If there’s one thing I have learnt from this weeks Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre’s Film Club screening is to never to except a lift from a beautiful women even if she looks a dead ringer for Scarlett Johansson! As you may have guessed the film I refer to is the latest outing from London film director Jonathan Glazer Under the Skin (2013).
Our master of ceremonies was Alec Barclay who had also agreed to take a Q&A. Alec enlightened us that he had first became aware of Under the Skin when he was told that an alien in the form of an A listed actress who closely resembled the afore mentioned Ms Johansson was filming in Wanlockhead, a place in South West Scotland were you normally only find tumble weed and sheep, so needless to say our host did not believe that an actress that had starred in two of his favourite films, Ghost World (2001) and the middle aged mans fantasy film Lost in Translation (2003), was wondering around the Lowther Hills! He went on to tell us that another local Dumfries and Galloway connection was that our RBC Film Officer Alice Stilgoe had rented a property that was adjoining a farmhouse that was used as the location where Johansson’s character took her victims. Her interest aroused she read the book and immediately wanted to leave the district!
As part of the introduction we learnt that this was Jonathan Glazer third feature film following his debut Sexy Beast (2000) a British crime drama that starred Ray Winston and Oscar nominated Ben Kingsley as Don Logan who was possibly the most psychopathic villain to appear on screen. His second film was Birth (2004) an American drama that starred Nicole Kidman and Lauren Bacall. But in some ways Glazer is better known for music video’s from the likes of Radiohead (Karma Police) Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Into My Arms) and Massive Attack (Karmacoma) and commercials for companies like Guinness, Stella Artois, Levis and the stunning Sony Bravia Paint (2006) which was filmed in Glasgow in and around a tower block that was due for demolition. One of Glazer’s skills is the ability of carefully adding pictures to music, which is why he is so successful in advertising.
It took Glazer about ten years to bring his and Walter Campbell’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s Scottish set novel Under the Skin to the screen. During that time it went through many drafts, several writers and was temporarily shelved. Alec concluded that in the end what we have is a very stripped down story about an alien being in a beautiful body preying on unsuspecting men who think they have got lucky.
A film is always appreciated by Film Club members and the RBC audience far more if it is accompanied by a question and answer session following the screening and as I have said before they are always the best nights and this one was no exception when we were fortunate to have David Taylor the Assistant Location Manager for the film whose company is based in Glasgow, Scotland.
David explained that the film took nearly a year to shoot and that other than the ‘black goo’ scenes the director wanted the film shoot entirely on location. As well as Dumfries and Galloway, various other Scottish locations were used including various places in and around Glasgow like Buchanan Galleries, the busy shopping centre where no one recognised Johansson, and outside Park Head the home of Celtic Football Club. But he did point out that sometimes it would be a lot cheaper to build a set rather than adapt an existing location. For this movie a lot of covert shooting took place using hidden cameras, non-actors and unscripted conversations seen when Johansson's character picks up men. A lot of the undercover shooting was done from the white van that she drives around the streets of Glasgow, in fact it was like a small studio packed with cameras and equipment. Although obviously permission from the people ‘featured’ had to be obtained, blanket releases were used for ‘non-featured’ scenes like the Shed Disco and the football crowd.
Alec took questions from the audience from which David gave us a further insight into what his job involved. Local knowledge was required in the first instance and then once the locations were agreed upon a lot of organising was to be done to allow the shoot to take place. Permission to film had to be obtained especially on private land and public parks, road closures arranged where required, public likely to be effected by the film and its equipment have to be informed. For this moderately budgeted movie there was a total crew of around 100, fifty of which would be on set at any one time. 18 out of the 32 Scottish local authorities were involved in some way. Generally, he told us, it was a purple patch for TV and films at present but the cash cow for filmmakers, which includes location work carried out by companies like his own, was in advertising. Most of his work is internal and can be anywhere from a council house up to a grand manor house but most importantly it’s the film crew base that dictates the radius of where you can film and this in turn is down to the films budget. He ended the discussion by saying that it was imperative that Scotland should have its own permanent film studios.
I do agree with what Alec said in his introduction that Under the Skin was no ordinary film and would not be to everyone’s taste, this included mine. Cards on the table - I am not a great science fiction fan, more into reality than fantasy but at least Glazer’s film was ‘grounded’ most of the time. By this I mean that it was set amongst modern day realism and highlighted the weakness of men who think with their penis and not with there brain and also it tried to make us believe that a visitor to our world would attempt to turn native for some reason. Although the alien had no feelings, leaving a baby to die in the most horrendous circumstances, she is happy to try a slice of chocolate cake! And on attempting sexual intercourse realises that the female species needs a vagina to successfully complete this operation, but that’s an alien for you - at least the ones that are sent to earth to prey on unsuspecting members of the male species!
Seriously, this is a very unsettling film that completely lacked humour (other than Tommy Cooper – your need to see the film!) and emotion. There were a couple of really disturbing scene’s, the one I have already mentioned with the baby on the beech and another which involved a facially disfigured man, Adam Pearson who suffers from the skin condition Neurofromatosis, which really left a bad taste. But it is an intelligent film with some rather distinctive cinematography and a very good performance from our female lead. The narrative raises two main questions which we the audience have to grapple with. The first is the obvious one: for what purpose did this person come to earth and why is it killing men, and the second is what’s the tie-up between the motorcyclist and the alien, questions that are never really answered. David Taylor described it as a ‘marmite film’ one that you will either like of hate! I must say that it’s never a good sign if I’m pleased that a movie has finished, but I would not go as far as saying I hated it, I just could not appreciate its entertainment value. Although since I have seen it I can’t get it out of my head!