Loosely based on French New Wave classic La Piscine (1969), Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash (2016) is a portrait of four characters testing each other's limits on the volcanic island of Pantelleria. Rock legend Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is recovering from vocal surgery with her partner Paul (Matthias Schoenarts) when her ex, the boisterous record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), crashes the couple’s vacation with his daughter (Dakota Johnson). Harry represents the rock and roll world that Marianne wants to leave behind, but his nostalgic perspective on their shared past tempts her to reconsider who and what she wants.
A Bigger Splash is a vivid and subtly written film about characters in moments of transition, determining when to show self-restraint and when to surrender to the temptations they find on the Eden-like island. But in the close quarters of the vacation home, there is more at stake for these characters than their relationships.
Before A Bigger Splash's release, I spoke with screenwriter David Kajganich about his writing process, the film's influences, and the collaborative nature of working with Guadagnino and the highly talented cast.
ScreenPrism: I read that you went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and the fact that you were initially a fiction writer really interested me. What led you to screenwriting, and what was the transition like?
David Kajganich: I didn’t go to film school and I didn’t really have any proper training in screenwriting, either. I just happened to walk into the right movie on the right day. In my case it was the Kieślowski films Blue, White, and Red [Three Colors Trilogy]. I went into a theater and came out thinking that you could never do that in a book. I thought I would give writing a screenplay a shot and that at the very least it would help me write better dialogue. That was my early perception of what a screenplay was, which is so limited. I wrote one to try the form, and I kind of fell in love with it.
[A screenplay] is a blueprint, in the sense that you don’t have to have a style. It’s just about what people say and what they do and capturing that inside of a world that you’re building. Talk about getting back to Aristotelian basics. I thought this was really intriguing and happened to write a script that sold, and suddenly I had an agent. I moved out [to Los Angeles] thinking that in between jobs I would be writing fiction, but as it’s happily turned out I’ve never not had a job. I had to let go of fiction writing altogether to do this, but it’s led me to some pretty amazing opportunities.
Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash (2016)
SP: Earlier, you said you’re reading Victorian novels for your new project with AMC. What did you read to prepare for writing the screenplay for A Bigger Splash? Did you read about the Rolling Stones?
DK: I did a lot of research on the Stones, reading every book authorized or unauthorized that I could find about them. I read a lot about how their records were produced, and then when I came to Luca to talk about how this world would feel, I mentioned Paul Bowles a lot. He wrote The Sheltering Sky. He’s got a very hypnotic kind of tense way of describing the world in which his characters are often visiting — foreign countries where they’re not grasping the nuances around them. I also read a lot of Truman Capote when I was writing this because I needed to get that energy into Harry (Ralph Fiennes): that provocateur sort of ultra-confident, ultra-insecure mania that is not so hard to find famous people from history who had it, it’s just hard to find one that’s useful to a film. I just got Truman Capote’s voice in my head. So yeah, I did a lot more reading for this than watching. I watched a couple of films for references, but it was mostly about voice and I find that in books.
SP: The Harry and Capote connection is so interesting because I never would have made that on my own, but it makes a lot of sense.
DK: That’s good; it means it doesn’t seem like I ripped him off. There are a couple of good lines of Harry’s that he is essentially stealing from Truman Capote and not crediting. It was important to build that character in a way that you feel the influences, but he’s not parroting anyone, whereas Penelope (Johnson) is the opposite. She’s younger and not so schooled in this language, so you can feel her influences a little more by design, particularly when she’s mimicking Harry. I think a lot of this film is her learning this language from Harry and how he behaves in the world and trying it on for size. Having actors be able to do that kind of work is amazing to watch, actually.
Dakota Johnson and Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash
SP: That was something I noticed watching the film. Penelope shows her dad’s influence with the obvious references like the Rolling Stones T-shirt, and then more subtle ones. Early in the film, Harry says something like “She fucks and fucks and fucks,” and later on Penelope says, “We dived and dived and dived.”
DK: That’s amazing that you noticed that. That’s something that I wrote for myself to understand how these characters are playing off of one another. If anyone ever spots that, I’ll be astonished, so I’m astonished. [The intention was] to have you realize that she’s adopting a way of speaking and a way of thinking energetically about the world directly from this guy who may not be the best person to teach you a language, as it turns out.
SP: How did you and Luca Guadagnino get in touch, and what were the earliest steps of your collaboration like?
DK: Studio Canal had approached [Luca Guadagnino] a couple of times about doing a remake of La Piscine, and he just didn’t see how there was enough in the original film to grab on to. Meanwhile, he was also reading scripts to do an American film as a director, and he read a couple of mine and thought that the two of us might be able to chart out a way to approach this as an interesting project. He called me up and said he wanted me to watch the original, so I watched it and had the same reaction. I didn’t know where you would pull something out of the film to hang a whole new reimagining of it on. I called him and said, "I really would love to work with you, but I don’t think this is the right project because I don’t see it." He said, "That’s what I was hoping you would say. Let’s agree that we don’t see it and take the opportunity that the studio is willing to finance a remake of this." We would keep the basic characters and their basic relationships to one another and then build something wholly from scratch. I thought that was an amazing opportunity. There are certainly things we brought in that play on the relationship between [the two films], but it was mostly for fun to honor the original in some way. We didn’t feel any extreme need to follow the original, which was liberating.
Romy Schneider and Alain Delon in La Piscine
SP: Do you like French New Wave movies? Were there any French New Wave influences on the film?
