The most striking thing about Under The Skin isn't Scarlett Johansson driving around in a van picking up men on the street and taking them to her lair. Rather, it's the film's weirdly dispassionate viewpoint on some really upsetting scenes.
Io9 talked to director Jonathan Glazer about about the process that went into creating this film — in which he had Scarlett Johansson drive around Scotland with hidden cameras, trying to pick up random men who had no idea who she was. (The men were given release forms to sign afterwards.)
A lot of the people who appear in Under the Skin aren't actors. They're normal people who happen to be walking down a road minding their own business when a pretty lady pulls up alongside them and offers them a lift to Tesco — and then a film crew clutching disclaimers leaps out of the back.
At what point did Glazer tell his star: "Oh yes, by the way, Scarlett, we haven't really got any other actors. We're just going to cruise the streets and find them"?
According to Johansson, "That happened later on. And none of us knew how it was going to work."
They considered using prosthetics and other radical changes to disguise her, but in the end she's just wearing a wig, going around Scotland interacting with random people. And surprisingly, only a couple of people recognized her, especially after paparazzi had photographed her in that wig and coat just a week earlier and it had been in the Glasgow newspaper.
In this day and age, with social media, it would just take one person tweeting that Scarlett Johansson was at the mall, and it would be a mob scene. "But it just didn't happen," says Glazer.
"I think we just hid very well," he adds, meaning the camera crew. "We were well hid, and she was well disguised. It wouldn't occur to you to think of her up there [in Scotland], looking like that and driving a van. It wouldn't occur to you."
When people did recognize Johansson, "she just poker-faced, and said, 'No, no, not at all,' and just carried on talking," says Glazer.
But it was dicier when they had to film in big public places, like a Glasgow nightclub on a Friday night, with all its usual patrons dancing around. Or a shopping center in the middle of the day — Glazer needed to get a few different angles of Johansson walking, and so she needed to cross the nightclub a few times, "and after three or four people, there were people who were all pissed up, but they're all like, 'Who's that?' And then you realize that you haven't got long."
In the film, "Scarlett's character is made to attract men," says Glazer. "She performs that function. She's a machine, she's a tool, in a way." But a lot of the people she tried to pick up didn't respond "in the way you would expect if you were to write this as a piece of comic-book fiction. Scarlett Johansson pulls up, [and] in you get... some were suspicious. Some were wary. Some were frightened. You see a whole range of complexity of how men do respond to that scenario."
Glazer says he was committed to "experiencing things as [Scarlett] did, really — by being alongside her, by committing to her point of view." He wanted to be "with her, and away from the world. We felt the film would work like that if we stood apart, the film needed to stand alone."
A real-life birth defect
One of the most striking things in the film is when Johansson picks up a man with a birth defect — which is real, not special effects. That man isn't an actor, but a television researcher named Adam Pearson who has suffered from neurofibrosis from birth. In the film, Pearson's character is shy and traumatized, but in real life, "he's very funny, and very socially involved and an incredibly ballsy bloke," says Glazer.
But when it came to the scenes where people [Spoiler (click to open)]go inside the alien's lairwith Johansson, those scenes were story-boarded carefully and mapped out meticulously, since they involved visual effects.
This was about reclaiming Scarlett Johansson's sexuality
"She's objectified, often, for her sexuality [and] the way she looks," says Glazer. "We put that to a better use — she put that to a better use, I think — by reclaiming that in this film. And I think she actually de-eroticizes her image in this film, and reclaims it by doing so."
I have not been this excited about a new movie in a long time.