We caught up with the director of UNDER THE SKIN, on his recent trip to Dublin

Whilst watching Jonathan Glazer’s stark, striking and upsetting sci-fi-meets-candid-camera drama UNDER THE SKIN, it struck me that, when this spaced oddity starts rattling around the late night slots on the small screen, its leading lady, Scarlett Johansson, should have been given the full sex-god, Hollywood star treatment by Disney on the back of her Marvel character The Black Widow’s long-planned, stand-alone blockbuster. And some wide-eyed little kid is going to stay up past his bedtime, just to catch a glimpse of his favourite Avenger getting, very down, and very dirty. And, gulp, very, very naked.
That kid is going to go to bed with a stutter.

Loosely based on Michel Faber’s eponymous 2000 novel, UNDER THE SKIN will mess with your head. In a Haneke-meets-HAL kind of way. It’s a movie with a regularly naked Scarlett Johansson that somehow manages to be incredibly unsexy. Perhaps it’s all that Scottish rain? Like all great cult movies, this one is going to divide people. So, what was the initial attraction to Faber’s book, given that so little of it ended up on screen?

“I entered into this without a fully formed movie in my head,” says Glazer (SEXY BEAST, BIRTH). “It was more about being struck by the very simple, very powerful idea of looking at the world through these two alien eyes. So, having the opportunity as a filmmaker to, you know, re-see things – see things through this fresh lens – that’s what I got most from Michel Faber’s book. It is a disorientating movie, for many reasons, not least the fact that, usually when an exotic alien sex doll wanders this earth in relentless rain, it’s a futuristic city drenched in neon, not a modern-day one drenched in knackers.

“The aesthetic of the film is irrelevant, really,” answers Glazer. “We were trying to make a world that was as real as possible. Putting Scarlett in disguise, shooting her with surveillance cameras, it felt like the best way of doing this. Not to have a movie set, and all the paraphernalia that involves. We wanted to shoot the world as it is, as we found it. So, you’re witnessing things more than contriving them. So, putting that cheek-by-jowl with the more surrealistic realms of the film, to have her take us from these completely found scenarios – the various attempted pick-ups – and then walking us into her realm, where you suddenly come to the edge of the world – all of that reality just seems to flood into that space. That was something we knew was going to be very strong.”

Akin to a Philip K. Dick creation landing in the middle of a Ken Loach movie, UNDER THE SKIN sees Johansson’s unnamed alien cruising the streets of Edinburgh in a white transit van, attempting to pick up unsuspecting young men and then luring them back to her rundown two-storey house – only to find themselves walking into a honey trap. The honey in question being a thick black liquid that gradually robs those submerged of their physical powers before, well, sucking their insides out to leave something that closely resembles a deflated balloon.

Trussed up in stonewash denim jeans and fake fur jacket, Johansson could easily pass for a lost sex worker, which plainly helped when it came to fooling unsuspecting Scottish males… “Exactly,” nods Glazer. “You are in this perfect scenario where Scarlett is driving the eight of us, the whole crew, as we’re hiding in the back of this van. And I’ll just tell Scarlett where to drive, and we’ll spot someone, and she’s got to get over there before he’s gone. All of that is gold; there’s not a wasted frame. It’s all phenomenal, because it’s in perfect harmony with the narrative that you’re trying to show.

“It meant that we were all on this journey as it happened. And we couldn’t never be sure where we were going to end up. That’s the feeling I want the audience to have too…”

UNDER THE SKIN is in Irish screens from March 14th

Words: Paul Byrne