company that optioned it- Film4- the original producing company. That was back in 2001 when I was sent the book- Michel Faber’s Under the Skin- by an agent, and read it. We liked it, we thought it had some really strong cinematic elements and would attract an interesting film maker, one interested in cinematic language.

And you (Glazer) got involved at around the same point? How many incarnations did this project go through, when was the lightbulb moment?

JG: Yes, Jim gave me the book to read. When we first started to try to adapt the book, the first draft was much more faithful, more illustrative, to it. That was successful…to a point. The great idea that I wanted to put at the centre of the film, the central idea from the book though, was her, her point of view, discovering things alongside her. It felt like a really vital, exciting challenge really.  I think we just became committed to that really. At the same time, I think they are connected in spirit. To adapt a book does not mean you have to film the book.  I think it can be great spark of inspiration, but you go off on your own journey from it. 

Was there a moment where it clicked?

JG: I cant remember a quick moment. There are days when you feel clearer about where you are going… its hard to retrace my steps. But it just felt like when it became about her, when we committed to the molten core of it, it suddenly became clearer.

One of the key things is this very naturalistic way of filming. That ties into my question about casting: when you committed to this way of filming, wasn’t there a temptation to go with a non-recognisable face rather than one of the most recognisable faces on the planet?

JG: We had a lot of discussions about that. I was always put off by the fact that I knew the names of the actresses to begin with, I was familiar with them from films and magazine covers. It didn’t feel right; I couldn’t imagine anyone in that role really. But we began to understand that there could be something very powerful in using that familiarity and disguising it, parachuting it in to the world as it is and watching what happened. It felt like a really simple solution, where the method we were using the shoot and the narrative were one and the same.

JW: The dialogue with Scarlett was pretty direct. There was no sort of ‘difficult penetration of layers of representatives’ to get to her. 

JG: She was always very interested in the project from the get go, she was very patient with it, waiting for it. Once we had a script we felt was closest to what we wanted, it was a very easy conversation. She saw it very early.

Wasn’t the method of shooting with hidden cameras terrifying from a production standpoint?

JW: It was scary because, given the exigencies of film making, it is an expensive business and you cant shoot films for too long, In some ways Jonathan’s ideas of filming with multiple cameras built into the van and seeing what happened; the perfect way to deal with that would be the shoot for a very long time and see what happy accidents you could get. So the worry from a producer perspective was “what if what you want to happen or what is useful for the story doesn’t happen, what if people recognise her and the cover is broken?” We used to have lots of philosophical debates about the nature of artifice reality and filmmaking. The fact is, it did work, and it was successful. We were able to do it, she wasn’t recognised, and that spell wasn’t broken. It created that spell in fact.

What surprises came from doing that?
JG: I think we were pretty clear it was going to work conceptually. I wasn’t surprised that it worked, I knew it was. It was just a case of how much could we get away with before she was spotted. At times she was, but we got enough footage before that. And we became bolder over time, like when we shot the scene with her falling in the street.
Also, its worth bearing in mind that these cameras didn’t exist. Part of the budget had to be used in the building of these cameras. They didn’t exist. Once we understood our method, our ‘dogma’ we had to go out and test cameras. We tested all the cameras we found that were small enough to hide, but none of them were good enough. Those that were good enough were not small enough to hide. That was our conundrum. So Tom Debenham, one of the brilliant people I was working with, suggested we build a camera ourselves. So we went into this entire manufacturing process of building our own camera system. 

Let’s talk a little about the music. I think the music here, which Mica Levi has composed, is spectacular really. Can you talk a little about how this collaboration came about?

JG: I worked with a music producer called Peter Raven, we’ve worked together for years- he produced the Birth soundtrack. We had conversations about the music for this film a long time before we started shooting: who it would be and what it might be. I tend to delay these decisions for as long as possible and not edit with any music, as I find it provides a false lead.  But eventually we listened to some musicians in his studio, and some of Mica’s work for the London Sinfonetta came up. That was that really.

Mica, how did you approach composing?

ML:  I watched the film. I tried to write something at first, but it was really terrible. We talked about it a lot after, I remember JG wanted me to go away and write music based on what interested me when thinking about the film. But that was just the initial stages. You (JG) had an idea…you talked about how it to be ‘real time’ and focusing on her and on her experiences the whole time. We seemed to throw things at it, and the more were threw, the more refined it became. It started to work itself out.
JG: It was a long process and you wrote a lot of music. It took a long time: trying to find the unity of all the ingredients. With Mica’s soundtrack, the aim was to make it woven somehow, so the pictures the music and sound were indistinguishable.

Under the Skin
UK 2013 Directed by Jonathan Glazer. With Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan. Running time 107 min
Out now


Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.