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The art of Randy Thom

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Under the Skin. Interview with Carine Adler
Interview with Carine Adler, director of Under The Skin, recently released on DVD by BFI. By Claire Fowler

Carine Adler, born in Brazil to a Czech father and Hungarian Mother, grew up in the UK to produce one of the boldest studies of loss and female relationships in British cinema. Her 1997 directorial debut Under The Skin starred a stunning 19 yr old Samantha Morton in her first feature role as the lost and grieving Iris struggling to cope with the sudden death of her mother. Confronting issues of female sexuality and grief in a raw emotive style unlike anything that had previously been seen, "Under the Skin" stormed festivals around the world, from Edinburgh (where it won the Michael Powell award) through to Sundance. To celebrate the long awaited BFI DVD release this year, Filmwaves caught up with Adler to talk once again about her unique feature debut, tussles with the British Film Industry, and to find out what projects she has lined up for the future.

Claire Fowler – Could you tell me a little about your entry into filmmaking?

Carine Adler – Well I actually did things a little backwards. I got married and had a baby before I approached my career. But I’d always loved photography and films, and I remember going to the BFI and borrowing one of their video cameras to make a short film, that must have been in the 80s. I did everything in that film- lighting, camera etc and it actually became my springboard for the NFTS where I later studied. I think things have changed there now. When I was a student, everyone directed their own films, and so that’s what I did, and that’s what I concentrated on when I left- writing films to direct. Unlike most other graduates however, I didn’t go and work in TV or as an editor, I just carried on with the writing, and trying to get projects funded. But it was incredibly incredibly difficult. I kept writing and pitching ideas, and getting rejected, for many many years.

CF – So how did you fund Under The Skin?

CA – 96 or 97 was apparently ‘Women’s year’ in film for the BFI. I think they decided there wasn’t enough being made by women, and this year was set aside as being almost exclusively female funding. I’d made a short film, Touch and Go, starring Katrin Cartlidge who has sadly since died. That short captured the attention of two important people at the BFI and so I was actually asked to develop it into a feature, which became Under The Skin. Basically you can’t make a film without having support from those in power, and I was very lucky to get that opportunity and support. Without it ‘Under the Skin’ would never have been made.

CF – What inspired the story?

CA – Men generally have explored violence a lot. Sex, which film can represent so well, is something that is underrepresented, especially female sexuality. This film in particular, the inspiration came from so many different sources. One was the desire to do a film on female sexuality. Second was to do a three-dimensional woman’s character, complex. Not necessarily immediately sympathetic, kind of an anti-heroine. And then I did the short, I found a book called Mother, Madonna, Whore, which was by an analyst. Actually a psycho-analyst, he’s a forensic psychologist who deals with female sexual perversion, consulted on the film. It was based partly on life, I mean, I think that character, I’m sure we all know somebody like that. But you have to dramatise it, so I did push it quite far.

CF – There’s been a lot of discussion about how you treat female sexuality in the film. Iris (Played by Morton) responds to the death of her mother by becoming increasingly and dangerously promiscuous. Yet there is a fragility about her. She seems both in control, and yet frighteningly on the edge…

CA – Casting was crucial for the part of Iris. It took weeks of searching to get the right girl, and there was no one apart from Sam who had those qualities. I think she was something like the last girl I saw, and was perfect. She had fragility, was childlike yet incredibly sexual. It’s really denial of grief. I did want to show what is somehow the source of compulsive sexual behaviour. It could be alcohol or drugs, but sex is certainly a part of this, especially nowadays when it’s so dangerous. Manic behaviour is usually brought about by denial or depression. So it’s not a liberating journey, it’s a compulsive journey, brought about by her inability to face up to grief and depression. So in order to avoid that, you have to heighten your experience.

CF – How did the women work together on the film?

CA – In addition to the cast being almost exclusively female, somehow I ended up working very closely with women offset too. Ewa Lind was the editor on the film, and Kate Ogborn producer. It can be a very lonely process, but these women were incredibly supportive. It is different to working with men. Very different, although the fact that I ended up with a lot of female crew was pure coincidence, it worked very well. I seem to work a lot with female producers actually, and the few times I have worked with a man it hasn’t been so successful.

CF – It offers up a very different vision of women and emotion than has previously been seen…

CA – I wanted to create a multi faceted female character. Very often women as characters are good or bad, and I think women even censor their own work with the fear of what other women might think. The cast, the main characters being female (Samantha Morton and Claire Rushbrook, who play grieving sisters) were able to develop themselves, work together and become these real people rather than characters. Both sisters offer up an individual response to the death of their mother, but neither is ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’.

CF – How did your audiences respond when you took the film around the world?

CA – The response was so much more powerful than I thought it would be. People, men OR women, either loved it or rejected it. Men liked it, perhaps because it isn’t politically correct, but then I had women approaching me and saying ‘this is my life story you’ve told, thank you". You have one chance to make an impact. Perhaps one feature film that you can make. You want that film to have power- to entertain and capture attention. And then it’s about grief- when is grief polite? I wanted to show the anger, but also the sadness and loss. The sex is not gratuitous in the film. Iris is attempting to gain control, but is increasingly disempowered by her own promiscuity. It’s not a moralistic take on things, but it’s not about pure shock value.

CF – As a female director do you feel you experienced any difficulties that you would not otherwise have encountered? Does it bother you that female directors do have that extra gender tag at the front of their title?

CA – Well firstly, as I’ve already said, if it hadn’t been for positive discrimination I may well have not made Under the Skin at all. But yes it is difficult to make films and get funding. Whether this is because I’m female I don’t know. Maybe financiers are less interested in me for certain reasons. When you get a rejection, something doesn’t happen, you do wonder ‘is it because I’m a woman..?’… but I really can’t say. I did think that once I’d made a feature, the next one would be easier to fund. But it certainly hasn’t proved to be. What I do know is that of the films that came out of the UK in 96 and 97, Under the Skin was one of the few that even made it out of the country, let alone to do so well around the world.

CF – You’ve invited comparisons to filmmakers ranging from Von Trier, through to Mike Leigh and Jane Campion. Are these influences you recognise as such?

CA – Jane Campion absolutely. I love her films. And then of course with Leigh I used actresses from his films, and yes he is one of the few British filmmakers who stands out. The Von Trier comparison was really because Breaking the Waves came out just after ‘Under The Skin’ and both dealt with issues of female sexuality in a very confrontational way…but he was never a direct influence as such. I think 7 or 8 years ago British filmmaking was more vibrant than it is today. Now I look towards the work that is coming out of Asia- Wong Kar Wai and Yimou Zhang for example. The sad thing about the UK is that there really isn’t a rich culture of filmmaking, and that I think has to be related to the funding situation here. So few films are produced each year with British backing, and yet you hear about the UK Film Council and Channel 4 funding French and American filmmakers…

CF – What are you working on at the moment?

CA – I’ve been writing a lot. And several collaborative projects. One with Jonathan Cavendish (Producer for Bridget Jones-The Edge of Reason) and one with Jeremy Thomas. Actually those two are horror films- adaptations of books. One is set in New York and one in the UK. Again it’s working with the idea of a woman on the edge- on the cusp of the hallucinatory. I think that’s a theme I’m very much interested in exploring further.

Interview by Claire Fowler