Independence and the consent of the governed: the systems and scales of Under the Skin

by J.D. Connor

It is hard to make sense of the global system of independent motion picture production. On the one hand, each movie originates as its own unlikely case, produced for reasons that might range from the merely personal to the politically sincere to the baldly mercenary, a range that seems far less constrained than the return-on-investment calculations behind major studio moviemaking. On the other hand, despite this mountain of contingency, films are made within a system that seems to have general contours. Most independent filmmakers simply confront this scalar incoherence as a given; they have enough trouble making it into production and finding distribution. But for a select few, the difficulty in making sense of the general enterprise of independent cinema serves as a tangible problem that they aspire to solve, and in that aspiration, they might make a case for the centrality of independent production to the global creative economy more generally.

Under the Skin’s swift canonization makes this film an ideal case study through which to examine the international interstices, overlapping temporalities, and mediating institutions that compose independent moviemaking in general. My analysis grounds itself in three allegorical scenes stretching from the social microcosm of the film’s actual production to the macrocosm of global film finance. Between them, we find the mesocosm of British production in the long wake of social democracy.


When a movie as unsettling as Under the Skin becomes a cultural touchstone, it is frequently surrounded by behind-the-scenes tales that reassure its audiences that people—perhaps like you and me—made it. This dossier on Under the Skin presents three such tales. The first, which Amy Herzog analyzes, is Scarlett Johansson’s faceplant and its participation in a global star system. The second is about the pause in director Jonathan Glazer’s career occasioned by his decade-long effort to adapt the novel. This story revolves around the various “takes” he and his writers worked through, and the epiphany that resulted—still another five years later—in the film narrative we have. I will return to that.

The third story concentrates on the emblem of the production itself: the white van that Johansson drives around Glasgow, searching for “real” interactions, with Glazer and members of the crew hiding in the back. For those working in the van it was, on the one hand, a throwback to a sort of verité guerrilla filmmaking. The process thrilled Glazer:

“There were times I said to [producer] Jim [Wilson], Let's just dump the last two-thirds of the script and stay in the van. Because I loved the idea of leaving the door open to reality. The surprises. The treasure.” (Leigh 2014)

On the other hand, the production process was thoroughly up to date. The van itself was fitted with eight tiny digital cameras—more sophisticated than a GoPro, but small enough to be hidden in air vents or behind the headrests. (Sound was taken in a similar way.)

“Behind the bulkhead I’d be sitting in a chair and I’d have a monitor with eight images on it from the eight camera feeds. I’d have the DP sitting next to me, two guys doing digital imaging, the first AD and the sound man.” (Wiseman, 2014)

The eight cameras generated an enormous amount of footage—editor Paul Watts has said there were 230 hours of material (“Making of” 2014)—a digital mountain more typical of reality television than finely honed cinema. But in that footage lay the authenticity that both vouched for and stood over against the movie’s more elliptical aspects.

Part of the reason the van story has proved so compelling is the ludicrous idea of a major star such as Johansson driving around unrecognized (by all accounts she was rarely spotted), picking up men who would only later be told what had happened. But surely part of the story’s charge lies in the sheer indie-ness of the scene, the let’s-all-put-on-a-show self-reliance—all we need is a star, a bunch of cameras, and reality. Well, that and “a follow-up van, with makeup people and PAs, who had to jump out of the van and get release forms from people that we happened to film,” (Wiseman).

It is this follow-up van I want to concentrate on because in the mobile allegory of the film’s production, the scene in which PAs scramble for signatures is the moment when filming in the state of nature gets rewritten as a (social) contract. In the first van, Johansson’s alien, whom the filmmakers called Laura, is trolling for meat as part of some hard-to-fathom invasion plot. At one level, the production simply duplicates that process, really trolling for real interactions that it can convert into a movie. But whereas in the script the men who approach Laura are ignorant of her aims, and ignorant still as they descend into the abyssal blackness of her amniotic meat locker before being popped like human balloons filled with blood slurry, the on-the-street Glaswegians who approach the first van become swiftly inducted into the film’s mobile polity, consenting to having their images used. This behind-the-scenes story is, as usual, reassuring: no matter how oblivious the folks on the streets of Scotland may seem, the production system ensures that they will have consented to their being filmed.[1] [open notes in new window]

