On my way up the side of the mountain to the Chuck Jones Theater in the unlit gondola that serves as Telluride's free public transportation, I watched a small cluster of lights recede beneath me, reminding me that Telluride is a tiny bubble in the middle of nowhere, really. Riding at night, all you hear is the whirr of the gondola's gears and the whisk of wind whipping through the wires and trees. I was on my way to meet a good friend I only see once every two or three years, if that--she having just arrived after a day of delays and missed connections, me still acclimating to being back in the saddle, actively covering a festival I'd last attended in 2002. It was a hurried reunion: a quick hello, and then we were seated for what was, for me, the one film I felt I could not miss at this festival. Truly, I can't imagine a better way to have seen Under the Skin for the first time.
During the screening, we counted the number of walkouts. I began to note the "flex" points that caused people to huff and abandon what was, to me, the one genuinely challenging film of a well-curated and revered festival. Male nudity was a big one; physical disability another. My friend convinced me to stick around for the Q&A--something I tend to avoid, because at Q&As filmmakers are politely subjected to questions like, "What happened?" and, "What was it like to work with Scarlett Johansson?" The people who ask these things make me uncomfortable since, frankly, there isn't that much gulf between them and me, though I like to believe there is. Afterwards, I shook hands with Mr. Glazer, and asked him for a meeting; about 14 hours later, there we were at Telluride's historic Sheridan Bar and Hotel for an hour-long conversation as it rained gently outside and, behind us, some kind of party was starting. Of everything I have to be grateful for, it's this reminder to not be such an asshole all the time; good things come out of compassion and patience.
Mr. Glazer is slim, tall, and extremely gracious and kind. I don't know what I was expecting--maybe someone more bellicose, given the uncompromising nature of his Birth and now Under the Skin; maybe it's just the lingering image of a Bob Hoskins-type after the bombast of his first film, Sexy Beast. I think I expected him to not be able to communicate what it was that he does in his films that so attaches and lingers. I was intimidated, truth be known, but also exhilarated at the opportunity to sit across from the guy who directed Birth and who just made what is, for my money, the best movie of the year with Under the Skin. I asked if he needed a drink--he declined--and then I inquired about the birth imagery in his features, those images of submersion. I said, "subtext or subconscious?"
JONATHAN GLAZER: Subconscious, I would think--I'm surprised that you're able to find them in all my work. Even the water in the bank in Sexy Beast, yeah?
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Right, and in the
hole beneath the swimming pool--the one with the rabbit.
(laughs) My mother asked me once if she could have a version of Sexy Beast without the rabbit. I'll be honest with you--I didn't write that movie and I can't really remember right now what the deal was with the rabbit. It was in the script and we just went.
Too much to say that it's a chthonic
animal that represents fertility which is another of your subtexts?
(laughs) No, not too much to say, but not intended. The subconscious though, that's not something we control, is it.
If it's not intentional, then what
are the wells that you draw from?
Really, I'm very unschooled in film. I read a lot, I listen to a lot of music, I watch a lot of film--but I'm not very schooled, you know, or purposeful, or at least articulate about what it is that I want. I don't know what it is, really, you start with a feeling--I have to have a feeling--and that leads to an image and then I try to grow that image, to find other images that rhyme with that image, until I have the entire thing in my head and then it's just a matter of finding it in the world to express it. But it has to begin with one image and that image becomes obsessive to me. You ask me about the rabbit in Sexy Beast and I'm not being flippant when I say that I can't remember. I have something right in front of me (he cups his hands as if holding something) and that's all that I see. If you asked me right now about the shots in Under the Skin, I could probably tell you how we numbered them and their duration--but if it's not there in front of me, I move on and it's like it was someone else's.
Is it biological?
It's feeling and it becomes architecture. It's difficult to talk about, it's very difficult, I dunno--you're looking for that design that's there under the surface, yeah? You're looking for the images to show themselves, it's my own immersion. Sometimes when I'm working, it's definitely biological, it definitely is a feeling that comes, a bolt from nowhere--it can be like that--at any one time I feel like I have three films in my head that are just sort of lurking, there, waiting for something to click...
A switch to turn over?
