Monday, July 31, 2017

A24 A-to-Z: #7. "Under the Skin" (2014)

Scene from Under the Skin
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Under the Skin
Released: April 4, 2014
Release Number: 7
Directed By: Jonathan Glazer
Written By: Michel Faber (Novel), Jonathan Glazer & Walter Campbell (Screenplay)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay 
Plot: A mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. However, events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery.
Major Awards: 2
BAFTA (Nomination)
-Best British Film
-Best Original Music (Mica Levi)

While having a strong 2013, A24 was having a bit of trouble with their second year. Enemy was a modest success on streaming services, but never caught the attention of the previous five movies. Then, through some strange cosmic force, their next film became possibly one of their best and most iconic films from early on. Director Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin was a story in which an alien woman (Scarlett Johansson) came to Earth and experienced an odd barrage of humanity. With trailers marking Glazer's third film as "An heir to Kubrick," the stakes were high, and the studio's artiest gamble yet continued to prove just how much they were willing to trust artists with telling their own story. It was provocative and, more than any film before, was one of their first indelible marks on pop culture.

Like most A24 films, Under the Skin was a long gestating project that took years to finally finance and release. However, Glazer had everyone beat when it came to length. Following the release of his debut movie Sexy Beast in 2000, Glazer became enraptured with adapting Michel Faber's "Under the Skin." He didn't actually begin working on it until after his second film, Birth, in 2004. Writer Jim Wilson was scheduled to originally write it and wrote a faithful adaptation. The only issue is that Glazer claimed that he "Didn't want to film the book" and that he wanted to "Make the book a film." Milo Addica replaced Wilson before Glazer finally landed on Walter Campbell. Their eventual screenplay looked to follow a family of aliens exploring Earth including a character played by Brad Pitt. The production took too long, and thus it was totally scrapped.

Glazer's screenplay would eventually focus on a singular alien, a female, who visits Earth and witnesses humanity. In order to get the desired effect, Glazer claimed that he cut the special effects budget, believing that it would be like "A big, extravagant rock band turning into PJ Harvey." While he did use some effects, the setting was largely natural. This included building a black room that featured a reflective floor using blackout and custom lighting. The actors were filmed walking into a pool whose floor sank. Likewise, the staff built some of their own cameras. There was also heavy use of hidden cameras in and around the van that Johansson drove throughout the entire movie, allowing her to interact with non-actors without making something that felt distracting. Besides Johansson, there were only two other hired actors in the production: road racer Jeremy McWilliams (who was selected due to his ability to ride a motorcycle at high speed in bad weather) and Adam Pearson. Pearson was selected through charity group Changing Faces for his facial appearance. Glazer didn't want to use prosthetic make-up and chose Pearson because of his neurofibromatosis. 

Johansson was picked in small part because of her recognizable name. Because the film was risky, Glazer believed that he needed a big enough name to get audiences' attention. Having recently starred in a variety of successful superhero movies like Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, she was the closest the film had to a recognizable star. Glazer also commented that while she was attractive, she had an alien physicality to her that fit the role. She adopted an English accent for the role. They filmed in Scotland with a lot of the scenes being heavily improvised. At one point, she filmed a scene that required her to fall over. A paparazzi cameraman caught the image, and it became a popular meme due to its comical appearance. Adding a layer of mystery to the film, the credits don't list any of the actors or non-actors who appear in the movie. 

In a bold move, Glazer sought out composer Mica Levi for the film. Having listened to her collaboration with London Sinfonietta ("Chopped and Screwed"), he told the 26-year-old that he wanted the music to express alien feelings. He wanted the music to express the reaction to food, sex, and even bad jokes. It had to be a bit stilted and perverse. Levi turned to using viola and over 10 months composed the score with influence from Giacinto Scelsi, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, and music played in strip clubs. She altered the pitch to make it uncomfortable, with some describing it like nails on chalkboards. It was a physical and alarming score that lead her to a career in film composing that included an Oscar nomination for her work on the Jacqueline Kennedy biopic Jackie, again with major acclaim.

The film premiered at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival and would also be screened at the 70th Venice International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. The film's acclaim came quickly after with many praising its weird and stunning visuals. They praised Johansson's out of character performance, which was quiet and reserved compared to her work in The Avengers. Despite the press, memes, and trailers that compared Glazer to Stanley Kubrick, the film was considered a box office failure. In the United States, it opened with $140,000 on four theaters, earning the highest per-screen average of that week (even against Johansson's more successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Beyond that, it failed to earn back its $13.3 million budget, earning $7.2 million worldwide. Still, with a score of 85% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, it was a film that at least had the critical backing that would lead to several end of the year Top 10 lists as well as various Best of the 21st Century lists. 

Despite not winning, Under the Skin did receive a Best British Film and Best Score nomination at the BAFTAS, the highest honor to that date that an A24 release had received. The film's cryptic nature has lead many to question what the film is truly about. Glazer has left it open to interpretation, and has resulted in a barrage of opinions. Some think that's about the female gaze while others see it as exploring themes of immigration, isolation, and human identity. The only thing that Glazer has said was that he wanted it to be seen more as a human experience than a gender based one. While its legacy hasn't been necessarily large beyond art house circles, Under the Skin's famous black room scene has been paid homage to by Netflix nostalgia series Stranger Things, which uses a very similar minimalist effect for horror. 

While 2014 was looking to be a rough second year for A24, the studio was at least achieving a weird niche in its art house entertainment with Under the Skin. The film marked an interesting turn for Johansson, who would go on to play robotic figures in films like Her and Lucy. For the studio, it showed how experimental and niche their films could be, proving that they weren't just about using buzzwords to get attention. While the "Scarlett Falling Down" meme helped marketing, it was the film itself that impressed audiences and kept them thinking about the film long after it was over. While it was an impressive feat in independent cinema, the next film was no easy task either. In fact, it stripped away everything inessential about the story and left Tom Hardy driving a car in what is essentially a one man play as he drives home from work, taking important calls on the way. Much like Under the Skin, Locke is way better than it sounds.

Up Next: Locke (2014)

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