That reassuring story is, writ large, one way of reading the film as a whole. In not killing The Deformed Man (Adam Pearson) and in agreeing to have sex with The Quiet Man, Laura demonstrates both her recognition that consent is a central form of human interaction and her conviction that she can and should participate in it. But her auto-affective self-realization and ethical development are ultimately cut short when the woodsman attempts to rape her and, discovering the real of her alien blackness, sets her on fire. The distinct parallels between her acts of what looks increasingly like human ethical consideration and the woodsman’s horrific violations suggest that the movie is, properly, a tragedy of consent.[2]

Micro to meso to macro
As the example of the follow-on van demonstrates, the links between the narrative of Under the Skin and the narrative of its making are (at least) philosophical, ideological, performative, corporeal, and material. The scenes and the behind-the-scenes are bound together by modes of exemplification that range from metonymy to full-on allegory. And the filmmakers’ delight in the confusions between the quasi-staged and the quasi-real suggests that one lesson the movie offers them is a plausible resolution to the contradictions at the heart of the independent cinema system in which they find themselves.
One of those contradictions is market restriction. The authenticity that independent cinema depends on risks localizing its appeal. Here again, the image of Johansson in the white van is emblematic. The particular model at the center of this tale is generic enough—a 2006 Mercedes Sprinter, according to the Internet Movie Car Database (imcdb.com). Such white transit vans had been the staple car of the independent skilled trades for decades—the vans came white from the dealer, customizing them was an added expense, and in the end that would only hurt later resale. The ubiquity of the white van helps explain why so few spotted Johansson and why it was possible for a follow-up van to go unnoticed as well. Osterweil considers it a “signal” of Glazer’s “political concern with the quotidian,” yet it is more than that (46). As ordinary as the van is, it was not Laura’s car in the original novel. It was drafted into the project both because it enabled the very specific mode of moviemaking Glazer wanted and because it was freighted with significance, for the white van is an emblem of the New Labour era in British politics.

The “White Van Man,” in his (or her) tabloid incarnation appeared Saturdays in The Sun. Daniel Nettleton was an early example, opining harmlessly about British football, immigration, Blondie, and a war crimes trial (2/13/99, 8).

Adrienne Loades was a rare “White Van Woman.” Uninterested in sport, she was asked about corporate bailouts and the Irish peace process (4/3/99, 8).

The figure of the “White Van Man” apparently first appeared on May 18, 1997 in the Sunday Times, the same month that Tony Blair and Labour swept into power. Initially characterized as a particularly aggressive driver, White Van Man took on a broader cultural significance as he became a fixture of Sarah Kennedy’s Radio 2 morning show (BBC 2001). By 1999 The Sun inaugurated a weekly vox-pop column in which a different driver would offer his (or her) political opinions. Wondering what White Van Man might want of the government became as crucial a task for British pundits as divining the beliefs of Soccer Moms and Joe-the-Plumbers would be in the United States.

By 2001, the series was growing stale. The key art had changed but Paul Smith’s middle-of-the-road opinions on the usual Tory subjects—sport, tax cuts, merit pay for teachers—had not (3/3/2001, 8).

