Q and A Session with Under the Skin’s Director and Producer

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At a special screening, at the wonderful Coolidge Corner theater, of the dark, dangerous and beautiful Under the Skin director Jonathan Glazer and producer James Wilson were kind enough to show up at their film’s conclusion to do a Q and A with the audience. Needless to say but I will anyway Spoilers to Follow: 

Q: When it came to adapting the book where did you find your way into the book? What changed going into another medium?

JG: Well, retrospectively it is obviously a story about her, but on the way to that the story had a lot more plot and more embellishment around her and initially it was about that aspect. Over a period we began to write things out we understood the core of her thanks to the script .  

JW: I suppose it was a process of, well the book is very different from the film, in the book the men are taken and they are knocked out with needles in the seats of the car with anesthetic and they are taken to a farm where the male alien and processing plant are underground and they are fattened up and castrated and have their tongues cut out and they are turned into a food delicacy  and it is very specific in the book, sounds brilliant actually (laughter). It’s sort of a vegetarian horror story (laughter) as a metaphor for factory farming and industrialized food processing, what would be like if we were food, things like that. I think early versions of the script were more faithful to some of those ideas and as Jonathan described a lengthy development process was about imagining and dramatizing those ideas and finding out that we weren’t interested in those things or that they didn’t visualize or dramatize them in a way that was interesting. You know making that stuff, making underground alien lairs or the alien’s designs, in the book the aliens are four-legged creatures, so it was a long process of filtering out iterations of the film what we were not interested in making and learning what Jonathan was singularly interested in. Which was the idea of point-of-view of an Alien. So yeah I just kind of said the same thing but longer (laughter)

Q:So, in this movie plays an alien who needs to discover how to be human and In Her she plays an operating system that is going through the same thing, at what point were connections made, did that ever come into play in filming?

JG: I actually got a phone call from Spike Jonze while I was finishing the sound because he was thinking of using her, he shot his film with Samantha Morton first. 

JW: I guess the question should be directed to him (Spike Jonze) because he put Scarlett in his movie after finishing with this one. 

So it was because of you we have her so thank you! (laughter)

Q: What kind of commercial work did you do in the 7 or so years of development?

JG: In 7 years I did a few T.V commercials and a music video, I did a commercial actually to test the hidden camera’s we used here. The idea was to test the camera system, so yes those can be very useful sketches for the things you are thinking about.

Q: When did the hidden camera scenario come into play?

JG: The hidden camera conceit was about correcting the distance between character Scarlett and rest of the world around her. A lot of those situations in the van were people not knowing they were being filmed only afterwards being told, the whole thing was about starting the conversation off with asking for directions then turning the conversation around to her agenda. The important thing of any film is to correct ambiguity so when we did cast characters  we wanted it to have the same texture and feel as the scenarios in the van.    

Q: What cameras did you use to capture enough light in darkness?

JG: We had to hide cameras when she falls, in and outside the van, the nightclub scene so we tested a number of cameras, the one we used is very small and was originally used to record the inside of the insides of machinery.

 Q: Was the it projected in the right aspect ratio, the one here seemed to be 4X5 were we missing anything off-screen?

JG: I don’t think there was an issue 

 The idea of the house reminded me of the Tardis in Doctor Who, they seem to go into a surreal world there was never any explanation…

JW: Well, that was the part that was out of frame. (Much laughter) I think we know that there is a lot of ambiguity in the film and that’s intentional (laughter), but I think there is a narrative to it (laughter)

Q:I was curious about the decision for the main camera to shoot on ALEXA, why you decided to shoot with a RAW workflow instead of film?

JG: We needed to have the camera’s small enough to conceal in various places, like the dashboard of the van. 

JW: The certain scenes we did shoot with the ALEXA like on the beach because it is a good camera for the conditions. We reeducated the files to match the other cameras. MIT in the house (laughter)

Q: If you are going to adapt a Michel Farber Book, why this one instead of Crimson Petal and White?  

JW: I read the book, my colleagues read it and thought that there were a lot of cinematic elements in it. We needed an ambitious director and sent it to Jonathan and started to focus in on the interesting and not so interesting elements in the book to turn into a film. That’s the process we went through. Whether someone responds to it or not  I guess is up to the viewer, but that was our engagement of the material. It wasn’t about following Michel’s book to do an illustration of it in film.    

