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.
When she’s with the men she's picked up and they are in danger, there’s that main viola refrain that keeps repeating. How did you think about that repetition in the composing? Was bringing things back at specific times specifically directed?
That music, in my mind, is probably the only thing that isn’t what she’s feeling. That’s like the makeup that’s she’s put on, that music. It’s something superficial, she might as well be playing it out of a device. That isn’t something that she’s experiencing as far as turning to humanity. That repeating is her job, her work, her daily grind. It comes back at the end, also. I suppose it’s being used as a tool, because you’re being reminded, or realizing that’s her truth.
That main refrain reminded me a bit of the music Bernard Hermann did for Alfred Hitchcock. So, relating it to her makeup, an artifice, is sort of interesting because it was the most traditional “movie score” piece of music used.
Yeah, absolutely. But if I’m honest, the reason it got to that is more coming from strip club music. That’s more in my mind similar to Bollywood samples or Dr. Dre beats. I think the instrumentation, the fact that sort of thing is probably sampled in those beats, is where it’s coming from. She’s doing a strip tease, so that was the music that was in the back of my head. Think about that sort of mid-2000s strip club vibe, Dr. Dre and 50 Cent.
Since you were working in bits and pieces, I have to imagine that seeing it in its proper context with an audience must have really been something...
It was certainly... something. [Laughs] Oh man, you can’t do anything. You can’t stop the film. You can’t change it. I’m sure you’ve had experiences like that where something you’ve done is being presented and you hear all the faults louder. It was quite a trip. Last time I saw it it was at the Venice Film Festival, where it had its premiere. That was the first time we all sat down and watched it finally, graded. Scarlett Johansson was there and John was there, everyone was there, really. It got a sort of mixed reception, a bit of booing a bit of cheering. It was just a real kind of trip.
Coming from the perspective of a touring musician, or even a DJ, where you’re a participant in something that’s happening, just being a spectator has to be a bit anxious.
Yeah, exactly. It's weird. I had experienced it before, when I’ve composed a piece of music and it’s getting performed in concert. This had a bit more momentum behind it, I guess. But that’s what it’s like being a composer, you’re not standing on stage you’re sitting in the audience.
Has this experience given you an itch to keep working in film? Or is this the sort of project that’s so striking and compelling, where the music is such an important part of it, that it sets a weirdly high standard that working in other films might not live up to?
I don’t really know much about the film world, but that’s the impression that I get. I think that this was a very unusual experience. To be honest, I’m never really chasing anything. I’m really disorganized.