It's a recent, blustery Chicago day, and Jonathan Glazer is tucking into a lovely steak at David Burke's Primehouse. In support of his arresting new film "Under the Skin," starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien being on the prowl in Glasgow and rural Scotland, the London-born filmmaker, commercial veteran (check out his Guinness surfer ad sometime) and music-video specialist is talking about watching movies on television growing up, often with his father.
"I didn't live in an artistic area. In the London suburbs there were no 'art cinemas.' My dad, the cinema he liked, was mainly the American cinema, films made by John Ford or Howard Hawks or the more recent work, Sidney Lumet, Francis Coppola. Great films, quite conventional in terms of story, but brilliantly made. I knew, though, if I was going to make films myself I wasn't going to make those types of films."
Then young Glazer saw his first Lindsay Anderson movies, such as the scandalous "O Lucky Man!" Then his first Pasolini, Antonioni, Rossellini. "The ones that left the questions in," he says. He's no snob, he adds quickly. "I'm interested in 'Anchorman' or Ingmar Bergman. But not that interested in anything in between."
Already a sensation in England, "Under the Skin" is not located in anybody's idea of a cinematic middle ground. Shot like a nature documentary, often with hidden cameras, it's a nervy and memorable puzzler adapted by director Glazer and Walter Campbell. Johansson isn't strictly the whole show, but she's close. As her character lures one man, then another and another, back to her modest apartment, we are tantalized into guessing the precise reasons and parsing what is actually happening to her victims as they enter what appears to be a liquid, inky-black void. It's a void familiar from Glazer's 1996 Radiohead video "Street Spirit," velvety and beautiful but unsettling.
Though he cites a "strange spiritual relationship" between his movie and the novel, Glazer has defiantly gone his own direction in "Under the Skin." "It had to be told from her viewpoint. Or its viewpoint. So the film had to be her experience. Once we committed to that, exposition becomes impossible, though I hope the film's held up by a logic of its own." It helped, says the 49-year-old married father of three, to secure roughly $12 million in financing from the British Film Institute and Film 4. "They have a cultural mandate: They're there to support and enable films and filmmakers. It's the first time in my life I've had that kind of support. All through a year's worth of editing they checked in, and I was never at war with anyone. Unique situation."
Glazer's previous features were "Sexy Beast" (2000) with Ben Kingsley and "Birth" (2004), with Nicole Kidman. "Under the Skin" took years to develop, and Johansson took years to give Glazer a definitive yes. Under a black wig and often behind the wheel of a hulky, unglamorous van, Johansson worked undercover and incognito. Often scenes shot with stealth cameras involving non-actors on the street led to potent results. A production assistant would then dash up to the unsuspecting stranger to explain the circumstances. This is a movie we're making, and that's Scarlett Johansson, and if you'd like to be included, please sign this form of consent. If they signed, Glazer was fine; if they didn't; Glazer and company couldn't use the footage.
"We were shooting with our fingers crossed," he says.
A sweet and thoughtful artist in conversation, Glazer peppers his thoughts with words such as "terrified," "anxiety," "pit of my stomach" and "dissatisfied." Though he's pleased with the final form of "Under the Skin," he says, "all I can see now when I look at the film is thousands and thousands of decisions. And inadequacies." He made his first short at age 17, in art school. "Terrible," he says. He went on to study theater design at Nottingham Trent University.
"You don't think of an audience when you make a film," he says. "I don't, anyway. You think of the audience when you're cutting the film, when the footage is there. You're trying to communicate it, tell the story — and be clear."
Some things in contemporary filmmaking are too clear for his tastes. Though he has worked digitally for years across various projects, he misses film stock and the days when he'd look at a day's rushes in an actual movie theater. (He met his wife 14 years ago doing just that.) "I've kind of let it go," he says of film. "In my heart. 'Under the Skin' was shot digitally because it needed to be; it had to have these small cameras, and the cameras we needed we ended up having to build. But I don't like the digital image. There's a tyranny about it, somehow. I feel like it was forced on filmmakers. It didn't evolve naturally. It feels designed to sell big flat-screen televisions. It's sharper than your eyes actually can see. There's a tyranny to it. There's no alchemy to the image. It's prosaic."
Glazer's latest will be called many things by many people, pro and con, but "prosaic" seems unlikely to be one of them.
His star, he says, "loved being in Glasgow, actually. As an actress this job was so immersive for Scarlett, a unique undertaking. Casting, mostly, means identifying where people are in their lives and determining what they're willing to bring. So much depends on where they are in their life. This was the right time for Scarlett. She wanted to it. She was unflinching."
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