The hunger

Jonathan Glazer on his eerie, haunting alien tale 'Under the Skin'

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM At the moment, Scarlett Johansson is playing a superhero in the world's top blockbuster. Her concurrent role in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin — the gorgeously crafted tale of an alien who comes to earth to capture men, but goes rogue once her curiosity about the human world gets the better of her — could not be more different in story or scope. There's also the matter of its edgy presentation of its usually glamorous star.

"My first instinct was to cast an unknown. Somebody who nobody was familiar with," Glazer (2000's Sexy Beast) admits on a recent visit to San Francisco. But once he decided to film the alien's "pick-up" scenes — in which Johansson's unnamed character cruises around Glasgow in a nondescript van, prowling for prey — using hidden cameras and real people off the street, he changed his mind. Casting a famous face became a subversive choice that perfectly serves Under the Skin's disconcerting tone. "With that methodology of shooting, the surveillance with [Johansson in] disguise, and filming in the world as it was — the idea of Scarlett at the center of that, like an insect on the wrong continent, was a perfect storm of ingredients. We were well aware of how striking that would be."

Her camouflage, which includes a dark wig, thickly-applied lipstick, and a fur jacket that immediately feels iconic, was carefully calibrated. "We didn't want her to be too conspicuous. She needed to be just the right kind of conspicuous. It couldn't be too overt," Glazer explains. "The costume designer came up with what I thought was a very clever idea, which was [to clothe Johansson] like someone who's immigrated recently to a new country and hasn't quite learned the nuances of the way people dress. So everything was just very slightly off. And obviously we were trying to de-familiarize Scarlett. Very simply, the hair color was something that was very un-Scarlett. The makeup was very film noir-ish. It was a kind of a uniform."

Johansson was so unfamiliar-looking that she was rarely recognized. Glazer and his crew kept their distance whenever she interacted with strangers, but they had to act fast once the "scene" ended. "Let's say for instance she was going to go talk to that girl in the purple hoodie," Glazer says, gesturing toward a woman nearby. "And we were filming it, covertly, and then Scarlett leaves. We'd have to then go up to the girl and say, 'We've just been filming you. Can we get your permission [to use it]?' She might already be outside and getting into a taxi, so you'd have production assistants running after people sometimes."

Only a few of Johansson's targets declined to participate once the setup was revealed. And though it's easy to tell which men were pre-cast (hint: the naked ones), the scripted and improvised scenes flow together seamlessly. "We worked very hard to get the unity of those ingredients right and make the texture feel like the real world," Glazer says.

Johansson's character also gets naked, in scenes that will likely be among the film's most talked-about moments. ("Seeing Scarlett Johansson Naked Got Under My Skin," worried a blogger for Elle — a glossy mag that's featured the star in uber-primped mode in its pages. The reason? Johansson's unclothed body is remarkably, well, normal-looking.) "We certainly talked about the nudity in the film, but I wasn't overly concerned about it," Glazer insists. "What was important was that nothing in the film could be coy. We couldn't be shy of anything. [Johansson's] bravery as an actress needed to match the bravery of the character. It was all in the service of that — and she's very fearless in it. The camera doesn't get excited by her physicality, her sensuality. It's very anatomical. In a way, I think she reclaims her image in this film."

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