There’s not much Mica Levi is bad at, apparently. She composed for the London Philharmonic at age 21. Her band Micachu & The Shapes used instruments she made herself to create Jewellery, one of the 00s’ best weird art-pop records. Never, their 2012 follow-up, is one of the most underrated of this decade so far. She returned to the classical world in 2011, lending a disjointed hip-hop sensibility to the London Sinfionetta chamber orchestra. Now, in her mid-20s, she’s become an acclaimed film composer for scoring Under the Skin, the beautifully odd new sci-fi flick by ’90s music video master turned Kubrick heir, Jonathan Glazer.
In it, Scarlett Johansson plays a seductive alien preying on the lonely young men of Scotland. With dark, baffling images and hardly any dialogue, Levi’s anxious, buzzing score has to do much of the film’s work to let the viewer inside a somewhat inscrutable character grappling with the onset of humanity. It’s hypnotic, disorienting, and quite impressive. We talked to Levi about working on a film for the first time, her music’s unique role in Under the Skin, and how hearing Dr. Dre in a strip club influenced her own soundtrack to man-eating.
Watching the movie, the images and the sound design and the music were all working together so closely, it’s hard for me to imagine what it was like at the beginning of the process as just images.
Well, when I first saw the film it wasn’t finished yet, it was getting towards the final edit part, it didn’t really get locked until quite late in the process.
I imagine with the special effects and stuff there would have been a lot of temporary elements…
So how many times do you think you’ve seen it, in various states?
Sort of consistently for about a year. [Laughs] Watching it as a whole? Not that many times, maybe a dozen. I was really encouraged to write away from the picture. You find once you get the music together then you put it with the images, it’s stronger. If you cater it to the images it’s being dictated by the wrong thing. You’re not leaving much up to the cosmos.
So you’d review the footage, and then you’d have the beats of it, and a block of time in mind? You’d go away and compose in a vacuum, then bring it back and see if it was matching up?
Yeah, a bit of that. We went through all different kind of processes and little side ideas. I’d write a lot of stuff initially, and it got whittled down. It got refined into its core potentials, and then we spent time making sure it was cohesive with the picture. It was a mixture of work, writing away and writing with the film. The film changed, so then the music changed.
You’ve said in other interviews that you were “writing for character,” and aiming for something emotional. The intent was to give a window into the character, rather than trying to consciously create tension or suspense in a way that’s directly narrative?
I think the way to put it is that I was sort of directed to follow her and concentrate on her experience as it was happening. Music wasn’t being used as a tool to prepare you for something, or to set up some sort of element or to reflect back on something. I don’t know how it works as a viewer, but it’s very real time. It all sort of happens when it happens. The music is very thematic, so it guides things in the narrative way, but basically it’s all initiated by her. That’s the attempt.
It did serve a sort of narrative role in some of these long sequences where she’s doing something as ordinary as driving around Scotland. Having that kind of tumultuous buzzing music behind it did end up creating suspense, even if that wasn’t what you were specifically setting out to do.
From our end we were thinking that’s her—that’s her hunger, her thirst for it. There is tension that she’s experiencing. But yeah, absolutely, you’re right. I suppose I’m only really talking about what we thought we were doing. Hopefully it does different things outside of our ideas. You don’t want it to be so it’s about our bit, and it can’t evolve.