“We took years to get there and suddenly it was obvious.”

Have you seen the latest Jonathan Glazer film, Under The Skin? I can’t recommend it highly enough. Glazer is undoubtedly the best commercials director of his generation and, for my money, he’s starting to look like the best film director too. Sexy Beast is one of the smartest gangster movies ever: seriously off-beat but utterly watchable. Birth was totally under-rated. And I’d go as far as to say that Under The Skin is a stone cold masterpiece.

I’m a big fan of Michel Faber, the writer of the novel that the film’s based on – if you’re not familiar with his left-field kind-of-sci-fi writing, I highly recommend it (especially The Fahrenheit Twins). Glazer has taken the bones of his novel and turned it into a brilliantly weird experience: strange, mind-boggling, compulsive and totally unique. Aside from urging you to see it, what I wanted to write about on here was the fascinating process behind the film and two interesting creative insights I gleaned from reading about it.

Glazer worked on the project for over a decade. With different writers he developed various treatments and narrative ideas but none that ever felt right. At points in the extended development period, various actors – including, early on, Brad Pitt – were attached to the project. The actors came and went but Glazer never felt he had something he was happy with, he never felt he’d cracked a way of telling the story. “I said I was giving up many times,” he said in an interview recently.

Then, after a decade of false starts, wrong turns and countless versions of the story, he (along with Walter Campbell) finally worked out what he was trying to do: he wanted to make a film that represented a completely pure vision of an alien view of our world. “We took years to get there, and suddenly it was obvious.” I thought this was a great example of the way creativity works: an itch that needs to be scratched, no easy answers, the breakthrough always seeming just beyond reach…and then, when it comes, it seems so blindingly simple. It’s also a reminder never to let go of those ideas that you just know can be great…once you finally work out the right angle to take on them.

The other thing that amazed and inspired me was that despite his obsession with the project and how difficult it’d been to work out what he wanted to do, when it came to bringing it to life, Glazer was remarkably open. After battling with the story for years, finally cracking the approach and getting the script down, you’d think he’d want to painstakingly control every element of the production. But he took the opposite approach.

Scarlett Johansson was on board as the alien who cruises Glasgow in a white van picking up blokes who she mysteriously sucks the lifeforce out of, presumably to send back to her home planet as food. To create the eerie realism he was after, Glazer came up with the idea of using non-professional actors filmed (without their knowledge) with hidden cameras; Johansson would pull up and improvise her seduction while Glazer and the crew were hidden in the back. This, in itself, was a highly risky approach. (Would the blokes recognise her? Would they suspect it was a set-up? Would the footage just be crap?) But to multiply the risk factor still further, despite his producer’s protests, Glazer refused to book professional actors as a back-up. They’d either get great stuff with the hidden camera approach or they’d get nothing at all.

Glazer’s insistence on getting real footage left the entire process completely open to the magic of chance. Which he completely embraced. And, in fact, not only did he embrace it, he started to think it could be a better way to tell the whole story; he started to wonder if this material could be better than the script he’d spent a decade developing. Reflecting on this, he said: “I said to Jim (the producer), Let’s dump the last two-thirds of the script and stay in the van. Because I loved the idea of leaving the door open to reality. The surprises. The treasure.”

When I think about it, Glazer’s entire career – and in a way, all great creativity – is about ‘staying in the van’. Relinquishing an element of control and staying open to possibility. Being prepared to deviate from the plan, being open to interesting chances and changes that pop up along the way. It’s difficult to do because I think we’re hard-wired to hang onto things we’ve invested time in and there’s a sense of safety in sticking to the plan. But it often leads to better work than we ever thought possible. If you want proof of that, watch Under The Skin.

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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