Yeah, yes, almost like that, a switch that leads to an image that draws me into this immersion. It can be instant, it can take years...
"[Scarlett] wanted to play it, she was very aggressive about wanting this role. I think this was a very personal project for her."
Nine years between Birth and Under the Skin...
Nine years. It's hard to be articulate, I think, about things like creation. When I know what I'm doing, though, when I can define the problem, I can sort of think about that, and think about that, and think about that, that something. The hardest thing is when you don't have that connecting image, that entry, that thing, that language, even if it's a visual language. And then you're lost there, yeah? You're looking for that anchor around which you can build the rest of something.
What have been the inciting images
for Birth and for Under the Skin?
I think for Under the Skin it started with this image of a cipher, a mystery, at the middle of something familiar or something that we feel is known. The first time through, after my producer had given me a copy of the book it must've been ten years ago now, I read it and we did a script that was a very faithful adaptation of it. If you've read the book, it's really quite explicit about what's happening and the internal dialogue is very literal and narrative--it describes the hows of what she's doing and the whys of the meat harvesting. It's a different kind of story, and we wrote the script and it wasn't, right. It wasn't what the book was about at its heart, which was this question, this image, of something ordinary that at its heart was not, you know, not ordinary so much as not knowable.
You took on the perspective of the
I… I don't know that that's it. We wrote a second script, it wasn't right, and finally I collaborated with Walter Campbell and we talked and talked and talked it through--we threw away great pieces of it just because it wasn't right, it didn't fit with the image, it distracted from the image. I think the book is fantastic--but to keep all of it would not have been true to the image.
You speak of immersion--you do
multiple push-ins in your pictures: Are you inviting the audience to experience
the same kind of journey that you do?
I think so. I think that's it. Yes. You're trying to immerse, you're trying to pull them into it--to feel like... But, how, that's the question, how do you get there? How do you get them into the film, understanding the architecture of images there, experience it in that way--but you know I don't do any of that consciously, I think it's dangerous to even think about intention at all when you're doing it--it's about letting go, not a... Not a...
If you try, it comes out pretentious.
Exactly right. Exactly right. And you can't do it on purpose, not all of that, not when you're talking about images and looking at the world through that lens. [W]e really, Walter and I, for a long time we really worked and worked to drill down so that all that's left is really all that's relevant. But without that work you can't know--you have to feel it, it has to be that, you know, what you called it, biological understanding of what's relevant. We worked for like a year and then suddenly [snaps] twenty pages we toss out, gone, because it's not relevant and it took that time immersed in it to realize that we were chasing the wrong thing. You can become very attached to those things, it can keep you from pushing through.
Is that discovery process linked to
I'm sure it is, I'm sure it's linked into what they do, isn't it? They're searching, and they hold on, and when they let go, they push through. I like the idea of trying to put the character in a place that isn't cerebral. You hope that what works is the ability to go through to a place of honesty. It's not about hating her, or loving her, you know, it's about trying to find some kind of truth there.
Did you show Ms. Johansson the final
image of her character's "true self" to help her shape her
No image exists of her "true" self as you call it. And can't. The one seen in the film is no more than the next layer. One of many.
There's a genius there in the casting
It didn't take much to get her to play it--she wanted to play it, she was very aggressive about wanting this role. We tested a few others, but she expressed not just the passion but the vision to do it.
She's an object in life, in her
Yes, she's objectified and her character is objectified and the truth of her is unknowable--once Scarlett expressed that she was on board, all of those images began to come together--the film really grew around her. I think this was a very personal project for her.
"I don't set out to offend anyone or challenge anyone, really, I set out to challenge myself is all."
I want to ask you now about the scene
in Birth when you linger on Anna's face during
the Wagner opera...
Pivotal. It's the Anna before and the Anna after.
Yet she isn't the cipher in Birth.
No--the child, Sean, is the cipher.
How did that inform the way you
filmed him and how does that carry into the way you shot Ms. Johansson?
For Birth, I wanted the child to be very much insubstantial, to be offscreen as much as possible, even if he's in the room...
Like when he introduces himself
during the mother's birthday party.
