Following films set in an idyllic Italian villa on a far-flung Mediterranean island and a haunted dance academy in Cold War-era West Berlin, Luca Guadagnino set his sights on new cinematic terrain. "I've been interested in middle America for a while," the filmmaker says. "Particularly because my writer, David Kajganich, is from Ohio. So, there was something personal to him about this story. But also to me, through him."
As it happens, that opportunity came in the form of Bones and All, a story about fine young cannibals on a pilgrimage through the heartland of '80s America. The film follows Maren (Taylor Russell), who, due to her particular dining habits, finds herself abandoned and all alone on her 18th birthday. So, she sets out to track down her estranged mother. On the road, Maren meets dirtbag drifter and fellow "eater" Lee (Timothée Chalamet) and suddenly feels understood for the first time in her life.
Kajganich, who previously wrote the screenplays for Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash (2015) and Suspiria (2018), adapted the script for Bones and All from the 2015 novel of the same name by Camille DeAngelis. "It was this crazy, incredible, surprising blend of genres, to tell the story of this young woman's awakening," he says of the book. The film, too, defies genre categorization, equal parts coming-of-age tale, love story, and road movie — a transgressive and tender romance between these lovers, who just happen to eat people. And so, Bones and All is also a horror film, full of bloody hors d'oeuvres and flayed entrees.
Bones and All premiered during this year's 79th Venice International Film Festival, where Guadagnino won the Silver Lion for Best Director and Russell won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress. Following screenings at festivals around the world, the film opens in theaters on Thanksgiving. "Somebody at MGM has a sense of humor," Kajganich chuckles.
In conversation with A.frame, the screenwriter looks back on the blood, sweat, and more blood put into bringing Bones and All to the screen.
A.frame: This is your third collaboration with Luca. What do you think it is about your relationship as writer and director and fellow producers that works so well?
The first thing that comes to mind is Luca and I, obviously, we both love cinema and in the most democratic way. I don't operate with a strict line between what's highbrow and lowbrow, what's genre, what isn't. He doesn't either. Our early conversations when we were deciding whether or not to jump in and do A Bigger Splash together were so illuminating and refreshing, because he wasn't talking as if there was some hierarchy of cinema, and I wasn't either. We were just looking at one another with a bit of recognition, thinking, 'If we can talk about Fellini at the same level as we're talking about John Carpenter, then we're already becoming fast friends.' I think our taste is not exclusionary.
And so, that's a piece of it. I think we have grown to really enjoy one another intellectually, so we can get into sparring matches — loving sparring matches — about anything. And those things end up bleeding into the projects. We have a lot of ideas in these films that we make together, and they're not there to be decorative. We wrestle with them, and discuss them, and unpack them together for months before I start putting pen to paper. I love his sense of humor. We share a weird, a sense of humor that can be pretty dark and cutting. But, at the end of the day, I think he loves people as much as I love people. We just have a really fun friendship, and it's very rare to have a professional relationship that's deep like ours, because it seems to come out of friendship. And we dare each other a lot. We love taking on projects that are tonally really complicated, because he wants to see if I can pull it off, and I want to see if he can pull it off.
Something I appreciate about your work together is that each of these movies is wildly different from the last one. It's not as if you did the first one successfully and said, 'Great, let's just do that again.' Each one feels like you're taking a risk together.
This one in particular, because we decided to make it completely independently. That required that we, and the main actors, and all the producers deferred our salary until we potentially, hopefully sold the film after we made it. That kind of risk taking is a testament to and a test of a friendship, because you are putting everything on the line together. And the fact that we were rewarded for taking this risk by actually selling the film, and having MGM, and United artists, and Warner Bros. being such great stewards of the film, it's a huge relief.
But I finished this as both a writer and producer like one finishes a marathon, thinking, 'That was great, but I'm never doing that again!' Then, two days later, all I want to do is make another movie like this. Because it gave us so much freedom. In the process, we didn't have anyone looking over our shoulders, and that allowed us to take the kinds of risks that this movie takes without a lot of stress, because nobody was telling us they were dangerous risks.
This project started with you when you got the book. What was it that excited you and made you say yes? Because when you agree to something like this, you are essentially dedicating years of your life to it.
Yeah. This book caught me off guard, because it came from somebody who I'd never met, saying, 'I thought of this for you.' I don't take that for granted. I take it quite seriously, so when I read it, it's like being set up on a blind date. Like, what book does this person think I will fall in love with? And, in this case, it was this crazy, incredible, surprising blend of genres, to tell the story of this young woman's awakening. Once I got through the book and with a great amount of excitement, I thought, 'Wait, why am I the right person to do this?' [Laughs] I understand I have some kind of literary horror cred, but I don't have any cred as a young woman coming into her identity.