DK: Yeah, I think one thing you get out of the French New Wave is the patient attention to character without judgment. In A Bigger Splash, you wouldn’t call it naturalistic, but there’s an attitude towards character that is. I think that’s absolutely coming out of the energy of the French New Wave: to build a film that’s about characters trying to pose the right questions to one another rather than the film answering your questions in the audience. I think the French New Wave is a great pep talk, in terms of preparing for a film like this.
SP: There were documentary aspects of the film, like the character Rosa who you met in town. It seemed like you were very true to the island of Pantelleria.
DK: We wanted to be because it’s such a complex place. I think the way Luca directs is very rigorous and in one way very curated, but all to the purpose of making the audience believe that the characters inside of the fiction are completely human. That includes the contradictions and questions you’ll never get answers to. It’s kind of a high dive the way he conceives of storytelling, and it’s such a pleasure to join him in that dive for a little bit. You hope the shoot opens, and if it doesn’t, you’re going to go out inglorious.
SP: It’s very lucky that you got so many amazing actors. Everybody at the [cast] roundtable talked about how much they appreciated Luca Guadagnino’s openness and the overall collaboration behind the film.
DK: I think that’s what a lot of people who make movies really want — the collaboration. It’s just that, a lot of times, people’s egos or insecurities get in the way, and this happens to be a group of people that work out of their talent who are less egotistical and less protective. It was a joy. We collaborated so openly I wouldn’t have thought it was possible until it happened.
Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash
SP: I read that Tilda Swinton changed her character from a British actress learning an American accent to a rock star who lost her voice. What was your initial reaction to that? I’m sure it was a little unexpected.
DK: Unexpected, yeah. I had two reactions. The first one, I was driving, and Luca said, "You should pull over because I’m going to tell you something — it’s big." I immediately understood how [the character change] ratchets up the tension because it means everything she says is potentially at a great cost to her. I just didn’t technically know how to pull it off immediately. It’s not something I had ever done, and I don’t think many people have tried it. Tilda was gracious enough to invite Luca and I to come visit her and to spend a week talking about how it might work, negotiating what could she say and what would she say, not what the audience wants her to say. It became clear that it transformed the film into something more. Anything we could do to move this away from being a thriller we wanted to do, and this was a major shift in making it feel grounded and about character over everything else. So I had a minute of panic, wondering how do I pull this off on the page, and then just months of realizing what a fantastic boost this gave everything about the film.
SP: I agree. Because of her silence, Tilda’s character feels up on a pedestal to the audience just as she is to the other characters — you can’t access her. Also, I wanted to ask you about the use of flashbacks. There are only a few, and they start out nostalgic but become less so. What was the thinking behind this?
DK: I think flashbacks work best when they’re part of the subjective experience of the character instead of an objective set of helpful pieces of information you’re giving the audience. So we just decided to put them where the characters would use them rather than where the audience would need them, and with the understanding that the past to these people is a dangerous country. Harry (Fiennes) is losing his relevance both to the [rock music] world and to the people he loves, Marianne (Swinton) is finally getting the taste of stepping out of that world, and Paul’s (Schoenarts) past is so fraught with his own anxieties and insecurities. Nobody wants to go back [to the past] except through the lens of nostalgia, but the events of the film force them to leave nostalgia aside for a minute and confront some things.
"A Bigger Splash," the David Hockney pop art painting that gives the film its name
SP: The film took a very unexpected turn towards the end with the murder, but it didn't feel arbitrary or twist-like. What genre would you consider A Bigger Splash, if it can even be confined to a genre?
DK: That’s a good question. We knew this murder was coming, and we had a choice to make structurally and tonally. The movie [can easily become] a light thriller procedural at that point, where it’s about whether Paul’s going to get away with it or not, but we didn’t want to structure the film around that. We wanted to turn a different corner into a dark comedy. You have this police detective who probably has everything he needs to arrest all of them, but he also might understand that what happened wasn’t intentional. And in addition to that, the woman at the center of this is a woman he’s been fetishizing his entire life. This rock star. [Marianne] realizes that there can be a transaction here. "I can maybe sign an autograph and maybe this goes away." This part of her life that she's now trying to get away from — the element of fame — might be the thing that saves them. That seemed like a much more surprising turn than a thriller could take. This was something that only a dark comedy could give you, although I don’t think anyone’s calling it a dark comedy. I’m with you — I don’t quite know what to call it, but I know it feels right in terms of what we wanted to avoid. In a way, it’s a little bit of a Falstaffian farce.
SP: It’s pretty impressive to have a main character get murdered and that not be the main takeaway.
DK: We knew it was going to be a challenge, but with collaborators like this you can have faith. You can really go for it and think you might actually pull it off. I can’t believe how closely you watched this film; it’s amazing to me. Thank you for that.
SP: Thank you, I really enjoyed it. So I know you’re working on the AMC project now and you’re going to work on Suspiria, the horror film remake, with Luca Guadagnino, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson. Is that this summer?
DK: Yeah, we’re in the writing process now. I’m also writing a film for Scott Rudin, which is an adaptation of a nonfiction book called Five Days of Memorial about a hospital in New Orleans during the week after Hurricane Katrina. There was a case where several doctors and nurses might have injected patients to death who they knew weren’t going to be able to be evacuated safely. Sherry Fink, who wrote the book, won the Pulitzer Prize for her articles about this. It’s kind of an amazing project, but it’s tough stuff.