Even after the Tory-LibDem coalition swept to power in 2010, White Van Man continued to bedevil Labour. In the run-up to the party’s disastrous 2015 elections, Emily Thornberry, MP for wealthy Islington and South Finsbury and shadow Attorney General, tweeted a picture of a house in Rochester, with its emblematic white van out front and not one but three St. George’s cross flags flying across its second deck. Even without any commentary, the intent was plain: this was the sort of hyper–English, petit bourgeois voter that Labour could only shake its head at. There was no escaping the snobbishness of the image, and so Ed Miliband forced Thornberry to stand down (BBC 2014; Malik 2014). The van’s owner, Daniel Ware, was quickly dubbed “White Van Dan,” and his nativist, small-government political manifesto ran, sympathetically, in The Sun (Champion 2014).
If Laura’s van is generic, her accent is particularly marked. Johansson speaks with a posh English, not a working-class Scottish accent. When she approaches men asking for directions, her accent helps explain her confusion. Still, in a film as allegorically invested as Under the Skin, the English/Scottish divide is also emblematic. New Labour had campaigned on the devolution of governmental authority to the national parliaments and had made good on its promises in 1998. Labour and the Liberal Democrats initially controlled the new Scottish Parliament, but in 2007 the Scottish National Party formed the government. Now firmly ensconced to the left of New Labour, the SNP won an outright majority the elections of May 5, 2011—as Under the Skin was shooting. That victory constituted a mandate for a referendum on full independence, and following a complex set of legal precursors, it would be held Sept. 18, 2014. While the referendum would be defeated, the spectacle of Labour working with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats to entice Scotland to stay—“Better Together” was the slogan—would help pave the way for the SNP’s wholesale triumph in the Westminster elections on May 7, 2015, when they picked up 50 seats.
Under the Skin, then, is also a microcosm of the New Labour approach to intra-British politics, one that was already doomed. The Tory-LibDem coalition had not rolled back devolution—indeed, the UK­–wide parties competed to see who might promise more and more, on the way to “DevoMax.” But under the pressure of the Great Recession and the expectations of possible independence occasioned by the SNP’s rising power, the usual English strategy of seduce-and-abandon was fracturing. Either it would work, in which case some large portion of Scotland would feel just as used, or it would fail, in which case Scotland would be lost forever as a left flank of British politics (Arnott 2015).

As particularly British as the connotations of the white van may seem, Under the Skin balances them by putting Johansson behind the wheel. Five years into development, she was attached to the production, and the movie was able to secure distribution (McClintock 2010). Relying on her bankability, rights were sold to French distributor StudioCanal at the American Film Market in 2010 for $4.5m, before filming had begun (Wiseman 2014). Casting U.S. stars in British films for marketing purposes had long been a successful strategy, but in the Working Title productions of the 1990s, Americans played Americans, fish-out-of-water in the UK (Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings [1994], Janeane Garofalo in Ireland in The MatchMaker [1997], Julia Roberts in Notting Hill [1999]). In contrast, Johansson would be playing an Englishwoman-out-of-water in Scotland.

But this national makeover, too, found its way into the production. When the movie was budgeted at $41m, Glazer and Alexander Stuart envisioned an elaborate opening sequence that would trace the process of the alien taking on human form. However, that version would have cost “a million pound.” So when the production was radically scaled back, the opening was reduced to “the construction of an eye” and a set of language lessons (Making of, 2014). The opening thus depicts the materialization of the instrument of vision that will be necessary for victim selection and the perfection of the voice that will be essential for victim seduction. At the same time, by shifting the instances of incarnation to vision and sound in their minimal versions, the opening becomes more clearly symbolic, more directly emblematic of the cinematic as such.

Yet as with the van, what gives the movie access to these radically different scales is the narrative of its making. Those opening language lessons were, Glazer emphasizes, “the very thing that Scarlett had to do to learn to speak with an English accent.” (Making of, 2014). And that accent would provide her character with the precise distance from her victims that would enable the seduction to occur—a distance that forever verges on becoming the radical distance of the alien or, barring that, the movie star. In the cozy language of marketing-speak as relayed by Sam Adams in Rolling Stone:

“she's an alien in more sense than one: an otherworldly creature who's still getting used to the feel of her humanoid shell, and a movie star out among the hoi polloi” (2014).

Back to meso
The analogy that is emerging here—US:UK::England:Scotland—depends on a particular ambiguity at heart, one that allows England to stand in for a more general British context even as that context appears on screen in its increasingly devolved state. In negotiating that ambiguity, Under the Skin thus performs a very precise office, not only for a particular reception culture, but for the motion picture industry of the UK more generally. No film has been more central to the contemporary system of British film financing than Under the Skin.
My intensively allegorical and case-driven approach stands against the dominant approach to analyzing British film policy. In most studies, individual films may be emblematic of particular arrangements—Comrades for British Screen, Trainspotting for Film4, 28 Days Later for the “franchise” era of lottery funding—but the films have no operational significance beyond their existence and their position in the financial flow. In this essay, as in my look at Dope (Connor 2015), I want to suggest that independent productions may take on unsuspected powers—material, ideological, conceptual, and institutional.
Film policy in the UK has been subjected to sudden organizational and ideological shifts for decades, moving in fits and starts through various models of neoliberalism. Arts administration has been “increasingly privatized and commercialized” in a search for “growth and sustainability”—that is, a long-dreamt-of self-sustaining industry with no need for state support (Long and Spink 2014 97). The initial break under Thatcher in which the National Film Finance Council was replaced by British Screen seems to be the most profound. In place of direct subsidies backstopped by exhibition quotas, the Thatcher government moved toward a quasi-non-governmental organization (quango) model (Spicer 2014).[3]

