Under the Skin and Out of the Box: A Short Discussion of Guerrilla Filmmaking

Jonathan Glazer’s startlingly original Under the Skin, based on the novel by Dutch novelist Michael Faber, employs a guerilla shooting technique equal parts disorienting and thought-provoking.

We take a look at other classics of the “genre.”

Under the Skin is the story of an alien seductress (an English-accented, wig-wearing Scarlett Johansson) who travels to Earth to conduct activities best described as an anthropological observation-come-harvest . Roaming around the urban and coastal landscapes of Glasgow, the unnamed protagonist studies the human population as if they are caged animals in a zoo, seducing men to their doom. “I was taken with the idea of the character,” recalled producer James Wilson in the official press notes. “An alien, made into a human female form which is not its own, in our world to hunt us, because we are on its food chain. It was a compelling conceit, and one that lent itself to cinema because it was about perception… looking, watching, hearing.”

Using miniature cameras in a van, with Johansson at the wheel, the crew was able to shoot raw footage of the actress interacting with completely unaware individuals. Like the unwitting non-actors, Johansson herself experienced an entirely new style of filming that left the set behind and abolished the looming pressure of the camera. “Normally an actor is going to be very aware of where the camera is, and because Scarlett didn’t actually know, she was completely immersed in the function of driving, looking and hunting,” said Glazer.

New Picture (19)

Behind the van that Johansson drove was another vehicle carrying makeup people and PAs, who would get release forms signed by the newly-cognizant participants at the end of their interaction with Johannson. “I remember listening during the pick-ups of real people,” Wilson wrote, “and the challenge was that though she [Johannson] might start each conversation with a simple request for directions- ‘I’m lost,’ or, ‘I need to find the post office,’ say, for the purpose of the story- she had to bend the conversation towards the pick-up… It was kind of a verbal gymnastics, which produced its own strange power.”

Glazer’s guerilla strategy might seem gimmicky to some—after all, the same results would have certainly been possible with professional actors—but the effect is a chilling, morally ambiguous comment on attraction and performance, reality eliding with fiction. Under the Skin is not the first film to utilize guerilla filmmaking tactics, nor is it isolated in its use of unknowing cast members. Here are a few examples of recent fantastically-themed films that disregarded the concept of talent releases,  intellectual property, copyright infringement, and trespassing all in the name of art:

Escape From Tomorrow

Escape From Tomorrow, directed by Randy Moore, premiered at Sundance 2013 as a special selection of Robert Ebert. The film utilized the magically-marketed Walt Disney World in Florida, USA as a setting for an intense and absurd story about anxiety, familial strains, and fears, eventually showing the family park as a surreal nightmarish experience. Shot on location with Moore’s Canon EOS 5D Mark II, without permission from Disney, Moore’s film follows a family’s strained day enjoying the parks rides and attractions including  iconic Space Mountain and Epcot Center.

 

Moore took careful steps to avoid any concrete copyright or trademark infringement in the film, as impossible as that sounds. No Disney music was used, and Disney would have to prove that they are being construed as complicit in making the film. Moore’s film could, arguably, come under “fair use” laws, or even be considered a transformative, artistic creation much like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. As far as the people that appear unknowingly in the film as park patrons in the backdrop of the scenes, none ever signed consent forms. No one has come forward with any complaints, however, and no lawsuits have been filed. Disney itself never commented on the film, which might mean that doors are now open for more independent filmmakers to take bigger risks with locations and subject matter.

Foxfur

Damon Packard is notorious for his capriciously sneaky filmmaking tactics. In 2002’s Reflections of Evil, the Universal Studios park provided mise en scène. In the notorious climax, the protagonist, played by Packard himself, chases his interdimensionally-travelling sister as she flees from unknown terrors through Schindler’s List: The Ride. The Netflix release removed most of the questionable imagery and music, including a shot of the animatronic E.T. in Universal’s now-closed E.T. The Extra Terrestrial ride.

In his most recent feature, the surreal fantasy Foxfur, several different actresses play the title character as she visits bookstores, nature preserves, and rides the bus around Los Angeles, in a perplexing saga about aliens, alternate dimensions, and elven, sylvan creatures. Packard’s budget limitations necessitated Foxfur‘s erratic editing and storytelling, but his eclectic editing style and ability pay exciting homage to the epics of Spielberg and Lucas, making Foxfur stand out as a shining example of guerilla filmmaking tactics.

In an interview with Fangoria Magazine in 2012, Packard said of Foxfur, “To be self-deluded for a moment, really for what it is on the scale I made it, [the film] turned out quite miraculous.”

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Sacha Baron Cohen duped numerous people in his comedy routines on Da Ali G Show, his British television series in the early 2000s. His inventive characters included Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, the title character in the feature-length mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. As Borat, Cohen interviewed and had dialogues with unsuspecting people that genuinely believed they were interacting with an idiotic buffoon of a man who happened to be extremely ignorant of American customs. When the film was released, those people found themselves appearing as stooges to Cohen’s irreverent sense of humor. Though they signed a standard consent agreement to appear in the movie, many later claimed they had been tricked by fine print and a misleading film synopsis. Cohen would go on dupe people in the 2009 feature comedy Bruno, but by then the cat was out of the bag and Cohen was a more recognizable celebrity.

Those who took legal action against Cohen’s film mostly found their cases dismissed in court. Cohen himself responded: “Some of the letters I get are quite unusual, like the one where the lawyer informed me I’m about to be sued for $100,000 and at the end says, ‘P.S. Loved the movie. Can you sign a poster for my son Jeremy?'” MM

Under the Skin is out in limited theaters in New York and Los Angeles on April 4, 2014.

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