So, I went back to the author and the producer and talked with them to make sure that they were excited by my potential stewardship of this story. They were lovely conversations, and I felt very supported and empowered to try my best to somehow get further into this young woman's psyche. I'd never really written a love story before — that was exciting to me. I've mashed up other genres in other works, but never so many at the same time as this film. I knew it would be intellectually and technically a great challenge. And there was just no way around the fact that, if we didn't do this perfectly, it was going to be ridiculous. I love that kind of high-wire act. This film does not have a net. Once Luca came aboard, and then, the cast came aboard, and the department heads - many of whom we've worked with before - I was so happy, because, if we were going to fail, at least we were going to fail together as a group of friends.
Did you ever ask what it was that made them think of you for this book?
I did. This is before I had fully read the book, and I was hoping that the answer was the answer that I got, which was the first season of a show I did called The Terror. Because ostensibly, that's meant to be a horror show, but shh. It really isn't. It's about things like male friendship and how one retains one's integrity under great pressure. It's a drama wearing the clothing of a horror show. And I think the producer, Theresa Park, read this book and thought, 'Oh, this is a love story about a young woman coming into her identity, wearing the clothes of a horror movie.' And I think she thought, 'Well, maybe Dave is a good choice to be able to pull that off, since he's done it already.'
"There was just no way around the fact that if we didn't do this perfectly, it was going to be ridiculous. I love that kind of high-wire act."
The film's relationship to gore and how much is shown and how much is not shown was quite fascinating. Obviously, that's something that gets written again in filming and in post, but how much of the limits, or lack thereof, of the blood and guts are you laying out on the page?
I would say, by the end of the process, what is in the film is more or less what's on the page. But we had to experiment further in the shoot, because it was so important to what this film is thematically, which is a kind of invitation to the audience to join people in their emotional lives and in their psychological arcs. These people may really be off-putting to you in terms of some attributes of their character. How you decode that metaphor of cannibalism, whether you think this is an interesting conversation about addiction, or race, or poverty, or gender, or sexual orientation or whatever, there are lots of things used as a filter through which to see this film.
But, at the end of the day, if we had somehow protected the characters from their actions as cannibals, or overly protected the audience from having a complicated relationship with what these characters have to do to survive, the whole circuit would have lost its voltage. You need to push an audience into deciding to continue to be empathetic to or sympathetic to these characters. So, the fun part on set was when we would step over that line. I remember being at the monitor thinking, 'Wow!' [Laughs] We had things that ended up on the cutting room floor that I can't even tell you—
Now you have to tell me!
Well, like nipples being ripped in half. There was an ejaculating penis at one point. Stuff that wasn't hard to point and say, 'I think that's over the line.' But it sure was fun to be giggling at the monitor on set, thinking, 'We can't possibly use that.' But, in a couple cases, we did. Like I said, it more or less went back to what was in the script. But you can't know where the line is until you cross it.
Were you surprised by how Luca or one of the cast members interpreted any aspect of your script, where they brought something unexpected to what you'd written?
The character of Lee, as written in the script, it was a bit different physically than Timmy is. He had a more traditionally masculine energy and presence in the script, and so, when Timmy was cast, he looked at the part and said, 'I think we do need to adjust this, because physically, I'm just not that person.' But also - and it was a very smart idea - he wanted to have even less of a performance of being in control than the Lee in the script had. Both Lees are not in control and have a great deal of self-loathing. The Lee in the script was simply performing a little bit more control than the Lee in the film does. So, I was happy to relax that in the script so that Lee, in a sense, could be as openly fragile as Maren is in the story.
Mark Rylance brought a lot of very, very specific detail to that performance [as Sully, another eater], that great actors, like Mark is, can bring. They almost summon it out of thin air. I can't tell you how exciting it is to watch an actor of his caliber work from five feet away. It is something I won't forget. He had brought very, very, very nuanced and specific notions about costume, about how that character would move, about his diction. They were in the script, but Mark came in and said, 'I want to tweak this one little thing,' or 'Do I have your permission to push this in this direction?' He was very respectful, and the changes are very nuanced, but they add up to something so unique.
Do you and Luca start talking about what you could potentially do next when you're coming to the end of a film's journey?
All the time. We're always hatching plans. I've actually already written my fourth script for Luca. It's not the film he's doing next, because this one is going to require an enormous amount of preparation. It'll be the film, I think, after his next film. It hasn't been announced yet. Luca mentioned it in one interview years ago, so go hunt through his old interviews for it. [The project is Aryan Papers, an unrealized Stanley Kubrick film based on Louis Begley’s 1991 Holocaust novel Wartime Lies.] It's a pretty spectacular opportunity. It's the kind of story screenwriters hope that they will be connected with at some point in their careers, and I know Luca's is over the moon excited to be able to bring it to life. It's an adaptation of another book that was meant to be made years and years ago by a filmmaker we both admire so much who passed away, so this is our chance to maybe finish it.
By John Boone