No one could ever accuse Jonathan Glazer of opting for quantity over quality. The British filmmaker has made only three movies in the span of 14 years, including his latest, Under the Skin. During that time, and before he made his feature debut in 2000 with Sexy Beast, Glazer directed music videos for Radiohead, UNKLE, Massive Attack, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and more of your favorite bands. He’s also done commercials for Nike, Audi, Guinness and Motorola.
Glazer has a résumé to brag about.
He’s done well for himself, which is probably why our interview with him is at the Chateau Marmont, which smells of money. Maybe it’s all the 20-year-olds coming in and out with their Rolls-Royces that gives it that scent. Still, the rather cozy and surprisingly low-key hotel is an ideal place to speak with Glazer. And the 49-year-old director is in good spirits when we meet him. He’s proud of a very important fact: whether you like Under the Skin or not, he made the movie he wanted to make.
His style hasn’t always been for everyone, even though Sexy Beast was a hit with critics and has managed to stand the test of time with audiences. It’s a gangster film but not about the gangsters we’ve seen a thousand times before. Although Glazer came from the world of music videos and commercials, the style of Sexy Beast isn’t what mainly spoke to people — it was the characters and how much you didn’t want to see them killed.
Glazer established himself as a real storyteller with Sexy Beast, not just someone with a nice eye. He felt ready for that jump into features, though. “I think it all prepares you,” Glazer told me, about whether music videos and commercials prepares you for movies. “There’s lots of similarities between the formats, whether short-form or long-form. For me, a short-form is like a sentence and a long-form is like a test. If you’re doing a music video, what is that sentence? Is it a beautiful sentence? When you make a short or a music video, it has to be as fully-formed as a movie.”
The most notable distinction between the two formats is the work ethic. Glazer could make a commercial every month or two for a big payday instead of taking a cut developing a feature project for years, but he’s willing to spend as much time as he has to on a film, if his passion is there.
The next long-form story Glazer told was Birth, which was received less warmly. The 2004 film discusses loss in a way we hadn’t seen before: a widower, played by Nicole Kidman, believes her husband has been reincarnated in the body of a little boy. “It’s very nice of you to say it was a mixed response,” Glazer says smilingly when asked about the film’s critical reception. He acknowledges that he received some vocal support “in the dark,” but Birth did have venom spewed its way, which is something Glazer admits you just can’t anticipate.
“What I try to remember is how something is received and if it’s good is completely unrelated,” Glazer believes. “The way the whole machine generates this stuff is that if it’s well-received, then it’s good. If it’s not well-received, then it’s not good. There’s a cheap logic to that, in the short term. I think things, good or bad, find their level, when all that shit has gone away.” If you don’t agree with Glazer’s assessment, think about all the films you love and how many of them were panned by critics or went unnoticed in theaters. Some films, especially ones that can’t be put into a box, need time to be discovered, reanalyzed and appreciated.
Thankfully, the stench of failure — creative and commercial — on Birth has begun to deteriorate. It’s gained fans over the years and now, nine years since its release, Glazer has made a film that is being received with mostly open arms. It’s the story of a mysterious alien (Scarlett Johansson), but what that story is is anyone’s guess. The adaptation of Michael Faber’s 2000 novel isn’t told through exposition, but images. The viewer needs to have a conversation with these pictures, not idly watch them go by. Ultimately, they portray “the paradox of the body and the soul.”
Under the Skin is really more about feeling than story. In the press notes, Glazer says it came out of wanting to capture a specific emotion the material gave him. “I think the film is the feeling, whatever that feeling is. I don’t directly know what the feeling is,” he says. This a story that you either see as beautiful or horrific, or both. To capture these variety of emotions, Glazer first had to figure out what narrative purpose they would all serve. “Things start inside, and then you attach images to that, and try to describe that, and then turn those images into a scene.”
Film is a visual medium, and yet not many directors communicate their stories nonverbally. Under the Skin does. Each image progresses the alien’s journey, even if all the details aren’t spelled out. “It’s not trying to be willfully obscure,” Glazer states, when it comes to the film’s deliberate visual narrative. “It’s a particular visual language. With that language, we’re trying to be emotionally lucid with her journey. We hope if you understand how she feels, you’ll understand where she is, story-wise.” Since the movie is told from an outsider’s point-of-view, Glazer wanted to approach Under the Skin in the same way.
