Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes Discuss ‘A Bigger Splash’

Character backstories and deleted scenes…

Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes star opposite each other in A Bigger Splash, the latest film from Luca Guadagnino set to open in theaters on May 4. The film tells the story of Marianne Lane (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 (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.

We recently sat down with Swinton and Fiennes during their press day in New York to discuss the film and their characters.

On one hand, Marianne is sort of this wild rocker, and on the other she’s this sort of chic and reserved vacationer. How were you able to reconcile those two parts of her?

Tilda Swinton: That’s such a great question because that was a big conversation that we had when we were comparing it… What I need to tell you is that she wasn’t always going to be a rock star. She was going to be an actress before I was attached to the film. Luca and I are working together all the time on many different projects, but this wasn’t one of them. I was going to not make a film that particular year. My mother had just died and I didn’t want to do anything, and I certainly didn’t want to play an actress who talked a lot, which she did in this original script. And then when Luca finally came to me and said, “Look, will you think about it?” I figured, ‘well, how would it have to be in order for me to authentically kind of bring something to bear.’ First of all, I really didn’t want to play an actress. And secondly, I wanted to have no voice. And then very organically it worked out. ‘Well if she was a singer, a rock star, who had lost her voice…’ And I know singers who have had this operation and who’ve been through this hiatus, and I just kind of fixed on this idea. And then of course it rolled over into all sorts of other advantages. Harry was always going to be a record producer. She was going to be an actress, he was going to be a record producer, but if they had both been musicians and they’d worked together then that made the bond even closer. But that question of the reconciling of those two – because she’s moving into this whole new zone! You know, in my experience, I know people for whom this is true, I know people who really have public personae that’s really quite extreme, but are, as Penelope says to Marianne in the film, pretty domesticated for a rock star. I know three people I can think of who are really great cooks, really quite productive in their kitchens, and really domesticated for rock stars and would like to be quieter. That’s not true of all rock stars, some rock stars go the whole way and they carry it right the way through. But there are others who really… Well, Bowie wrote the book on this of course when he created Ziggy Stardust, but it’s the possibility of having these two existences, and then choosing one over the other. I think it’s quite authentic. But also for her at this particular moment in her life that her mother’s died and she’s kind of dressing a little like her mother, wearing her mother’s clothes, that’s also my observation and many of my friends have felt that way a little bit as well when their mother dies. That’s again a very not-rock-star thing but a very human thing and so trying to find the human story inside the rock star trajectory was really interesting.

On the topic of relationships, the bond between you and Matthias is already so developed with so much history at the start of the film. How did you suggest and develop them?

Swinton: That’s very perceptive because I really wanted to look at cinematically how to show a really long bond and rhythm in only a minute because you’ve got to get on with the story. We talked a lot about that. I always said that in the Hollywood version you would have somebody waking up at the end going, ‘I just had a terrible, terrible dream that we were on this island,’ and it’s the dream of a woman who wants to break up with someone and can’t get the guts together to do it. And so she has this dream about being on this volcanic island with this new lover who’s kind of fabulous and everything she wants and she doesn’t talk and all that kind of stuff and then he, the guy she’s trying to break up from homes into view and creates havoc and then, spoiler alert, of course, all that happens. And that’s like the nightmare that everybody who’s trying to get the courage up to break up in a relationship would have. I think it’s really about grown ups growing up. How do you grow up? How do you get to be this age and keep making fresh choices and keep making sure that you’re not regretting things and keep rebooting your life? And I think anybody of my age is involved in that dance. As I say, you don’t have to be a rock star to be involved in that. Of course, the volume of that is pumped up by the fact that they’re rock and rollers and rock and rollers of course never age and never die and he’s trying to kind of keep the party going and she wants to go home and be peaceful and get some rest.

Another important relationship is the one of parent and child, which we see with Harry and Penelope. In your interpretation, how do you think Marianne was raised and what kind of impact did her mother have on her?