Direct subsidies for cultural production should have the advantage of mobilizing non-market criteria to justify them: we, the underwriters, spend this money to make these movies because those movies are good (in themselves, for a variety of reasons). Andrew Spicer calls these “selective” mechanisms (66). In contrast, “non-selective” tax-credit schemes and creative-industry justifications rely on economic logics and are subject to economic critique. Such support is justified when it supports the creation of good jobs, when it drives tourism to particular locations, and so on, but one might reasonably object that such economic ends are reachable via other routes, or that the tax-credit race to the bottom is doomed to fail, or that in times of austerity, income support or housing benefits should receive priority. Even more, market-based arguments in favor of subsidized media production can answer the fundamental objection to direct artistic subsidies, namely, that the movies that result are bad (elitist, arty, obscene) by piggybacking on the market’s ostensibly greater sensitivity to popular taste as a stand-in for the political answerability that may be missing in direct-subsidy models.[4]

From Thatcher on, the UK system has combined aspects of both. The Major government replaced government funds with lottery money in 1995. In the ensuing two decades, granting organizations (variously the UK Film Council, regional Screen agencies, national Creative agencies, and the BFI) have based many awards on merit, broadly defined. Complementarily, and beginning in earnest in 1992, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) oversaw a set of complex and far larger tax sheltering and credit schemes. Currently, qualifying British productions are entitled to a 25% tax credit, where “qualifying” simply entailed meeting certain thresholds of UK or Commonwealth participation. Policy makers have churned through various schemes for putting the industry on a firm footing; none has resulted in a durable native distribution system. Initially, New Labour “intervened rapidly and decisively” to shore up UK “cultural industries” when it came to power in 1997 (Dickinson and Harvey 2005 420). The blunted radicalism of that first impetus gave way to an even further watered down defense of “creative industries” and a “retreat” towards “old distinctions between ‘high art’ and ‘popular culture.’” (Dickinson and Harvey 424).

The resulting industry was, as John Adams put it,

“indebted to the novel for inspiration, dependent on television and theatre for talent, and in hock to Hollywood for production values and aesthetic. Oscar and festival success still fuels the rhetoric of the film establishment” (2011).

When this strategy works, the successes look like Gosford Park (Altman 2001), the first big hit of the UKFC era, or The King’s Speech (Hooper 2010), “a suitable memorial to both the strengths and weaknesses of British cinema under New Labour” (Newsinger 2012). British cinema exists, in this model, to occupy “the ‘lost middle’…the mid-budget films that tend to be awards bait: the classy, intelligent stuff, interesting but not edgy” (Pulver and Brooks, 2014).
Under the Skin first went to the well in 2005, and received £150,000 in development funds from the UKFC. By the time it entered production, the UKFC had been abolished. The Tory/LibDem ascendancy in 2010 was swiftly and characteristically followed by a shakeup in organization of film policy. A “bonfire of the quangos” ensued. A wave of handwringing crested and broke, but, in the end, the changes were not catastrophic. As John Hill put it,

“For all the Sturm und Drang accompanying the decision to close the Film Council, fundamental continuities in film policy remained” (2012, 335).

Even the feared “rationalization” of grant-making was

“incomplete as devolution of political powers to the United Kingdom’s ‘nations’ meant that…separate screen support agencies existed in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland” (Schlesinger 2015 466).

