Interview: Jonathan Glazer on making a film, ‘Under the Skin,’ about an alien

"Sexy Beast" and "Birth" director Jonathan Glazer's latest is the alien art film "Under the Skin." Credit: Getty Images
“Sexy Beast” and “Birth” director Jonathan Glazer’s latest is the alien art film “Under the Skin.”
Credit: Getty Images

It’s taken more than a decade for British director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) to bring “Under the Skin” — about a predatory alien (played by Scarlett Johansson) seducing and destroying the lonely men of Scotland — to screens. But the lengthy production process doesn’t mean he’s lost any passion for it.

There’s some really impressive, hypnotic nonverbal storytelling here.

You’re committing to this alien lens, so you’re on her journey. The only time she can speak is when it’s essential to do so. She speaks when she’s picking someone up, but otherwise there’s nothing to say — or there’s nothing for us to hear because we’re with her. She’s not sitting down at the end of the day talking about, “You’ll never guess what happened to me today.” There’s no opportunity for those kinds of conversations, no matter how you would render them, so you’re dealing with a visual language. 

What were your preparations with Scarlett Johansson for portraying this character?

We struggled. We definitely groped around for it for the first few days of filming. We talked about her journey, but you’re not talking about a she, you’re talking about an it. How do you do that? We never really talked about, “How do you play an alien?” I was looking for an equivalent direction to give her that would achieve a behavior or a reaction that in the context of this story would appear alien. But you can’t really play an alien. I couldn’t cast an alien, you know what I mean?

It did make me wonder how this story would differ if the genders were reversed.

I don’t think women would be so stupid, actually. If you were to switch the roles and tell the story with a male operative, I don’t think they’d use sex as an M.O., you know? They’d use some other method. I’ve had people talking and writing about it, the “gender politics” of it, whether it’s misogynistic or feminist — I’ve heard both viewpoints.

What do you think of those debates?

Nothing wrong with that. People having opinions, that’s absolutely as it should be — about this film or any other. I certainly don’t think it’s a misogynistic film. The camera is not a misogynistic camera. I think even in the nudity scenes, you get a sense that Scarlett’s in actual control of that. It’s de-eroticized, if anything.

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter @nedrick


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