Walter Campbell is one of the most awarded advertising creatives of the last 50 years. Some of his most memorable—and awarded—work has pushed the notion of a TV commercial into new creative territory. Spots like Volvo "Twister," Dunlop "Expect the Unexpected," made with director Tony Kaye are prime examples, but perhaps the best one is Guinness "Surfer" with director Jonathan Glazer, an ad many consider to be one of the best ever made.
Campbell's latest collaboration with Glazer is the film Under the Skin, a sci-fi drama starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien who roams the streets of Scotland, seducing men to destroy them. Its been hailed as a daring and experimental triumph, and a "grand statement on what it means to be a human being." The L.A. Weekly wrote, "We may finally have an heir to Kubrick."
The film, a loose adaptation of the 2001 Michael Faber book, took Glazer almost a decade to make and Campbell was brought in midway through the process. Much has been made of Glazer's Candid Camera-style filming of Johansson approaching real men on the streets of Glasgow, and that Campbell chose not to read Faber's book.
Campbell says instead of using the book his impression of what the story should be came out of many long conversations with Glazer. "John and I do like kicking ideas around," says Campbell. "We care where we end up but we don’t set off with that agenda in mind. We just start talking. With this project there was a lot of very strange conversations during this process about things like existence. It was interesting because it was this weirdly indulgent sort of stuff that was around what we were trying to do, but sometimes not really having anything to do with the story. Somehow these things would intertwine, then we’d look at what we were trying to achieve. It was almost like taking a very scenic route to where we wanted to go to achieve something with the film."
A keen attention to detail, particularly unexpected details, is clear in Campbell's work. Part of that, he says, is how his process for constructing a story always keeps an eye on the sidelines. "It’s weird," says Campbell. "It’s like tunnel vision and peripheral vision at the same time. I know where I want to go eventually but I’m also interested in everything that’s going on at the margins. So I‘m trying to bring in things that perhaps shouldn’t matter, but I’m thinking about what that thing that shouldn’t matter has to do with where I’m going."
Campbell credits his time working with director Tony Kaye as a major influence on his approach to storytelling, in which no one element is most important. "Some of his mantras are important to me," says Campbell. "He used to say everything is 51%. The sound, the casting, the music, the location, the weather, the words, all of these things are 51% in terms of importance to any given frame. It’s terrible math but it’s about trying to find a bit more in each moment."
Collaboration with Glazer was a significant part of Campbell's process for the film, much more so than when the two have teamed on advertising work. "It’s a slightly different process because the scenic part of the journey usually happens before you get a director involved," says Campbell. "You’ve probably already done the work to understand the brief, understand the expectation and ambition of the client, and a way of making an iteration of it that’s potent and will do the job, before you think about who can make it."
The differing nature of deadlines between the film and his ad work doesn't have an effect on Campbell's process. "When you’re making a film, people are investing in development and the notion that it will become something, speculating you’re going to get somewhere," he says. "It’s not set in the same way as it is in advertising where someone’s already said you’re going to make it and it’s going to be on TV on this date. For a film, beyond your own internal clock, you don’t have anyone saying, 'When’s this copy going to be ready?' or 'When’s the pre-production meeting?'"
You'd think the lack of a defined time constraint for the film would've been a welcome sight to the veteran ad man, but Campbell sees virtue in a deadline. "I’m greedy at both ends," he says. "I think the answer comes from the problem. Once I understand what the problem is, I believe I’ll genuinely get to the answer. Once you’re into the process, of course people want more time to refine things, but you do need both some freedom and some constraint."