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Alien Surveillance

After opening with lightness at the Grand Budapest Hotel, Glasgow Film Festival closes in darkness with Under The Skin, a tale of an alien seducing and killing men on this city’s streets. We spoke to its director, Jonathan Glazer


t’s always reductive to glibly compare one filmmaker to another, but if I were to commit that cardinal sin for Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer I would evoke the late, great Stanley Kubrick. Glazer has literally cribbed from Kubrick in the past (see his Clockwork Orange-inspired promo for Blur’s The Universal), but more subtly the pair share a steely control over their images. This is most clearly seen in Glazer’s 2004 masterpiece Birth, which calls to mind the likes of Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining in the way its camera glides around the Manhattan home of the wealthy family at the heart of the film. Unfortunately for fans of his work, Glazer also seems to have developed Kubrick’s production snail’s pace. His third film, Under the Skin, has been over a decade in the making. When I speak to Glazer by phone ahead of the film’s long-awaited release, the 48-year-old is in a London editing suite. “I’m cutting a TV commercial,” he says sheepishly. “Paying the rent, you know.” If he sounds embarrassed about his involvement in the advertising game he shouldn’t be. It is Glazer’s bracingly inventive commercials of the late 90s and early 00s that have most effectively seared his distinct vision on to our collective consciousness. Think of his Guinness ad in which surfers tackle a giant squall of stampeding white horses, his Levi’s ad in which a young man and woman demonstrate the jeans’ flexibility by running at breakneck speed through walls, and his Sony TV ad that features candy-coloured globs of paint exploding all over Glasgow tower blocks. Under the Skin sees Glazer back in Glasgow with a


very loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, in which an alien disguised as a female motorist abducts strapping male hitchhikers. From the moment he read the darkly comic novel he was “absolutely struck” that he wanted to make it into a movie. So why’d it take so long to get to the screen?

“The    booing and clapping combination is, to my ear, a phenomenal sound” Jonathan Glazer “When you’re doing it you don’t think of it in those terms,” he explains, “you’re just in it and it takes what it takes.” A large reason for this extended preproduction was Glazer’s figuring out how to visualise the material. “There were ingredients to it that were very powerful to me,” he says, “and I needed to find out what they were, and once I understood those, that’s the film I wrote and made.” The chief ingredient became the psyche of the alien. “I suppose that was the molten core of it all: the idea of being really in her point of view and seeing human beings from her angle.” Through her eyes, Glazer paints the human race as grotesque and perplexing. When she drives around the streets of Glasgow in her

Interview: Jamie Dunn

Transit van scouting for prey, it’s the chain-smoking, mobile-phone-obsessed natives who look alien. The casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead adds credence to this fish out of water scenario. In Faber’s novel, there are tell-tale signs that his protagonist is not of this world – massive eyes hidden behind spectacles with milk-bottle lenses, long scarred fingers and a short torso. In Glazer’s version, Johansson’s glamour is equally conspicuous: “There’s something exotic about [Johansson] there,” explains Glazer. “I used to think of her like an exotic insect on the wrong continent. Like her character, she stood out but she was desperately trying to blend in at the same time.” This friction is accentuated by the sly techniques Glazer used while filming. Many of the men whom Johansson’s character approaches to pick up in her van were unaware at the time that they were flirting with a Hollywood A-lister and performing in a sci-fi film. Using a combination of hidden cameras and distant camera crews with long lenses, Glazer observes Johansson as she walks and drives the streets of No Mean City interacting with its oblivious inhabitants. Continues on p2... Tonight’s closing gala is sponsored by Auchentoshan Single Malt Scotch Whisky and New Arts Sponsorship Grant, supported by the Scottish Government in conjunction with Arts & Business Scotland


Continued from p2...

“We were concerned about whether Scarlett would be recognised,” explains Glazer about his approach. “If your cover’s blown then it all collapses. But we got away with it.” This system of filming gives a freshness to the interactions, but Glazer’s singular form also mirrors the themes of the film. “The idea, really, is about surveillance: her being this kind of operative who is watching us undetected, and undetectable,” explains Glazer. “It made perfect sense to film it that way – once we understood that then everything really served that objective.” From its very first image, Under the Skin confounds. It opens on an expressionistic light show – shades of the final section of 2001: A Space Odyssey – that slowly takes the form of a human eye. Things only get weirder from there. With barely a handful of lines in the entire film, Glazer blends sleek visuals with the grainy images of Glasgow he shot on the hoof to create a feverish audiovisual assault. When I ask him about some of the jawdropping imagery in the film, Glazer, like Under the Skin, doesn’t give up

his mysteries easily. “You don’t really start off with something schematic: I just immerse myself in the world of it and then the ideas and the themes come through trying to find a specific atmosphere and visual language. It’s always in flux: you put down markers but they soon become superseded by new thoughts.” This approach, however, hasn’t been to everyone’s taste. When the lights went up at its premiere screening at the Venice Film Festival, Under the Skin became the last in a long line of masterpieces (from Antonioni’s L’Avventura to Malick’s Tree of Life, and Glazer’s own Birth) to receive boos from the pack of small-minded critics who haunt the international festival circuit. Not that these cat-calling Statlers and Waldorfs bothered Glazer any. “I was at that screening and I thought that sound was great,” he says when I bring up his film’s notorious press screening on the Lido. “The booing and clapping combination is, to my ear, a phenomenal sound. I’ll never forget it,” he says, before pausing to recall his previous feature’s reception on the Lido: “Well, actually, it’s the second time I’ve heard it,” he laughs.

Why does he think his last two films have divided audiences so? “When I make a film I’m very locked into the idea of what does come next, rather than what should come next,” Glazer observes. “In other words: when I make a film, I don’t sit down and think, ‘what would an audience like here?’” Certainly Under the Skin defies expectation, but while the protagonist’s backstory remains opaque, Glazer’s dream-like imagery, Johansson’s mesmerizing performance and its nerve-shredding score (by Mica Levi) render the alien’s loneliness and curiosity with our world in bold, lucid brushstrokes. Glazer doesn’t need reams of expository dialogue or a soundtrack peppered with Mumford & Sons to create narrative or character empathy – he uses cinema. “I like the fact that you can watch something and think at the same time,” he says, “You don’t have to do one or the other. I try and make films that respect an audience. I think a film should talk to an audience, not talk down to or up to an audience but to them. I think there are some people who just don’t like that – they go in with a preconception about what they think they’re going


to see and if they don’t see it it pisses them off.” One audience it will be interesting to gauge while watching the film is a Glaswegian one. The city, and the western Highlands, where much of the second half of the film takes place, is rendered in a way that’s unlikely to please the Scottish Tourist Board. Glazer will find out for himself when Under the Skin closes the Glasgow Film Festival tonight. He isn’t too apprehensive about its reception, however. “I didn’t want to shoot like a tourist,” he explains. “I wanted to feel like I was really showing the city through her eyes, as she finds it, and obviously the film is made by whatever we happened to pass in that moment – who she spoke to or walked past – and that was the film, that was the city. There’s obviously much more to Glasgow and Scotland than what we captured, but what we were lucky enough to photograph up there was – I think – very powerful.” Under the Skin closes the Glasgow Film Festival on 2 Mar; Jonathan Glazer will introduce

Under the Skin

Director: Jonathan Glazer Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan, Jessica Mance


the poetry of Mishima and fantasy of Murakami. In all disciplines, the finest technique is invisible; beautiful imagery never impedes upon this tale but becomes ingrained as part of it. Gentle yet thankfully not genteel, this is pure cinema, with moments so profound as to leave you in wonder. [Alan Bett]

Under the Skin, the long awaited cinematic return of Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth), opens with a hallucinatory dance of light and sound, which in turn morphs into a human eye. Things only get stranger from there. We follow an alien disguised in luminous human skin (Scarlett Johansson’s), who roams the streets of Glasgow in search of men. Like a siren, her sex appeal drags these horny young neds to a watery doom. Glazer chooses No Mean City’s most humble boroughs as the alien’s hunting ground. Shot through the ET’s point-of-view, it couldn’t look more otherworldly: its puce-faced residents, loud and lairy, forever on their mobiles (many of them being filmed surreptitiously), make for an apocalyptic vision of humanity. What begins as an eerie psychosexual horror movie slowly shifts to a haunting study of loneliness and female subjugation. What is her mission on Earth? That’s never clear, but it’s largely irrelevant: like the alien’s reaction to our strange little planet, our confusion is more than matched by our awe. [Jamie Dunn]

