"Am I keeping you from something?", she asks one. "Do you live alone?", she asks another. Sitting on both hands, I gingerly watch Scarlett Johansson's alien character in Jonathan Glazer's 'Under The Skin' pry into the comings and goings of unsuspecting men - who slip away with the slightest of chance. Gingerly not because I'm sure of what's to come, but because of the lingering dread, manifest in the sound. Mica Levi's work on 'Under The Skin' is not a film soundtrack neatly arranged scene-by-scene, but a sonic landscape in tandem with the desolation Johansson becomes trapped in. It's a tour-de-force for the Londoner, and one of the most arresting science fiction films I've seen in years.
Drum beats feel like stifled breaths; a near-constant, high-pitched ring and pit-of-the-stomach growl laced through the rattle of her van, as she trawls Glasgow's streets with a deep, steely gaze. Glazer's film has been called "a cult classic" in the making by some, a "masterpiece" by others – and "laughably bad", too. Despite having invested so much time and effort in the score, Levi remains casual about the mixed reaction. "It's funny because, when we watched the film as a group in Venice, it got a really divided reaction of boos and cheers. I've mostly heard people being really positive about it though. It's got its own life now. It's great to hear that people are getting the film, and giving it time to sink in. You don't want to take people for a ride. People can smell bullshit. If you try and trick someone, or try and bend someone a certain way, they just fight back."
As it turns out, fighting back was a common theme in Levi's work, occasionally locking horns with Glazer. "There were of loads of fights, yeah – but in a great way, because that's what you've got to do. In that process, it really forces you to recognise what it is that you think that needs to happen, be able to explain why in four words, and get it together really quickly - or quite the opposite, and get proven wrong. But I feel like the musical language and the way it turned out was completely dictated by the film, and dictated by the sound". How did she find that language? "Well, the language kind of found itself, really."
Mica Levi's musical language is almost necessarily idiosyncratic; informed by formal composition training (put to work for the London Philharmonic Orchestra in her university days, and later as an Artist-in-Residence at London's Southbank Centre), yet with a glacial, forward-reaching edge that saw her work on Tirzah's I'm Not Dancing EP peg it as one of the most endearing underground pop records of last year. How did a karaoke-loving, casually-spoken pop songwriter end up composing one of the most experimental scores in recent Hollywood cinema?
"To be honest with you, I reckon I got it because when I went in there and, because I thought it was so far-fetched, I was quite relaxed. I was going for something that couldn't be any less likely, but I reckon they just needed somebody with an addictive personality. I know that, as we worked on it more and more, I felt like Jonathan (Glazer) and I saw eye to eye on the process. I was basically… a material generator." Having spoken to famed Glasgow post rock band Mogwai about their soundtrack work on French zombie TV series 'Les Revenants' last year – where the band were sent rough cuts of scenes, and built a soundtrack that was played, piece by piece, on-set during filming - I was curious as to how much Levi's "generated material" was executed in real-time, in tandem with the rest of the films production.
"When I came in, it was in its later stages of development. It was pretty much getting towards the final edit. There were a few adjustments of cuts of the picture for it to fit, but the actual process was still incredibly collaborative. I was working the studio with the in-house music producer, and there was a lot of discussion between the different departments. I saw John about three times a week, and we worked on it for months. He gave me a lot of guidance throughout." And what was his direction to you? "To follow her character in real-time. He had his ideas as to what he thought music should be, and I had to get really immersed into that. I had to relate to her; what feelings she might be having, and to think like her – ultimately, to do the right thing for her."
Johansson's performance in 'Under The Skin' is a subtle unravelling; of the inane, often desperate boredom of the traditional female routine, the male gaze as observer turned aggressor, and sexual self-discovery as underhand horror. Flesh is tactile, sure, but it's also a barrier. As men sink to their doom in Glazer's stunning netherworld skin wrinkles and loosens in sheaths, the body folding inward to leave what remains a ghostly cast-off. When that first body folds, the immense "crack" of sound nearly had me out of my own flesh. How did Levi compose such scenes – make the horrible absorbing, and Johansson's consummately difficult character endearing?
"Aesthetically, there was a lot of thinking about what we tend to consider (as an audience) 'fake', and what we consider 'real'. The instrumentation is percussion, live strings and synthesised strings, a little bit of flute and percussion too; trying to find a physical balance between these assumptions. For me, I felt that was important because there are many different dimensions of her character, and we had to guide that somehow. Her experience of love is not necessarily the same as a human's, and creating that in a "fake" way, or a slightly different way, was really important."
Thematically then, how did the soundtrack work through this – particularly in the tradition of science fiction film, where the overarching concepts of time and space are often the focus of the composition? "As far as I'm concerned, the cymbal rolls represent the cosmos; the planets, the powers beyond aliens and beyond people, the undeniable truth of it all. The fragmented, hustling, beehive material at the beginning of the film is meant to be the impossible alien energy that feels a bit uncomfortable to us; it has a lot of movement in it." It feels more grabbing that that though, I say. "It's relentless. It sounds powerful. The drums are her sex drive - or prowling, her hunger. The melody that comes in, it acts as her perfume. It's something that she puts on. She uses it to seduce these men. The swelling chords are her experiencing raw feelings. We used combinations of those throughout, to try and create an accurate representation of how it would feel to be her."
For such a loaded after-word, the soundtrack itself is very sparse. How did you draw all this out of a character, and remain as uncluttered (and evocative) as it does? "Well, the perfume melody kind of evolves out of this small thing I'd recorded and then improvised over. It was just doing my head in, but it got whittled down into something more precise. I'd say the confidence to cut back material in music and leave it sparse - without filling it up. Making everything too fast feels like you're getting too much information out."
For such a complex character, in a film that's dividing opinion so harshly too, what exactly is the information you want to get out about 'Under The Skin'? "You know, you might start off doing loads of sketches of one picture. You'll do a project on, I don't know - pint glasses. You'll draw a few pint glasses, and then you'll draw a pint glass in a pub. You'll do it in different places, and you might just end up just using the corner of the side of a pint glass; a series of 10 pictures of that alone, and that's what your material becomes defined into. It's half down to you, and half down to nature of the subject you're looking into. Working stuff out like that is how material gets defined. I would say just cutting things back; having cymbals come in and out being enough, or just having drums, not having too much material. Leave the air in it."
'Under The Skin' is in cinemas now.
You can follow Lauren Martin on Twitter here: @codeinedrums