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Under The Skin: The Edit

Film4 Under the Skin

From 200 hours of raw material incorporating improvised scenes shot on hidden cameras, to a finished 108 minute film starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien hunting men in Glasgow - editor Paul Watts shares his thoughts on cutting together Jonathan Glazer’s critically acclaimed Under The Skin - buy the DVD or Blu-ray here.

On climbing into Jonathan Glazer’s head...

Jon and I have worked together for a number of years on many projects. I really enjoy the collaboration, and the process we go through. When you're spending all day, nearly every day, in a room with one person for an extended period of time, looking for shapes, patterns, solutions, going down cul de sacs for days on end, reversing out and looking for other routes, it makes such a difference to be doing that alongside someone with whom you share a common language.

Jonathan will not spend any time away from the cutting room. The knowledge gained from dead ends and mistakes is too valuable for him to miss. At one point, after three or four days of trying to crack one particular nut, I suggested we revisit something we had previously dismissed. His response was "Well Paul, if you want to lower yourself into a warm bath of expediency that's up to you mate." His bar is set pretty high.

This is obviously very much Jon's film. I think the biggest challenge for me, broadly speaking was to find the right way to facilitate the expression of what was in his head, but without simply being a button pusher. I guess the process was pretty much climbing inside his head for the duration, understanding as deeply as possible the endeavour, and working with him to achieve that. It comes back to that collaboration. It's quite a thing to be sat in the cutting room one minute and to find yourself in aisle eight of M&S the next, speaking very loudly about the latest concept, with no idea of how you got there. It really was all encompassing.

From 200 hours to 108 minutes...

We started by simply cutting each scene fully, as you do, but with well over 200 hours of material this took some time. The joining up of those scenes was a dark day, as weeks of work presented us with nothing more than a hundred short films joined together with a running time of nearly 2 and a half hours. The task from that point was to discover the tone, to find Laura and her alien perspective within the material, outside of the obvious narrative. Many of the scenes we'd worked on were discarded, and we started again from scratch, but with some knowledge of what was now required and a lot of knowledge of what was available. We got to know the material intimately.

I was originally shown a script that was significantly different to the shooting script with a number of other characters. I'm very pleased we made this film, rather than the one I read initially. Our growing instinct as we progressed the edit was to remain by Laura's side and whenever we strayed too far from her, we missed her.

We started organising, selecting, very roughly assembling during the shoot in Glasgow from mid October 2011 to mid-December. We then moved editorial to Elstree for the studio work for January 2012. Then onto our cutting room at Jonathan's studio in Camden from February to July. We then sort of semi/soft/paper locked (no one could agree on the term!) until October, when there was a week’s pick up in Glasgow. JB was progressing sound design while the edit was down from July onwards and somewhere in there Mica started on the music. We then opened the cut up again after the pick-ups and cut sporadically for.... some time... Having JB’s sound design and Mica's music cues were invaluable to our final editorial efforts. Editorial ran to about 12 months in total.

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"I was originally shown a script that was significantly different to the shooting script with a number of other characters. I'm very pleased we made this film, rather than the one I read initially."

On the improvised scenes...

The obvious improvisations were the conversations that took place in the van. Our first cut of Colin, the football supporter (the first guy she takes into the void) ran to about ten minutes, and ended up much shorter. We started by going through the content of the dialogue with the various cameras stacked up as picture in pictures. That way, if necessary we could very quickly scrutinise a front single, or front three quarter, or two shot etc. From here we crudely chopped a conversation together, and refined, and refined...

The final van scene with Lonely [Adam Pearson] went through a pretty lengthy revision process and the balance of Laura's instruction, interrogation, and Lonely's responses to her enquiries was a delicate one. For example, in an early draft, Laura tells Lonely "Take your hood off" once he's in the van, but ultimately, we ended up with Laura turning the heating on, and Lonely choosing to take his hood off. Lonely's choice to lower his hood, rather than doing so because he was commanded to do so was really important to how the scene played. This is one of many, many small decisions we were able to make in the balancing of various interactions as a result of having evolving conversations around carefully considered themes rather than tightly scripted / boarded set ups.

On sound design...

I've worked with Johnnie Burn and his team for years on many projects and we have built a great working relationship. His support during the editorial process proved to be invaluable, from an early library of abstract sonic madness, to all sorts of carefully catalogued wild tracks. Jonathan is not one to use temp music or temp sound design lightly. There are no crutches or props during the edit process! But JB’s carefully and thoughtfully supplied elements were of great help.

Similarly, Peter Raeburn was on hand to help with a number of temp music ideas that inspired some of our more hard to crack editorial decisions. The development of the beach scene was massively aided by a music idea from Pete that ultimately never saw the light of day. Similarly, the arrival at the beach, via the rear view mirror came about through a conversation with Johnnie Burn - having a team that have history together who don't simply focus on their own craft, but work together to find solutions for the film as a whole is invaluable on a project like this.

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"I mentioned to [producer] Jim Wilson that it was like doing a million piece jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box lid. Jim basically told me to pull myself together and that we had a picture on the box lid - it was called the script."

A million piece jigsaw puzzle...

During a particularly tricky period I mentioned to [producer] Jim Wilson that it was like doing a million piece jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box lid. Jim basically told me to pull myself together and that we had a picture on the box lid - it was called the script. Of course he was absolutely right.

However... as I am sure is often the way, things simply do not conform to expectation. The edit is the final rewrite, and we did a lot of rewriting. Scenes are gone. The infamous scene 14 that's no more than a few lines in the script is many minutes long in the film (getting to know Laura, from buying make-up to sinking Colin, the football supporter). Jon's process is very much about "where's the truth?" That look, that moment. There's no room for reverting to script when you're being that strict about what's usable. That strict criteria for inclusion basely solely on what feels true overrides any other priorities, which lead to some fairly creative and unexpected solutions.

There are some key moments that are not present in the script. After Laura falls in the street and we end that scene with the layers upon layers of portraits of people on the street at night - this wasn't scripted, rather it was a response to an appetite. We upgraded the jigsaw metaphor at about this point to "playing chess with live mice while your feet are on fire".

The sci-fi opening was pretty much unchanged from first cut as per the boards. The massive task in that scene was the reveal of the eye. The guys at One of Us worked very hard on that element. But editorially, it was very straightforward. The meat into maths scene was pretty fluid, and moved around a bit, but again it wasn't a massive challenge. It started pretty complex and ended up pretty simple.

Challenges...

From a straight forward film making perspective, there was an unusual challenge in the fact that the observed, unguarded footage sat cheek by jowl with the more traditional set up scenes, and this put significant pressure on the construction especially around those areas.

Narratively, I think our biggest challenge was describing Laura's drift; charting her course from focused hunter to being hunted. Clearly, this was written into the script but describing the subtleties of her gradual transformation proved to be editorially very complex, and is such a central element of the film.

Order Under The Skin on DVD and Blu-ray now. Click here for more information on the film.

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