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Under The Skin: The Script

Film4 Walter Campbell

Writer Walter Campbell shares his thoughts on working with Jonathan Glazer to create the screenplay for the critically acclaimed Under The Skin - buy the DVD or Blu-ray here.

Finding the core...

Jonathan and I have worked on things in the past, and we find it very easy to work together. I think what he likes about my approach is that I like problems. I suppose Jon’s experience with me is that when he comes to me with a problem, I’ll come up with a solution that he normally likes. I’m a little bit of a fixer. I’m kind of fantastically insensitive and sensitive at the same time, and I’m very good at reading between the lines, and I can listen.

I didn’t read the book because I thought that the problem was that he’d become too connected to the story. I said, “okay, so you like the cornerstone of this thing, but what we need to do is go into it and find the core of it.”

On detachment...

What we found ourselves very quickly talking about was the idea of removing all human need and human proclivities and affectations, and having our alien just being an automaton - a thing that is functional and doing what it’s intended to do without any even notion of whether it is right or wrong. That agenda started for me when Jonathan said “I want to make a political horror film.” For the first time I understood where he wanted to go with it, and I thought, “okay, that’s an interesting game to play.”

So we talked about where we’re going as a species. We’re becoming more and more divorced from our sensibilities, and we decided to project that forward a million years. Where do we end up if we keep on down this path, this detachment from our decisions, where we’re on this weird conveyor belt, where we’re all functioning without really knowing why?

Jonathan had this thing that he kept saying: “we’re nothing to them, we’re just like bags of skin, skinbags”, and he kept on saying this and I would always think about what that meant. We had lots of very worthy chats. We talked about these high-minded sensibilities, and you end up feeling a little bit better about yourself just for having that chat. But maybe there is a detachment from our humanity and something that is making us less human. We didn’t want to have her express an evil intent. It’s more that detachment from judgement.

On self-seduction...

When we were writing the script we realised two things, really. One, that the main expression of her otherness was the fact that she couldn’t have our criteria, she couldn’t make human judgements. And we also had the idea that these interlopers, these aliens, were so sophisticated and ingenious and amazing that they could actually create something that became seductive to itself. And that became a nice thing to explore.

We talked about when actors play a role and that role consumes them and a little bit of that role sticks with them and in a way they’re partly that role forever. That sensibility is very interesting, and informs her evolution and the fact that there were human things creeping in as she played at appearing human.

Film4

"We also had the idea that these interlopers, these aliens, were so sophisticated and ingenious and amazing that they could actually create something that became seductive to itself."

On the beach...

One of the things that we really loved was the scene of the child being left alone. When I first brought that scene to the table I had everyone die - the whole family went into the sea and she didn’t respond to that in the slightest. Jonathan said “oh it’s too dark, there’s no reprieve from that.” And so we started talking about who could survive and then the idea of the baby left on the beach screaming came up, and the idea of coming back to that child hours later and it still being there, screaming. The affront of her having absolutely zero response to it was to me a kind of epiphany in terms of understanding them.

But then there’s also the beat after that, later on, when she hears a scream from a car which is parked beside her at the traffic lights, and you see there’s a resonance, something has got through, there’s a lingering sense of that moment. I think we see something carry across from that, something which has gotten through the non-connectivity and stuck. I think that’s again a very human thing.

Improvising with Scarlett Johansson...

Jonathan had this mic that was going into Scarlett’s ear, so that if he needed a particular sentence said that would help stitch the story together, he could just feed it to her. But he better than anyone knows when to just let the conversation ride out and let the moment happen, and if there is a moment of interjection needed, he can do it. And that is really, for me, where you start to get into very unchartered territories, where you have got that freedom because you’ve done the work to solve any equation that might come up, so once you’ve got that in your back pocket then you can really get off-piste a little bit.

It was incredible to find someone who’s got the stones to just go and sit there. Scarlett’s opening the door to complete strangers; anything could have happened, and she’s being provocative with them. I was thinking a lot about Cassavettes at the time and his technique where he would sort of drop in some people, people off the street, and put them in the requisite wardrobe and sit them in a scene where there were actors who knew exactly where the trajectory of the scene was going. And he did that in order to reinvigorate the moment and make it alive again. It was a massive element in my thinking about the separateness of the alien force in this world – using hidden cameras was basically the only way I could imagine that would allow those situations to be captured, unfettered by the clutter of film making.

On the alien’s gradual moral shift...

We had to find steps where the transition would occur, both understood from the perspective of this monster, but then also understood from the perspective of a burgeoning consciousness where the sensibilities of empathy and of understanding were starting to attach themselves to this sentient being. A sentient being was operating without remorse, was totally ruthless, and had no hesitation in doing the most outrageous sort of things. But to see this consciousness creeping in was the balancing act.

We were looking all the time for two things. We were looking for something that felt cinematic and powerful, but we were also looking for the truth of that transition. And actually the pull between those two ambitions opened up a very beautiful space. The scene where she falls over is so simple and so human and that’s what I loved about it. I loved the idea of these people coming to help her. You just think, this extreme predator is in the midst of these things that she has no regard for but they’re prepared to lend a hand. There’s something in the vocabulary of that moment that just opens your mind up. I think it’s a really beautiful falling into space, where you allow almost nothing to mean everything.

A lot of the conversations that we had were about the fact that she is encased in something that’s a very sophisticated protective shield. There’s a lot of attention paid to the way she’s moving and a sense of this thing moving through space and that sense that there’s a balancing act going on. She’s almost like this very sophisticated craft that should never fall over, and when she does, that tells you that something’s defective; something’s out of whack with the performance of the machine. You just wonder if she’s ever going to get up - it’s fantastic.

Film4

"I love the idea that these men are in this sort of sexual trance - they are transported and their imagination is leading them on, and they are betrayed by their own instincts."

On the void in the house...

I love the idea that these men are in this sort of sexual trance - they are transported and their imagination is leading them on, and they are betrayed by their own instincts. There is a hope in their bravado - they’re seeking some little moment where they’re alive, where the fantasy comes true. But it would be easy to make the guy who’s being drawn on by a beautiful woman who’s undressing more lascivious or more prurient, more pornographic. To find a way in which you see an innocence in that is amazing.

When one of them says “you’ve got a lovely smile,” and then we see him going down into the black, it’s just beautiful. There’s a beautiful look about one of the other guys too - he looks to the floor and he lets his eyes almost slide up and onto her face. It’s almost childlike, like he knows something is going to happen, but feels like it shouldn’t be allowed. To see that moment in his eyes and know what his outcome is going to be is very engaging.

On creating a nightmare…

It’s very strange, trying to create something that’s on that nightmare or dream-like level. And I think the mistake that a lot of filmmakers make in creating those nightmarish sorts of horror scenes is that they try to shroud it in something, they try to romanticise it or say “look, this is strange.” And actually what Jonathan did was reject all of that, make it almost something that’s happening on a conveyor belt. That’s what I loved about it. It had a lot of that sense of fantastical paraphernalia, but with all of the affectations stripped away.

Even her looking at those guys, moving through that space as they go down and seeing their faith in her, their belief in her, and in the promise, that also has an effect. The butter blunts the knife, and even though that knife is ruthless and totally in control, the butter’s having an effect on it. It’s an interesting balancing act between her being this complete and utter beast, and her being something that is in revolution; it’s very deftly handled as the film progresses.

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

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