Jonathan Glazer was one of the biggest music video directors in the golden age of the medium in the 90s. His award-winning collaborations with bands like Radiohead, Nick Cave, Massive Attack, and Blur helped raise the bar on the format along with his contemporaries like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. When Glazer stepped into movies, it was with the unforgettably twisted and hilarious Sexy Beast, which memorably cast Ben Kingsley as the lovable psychopath Don Logan and gave the iconic actor a new career as a villain. After that, he made the unsettling psychological horror film Birth with Nicole Kidman and then disappeared for almost ten years.
Throughout that entire time Glazer has been working on his pet project Under The Skin, which at long last premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Taking cues from such headtrip 70s sci-fi movies as Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, the film follows Scarlett Johannson as an alien who…well…falls to earth and struggles to adapt to humanity. It’s a wonderfully enigmatic film that Glazer shot almost entirely with hidden cameras and co-stars who didn’t know they were being filmed. We got a chance to chat with Glazer while he was at TIFF and picked his brain about the unconventional production, working with Johansson, and what it was like to be a part of the golden age of music videos. Hit the jump for the full piece.
JONATHAN GLAZER: (Laughs) Yeah, I did enjoy The Man Who Fell To Earth. I haven’t seen it for many years. But I was a big Bowie fan and still am.
Was it in your mind at all when you were working on this?
GLAZER: Well, certainly not consciously. I wasn’t trying to make that film. I was trying to fell to earth. But there was a film called The Man Who Fell To Earth and on the set occasionally people would refer to our film as The Woman Who Fell To Earth, because that’s what it is. On the top layer there is a comparison to be made, but hopefully nothing else. It’s a wonderful elliptical film. But I don’t think it’s the same film.
Oh absolutely. I just thought I’d get the elephant out of the room right away.
GLAZER: (Laughs) Well, thank you.
I intrigued by the fact that you’ve stuck with this idea for many years now and ended up with a project that was quite different from the book that initially inspired the film. So what was it about the material that struck a cord with you so deeply and was it going to be a more faithful adaptation initially?
GLAZER: It was originally. I worked with three different writers over the years. The first writer was Alexander Stewart, who did a faithful adaptation of the story. Then I realize I didn’t want to do a faithful adaptation. Then I worked on another version that started to deviate from the story as told in the book and create a new tone. It felt like we were making something fresh that was still attached to it. Then I went off, made Birth and decided I didn’t want to make that either. So then I started working with Walter Campbell and from there we removed ourselves entirely from the book and just help onto the main central pillars: the release of one of her prisoners and how that tapped into her bourgeoning consciousness. That’s really all that remains now and then it became a much more abstract undertaking.
How early on did you decide to shoot the movie with not just non-actors around Scarlett Johansson, but people who didn’t even realize they were being filmed? I found that fascinating and it worked so smoothly that I honestly didn’t even realize you had done that until I found out after.
GLAZER: That’s really good. Because you work very hard to find a unity and bring everything in. That’s really what the job is. I think there was just a moment when we realized that’s how the movie had to be made. It was with Scarlett disguised in the real world with hidden camera. That’s how it would work. As soon as a discovered that and understood that was my compass then everything had to serve that idea. It meant we were shooting real people and people who didn’t even know they were being filmed. Then of course there are characters in the film who are written and can’t be random in the same way. I have to cast those parts. Those guys have to sync and take direction, but they have to feel the same as the people who didn’t know. So you can’t use actors. You have to stay in the world of non-actors or lesser known actors who come from the same textural place as the random men that she picked up.
Was it difficult to keep things so visually compelling when working with hidden cameras?
GLAZER: I think it’s an intuition, you have to understand where the camera needs to me. There were times where you were suddenly aware where the cameras were, then you were in a different place and it didn’t feel like the same movie. You just have to understand what does and doesn’t work. How a camera can observe yet still be from her point of view. There’s less control, but it’s all still established. You work out what you need and how they cut together. You form the aesthetic in the edit and the challenge is just to find the best ways to capture the present tense. If it locks you in, I think that’s a combination of all those decisions and the skill of the editor.
Did no one recognize Scarlett while you were shooting?
GLAZER: A couple of people clued in, absolutely. But she doesn’t really look that familiar. And also you’re in Glasgow and she’s driving a van. People just aren’t going to expect Scarlett Johansson to show up and ask for directions. A couple of people who were suspicious and there was one guy who said, “are you a movie star?” You know, in the nightclub scene was all hidden cameras as well. In the street when she falls down and people pick her up. No one ever knew they were being filmed or anything. It’s all about circumstance, I think.
GLAZER: Well, quite obviously her beauty and sensuality. The fact that she’s objectified and to use all of those things for the character. But then the journey is about watching that change and countering that fact. She’s a terrific character actress, I think. She’s very skillful and a terrific comedian. She’s like Lauren Bacall. Very adaptable, very intelligent and witty. I think if the film is anything at all, it’s because of her dedication to it. I wouldn’t have been as committed without her.
I wanted to ask you briefly about your music video work. I always look fondly back at that time when you and people like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry were in that field essentially making experimental films with multimillion dollar budgets. There’s really never been anything else quite like that before or since. So what was it like to be apart of that and do you think it’s possible to work that way anymore?
GLAZER: Well looking back, I think we were in a period of time when the language of music videos wasn’t yet fully formed. It was still nascent somehow. There was a relationship between the filmmakers and the bands who wanted to keep pushing and challenging the form. There was great artistry around, absolutely. And when I think there’s a group of people fortunate enough to work in the same field and the same time, it’s not competitive, but there’s a great sense of, “he’s done that so I’ll have to push further.” There was a lovely sense of theater around that period with MTV, I suppose. There was a stage that we all played to. And now I haven’t made a music video in about 4-5 years. I hear from people who do make music videos that there are a lot of complaints about how controlled it is now. How people pitch music videos for $2000-$3000 and lose to people who then take ideas from everyone else’s pitches. It feels quite tragic to me. It’s become homogenized and controlled by certain people. The artistry has left the building, I think. That doesn’t mean there aren’t brilliant people around. I just think it’s much harder for them to do interesting things than it was for us, which is ironic because the work is so immediately available online. But that’s not all of it. It’s about faith that the band show you and the freedom the record company give you to pursue your ideas, the controversy that might follow and embracing that. It’s a very different time. But I think it’s just the period of time and it’s a cycle. It’ll change and people will break through. I haven’t seen any in a while, but that’s probably because I’ve had my head down making this film.
Is there any chance of Don Logan coming back?
GLAZER: Oh you like Don Logan do you? He’s dead isn’t he? He’s buried under the pool.
Oh yeah, but he had the little beef with the demon at the end, there must be something there.
GLAZER: (Laughs) There is something there, yeah. He was a terrific character. I enjoyed filming him and making that movie, but the beauty of that film is the writing and I didn’t write that film. Louis Mellis and David Scinto wrote that, I just pointed the camera at what they did.