2 Mar, GFT, 1.45pm

2 Mar, GFT, 8pm

The Tale of Iya

The Tale of Iya

Director: Tetsuichiro Tsuta Starring: Rina Takeda, Nobomitsu Ohnishi, Min Tanaka


Iya is a place, not a person, although it comes to be one over a 169 minute running time that never overstays its welcome. This is the astonishing second film of Tetsuichiro Tsutu, incredibly not yet 30 years of age. The story of a detached rural village and its people, it presents a clash between nature and modernity. Its mist shrouded hilltops giving a sense of prehistory before the bubble is


punctured by symbols of contemporary life, comparable to when the tanks roll into Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum, evaporating its timelessness cruelly. An ecological parable, the film runs in harmony with nature and the sense of time is signified visually by the changing of the seasons. It’s as if the Japanese masters of cinema – Imamura, Ozu – have been resurrected but with the density of a great novel;


The CineSkinny Awards

Starred Up

CineSkinny team’s personal picks

Jamie Dunn – A tie between two bold cinematic visions made in Scotland: Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) and A Whole New World (Rachel Maclean) Ana Hine – It’s rare to have an overwhelming urge to re-watch a film immediately after seeing it, but The Congress (Ari Folman) begged for a second viewing. It’s surreal, with animation that was emotionally powerful and beautiful to behold, and as the designer I was pretty psyched to get to see something so… memorable. Patrick Harley – It may unfold in a setting free from either time or place, but The Double (Richard Ayoade) remains all too relatable. Surreal in ways both hilarious and terrifying, it boasts terrific dual performances from Jesse Eisenberg and cements Ayoade as a major talent. Nathanael Smith – Calvary (John Michael McDonagh) isn’t the absolute best film I saw (I think Wes Anderson’s wonderful opener, Grand Budapest Hotel takes that), but in terms of emotional and intellectual engagement, it may end up being my favourite of the year. Honourable Mentions: These Birds Walk, Ida, Starred Up, 20 Feet from Stardom, The Tale of Iya, A Touch of Sin, The Golden Dream, Tom at the Farm, The Past

Resurrection award

Post The Exorcist, critics haven’t had much love for the films of William Friedkin. But what do those idiots know, anyway? The GFF screening of Sorcerer , Friedkin’s insanely ambitious 1977 remake of The Wages of Fear, given a spit and polish by the mighty Park Circus, went down a storm. Long may his reappraisal continue. Who knows, maybe at GFF32 we’ll be celebrating the rerelease of 90s erotic thriller fiasco Jade? Runner-up: Dark Blood THESKINNY.CO.UK/CINESKINNY

The Marmite film award

Five minutes into Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo and you soon realise that the quirky stop motion stylings that have assaulted you relentlessly are going to stay there for the entire film. This is the make or break moment, where you decide to embrace or reject the madness of the rest of the film. It’s stranger than The Science of Sleep and, unbelievably, even less structured. Magnificent/atrocious [delete as applicable]. Runner-up: GFF Surprise Film Calvary, which editor Jamie hated and assistant editor Nathanael adored. When asked for comment, assistant editor Patrick reportedly said “...‘s alright.”

The WTF award

Dark Swedish sci-fi LFO, in which a disturbed middle-aged man brainwashes the couple next door into playing the parts of his wife and adolescent son. Why WTF? The male neighbour is in his mid-40s, so it’s a little unexpected to see him cheerily hunched over a bowl of Coco Pops while another man kisses his spouse. And the whole of A Whole New World, an eye-popping critique of imperialism told through the prism of a greenscreen apocalypse set to Disney songs.

Most off-putting lookalikes award

Yves Saint Laurent, where a stretched Tobey Maguire (Pierre Niney as Yves Saint Laurent) has a tumultuous love affair with George Osborne (Guillaume Gallienne as Pierre Bergé).

