Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin.
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Isserley, Penélope Cruz and the slow gestation of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's new film Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, took fourteen years to make it to the big screen. Novelist and screenwriter Alexander Stuart recalls the project's early days.

I’ll be reviewing Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary film Under the Skin in this Thursday’s issue of the NS. For now here is a fascinating insight into some early versions of the movie from the novelist and screenwriter Alexander Stuart, who told me exclusively about his experience of working on the film. He worked on the project more than a decade ago, before Glazer took it in an entirely new direction. (The finished screenplay is credited to Glazer and Walter Campbell.) Very little, if anything, of what Stuart contributed has ended up in the finished movie, but his recollections of working with Glazer—including an extraordinary interlude with Penélope Cruz acting out parts of the script at the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Blvd—provide an illuminating glimpse into the different forms Under the Skin went through in the course of its 14-year evolution:

“Jon and I worked together on the first three drafts. The second one we really tried to collaborate on, with me showing him pages as I went along. That didn’t really work for either of us, and the third draft, where I tried to write as strongly and unusually as I could, was the one I was happiest with, and the one that became a phenomenal writing sample for the studios. It helped get me representation at CAA and I had studio executives reading me my own dialogue, written in a language partly taken from the Michel Faber novel and partly invented by me, using phrases of Swedish and Moroccan Arabic. It was ironic, because it was never likely to be a studio film.

I had been in London working on The War Zone [Tim Roth’s 1999 film, which Stuart adapted from his own novel] when Paul Webster, the Head of Film4, gave me Michel Faber’s book Under the Skin and said, ‘Read this. Let me know what you think.’ I read it on the plane home to LA and told him I loved it, and was back in London to meet Jon in a couple of weeks. Film4 flew me to London from LA as he was readying his first film, Sexy Beast, for release. They screened it for me and it blew me away. I’d just worked with Ray Winstone on The War Zone, and I loved his performance in Sexy Beast

Jonathan seemed very clear on the type of movie he wanted, but maybe not the specifics. I went back to LA, and he was set to follow. I remember being at my house in Laurel Canyon, waiting for him to arrive and wondering what direction our conversations would take. He’d told me to watch Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which I’d seen years before. I was puzzled how this would relate to a primarily sci-fi film. But it did. We set out to make the least sci-fi style film possible. The book was set in Scotland, very close to the bleak northern fishing coast where my father grew up, and I drew on that a lot writing my scripts. Jonathan and I decided that this lonely spot would be the arse end of empire for Isserley, the alien who had landed there and had a job to do. 

I remember Jon was fascinated by her physicality. We viewed her as someone horrifically crippled by surgery—a beautiful creature who was naturally four- legged, who had been twisted and broken in order to make her walk upright on two legs—with these enormous breasts to attract men, for a very specific reason. That was a fabulous way into her psyche. That and her loneliness and longing. I really loved her as a character. And I loved a detail from the novel: the car with its needles that could paralyse her passengers at the touch of a button from her. I remember Penélope Cruz asked to have a drink with me at the Chateau Marmont—she was kind enough to ask me to write a film for her—and she had read my third draft of Under the Skin, and she loved this detail of the needles closing on Isserley’s unsuspecting male passengers. She acted it out for me, in the garden of the Chateau. Sadly, I think that detail is gone from the film now. 

Jon would show me the photographs of Sebastio Salgado (Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age) and we would look at these stunning pictures of semi-naked, impoverished miners climbing rickety wooden ladders up mountainsides in Brazil, and he would tell me about dreams he had had of creatures running on the African bush (Jon had worked in South Africa), and it all swirled around in my head with the extreme Scottish setting of the plot. We even discussed shooting Scotland in Iceland, so that it would be a Scotland you had never seen before. It became this perverse, dark, dreamlike territory—constantly informed, at the same time, by the formality and story of chance and social disruption of Barry Lyndon

It was a fabulous time, literally like working on a Fellini movie, with anything possible. Jon is probably one of the coolest and most fascinating people I’ve worked with. He’s a great guy, although given to pronouncements like, ‘One day it’s a horse, the next it's a chair’, which aren’t always the most helpful when you’re writing the script, though they are intriguing. I’d worked with Nicolas Roeg, who’s a lifelong friend, and he is extraordinary—but Jon is pretty visionary, too. He is very connected to his subconscious. It’s alive for him.

Around the same time—and this was just before the events of 9/11, when few people paid any attention to the Taliban in Afghanistan—we looked at a documentary of the Taliban, Beneath The Veil, in which people were driven around a football stadium and publicly executed, and decided to draw on elements of the Taliban as the most alien society we could imagine. And then, shortly after I finished one of the scripts, I remember walking in the hills in Laurel Canyon and seeing literally masses of black crows, and I think a few hawks, filling the sky. It felt strange, like the script I had been working on for Jon. And I came home to my wife, Charong, and said, ‘Something’s going to happen.’ I thought it was going to be an earthquake but we woke up the next morning to the planes crashing into the towers. And suddenly the Taliban, whom I’d been studying for the script, were everywhere.”

Under the Skin opens on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.