There were, indeed, cuts, but the UKFC’s functions were largely subsumed under the BFI, which would begin administering lottery funds in April 2011. No longer simply an archive-and-exhibition agency with a modest budget to support non-commercial cinema, the BFI took up the responsibility for maintaining British motion picture production as part of its five-year plan, “Film Forever.” In the BFI’s first round of grant-making, Under the Skin received £50,000 in development funding and £1,673,744 in production funding. The latter was the largest single award of that cycle and would remain so until 2015 (BFI). Under the Skin was not finished. It went back to the BFI till each of the next three years, receiving another £446,000.

And while the BFI grants the lion’s share of motion picture support, devolution has pushed some lottery funds to smaller national agencies. Here, too, Under the Skin benefitted from its Scottish locales and personnel. In June 2011, as it was collecting nearly £1.5m from the BFI, the project received a £300,000 award for filmmaking from Creative Scotland, the maximum award they could provide (Creative Scotland). As Robin MacPherson, director of Screen Academy Scotland saw it, Under the Skin constituted the sort of “relatively modest but strategically joined-up investments in skills, development and production financing” Scotland should undertake “while completing our film and TV drama infrastructure” (2014). Eventually, Under the Skin took in £2,494,744 across the UK, not including funds from Film4.

But Under the Skin does not confine its BFI and Creative Scotland appearances to spreadsheets. Wherever one looks—across websites, in the agencies’ reports to the UK parliament, and in their strategy documents—there one finds ScarJo in her wig, lippy , and fur coat. Just as the production relied on her drawing power to secure distribution, so its financiers rely on her all-but-masked attractiveness to negotiate their own contradictory relationship to the twin poles of art and commerce. Yes, they say, we have access to the sorts of international, Hollywood stars that vouch for our industrial competence, but in our productions they are nearly unrecognizable. They are stars, to be sure, but differently accented.

That opening scene, then, is not simply an allegory of cinema or of Johansson’s emergence as a figure of international seduction. It is an account of the convergence of the movie’s aims with those of its major funder. The alignment of the components of Laura’s new eye replicate the lens flares of the BFI logo. Beneath the stridulant violin, Laura is learning to speak, first consonants, then syllables, then lists of words that seem to be alphabetical order. We catch her not at the beginning of the alphabet, but in the f’s—feel, field, fill, filled, fills, foil. She is not quite saying “Film Forever,” but it is close.

The reciprocity between agency and instance—between the BFI, Creative Scotland, FilmFour, StudioCanal, etc., and Under the Skin—suggests a harmonization of interests. The production receives funds for development, production, post, even distribution, and the agencies receive publicity and credibility in return. Yet that tidy system, like all “selective” award systems, runs the risk of seeming to be simply an alibi for a self-perpetuating coterie that deploys public money for private ends. In prior incarnations, the unpopularity of British Screen productions or the struggles of the Lottery-funded franchisees became fodder for muckraking journalism.

That may be less the case with Under the Skin, with its rave reviews.[5] Still, tragedies have their bad consciences, and in the case of Under the Skin, that bad conscience is the elision of consent in the UK’s twenty-year-old lottery funding system. In this system, vast numbers of ordinary folks take their chances, hoping to be selected—knowing that the system can only work if an overwhelming proportion will get nothing at all, while at the same time consoled in the knowledge that their losses will be, in some small part, converted into various nationally sanctioned cinema projects like Under the Skin. The lottery enacts the neoliberal economy’s simultaneous consolidation of economic success in the hands of very few “winners,” and its projection of a vast field of losers, ostensibly complicit in their own fate, and convinced of the absolute neutrality of the system’s selection process. Such sublimation is the obverse of the film’s insistence on the authenticity of its extended sequences of victim selection and person-on-the-street portraits.

When Laura’s gaze broadens out from the predatory search for individual men, it takes in dozens of women-on-the-streets. Eventually the men and women begin to merge, the soundscape layers, and a composite sociality takes form.[6] As individuality gives way, it is replaced by a representative body, Johansson as Leviathan by way of the Vienna Secession, a bankable face surrounded by bubbling gold. Laura trolls for men’s bodies; the production trolls for stories; the lottery for money. It falls to Under the Skin to make those opportunistic sorties undertaken at every level of the social cohere into something like a cultural strategy—into culture as such. [Figure 17]