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How to write a minimal masterpiece script

Walter Campbell on how he and Glazer adapted Under the Skin into a largely improvised, minimally dialogued masterpiece

All day today, we're celebrating the release of Jonathan Glazer's new film, Under The Skin. Here, we're speaking to Walter Campbell, who wrote the screenplay with Glazer. 

Don’t read the novel

I deliberately didn’t ever read the book. I came into the project two years in, and I felt that the problem Jonathan was that the book’s story was holding him and the original screenwriter back. I think there’s this loop in the book where there’s this repetition of the same thing, where she’s picked up these guys, but actually to me what was interesting was happening to her on the journey and this entity, this otherness. This being that was created to be like us, but also can never really be us. I just investigated that. I very quickly rejected the idea of this idea of sci-fi and tried to make it as close to a documentary, as possible. Michel Faber’s rights owner, the one who did the deal, having seen the final draft that we were working on said, “Oh, I really love it. And I also love the fact that I can still sell the rights to Under the Skin.” 

Don’t plan the dialogue 

What’s beautiful in the film is these moments where you get sort of the guy looking across at this woman, thinking you know, is she up for it? You’re filming the moment a man sees an attractive woman being open to the possibility of something happening with a guy she’s just picked up on the street: you just want to see their trepidation, they’re thinking “God this is, this is uh, a dream?” 

We wrote every sort of connotation or sort of variation on the conversation that could happen between this entity and someone that she might pick up. Scarlett had the character in her mind so much by that stage the work that she’d done, it was absolutely automatic for her to be just gently, effortlessly giving these guys sort of reeling them in if you would. It was that beautiful sort of sinister feeling you know, just open up the conversation. 

I think what’s interesting the situation and the idea that you’re pushing your actor into as much reality as you can. Cassavetes, in order to bring out the truth, would have only some of the people in the scene are aware of what the intention of the scene was, and then he’d have several players with absolutely no direction of what they were going in. What I like about the idea is that there is something inherently false in the idea that everybody knows where this is going. It’s as simple as that. 

But do plan the rain 

We definitely had a criticism from a couple of the readers who said of the script: “this is too much detail.” We’d be describing the way, the kind of rain that was falling, and what highway, and where the rainclouds were coming from. When she’s eating and Tommy Cooper is on the screen, when she’s being led down the stairs, when the teacup is shaking on the saucers, the screaming of the child on the beach and hearing the screaming in the car next to her: each transition down to the beat was worked out meticulously. 

Keep the mystery 

In terms of what or whom Scarlett’s character actually is; it’s much more interesting to be not so specific. I like the bakeries more than I like the bread. 

I did understand this whole idea that she has to kill in order to live. As we all do, and there’s something interesting in that equation or the fact that you sort of put it to one side – there’s something about our reality, where we are becoming further and further away from the reality of life. We had thousands of conversations – Jonathan and I – about what are these exactly that she’s taking but I started to like this idea that part of what they were consuming was the inherent humanity of the men they preyed on. However, as they’re absorbing this thing, however, it’s consuming them. The idea being that if a thing’s functionality is just to consume and your only reason for living is to consume: that this is a very dark equation.

Under The Skin is available digitally now and on Blu-ray and DVD from July 14