Director of cult classic Sexy Beast and one of the most prolific advertisement directors of our time, Jonathan Glazer takes a moment with Wonderland to discuss his latest feature length film Under the Skin
You may recall 1999’s Guinness ‘Surfer’ advert or perhaps the more recent Sony advert where a tower block explodes with a rainbow of paint. Jonathan Glazer’s commercials have been making the ordinary spectacular and the norm glamorous for well over a decade. And his portfolio extends to music videos most directors would give their right arm to collaborate on, rising to fame with his videos for Radiohead’s ‘Street Spirit’ and Jamiroquai’s ‘Virtual Insanity’.
Whilst Glazer has only made two previous feature length films, the tense and terrifying Sexy Beast starring Ray Winstone as a retired gangster called upon to do one last deal and Birth, an eerie tale of reincarnation both written and directed by Glazer starring Nicole Kidman, Under the Skin is his deeply anticipated third addition. Based on the novel by Michel Faber, the story focuses upon an alien entity in the form of a femme fatale who lures single men in Scotland to their demise. Scarlett Johansson was chosen for the role and provides a bone-chilling performance. Kubrick-esque in its style, Glazer’s latest offering teams the obscure with reality to create something really rather unique.
Under the Skin is such an obscure story. What drew you to it initially?
I liked the central character from the book and I liked the atmosphere very much and the point of view a great deal. Those are the aspects of the book that drew me to the journey of it all.
What was in particular that drew you to her? From what I saw I know there she had a distinct lack of empathy and I know that’s something you picked up on…
Scarlet Johansson is portraying an alien entity so there’s there’s no good, there’s no bad, there’s nothing evil about her, there’s nothing empathetic. She is an it and it has no empathy as dispassionate as the sea. I suppose the journey of the story is when the it becomes a she: watching through experience, the flooding of the senses, the burgeoning of a consciousness, a sense of self.
What was it like working with Scarlett?
It was very nice. I liked working with Scarlett very much. She was very good… cool as a cucumber and very happy to get involved. She was committed to it all wholeheartedly.
Originally you wanted Scarlett’s character to be played by somebody unknown. How do you think the film has differed using a high profile actress?
Because I didn’t make the film with someone that’s not her I can’t be certain but the film we did make with Scarlett has benefited from her profile and how familiar people are with her. I think there’s something arresting about having her in that roll and I think it’s a secret ingredient in the film.
Both you and her portray this outcast brilliantly. Do you think there’s a part of you that feels like an outsider looking in?
I think the viewpoint takes the view of the alien entity. You’re writing about and thinking how to tell this story. You’re trying to imagine yourself in that situation as best you can. So you’re asking me directly do I feel like an outsider? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.
You have such a particular vision. How do you trust your vision with other people when working on a project?
Firstly you surround yourself with trusted collaborators so that your idiosyncrasies and your methods… you can be vulnerable with those people and you can go on a long journey with them. I think the important thing is to be present at all times so you’re involved in every aspect of the filming, whether it’s music, costume or cinematography. You cast people you work with just as rigorously as you cast your actors.
You have such a vast range. Where do you draw influences from?
I think with each project, what perhaps gets my attention, makes me want to make something is first a response to an idea, either an idea of mine or someone else’s. I think it’s somehow getting to the essence of that idea and how to communicate it. It’s all based around feeling, It’s about having a very powerful emotional sense of something and then finding a way to articulate that with picture and sound. It’s about approaching each thing as if it were the same, whether it’s a music video or a film or an art installation.
Some of the most respected musicians in the world have entrusted you with creating a video for their songs. What is your approach to putting a picture to their music?
The first thing is, like you, like me, like anyone, is we look at a piece of music and we see it a certain way. I try to understand that music emotionally. What is that? What images could describe that? And then you look at it in a way that doesn’t pin the track down, it doesn’t define the track, you’re not trying to limit it, you’re trying to express it. Putting pictures to music is a beautiful thing and music becomes your script. It’s the vision, the mood, the ride of it.
I suppose what interests me is that I wouldn’t expect you to work on projects for big companies like Stella Artois and Barclays. You manage to bring humanity to the world of advertising. What do you enjoy about making advertisements?
I’ve always enjoyed the craft of shooting pictures and how it works. I’ve tried to approach that short form stuff as I would approach anything: it’s all or nothing really. If it’s 60 seconds long I’m not engaged any less than if it’s an hour and a half. I try to make it as honest as possible. I suppose if you’ve got to slap someone licking an ice cream at the end of it, it’s a harder task than if you don’t but I’ve never thought of myself as an advertising person so I approach each project as a film.
And that’s why you’re adverts have the same power in however many seconds as a full feature length film has, which is a rarity…
Oh, thank you very much! [laughs]
How did it feel to have such success with your first feature length film Sexy Beast?
We made that film on a pretty small budget and kind of in the shadow of a lot of other gangster films that were being made serendipitously. So at the time it was released, it didn’t seem to do very much. But then maybe over time people started paying attention to it and enjoying it. I think the dialogue in it’s so quotable, the way the writers constructed the characters. I was really drawn to the writing of it: it’s beautifully written and unique so I kind of rode on the coattails of that. I just found a way of pointing the camera at the script really.
Under the Skin is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms now.
Words: Elinor Sigman
Photography: Jill Furmanovsky @ rockarchive.com