Director Luca Guadagnino Talks ‘A Bigger Splash’

The director and screenwriter talk their processes…

A Bigger Splash is the latest film by Italian director Luca Guadagnino and is set for a theater release date of May 4. The film tells the story of Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a rock star who has just had an operation that caused her to lose her voice. She is vacationing on the Italian island of Pantellerìa with her filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Suddenly, their quiet retreat is interrupted by Marianne’s old flame and former record producer, Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), who has brought his adult daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) with him. Tensions run high and drama unfolds as the mute Marianne tries to grapple with her past and her present warring for dominance.

Luca Guadagnino directed the film as a sort of remake of the French film La Piscine. David Kagjanich wrote the screenplay, which was particularly interesting due to the absence of Marianne’s voice throughout the story. One of the topics touched on by Guadagnino was the use of the island as a fifth character to this story and the way the island’s “brutal, brutal energy” informed the trajectory of the narrative.

The island plays such a strong role in the film, from its bourgeois vacation environment to its harsh political environment. What did you want the island to express in the film?

Luca Guadagnino: The island was the first element, with rock and roll, that came on board. When they asked me to remake La Piscine I said yes, but I would take the basic points like four people, jealousy, but I will bring that into another place with another legacy. So the legacy is rock and roll, but the place is Pantellerìa, which is a place that is beautiful and political at the same time. It’s a place I wanted because I wanted the place to push those neurotic people that were invested only in one another. And I wanted to make sure that there was an element of otherness and outerness that could shake those people and say, ‘Hello, wake up. See what’s happening around you.’

Penelope’s character kind of encompasses everything, with Harry’s attitude, but also kind of resembling a millennial rock star herself. How did you develop that character with Dakota?

Guadagnino: We wanted Penelope to be in a way kind of an ‘It Girl’. Someone completely metropolitan who comes from a world that has seen everything and done everything and is so young, but she still has an attitude toward life that is manipulative and she thinks she knows everything. We wanted to push the edge of that so that when she burns herself with this sort of manipulative cynicism, she realizes that she does not know so much, or not as much as she thinks she does. The choices Dakota made in performing the character are fantastic, and I would say she’s really witty in the way she approached the idea of the ‘It Girl’.

Which character would you say is the most emotionally damaged?

Guadagnino: I think the most emotionally damaged is Paul. I think in a way Paul has the most deep wounds. I think that what Paul does in the movie is almost understandable, given the fact that he has been pushed to a limit. When you deny an identity of another and you crush a person by saying that that person does not have an identity, that the choices he made are not his choice, you’re really playing with fire because the feedback you can get, the need to survive, from that sense of displacement can be so strong that then he can go into very darker acts. I always avoided physicality as a person. I never fought at school with my peers, but I always had a very spitfire mouth. I never got hurt for that, but I now know that many times I hurt by even saying something. And I think that’s bad, and I feel bad for it. And I think we all have to be aware that it’s not just a physical act that can hurt someone, also the way you behave toward someone. So in this regard I think that Paul is the most wounded.

What surprised you the most about the final cut in terms of how the director interpreted your screenplay?

David Kajganich: I’m lucky to have had a totally different experience than the one that question assumes, which is that I was on set every day and in the editing room. So there were no surprises! Luca is a great collaborator. He actually loves collaborating so I was invited to be a part of everything. When I saw the final cut it was less about, ‘oh he took my line,’ and more about knowing all the scenes that didn’t make it in the film. That’s the big surprise for me is how many things we kind of built into that story in the shoot that didn’t make the film. I’ve found out since they’ll all be on the DVD.

Can you name one example?

Kajganich: In the ambiguous kind of final scene with Corrado Guzzanti, he asks for an autograph and his performance kind of starts at quite a high pitch. That’s actually the second half of a much longer scene in which he reveals this long story about himself and his relationship to Marianne’s music and how he had this lover who now lives in Palermo with a wife and son and whenever he hears Marianne’s music it’s like being in handcuffs. And she’s listening to this conversation not knowing very much Italian and getting more and more afraid for Paul. It’s a very darkly funny scene, but we had to cut a lot of it out.

One of the big ideas in the film is the failure to communicate. What was it like writing a script full of characters who can’t really communicate with each other and one character who cannot speak?

Kagjanich: It was a hell of a lot of fun. When you’re writing, you’re always looking for ways to actualize the dramatic potential of a scene without text. If you can find ways for people to explore what they want and try to get what they want without just talking about it, it’s really helpful. And this was Tilda’s suggestion actually quite late in the process of having Marianne’s voice be an issue. It was already in the script that she was going to be an actress who was trying to learn an American accent for a part, so there was already something about her voice that was conspicuous in the early drafts. She very smartly took that idea and said, ‘well why don’t I just remove my voice entirely.’ And we went through a period of negotiation where we decided to not make it a totally silent performance, but let’s have her choose very carefully what she says out loud, knowing that it’s at risk to her voice and her future as a singer. And that just meant that the difficult thing was just to balance the quartet so that it still felt like all four of these characters had some sort of an equal weight in the proceedings. And when you have one character not speak at all, there’s a possibility that all things could just shift toward the quiet space in that corner, but they’re such good performers and Luca is such a terrific director and we had enough time to modulate but it made everything that much more interesting. Having someone not be able to speak, but actually be able to speak, or to be able to whisper if she chooses to, made it even more interesting. If she were just mute it would be just a limitation, but this was a set of choices the character was making. I think the first line she actually says in the film is about ordering a margarita, which on the one hand seems such a non-essential thing to say, but if you’re Paul you’re thinking, ‘well she did say it so she’s obviously wanting to engage with Harry on some level even if it’s just ordering a margarita’. That’s his first sort of alarm is that she’s actually talking to him about nothing, which is something. It was a very interesting way to write a character.

Which of the characters did you find most difficult to write for?

Kagjanich: The amount of energy it takes to be Harry Hawkes… It’s a lot! And the amount of energy it took Ralph to perform that character, the amount of energy it takes to write that character. Because I’m not like that. In addition to listening to the Rolling Stones for a year, I read a lot of Truman Capote and tried to get that man’s joie de vivre in my head. And it was a lot of fun. I have to say it was a lot of mental, choleric expenditure just to try to get to that pitch on the page over and over and over again. But fun. But tough.

Photo credits: The Telegraph.

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