Best guest award

Despite being in poor health, George Sluizer was in fine form as he presented the UK premiere of River Phoenix’s final film Dark Blood. The standout moment of his lively post-film Q&A was when the director explained why sex scenes in movies are always rubbish:

“There’s no suspense,” he said. “You always know how they’re going to end.” The 81-year-old then went on to do his best Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally impression.

underneath Glasgow Central to add a bit of pep to our days spent in front of glaring screens. An early rumour for GFF15 is that a skydiving screening of Point Blank is planned.

The soon to be a global megastar award

Worst accent of the festival award

Jack O’Connell swaggered into town with the brilliant Starred Up. Since making that film with director David Mackenzie he’s been oiled up for 300: Rise of an Empire and was hand-picked by Angelina Jolie to star in her second feature film, Unbroken. O’Connell inperson was serious but cheeky. “What was the toughest thing about making the film,” asked a young fan during Starred Up’s Q&A. “Well,” laughed O’Connell, “You all just saw my willy.”

Hair-raising moment of the festival award

In ace backing singer doc 20 Feet from Stardom, there’s a scene where Merry Clayton goes to the studio where she recorded vocals on Gimme Shelter for The Rolling Stones to listens to her original recording. She knocked Mick Jagger’s socks-off at the time with her blistering delivery of the chorus (‘Rape, murder! / It’s just a shot away’), and did the same to the GFF audience.

Best Lines

“Get your hands off my lobby boy!” – Grand Budapest Hotel “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.” – Calvary “You’re in my place.” – The Double “Everything is hunky-dory. Now go and fuck or something.” – LFO “...” – Partir To Live

In Mr Morgan’s Last Love, Michael Caine sounded like he was doing an impression of Steve Coogan doing an impression of Michael Caine attempting an American accent. Runner-up: Tom Hardy putting a Welsh spin on Bane in Locke.

Bloodiest triple bill of the festival award Matt Lloyd, the director of Glasgow Short Film Festival who has hosted The CineSkinny team in his office for the past two weeks, saw A Touch of Sin, Starred Up and Blue Ruin in the space of about 6 hours. That’s like FrightFest for the arthouse crowd, with a vein of social commentary running through it as literal veins explode.

Most impressive beard award Blue Ruin

Most disappointing shave award Blue Ruin

Event we’re gutted we missed award

The closest we at The CineSkinny get to danger is when we post a one star review. Perhaps we could have done with being sent into the tunnels

Blue Ruin


John Sessions with Festival director Allan Hunter, warming up his Al Pacino impression

An intrepid explorer prepares for potholing

Mistaken For Strangers at The Glad Cafe

Photo: Stuart Crawford Photo: Eoin Carey

Claudia Lennear introduces 20 Feet from Stardom with the Glasgow Gospel Choir

Photo: Neil Thomas Douglas

Photo: Eoin Carey

Robert Florence in conversation at Rab’s Videogame Empty

Photo: Stuart Crawford

Golden Teacher opening for legendary soundtrack band and Dario Argento collaborators, Goblin

Photo: Stuart Crawford

Comedy and directing legend Terry Gilliam at The Zero Theorem premiere

Photo: Neil Thomas Douglas

Pictures of the festival

Produced by The Skinny magazine in association with the Glasgow Film Festival

Blast from the Past: Park Circus resurrect neglected 70s classic Sorcerer. It’s really (William) Friedkin good Geeks Vs Gamers at the CCA


Photo: Neil Thomas Douglas

Editor Designer Assistant Editors Distribution

Jamie Dunn GFF Box Office Ana Hine Order tickets from the box office at Nathanael Smith Patrick Harley or call 0141 332 6535 Franchesca Hashemi or visit Graeme Campbell Glasgow Film Theatre Jennifer Clews 12 Rose Street, Glasgow, G3 6RB

Thankyous: Thanks to the whole of GFT Towers for putting up with our ugly mugs for ten days. A special thanks to Kirstin, Gavin, Oriana and Nav for sorting out our ticket and interview requests, and to Julie, Jane, Dawn and Craig for sorting us out with printing and images.


The CineSkinny Issue 11  

Sunday 2 March

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