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Creating an Alien Score

Under the Skin
11 July 2014

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is one of the films to have seduced the critical establishment this year, the film in the ascendency to become one of modern cinema’s framed masterpieces that is if films were indeed framed and displayed on the walls of art gallery exhibits.

In the aftermath of the theatrical release and in anticipation of the home entertainment release, The Fan Carpet‘s Paul Risker had the privilege to go under the skin of the film with composer Mica Levi. She shared with us her thoughts on her early musical inspiration, the place of music in film, technique and her apprehension of continuing down the road of film composition.



Why a career in music? Was there that one inspirational moment?

There have been a few moments, but since I am from a musical family I have always been interested in music. I studied it quite intensively from a young age, and so it has always been in the background. But the moment I realised that I wanted to change musical direction; to write rather than to play and perform was when I was a teenager, and I made a piece on the computer.

As I say there have been lots of moments, and I am always exploring music, and so Under the Skin was certainly a milestone in my life experience so far.


This is your first film composition. From before to after how did the experience compare to your expectations of the process?

It’s difficult to say, and as this was my first time I don’t have much to go on. But I have the impression that this was quite one off in a sense that there was a lot of freedom.

The film was interesting because it took on its own life; it had its own work ethic and its own system. Alongside everyone else who was involved in the film, despite their experience they were working on something they hadn’t quite done before, and so it was a unique experience to write the music for the film. But as far as how you go about it, what the rules are and what is expected of you, I doubt it’s ever the same.


A musician recently explained to me that whenever you return to a piece of music you are still learning and relearning, and so one can never approach it with an impression of total understanding.

You change as well. You’ve a perspective on it, but then something will change how you think about things, and so it means that your perspective on the piece is different. Everything is constantly in flux. But then that’s how you want it to be – you wouldn’t want it any other way, although it is also rather scary at the same time [laughs].


It is argued that the horror genre is the one that relies most heavily on sound, although throughout film sound is important as it becomes a character in itself. From the outset of Under the Skin the music announces itself as a leading character in the drama that is set to unfold.

A lot of the film is witnessed, and from my perspective it seems that the music puts you into the space of her senses. Music is something that is not actually happening; it’s on a different level of reality. The sound design of Under the Skin is so unusual – it is thick and full on. We are used to hearing sounds of people taking bins out, cars going past, people chatting and things scraping along, and so you just start to ignore them because they are a part of the every day. But what happens in this film is that they are all brought to the forefront. Whereas they are usually cleaned away you are instead offered an awareness of how unpredictable, wild and chaotic sound in the world actually is – certainly in the city. Although the sound is extra realistic it is so unpolished that it aids the presence of the space by working along with it. As you say the music is a character, and here it is a sort of observation that is intended to follow her through the experiences that she is not talking about. The music is therefore what she’s feeling and projecting along the way.


During a recent interview, a filmmaker remarked to me that he was once advised to always leave room for the music. It is an intriguing point about the need for musical space within a predominantly visual medium.

I was brought onto the film when it was in its latter stages, which is important because it already had its identity and tone. From my perspective it is more interesting and generous to explain that you have music there and to allow for it to have a moment to happen. But it’s down to the person writing the music to try to understand the pace of the film, the structure and the form of it within the writing process, because it does come afterwards. So it is down to your communication with the director, and your understanding and studying of the film.



What influenced your musical approach to the film?

As I knew this was my first time writing music for film, I was aware that my lack of knowledge in terms of studying for any filmic experience was what was going to be useful. No doubt twentieth century music and everything I have listened to and studied in my life, as well as the films that have left an impression on me. But I tried not to look at films too much, other than to remember what I found interesting about the strength and clarity of vision, and what I thought was particularly good. But a lot of influences strayed away from filmic composers. When she starts to experience euphoria there’s a lot of thinking and rushing and so therefore a lot of euphoric dance music and older club hits was part of it, and then strip club music. The scene where she lures in the men is mid-2000s Dr. Dre and Bollywood influences. Those were the main ones, though the other main thing that you hear at the beginning was supposed to be a beehive. I was writing it on the viola, and that was using a lot of techniques that were developed through the mid-twentieth century and into the seventies. I guess what I’m saying is it probably ends up sounding like a lot of things, but those were the ways in which we got to it through the more visual elements.  


There is a school of thought within storytelling that you should stay away from creative influences, the reason being that they can intrude on the creativity or work of the individual. What are your thoughts on this discussion?

I think that you should separate yourself from influence, and ideally be as abstract as possible. It is more of a satisfying process unless you can go through the motions and work on it thoroughly until you get to the end result. If you look at something and you reference it, it is a bit easy and insincere. It’s not necessarily going to be the right thing to do, and it depends on the structure that you are using. I just think the approach that you take to writing or making something can be the same if you are in tune with the way that you do things – you’ll score a goal how you score a goal; you’ll make a chair how you make a chair. You’re still adhering to a template because what you want from the chair is to be able to sit on it, and I guess you’ve looked at a lot of chairs, and you have some idea of what it’s going to be like. But the way you come up with it is going to be different to the next person, and so it is about having confidence in your errors and first instinct; that your beginner’s luck can cut you a part. But if you are doing something that is not as specific, if you are filling a structure, and even if you are writing something abstract then you are moving towards some kind of shape. You are still being influenced by the idea, the structure because you think of other things that have those shapes. It’s a s*** feeling if you rip someone off and nobody wants to do that. You might end up doing it, but most people will arrive there with a thought from a way that feels more like they felt it, otherwise it’s just stealing.


Having completed your first film score are you looking to film composition as a more significant part of your musical output?

I would say sparingly if at all. To be honest I don’t have much of a plan, and I like to keep it that way – it’s for the best. If I started working on films I’d get locked into a pattern, and this experience took a lot out of me. It was an immersive experience and we’ve only just finished. But as I’m still talking about it with you, I guess it’s not quite finished even now. I was also lucky meeting John [Glazer] because we worked well together, and so maybe I’ll wait until he does another film [laughs].


One of the things about artists is that as superstitious as they can be, so too can they be their own worst critics. Looking back do you feel content or are you contemplating how you’d have scored it differently today?

Well when the film first premiered there were lots of those thoughts going through my head. But now because I have a certain amount of distance from it there is the feeling that there is nothing I can do about it, and so you just have to live with it. It’s not yours anymore; it’s basically nothing to do with you, and it’s out there in the world for other people. I don’t even think about it – you’ve just got to move on. I think that not only do you have criticisms but you also go off work that you have done. You don’t always necessarily wear the same clothes all your life – you go through phases, interests and you have to be at peace with the fact that you might have done something that you don’t like really. It’s nothing to do with you, and if you are going to put it out there then you have to risk it.


You spoke of Under the Skin as a milestone? How do you think this experience has influenced you creativity?

I learnt a lot about handling structures, and it was a funny one because I learned so much; I had an immersive and intense working experience and yet I feel that I can’t remember how to do any of it. It was quite a wild thing to experience; it was a big piece of work, and I would never have expected to have done it. It was a lot of work and I’m proud of it, and so that’s why I say that it feels like a milestone.



Under the Skin Film Page