Mica Levi on Creating the Sonic Universe for Jonathan Glazer’s Otherwordly New Film

Scoring a film is a delicate task. The job of the composer is to sweep us into the sonic world of the picture, allowing us to feel in tune with the characters and in the proper mindset of the story’s narrative themes, while not manipulating our emotions and ultimately serving to enhance the director’s vision. But when a film is given so much space for silence, and explores both literal and metaphorical worlds of alienation, such a feature calls for a score drenched in atmosphere—one that will impress itself deeply into the bones of the film and create a psychological landscape in which to experience the film through. And with Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited follow up to 2004’s Birth, the visually-stunning and masterfully-crafted existential science fiction wonder Under the Skin, the film’s score holds you captive from the very start—as  if another character itself, luring you in deeper and deeper into Glazer’s haunting world.

Based on Michel Faber’s 2000 novel, Under the Skin penetrates the world of an extraterrestrial woman of unknown origin (played by Scarlett Johansson) who drives through isolated highways and city streets searching for men to seduce and prey on, then drag back to her unearthly lair of unknown darkness. And as tactile as the film is in its colors and textures, Mica Levi’s incredible score is just about as stimulating and psychologically tickling as you can get. With its schizophrenic swirl of ominous sounds, Levi has created an otherworldly hybrid between the likes of Angelo Badalamenti, Bernard Hermann, and Vangelis. Previously known for her band Micachu & The Shapes, Levi has been creating experimental music across all genres, but Under the Skin marks her first foray into film composing—and it’s a hell of a first go at it.

Last week, I got on the phone with Levi to chat about her introduction into the world of Jonathan Glazer, the process of discovering the film’s proper tone, and the intense nature in which she brought the score to life.

How did Jonathan approach you about scoring the film? Had you been a fan of his work prior?

They wanted someone with a different kind of personality. And I lived nearby, so I was able to come in all the time. I reckon I got the job because I basically didn’t have anything to lose. But I didn’t realize that I had grown up with loads of his ads on the TV. They really stuck in my mind and were really classic—if I mention some of the ads he’s done, my friends would be like, no way, that’s crazy. They were really different ads, and it’s interesting to see that approach on TV. So it really sticks out in your memory. But anyway, I realized I did know a lot of his stuff, and then I checked out loads of his work and I love it.

How did you two work together on creating the score and how you wanted the sonic world of the film to feel? Did he show you the completed film before you began?

He showed me the film where it was at, it wasn’t finished yet, but it had a beginning and an end—the form was getting worked out. But we talked about it everyday. We talked about technicalities and trying to achieve what he was going after, and then the bigger picture, the bigger idea of the film. It kept on changing and he kept rediscovering what the fuck was going on and trying to keep that accurate—not to put too much onto it, not to bullshit or fool anyone. I reckon some people might perceive that the film might be trying to not let you in, but it was trying to be very accurate about what was going on without being over-explained, without being fooled into something that wasn’t really happening. So we talked about it all the time, and Jonathan’s full of metaphors and finds a way to say the same thing in seven different ways.

This is a much different sound than the music we’ve heard from you before, so how did you take the themes and ideas Jonathan expressed and transpose that into music? It’s very haunting and repetitious which really lulls you into it, like the way she lures in her victims. 

It’s weird, I was trying to think about it like, even if it ends up sounding like loads of shit, I was into trying to do fake romantic music on synthesizer strings. I like synth strings because in contrast to musicians, it’s completely accurate—you can play forever, you can hold down a chord on these MIDI strings and you hold it down and it’s going to go on forever. A person with a bow can do the length of the bow and back again, and you can try and make those changes smooth, but it’s not the same homogenous, continuous thing. I find that continuous string thing is the similar uncanny valley experience of her not being quite right, not quite human—whatever she’s striving for.

That fake real thing to me, that’s the same, uncanny valley, like something slightly not right. It was a mixture of real strings and synthesized strings and percussion. There were a lot of cymbal rolls in there, and the cymbal rolls technically also act as a kind of glue. It goes on and is the undeniable thing that carries on. It doesn’t say too much, it doesn’t say too little it just goes on, like the kind of environment that she’s in. She’s on the planet, you know, it’s not doing anything to her and she’s not doing anything to it, but it’s part of the story as well.

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I imagine scoring a film is a much different creative experience than writing music for yourself and requires using a different artistic muscle. How did that differ for you and did Jonathan give you a lot of freedom to play around with it and experiment?

Yeah, loads of freedom—otherwise, he would have got somebody who knew what they were doing to do something that was functional. He gave me loads of freedom and told me to write music away from the picture. He told me to write what I wanted and what felt right, and then by learning the film and studying it and getting thorough with it, it kind of worked out its tone. It took me a while to understand where Jon was coming from and get into his head and know where it was going, but then the tone came from that, the right kind of feeling, the right stuff. I just had to give it a go, I just had to go on my instincts. That’s kind of what I was looking for, and I guess that’s how anyone writes music really, but just attempting to be in line with Jon and the sound and to have the same vision.

Was scoring a film something you’d been hoping to do, or did this just happen upon you and you were up for the challenge?

I was just called up about it, I hadn’t thought about it. It’s not something I’d been aspiring to particularly.

For a film that’s so sparse in dialogue and all about creating this visceral and psychological atmosphere, the music really becomes like another character in the film. Was that intimidating at all for you, knowing your work would play such a large role?

I didn’t know what I was doing going into it, I started with everything and had to get to know it. I didn’t have time to worry about it, because it was just straight to work. It was as if we only had a day to do it and then ten months later it ends—that what it was like. It was so intense and we got on with it so quick. What was going on clicked further into the process. It’s weirder now, to be honest. When I was working on it, I just went into a room and did it, and it was just what I was living and thinking about all the time and kind of getting obsessed with it. And now, I’m standing around talking about it. It feels really weird, you know? I didn’t even really tell anyone I was doing it, it was just going on—but this is when it’s intimidating.

Were there any scores or artists you looked to for inspiration, even if their work is vastly different from what you composed?

I guess this score is quite traditional in the way that themes are used. But in terms of what I listen to…I like Chinatown, that has an amazing soundtrack. And a lot of the ‘50s and‘60s sounds, and then the ‘40s and ‘50s romantic incidental music that was going on in the films. Also Bernard Herrmann, who really kind of nailed that in Vertigo and all of those amazing film scores. But I’ve got more of a wealth of knowledge, or I at least listen to more classical music that film composers base their music on.

 

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