Finding the space between ecstasy and horror

  • Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin

    Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin

  • 1998’s ‘surfer’ spot for Guinness

    1998’s ‘surfer’ spot for Guinness

  • 2001's ‘dream club’

    2001's ‘dream club’

  • 1995's ‘tornado’ spot for Volvo

    1995's ‘tornado’ spot for Volvo


Walter Campbell, a creative director at TBWA\London, co-wrote Under The Skin with Jonathan Glazer (who also directed it). The two had worked together before, including on Guinness 'surfer'. The film is based on a cult novel by Michel Faber and stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who preys on men in Scotland. Campbell tells Campaign about the movie's creative process.

My involvement in Under The Skin started with Jonathan Glazer asking if I could read the script. I was right in the middle of a job at the time and, knowing the way these conversations open up, I said I couldn’t really focus on it.

About two weeks later, Jon turned up at my office, more determined that I should have a look at the script. I was just finishing my project. I read it that night and wasn’t sure what it was aiming for – it didn’t feel like something I could imagine him shooting.

We had a call and I was trying to be cool – I thought I must just be missing what he saw in it. I was being vague, but Jon soon cut through the shit and asked what I really thought. I said I didn’t know what he was trying to make with it; what he would point his camera at. He felt exactly the same. I asked about the book he was adapting from – he said the script was very true to the book and he was trying to make it a political horror.

That sounded like it could be a more interesting story. I liked the paranoia in that idea. So this was one of the first insights I had on what it was Jon was after – it gave me something I understood to set the course of the story by.

I focused on the paranoia and, of course, paranoia is key in sci-fi. I felt what he was after wasn’t actually in the script (or the book). I knew that, if it was in the novel, Jon would have it covered, so I never read it.

I allowed my understanding of it to come from what Jon had put down. The script was complete in what it told and I could see how it would make a film. That beautiful female figure and the high-tech process of folding a body of one dimension into another.

It was tempting to move stuff around and create space for more detailed and potentially cinematic moments, but I knew this wasn’t what Jon was after. The thing that resonated in my mind was the protagonist’s lie, so I wrote about a lie that would make anyone who saw the truth beyond it look insane.

I sent about 14 pages to Jon, who read them to some of the team at Film4. I think what they were really reading was Jon feeling he had something in those pages, something he might want to point his camera at. That is important – that is a skill in itself, to sense that the director is getting a feeling for the pages, that he is excited about something and could imagine pointing his camera at it.

Over the following two or three weeks, there were a few conversations about me sitting in with the team and working stuff out. I thought a third voice in those situations makes two too many and I said they should use the pages as a way forward, a direction to push in.

Jon was by now very serious about me coming on board. I was more interested in this, as I always have a laugh working with him. I wanted to tell a story that delved into our morbid fascination with fear and risk, a journey to what might lurk in the space between ecstasy and horror, and thought I could nail that in about a year and a bit, so off we went…

The challenge of dialogue

No-one had a word-count agenda. The sparseness of the writing was really a side effect of telling the journey from the alien perspective and a general aversion to exposition. I wanted the story to unfold through experiences, more like a documentary, through things happening to and around her.

Actually, all the scenes were written with extensive dialogue but always with the idea of stepping back from that. I’d been reading and thinking about how John Cassavetes worked with actors – having one of two people in the scene who knew the emotional trajectory of the scene and letting them play it out with people who are innocent to it all. That’s where the real magic happens, because that spontaneous note in a story is gold dust – you let genuine experiences into the story.

I like to write situations that can lead to observed reality. The idea of having the alien in the van while the hidden cameras rolled wasn’t about hearing a lot of chat from these random pick-ups; it was about the looks they would give and seeing the cogs turning in the heads of these real guys. Their nervy trepidation, the aphrodisiac effects of an attractive woman encouraging their advances, them reading between the lines… that’s the cinematic moment.

Writing the situation and the technique that lead to a bold cinematic moment in which that beautiful "unscripted" instance can be captured is what I consider the exciting, experimental edge of screenwriting. That’s when I feel I am getting some extra "truth" in the can.

Working with Glazer

Jon had a strange little lock-up in a block of flats where we spent most of the time. It was the perfect location to try to get at the idea of "us", the human condition, through an understanding of a theoretical "them", the alien entity. It was a weird set-up in that strange space. There were many bizarre conversations about humanity and existence, about how advanced a civilisation would have to be to get here from a billion miles away, and how that level of advanced knowledge chimes with a mentality that would feed off another sentient life form. And what could break that sort of organism down?

A hundred different angles on this conversation, a thousand nuances on the same contradictions. A clearing out of ideas that didn’t add up or added up to something that was too human or too strange or too depressing.

Lessons from advertising

Being an agency creative taught me to simplify and then enhance. It taught me to look after the details: every single frame is important.

The thing that resonated in my mind was the protagonist's lie, so I wrote about a lie that would make anyone who saw the truth beyond it look insane

I learned that great work is a collaborative process. It’s essential to have people who are as invested in the ambition as you are. The Film4 people are just a different level in terms of their belief in the creative process. Tessa Ross was a rock who just kept her eyes on the prize during the whole journey. It reminded me of the sheer confidence I would get from people such as David Abbott and Peter Souter. It seems like a given at the time, but it is absolutely essential and, without it, the ambition can get drained away.

And it’s about having the steel of great generals with you. With Dan Landin and the team at One of Us pouring their talent into the process, you know the images are in the most dexterous of hands. The serene Paul Watts addressed the mammoth task in calibrating the beats and the trajectory of the story with his usual unflinching resolve.

I also learned to listen and that the questions are as important as the answers. (Jon had some great questions.) Tony Kaye taught me the importance of casting. That the human face was the best thing you could point the camera at. I learned from my salesman father that the truth is always more interesting than bullshit.

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