Like a good painting or piece of music does, Glazer hopes Under the Skin communicates to the consciousness. There is a painterly texture to the film, but painting isn’t in Glazer’s background. He studied theater design, so he was always around “images and drama.” But he still finds himself influenced by the artists he admires, like Francis Bacon, who delved into the idea of “the existential body.” There’s a body horror element to Bacon’s work that is a major part of Under the Skin.
While Bacon was a clear influence, Glazer wasn’t blatantly drawing from any particular films. “When you’re working on a specific world, like this film, there’s things you just click with and you begin to accumulate visual references along the way,” he says . “Not for anything to be used directly at all, but to remind you of the tone you’re going for.” He made sure to “hold onto” any visual cues that spoke to him.
One of those unavoidable cues: Stanley Kubrick.
Glazer has directly tipped his hat to Kubrick in the past. Just watch his music video for Blur to see he’s a fan of the filmmaker. “I’ve picked his pockets, really,” Glazer jokes. “People politely say ‘homage,’ but I probably stole his wallet.” The opening of Under the Skin may give some that impression.
Although Glazer doesn’t want to ape his style, as a growing filmmaker, it’s hard not to look at the greats for education. “In a way, you’re trying things out when you’re learning. Say you wanted to play guitar, you’re going to listen to people who play the guitar. You’re probably going to play the way they play. I think it’s like that for me,” Gazer explains. He specifies that, after you’ve taken those guitar lessons, you need to find your own style. Glazer doesn’t want anyone to scream “Kubrickian!” while watching his film. Ideally, he wants people to focus on the soul of Under the Skin, not its influences.
Lots of ideas came and went throughout development, but Under the Skin‘s biggest visual motif is what serves as the window into the film’s soul. “How we start the film was a very, very early image. That remains, but it’s been distilled down from a much bigger scene of the creation of her to one image, which is the ‘eye’,” says Glazer. “The interloper inside the eye is so uniquely human, so we recognize it. It’s delicate, beautiful and intensely us.”
We see through the eyes that the alien experiences human emotions, but the question remains: does it have a soul?
The answer depends on what one takes away from Johansson’s performance. She has been making increasingly interesting choices over the past several years, but Under the Skin is her most ambitious performance to date. Not because she’s nude in the film, but because of the fact that she needs to communicate the alien’s arc physically. The alien doesn’t understand emotions, so there’s no way for it to put them into words.
Like Kidman, Johansson is a movie star, but that doesn’t mean she’s not an actor with creative ambition. “It had a lot to do with what Nicole wanted to do at that time in her life, and the same was true of Scarlett on this,” Glazer recalls, on why these two stars at the height of their careers chose these out-of-left-field roles. “What connects these two, in my mind, is a fearlessness, a desire to push into untravelled roads. I guess when they were looking for new things, I was lucky it was my thing they wanted to get involved with.” These are the kinds of roles actors could fall on their face doing, but even if that happens, at least they’ll have someone to fall with. Glazer wants to experience a sense of terror while making a film; it’s what “stimulates” him as a filmmaker.
In that regard, Glazer had plenty to keep him going. This film was never an easy journey for him. Most independent films are difficult to get made because of financial reasons, but that’s not what held him up. “It was a very complicated challenge, finding the right story, the method to tell the story and putting her in the real world with a disguise and shooting her with hidden cameras,” Glazer says, referring to how they shot Johansson in Glasgow, Scotland, and filmed non-actors in secret. “You know, it seems obvious and simple now, but you get to that, you don’t start with that. It just takes time to find an eloquent way to do it.”
Once Glazer figured out the proper method to tell this story, he surrounded himself with the right people. Everyone knew what movie they were making, even the people with money in their pockets. “The easier part of the film, and this was the first time I’ve experienced it, was the money,” he says. “We didn’t have loads of money, but what we had was given to us by people who were supporting what we were trying to achieve. They weren’t like, ‘What do you mean you’re doing that?’ They knew what it was. They enabled it.”
How many filmmakers can say financiers gave them a “freeing” environment, one that would “allow them to fail”? If Glazer did fail, then what a spectacular failure this would’ve been. Under the Skin would have been known as the dud that opened the same weekend of Johansson’s gigantic moneymaker, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but instead it’ll be seen as Glazer’s triumphant return in the film world.
Would it be nice if Glazer made a film every two or three years? Of course. But if he needs this much time to make a film of this caliber, then why rush?
Under the Skin opens in theaters April 4th.