Yes, the scene if I remember it (he puts up his hands in classic viewfinder position) you see the family there, there's Alison [Eliot] and Lauren [Bacall], and there's Anna, and when he comes in he's off camera--we're ahead of him, you hear Sean's voice but you can't see him. Yes. He's almost like he's haunting them, he's not real, he's not there, you don't see him until we pan left, yes, and Anna brings him into the kitchen. I remember that shot very well, I think what I was trying to achieve was that the first time he spoke I wanted him to be indefinite--to be dislocated from the body.
He's the mystery--yet Scarlett Johansson is
centre in almost every shot in Under the Skin.
Yes--Scarlett had the greater challenge of playing the cipher in plain sight.
You say that you're unschooled, that
you can't remember clearly previous projects, and yet you seem to have a
photographic memory for images and scenes.
(laughs) You asked early on if something was subtext or subconscious and when we talk I can do this, um, post-mortem on what's been done and begin to understand what it was that I was trying to do in hindsight, you know, but in the moment, you're relying fully on your instinct. You're looking at the shape of something, at the form of something, and decisions come out of looking at something sculpturally almost... You try almost not to look at it intellectually--in the moment, "intellectually" can kill it. No, I try... I do look at it intuitively. But you do have to formalize it at some point--you have to draw it, you have to show, you know, before lunch and after lunch, this is what we're shooting and what we're trying to achieve and show, you know, and you want them to feel it along with you to pull along with you so that hopefully you can communicate that through your images.
Is it all
I tell you what I do think about, I think about the joins of scenes--of motion, rhythm, movement, energy, how that passes from one scene to the next. I suppose that's less subconscious, but it's definitely something that I'm more intentional about.
Tell me about water in your films,
I'm interested in the elemental aspect of those places, I think, more than any of the Jungian implications. I'm not interested in the sublime so much as it's in those places I think that you see into the order of the image. The child on the beach in Under the Skin, that was to me more about what's happening with Scarlett's character--about how she's beginning to develop what seems like curiosity. It's a turning point in the film and I wanted it to be elemental, large, you know, set in this huge dispassionate universe, but mysterious and driven by the force of those large elemental images.
Themes of fertility in your films?
(laughs) I hope I don't disappoint you by saying that it's not intentional. I'm not playing a game or anything, there's not a thing where at the end of it all you discover that I've been playing at themes. For me it's not so intentional--any of it. It's not the end result, it's not the hope for a career. It's about the ideas, the images, the collaborations that I so enjoy--it's about this conversation, and the conversations that I have had and will have and the insights that it gives me about the image and the power of the image and the images that resonate. There are no bigger images, certainly, than those of birth and fertility--I'm drawn by them, clearly, and so are all of us I suspect. Images are intimate, you know, they can be really uncomfortable, personal.
Does that account for how people
initially respond to your films?
You don't do it for the satisfaction of the moment. You don't make it for them, or really for you or the people that you work for so much as you're really just looking for something great. Pushing. And it takes all of you to find that. You're pushing for… there's something great out there and you're pushing towards it and as long as you do that, you have nothing else to answer to.
There were multiple walkouts last night--a
sign of a great film.
(laughs) Stanley Kubrick told this story once of watching 2001 for the first time and he counted 118 walkouts. He accepted it. I set out to, you know, I don't set out to offend anyone or challenge anyone, really, I set out to challenge myself is all. I respect that at some point, people just reach a point where they say stop, enough. I certainly don't want to force the conversation. I had someone come up to me last night who was compelled to say how powerfully affected they were by the film and it meant a lot and it was not an endorsement really so much as, what is it--it's not about like minds, it's about just, you know, communicating with one other person.
It's about the immersion.
It's a great achievement to me to know that just one person, if it's only one, was drawn into these images like I was, that engaged in this conversation like I was. I just fear that superlatives are thrown around too often for films that aren't remarkable, you know, and the same words that describe that... I mean... How can you do that, because you use those words so much that they destroy meaning. I think public opinion is dilute and echoed now, that opinions are formed outside and then internalized, and suddenly it's no longer the beginning of conversations and there's no dialogue anymore. There's not enough conversation anymore, not enough communicating about the things that are hard and essential, and that's what it's all about, isn't it?