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In advertising circles, the names Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer immediately bring to mind the 1998 Guinness "Surfer" spot by AMV BBDO. The surreal ad featured surfers waiting to catch what turns out to be the most surreal wave and is often cited as one of the best ads of all time. Now, the creative-director pair have taken their talents to the silver screen with "Under the Skin." Loosely based on the novel by Michael Faber, the indie film has garnered widespread acclaim. It stars Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien who roams the streets of Glasgow in a van, luring men with her beauty to turn them, ultimately, into E.T. chow.
Since "Surfer," Mr. Campbell, now creative director at TBWA, London, has continued to collaborate with Mr. Glazer on spots, music videos and the director's previous films "Sexy Beast" and "Birth" (although the last were in a non-official "sense-check" capacity, Mr. Campbell said). On "Under the Skin," Mr. Campbell gets full billing as writer, alongside Mr. Glazer, after stepping in to replace Milo Addica (of "Birth" and "Monster's Ball" fame).
The film has generated plenty of buzz for Ms. Johansson's unsettling performance and Mr. Glazer's risky decisions. Many scenes involved the actress trolling around the city incognito, and passersby and the men she ultimately picked up were unaware that they were being shot via hidden cameras.
Mr. Campbell, too, was unconventional in his approach to writing the film. "I've never read the book," he said. "I made an overt decision not to, and instead to read between the lines. I was working off what Jonathan was telling me."
When Mr. Campbell read the original script, which Mr. Glazer had been having problems with, "It didn't feel to me like a Jonathan Glazer project," he said. "It was sort of strangely too A-B-C." Mr. Glazer asked Mr. Campbell to make some notes on the script, "but I found I couldn't," he said. "As a screenplay it was complete and there wasn't anything overtly wrong with it." Instead, Mr. Campbell asked the director, "What is it you're trying to make?" and Mr. Glazer said he wanted to make a "political horror film." With that, Mr. Campbell wrote about 15 pages of an opening scene "about a no-win situation, a lie," he said. "I think what's interesting about it was this lie -- a person who's a beautiful woman, but not a beautiful woman."
That turned out to be the starting point of a new script, which, as Mr. Campbell originally saw it, would be a "bigger, more involved" movie starring an alien couple, with Brad Pitt lined up to play the male lead. Throughout the development process, which took about a year and a half, the film became more "art house," Mr. Campbell said.
Nevertheless, the heart of the original script still rings true in the final film, he said. "I was looking for a way of framing the human condition by examining something other than a human that sort of knew everything, but didn't feel everything. I liked the idea of an amazing Trojan horse that had a weakness, the fact that it started believing it was a horse. The illusion is the weapon, but it's also the thing that defeats them."
Read on for more of our discussion with Mr. Campbell on writing "Under the Skin."
Ad Age: You said you didn't work from the original novel in writing your script and instead relied on what Jonathan relayed to you. How did the script evolve from there?
Mr. Campbell: I thought if Milo [Addica, the previous screenwriter] was reading the book and Jonathan was reading the book and they're not getting at what it is, there must be something that's sticky that they're not getting beyond, so I overtly made the decision not to read it and just listen to the stuff that Jonathan had put down. In his description, early stages, Scarlett's character was always this overtly, sexual being.
I thought, I don't know if I believe the overt, too sexualized presence, so I was always interested in something that was sexy, but only when you got into proximity with it, not something that was front of stage. It's almost like in her dealings with these guys, she would open up that box. It dawned on them that there was something being offered to them.
In the very early conversations, this female was almost a caricature sexually, and I thought it's got to be something that she can turn on, more than just an image. It accords more with how she behaves with the men. Even though it's Scarlett Johansson, it's sort of believable that somebody like that could be driving around Scotland moving around furniture. There's another Scarlett Johansson she could easily play that wouldn't chime, or make sense.
Ad Age: You mentioned that the original script didn't feel like a Jonathan Glazer movie. What to you is a Jonathan Glazer film?
Mr. Campbell: I wouldn't say there was anything wrong with the first script, but it just didn't seem like something Jonathan would make. If you look at "Sexy Beast," that's a gangster film, but there's so much more to it. The gangsters aren't all tough. They want to love their women, they don't want to abuse them and be gangsters. They're in love with a woman who's a porn star and they worship the ground she walks on. It's far more fascinating than a gangster film. And the level of the dialogue is poetry. It's not like "Fuck you," it's like "Fuck you" 100 times in one scene, almost like reinventing the value of saying "Fuck you." It's reaching a little bit deeper.
Ad Age: Do you have a favorite scene from the film?
Mr. Campbell: I loved the scene with Adam, a disfigured man that Scarlett meets. I like the way she plays that -- she's got a whole lot of lines in her head, but the way she interacts with him is extraordinary. His beautiful innocence comes through; you can feel there's a reality there and you can see he's got trepidation. I loved writing that scene. My father grew up on a farm in Donegal. He had a sister with a deformity. She was almost sequestered on a farm and didn't come off it very often -- just to go to mass. I remember growing up, and the transition between me not knowing that there was a problem with her appearance, and then knowing. I thought there was something fantastically sort of revealing about us as human beings in that, and about a sort of entity that would have no sense of that.
Ad Age: What else from the film came from your personal experience?
Mr. Campbell: I used to work in the markets in Ireland. I used to sell hardware in a market stall and I used to work in a van, so seeing [Scarlett Johansson's character] driving this van around the countryside was very appealing to me. I knew the landscape where she would be going. A lot of her experiences are things that I either saw, or knew about, growing up and being out in the world.
Ad Age: Some of the reviews of the film, in a way, parallel the sorts of responses that Guinness' "Surfer" had gotten. This is a movie critics say breaks convention with cinema, whereas "Surfer" did the same thing with commercials. Was there anything similar about your approach to making both, in the way you collaborated with Jonathan?
Mr. Campbell: Obviously it's a lot longer a process. I suppose what's interesting, similar about it is there's an ambition about it -- an ambition to not be another one of those films, ambition to step aside, above the crowd. So I think the core is that we're continuously questioning what we're doing, how we're doing it, if things can be better. There's expectations on our DP, Peter Raeburn, Johnny Burn -- we're asking them to play at a higher level. We're asking more of ourselves -- are we missing any tricks, is there a more interesting way to play these scene?
Ad Age: What were the differences?
Mr. Campbell: I suppose the difference is with a spot, the idea is sold, and you're going to make it and make it as well as you could be. It's already on the reel, sort of. Whereas with this, Jonathan had a little lockup in a block of flats and we sat there, day after day, discussing the nature of existence and God in very obscure, drawn out conversations. It's sort of much more as if you're not sure if there's an end. You can be sitting there thinking, "We're eight months in and we're not really sure of the end of this film," especially when your default setting is "What else can we do?" I think there even was one point we decided we wanted to write a comedy.