Swinton: That’s a really great question. Again, there was sort of an early strand in the script which we actually shot, then eventually cut out. I don’t want to distract you with this, but there was an idea that her mother was actually a kind of film star. There was a scene where she’s at San Gaetano, the big fiesta, and a little girl comes up and thinks she’s her mother because her mother was someone like the equivalent of Julie Andrews. It was a like a child being at San Gaetano and seeing the person who played Maria von Trapp and going ‘oh, aren’t you’ and she goes, ‘no, I’m not.’ It was the whole idea of being mistaken for her mother and stepping back into her mother’s milieu. And we cut that out because we thought it was distracting, but all the way through shooting we were thinking of her mother as being this very different kind of famous woman and as someone who had negotiated being a superstar and becoming a mother and becoming a domesticated person even in the public’s eye. It’s a bit of a distraction to mention it, but I was thinking that her mother had been a strong presence in her life and that she’d maybe rebelled and done her own thing and now her mother’s died and she’s kind of stepping back into that rhythm and mourning her way through that. And then of course Penelope turns up and she starts saying her own lines back to her. It’s really haunting because she’s trying to move on, she’s trying to grow up, she’s trying to leave her old self behind, and then here’s this girl who’s sampling attitudes. In that scene at the airport Marianne sees herself played back to her. And in a way she does a very good mother thing by telling her to get real and take responsibility.

A lot of producers feel as though they’re members of the band. Can you talk about how Harry saw himself now that he’s come back into her life in terms of the influence that he had on her?

Ralph Fiennes: Well I’ve always thought that in the past he was a very good producer, despite the sort of party animal that you meet who’s cooking and dancing and being provocative and talking, I think actually he’s really, really good at putting music together and guiding a musical artist. And I would imagine that the history of Marianne is that a lot of her best recordings and best work was formed by Harry and that underpinned their relationship. And I think it was very balanced and she was a very gifted performer and singer, and then he has helped to shape her. My sense of the history is that he just couldn’t stop his hedonistic lifestyle and went off the rails to a point where she couldn’t handle it. I had one backstory that on her last album the artistic connection was so intense that it sort of muted the emotional relationship. He put everything into the work and somehow that had displaced their physical and emotional connection. Whatever’s happened, she has walked away and has had enough and has been empowered and found a new sense of herself in this life with Paul. And I think Harry doesn’t like that, even though he’s in large part responsible for wrecking the relationship.

How does the dynamic change when you’re working with an actor who is making a conscious decision not to respond?

Fiennes: It was interesting because it seemed to give Harry’s verbosity a bit more definition. Initially, I had agreed to be in a film where Marianne spoke. I was a bit cautious. I worried that it would take something away from Tilda as Marianne. Would it be that your dialogue is your ammunition and what you can do? But Tilda was very interesting about why she wanted to not speak. It came from, to a degree, some stuff in her own life, but she’s interesting in inarticulacy, when people can’t. And I think she’s really smart about it. It sort of gives an odd color to the film, and odd nuance. In the good sense odd. If you think about if it had just been dialogue of old lovers back and forth, we would probably fall into all kinds of cliché-ridden areas. Although there is a bit of it there, it’s all through the context of her not able to speak, but also probably not wanting to. I have to say in hindsight, once we started filming I thought, ‘this is working’. It seemed like a stroke of… A stroke of something. Not genius, necessarily, but it seemed like a very smart choice that Tilda made. Luca loved it!

And with regard to his relationship with his daughter, what can you say about that?

Fiennes: He’s very relaxed in her company. They’ve just met, they’ve been traveling a bit. He’s getting to know her, he loves how cool she is, how independent. He’s kind of intrigued by her. I think Harry’s the sort of guy who’ll feel someone’s energy quite quickly and he’s learned not to be over-attentive to Penelope and I think he sees that she is a sexual young creature and part of him is intrigued by that but I don’t think he’s trying to sleep with her or anything. I think he’s learning who she is, this new creature who is his daughter. He’s never experienced her as a child or as a baby. I would imagine that’s quite a weird one if you suddenly met your daughter as a result of a fling had eighteen years ago and this potent young woman enters the room. It’s probably a bit of a mindfuck. But I think Harry’s dealing with it quite well. I think they have a bond. I love working with Dakota. We fell into a dynamic that felt really right and quite at peace with each other. I think what surprises Harry is that he’s quite protective of her.

Photo credits: The Telegraph.

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