Q: Scarlett Johansson is a big move star, with the hidden camera stuff were so afraid of recognition by one of the unsuspecting people. Did you consider the risk of this becoming “Scarlett Johansson becomes nude” movie?

JG: Concerning the nudity, she’s playing a character where there is an awakening of believing that the skin she is is her own, part of that journey is to consider it and look at it. What Scarlett does in that scene is she de-erotizes the image that many objectified in the film. We were always clearly conscience of the impact of that. I hope we handled it correctly. As for the first part of casting a more unknown actress; it would’ve been an interesting sociological experiment but as a feature film, Scarlett Johansson in disguise in a van in Scotland is equivalent to an Alien domino(?) (loud laughter) so that’s your starting point it’s a very interesting starting point. It’s better fuel, and then it’s about what you do with that. These are all starting points, it’s not about what you start with it’s what you end with, and Scarlett looks very separate from it. Everything was about creating an experience that committed to a perspective of character, it’s about creating perspective, the film has to stand alone and apart but the visual language and recovery of the film has to be where she is, not where we are and I think all the of the choices we made were made to serve that.

Did you have people recognize her? 

JG: A few not so many, because again you look at the poster it says her name but when you’re at 3 in afternoon in Scotland, it wouldn’t occur to you.

JW: I don’t think it happened on any one of the instances in the film. I think we had one guy ask If she was a movie star but she said no and they carried on (laughter). As a producer I was worried that would happen and that the spell would be broken and people would recognize her and then games up. It happened a little bit in the night-club scene which was a real night club on a Friday and Saturday night in Glasgow and we were hidden in a back room and filled up with punters and after awhile they did start to recognize her but it worked within in the film because they are all staring at her. So generally no.

Q: How important was that sense of realism in the film? 

JG: It was everything for me, it’s not the way the book was told, but here in the film in the making of it it felt like the reality of things that we should be shooting. Not things that we constructed as a kind of conventional set, where you to cast people to pick her up after she fell, no it was all to witness human beings demonstrating a very simple act of kindness because that’s what human beings do in those circumstances. For the character to learn the value of human beings was to show us, witness us, not to be in hollywood.  

Q: Are there any scenes in particular that shows her turn towards humanity?    

JG: Well, I think it is great that you have those feelings about the character. There is no single left or right turn for the character it is more of a drift, but I think the scene where she listens to the baby in car the first instance where her gaze is off her target.

Q: Since there is very little in terms of dialogue, where there earlier drafts that had more explanation and exposition?

JW: That’s actually how we went through the pre-process phase. There were drafts of the script much more faithful to the book, there was much more dialogue, literal explanation about the mission that was closer to the novel’s ideas. Through the process of development there was a striping back of finding the core idea of looking at the world through Alien eyes and looking at ourselves, rather than these ideas of what would it be like to be food for other beings . The language thing is interesting because in the book the two Aliens speak in english to each other, but if you start doing that you go into a “Star Treky” type of science fiction. We played around with different languages inventing languages but nothing worked, and then we just decided to make a a sort of almost documentary-style film of looking over her shoulder. It became less verbal more sensory and pictorial experience.

Q: Can you speak to the gender dynamics and relations in the narrative?

JG: The being, not a her, is constructed to lure men, it is a story of human, not gender dynamics. What happens to her at the end of the film, is her vulnerability her engagement with the world that takes her away from the singularity of her mission and puts her in a terrifying situation.   

JW: There are clearly things in the film about the way men look at women. You could see how there could be a reading of what happens to her that could rehearse a fear of sexual woman who is destroyed in the end. We tried very hard to not objectify or erotize the character. I can’t say if we succeeded because women are objectified in patriarchy. Perhaps some of the things that happen in the film are a part of that narrative that exists in the world, but we tried to tell a human awakening not a gender one. I read a village voice article, written by a women, where in the last paragraph she writes that the character doesn’t suffer from “penis envy she suffers from soul envy…”, perhaps that speaks more to your question.        

About Jeff Stewart

Film fanatic, movie buff, film enthusiast whatever you want to call it I have it and have dedicated my writing to showing my appreciation of all things movies here on Just My Take...

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