Did Scarlett Johansson really walk around Scotland unnoticed filming 'Under the Skin?'
"Under the Skin" finally arrived in theaters this past weekend and, happily for moviegoers, A24 Films were rewarded for their gutsy acquisition of Jonathan Glazer's transcendent film. "Skin" grossed $140,000, or $35,000 per screen in just four theaters, in New York and Los Angeles. It's the second-highest limited per-screen of the year after "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and quite impressive considering A24 did it almost completely via old-fashioned publicity and word of mouth.
More art film than thriller, "Skin" was my #2 movie of 2013. It haunted me for weeks on end after I saw its world premiere at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival and it forced me to switch my criteria for my end of year top 10 list (viewing year vs. release year). It also features the most impressive and transformative performance of Scarlett Johansson's career.
Johannson got a lot more attention for playing the Black Widow once again in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," but cinephiles will remember her role in "Skin" for years after the Marvel blockbuster is long forgotten. Up until now you could argue there were three roles she was best known for: the bored young wife in "Lost in Translation," the somewhat unhinged mistress in "Match Point" and, most recently, the voice of Samantha in Spike Jonze's "Her." We can add the alien hunter masquerading as a beautiful seductress in Glazer's film to that list.
[Quick interlude: I spoke to Johansson a little over a week following the film's debut at Telluride, during the Toronto Film Festival. At the time I believed it to be a bad interview. Johansson seemed unsteady talking about the film. It was almost as if she hadn't gotten her mind around the finished product, which she'd only just recently seen. Considering how bold and artistic Glazer's film is compared to even Johansson's other indie work, it made sense in context. I had planned to just pull a quote or two if I could to include in a piece based off a chat I'd had with Glazer last week. Instead, looking over the transcript, I realized her answers were much more interesting than how she, um, delivered them.]
Glazer says the idea of casting Johansson was dictated by the semi-improvisational methodology they came up with to make the movie. The production used a lot of guerrilla filmmaking and hidden cameras to bring a sense of realism to the alien's hunt. Johansson was made up to look seductive with a hairstyle that made her somewhat unrecognizable from the thousands of red carpet photos taken of her over the years, but not drastically. For many of the shots Johansson drove a huge van around Glasgow, Scotland (more on that from her POV later) attempting to pick up young men who are suitable candidates for the alien's mission.
"A lot of people that she meets early on or she's looking at, and in fact one of them happily gets in the van, they didn't know they were being filmed," Glazer reveals. "We told them that they were being filmed after we filmed them. So there was a genuine hunt. It was a real engagement. It was a real hunt. We're just filming her making the selections."
The storyline has Johansson walking all over the city and neighboring countryside. While some smart onlookers figured out what was going on, the use of those hidden cameras kept things very quiet. Glazer says very few people recognized the "Avengers" star driving around their fair city "seemingly" by herself.
"We got away with it because people weren't really expecting to see her, so it wouldn't have occurred to them that she'd be driving around looking like that," he says. "She wasn't looking familiar in a way that people would recognize her, so the van is a big distraction and the fact we're shooting Glasgow and all, you know, very few times that anybody would feel that there's something up. The nightclub sequence, that's all shot with hidden cameras. There's no extras. That's a real nightclub on a Friday night. The shopping center, that's a real shopping center on a Saturday afternoon. This is all just real life that we're covertly filming her walking through this."
Many of Glazer's peers are no doubt in disbelief that he was able to get away with it for so many shooting locations in this age of global celebrity with a star like Johansson. And yet, six months earlier Johnasson confirmed it. Speaking of Johansson and that earlier conversation…
HitFix: What did Jonathan say to you that prepared you for the journey of this film? Because it's not a traditional shoot, I imagine, in any sense of the word.
Scarlett Johansson: I don't think either one of us were prepared for what we would encounter. And I think that was really to our benefit because we were both kind of thrust into many circumstances that we didn't know exactly what to expect. And, you know, one of the things that was most valuable to me, that I took away from it and that I kind of continue to work on as an actor and something that I think continues to excite me, is this idea of the challenge of not anticipating anything and not having any expectations. I think that can be a very liberating [experience]. It's just a lot of work to get there.