FILM At the moment, Scarlett Johansson is playing a superhero in the world’s top blockbuster. Her concurrent role in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin — the gorgeously crafted tale of an alien who comes to earth to capture men, but goes rogue once her curiosity about the human world gets the better of her — could not be more different in story or scope. There’s also the matter of its edgy presentation of its usually glamorous star.
“My first instinct was to cast an unknown. Somebody who nobody was familiar with,” Glazer (2000’s Sexy Beast) admits on a recent visit to San Francisco. But once he decided to film the alien’s “pick-up” scenes — in which Johansson’s unnamed character cruises around Glasgow in a nondescript van, prowling for prey — using hidden cameras and real people off the street, he changed his mind. Casting a famous face became a subversive choice that perfectly serves Under the Skin‘s disconcerting tone. “With that methodology of shooting, the surveillance with [Johansson in] disguise, and filming in the world as it was — the idea of Scarlett at the center of that, like an insect on the wrong continent, was a perfect storm of ingredients. We were well aware of how striking that would be.”
Her camouflage, which includes a dark wig, thickly-applied lipstick, and a fur jacket that immediately feels iconic, was carefully calibrated. “We didn’t want her to be too conspicuous. She needed to be just the right kind of conspicuous. It couldn’t be too overt,” Glazer explains. “The costume designer came up with what I thought was a very clever idea, which was [to clothe Johansson] like someone who’s immigrated recently to a new country and hasn’t quite learned the nuances of the way people dress. So everything was just very slightly off. And obviously we were trying to de-familiarize Scarlett. Very simply, the hair color was something that was very un-Scarlett. The makeup was very film noir-ish. It was a kind of a uniform.”
Johansson was so unfamiliar-looking that she was rarely recognized. Glazer and his crew kept their distance whenever she interacted with strangers, but they had to act fast once the “scene” ended. “Let’s say for instance she was going to go talk to that girl in the purple hoodie,” Glazer says, gesturing toward a woman nearby. “And we were filming it, covertly, and then Scarlett leaves. We’d have to then go up to the girl and say, ‘We’ve just been filming you. Can we get your permission [to use it]?’ She might already be outside and getting into a taxi, so you’d have production assistants running after people sometimes.”
Only a few of Johansson’s targets declined to participate once the setup was revealed. And though it’s easy to tell which men were pre-cast (hint: the naked ones), the scripted and improvised scenes flow together seamlessly. “We worked very hard to get the unity of those ingredients right and make the texture feel like the real world,” Glazer says.
Johansson’s character also gets naked, in scenes that will likely be among the film’s most talked-about moments. (“Seeing Scarlett Johansson Naked Got Under My Skin,” worried a blogger for Elle — a glossy mag that’s featured the star in uber-primped mode in its pages. The reason? Johansson’s unclothed body is remarkably, well, normal-looking.) “We certainly talked about the nudity in the film, but I wasn’t overly concerned about it,” Glazer insists. “What was important was that nothing in the film could be coy. We couldn’t be shy of anything. [Johansson’s] bravery as an actress needed to match the bravery of the character. It was all in the service of that — and she’s very fearless in it. The camera doesn’t get excited by her physicality, her sensuality. It’s very anatomical. In a way, I think she reclaims her image in this film.”
Under the Skin is very loosely based on the novel by Michel Farber. The film’s “feeding” scenes, in particular, are far more abstract than as written in the book. After the alien seduces a victim, he’s lured into what looks like a run-down house. The setting changes into a dark room that seems to represent an otherworldly void, with composer Mica Levi’s spine-tingling score — one of the film’s most potent takeaways — exponentially enhancing the dread.
“The book and the film are really unrelated. They’re very, very different,” Glazer says. “The idea of this film was to make something alien to tell a story about an alien. At the end of the film, I wanted her to remain as inscrutable at the end as she was at the beginning. Part of that is not to feel like you are looking at the tropes of science fiction when you go into these alien realm scenes — alien technology and engineering, and all of the stuff that you see in sci-fi films. Here, it just didn’t feel relevant to the way we were telling the story.”
So instead of a spaceship, the alien’s lair is a black screen which is actually part of the alien itself. “The alien is the absence of light, the absence of form. It’s a force, nothing more,” Glazer says.
But as the alien spends more time among humans — ducking through a night club, witnessing a tragedy on a beach, meeting a man with a deformed face, meeting another man who’s kind to her when she needs help — she begins to mistakenly believe that her fleshy, temporary form is her own.
“She’s deluded into thinking this identity is real,” Glazer says. “It’s like an ‘it’ becoming ‘she.’ It sees what’s reflected and it believes ‘That must be what I am now,’ and she goes and indulges that.”
Her confusion inspires her to abandon her mission and ditch the mysterious, motorcycle-riding figure who tracks her movements and, if needed, cleans up her messes. She leaves her kidnapper van by the side of the road and trudges into the Scottish countryside.
“Her main targets are men — so [initially] it’s important to be in a city and be around human beings. And then she flies away from that. It’s an escape, really,” Glazer says. “She ends up in the wilderness and we end up there with her. It’s important to tell the story alongside her, so we experience things with her. We’re in step with her.”
Eventually, the alien comes to understand the most human trait of all — vulnerability — in a chilling, visceral climax that evokes the body horror of early Cronenberg, a visual reference that dovetails well with the film’s clinical, Kubrickian opening scenes. That said, Glazer had neither filmmaker in mind while he was working.
“You’re trying to make an alien film that should stand apart from everything else,” he says. “It should stand alone. So for that reason, the last thing you want to do is reference other films or make it feel like it’s familiar. It’s familiar right at the beginning [of the film], before we see the shot of [Johansson’s eye]. Once we realize it’s an eye, then it becomes intentionally unfamiliar.” *
UNDER THE SKIN opens Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters.