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.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser