Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Interview with A Bigger Splash Screenwriter David Kajganich [Contributor: Rae Nudson]

A Bigger Splash is like a wish gone wrong. When a rich rock star and her friends go on an island vacation, they all think they know what they want — until they get it. A remake of the 1969 movie La Piscine, A Bigger Splash (in theaters today) tells roughly the same story, but with a much deeper emotional resonance.

Screenwriter and executive producer David Kajganich talked with us about how he wrote a script that emphasized what characters don’t say, how he wrote a monumental death scene, and how people in crisis can react in desperate ways.

(There are spoilers, but since this is based off a film that came out almost 50 years ago, I don’t feel bad about them. Besides, Kajganich talks so smartly about his storytelling choices, it’s worth it.)

So much of the movie is about the words that are left unsaid. How do you write a script that is so much about what people aren’t saying? Do you run into certain kind of challenges?

David Kajganich: It’s not typically the way a script would get written, and there’s an interesting story about this particular script in that the character of Marianne [played by Tilda Swinton] was originally meant to be an actress. So in the first draft of the screenplay, it was an actress who was on vacation on this island, Pantelleria, and she was taking time to perfect an American accent; she was a British actress who was going to play an American. So in the script, there was already something about her voice that was conspicuous. And so when Harry [played by Ralph Fiennes] arrives in the early drafts of the script, he was sort of reacting to this weird persona she was trying to master and how that was getting in the way of their interactions.

And when Tilda came on, she had this stroke of genius about doing kind of two things at once. One is maybe moving Marianne from the world of acting into the world of music so she would be even closer to Harry in the scheme of things because Harry’s character was always a record producer. So once we realized making Marianne a musician as opposed to an actress gave us an extra voltage in terms of their past, then Tilda had the idea that perhaps Marianne had surgery, which is not uncommon with people who sing for a living, that eventually they run into problems with their vocal cords, and that she would be in a position not to speak. It was an amazing suggestion, and Luca and I went to meet with Tilda for a week to talk about how we could lay this out and how it could work. Then I went off to sort of do revisions to the script that would nail down what Marianne was saying and what she wasn’t saying.

It was an amazing experience. It was a really liberating kind of character to write. Liberating because it allowed the character to behave more than to speak, which is always more interesting. But it also meant there was a tension to this character that we know in the audience that every time she does speak, she’s risking injuring herself. So that means every line she says, you lean into because even though it might seem inconsequential, like ordering a daiquiri, it’s consequential to her for some reason, otherwise she wouldn’t choose to say it.

I think that’s the first line in the film she actually says out loud is this line about wanting a daiquiri. And for Paul [Marianne’s boyfriend, played by Matthias Schoenaerts] that’s a big warning sign because that means that Harry really does have the ability to draw her into something dangerous. So it was a lot of fun to write a character that doesn’t speak very much because it just adds this level of intention to it that you don’t normally get so emphatically with a character.

And then, you know, the script definitely was an unconventional script in the sense that a lot of the imagery was built into the script from the beginning, and a lot of the visual grammar. I had a chance to work with Luca [director Luca Guadagnino] for a month just talking about all this before I started writing, a solid month of just talking about the visual grammar of the film, the psychological terrain we were interested in pinning these moments to. It was an amazing experience, but it was definitely an unconventional way to write a script.

The original La Piscine seemed much more focused in one location and almost claustrophobic in the pool and in the house. But this went to many different locations, so it’s interesting that you guys talked about that and spent so much time on that.

DK: Well we knew, for instance, setting it on Pantelleria was something Luca felt very strongly about. And the more I learned about the island, the more I agreed with him that it was something of a subversive place to set a vacation movie. Because this island has two very different identities kind of simultaneously. One is that it is a very remote place, so it’s attractive to celebrities. I think Madonna had a house on this island for a while. Giorgio Armani has a big compound on this island. So it’s an island of subsistence-level farmers that host these celebrities who buy property there to get away from it all, quote unquote.

But the other thing about this island that’s so interesting, particularly when you think about this juxtaposition, is that for refugees trying to flee North Africa, this is one of the first stopping points on the way to mainland Europe. And to have those two competing identities for the location of the film is an incredible opportunity. To be able to see the refugee crisis happening kind of way in the background, way in background focus, because our characters are only in the most cursory way paying attention to it until it affords them maybe an opportunity to solve a problem. We wanted to be both accurate in how we were depicting it, not just to the events that were happening the summer the film was set, but also to the emotional realities of these characters’ lives.

It meant that it’s a kind of a complicated relationship the film and the script had to the refugee crisis because we weren’t looking directly at it until one of the characters decides to try to use it in some productive way — productive for her, maybe not so productive for the refugees on the island.

In your version of this story, the characters are much more sympathetic, I felt, than in the original La Piscine. Was that something you consciously tried to do? 

DK: Well I’m so happy you think so because I think a lot of what they do in the film — they do some pretty desperate and off-putting things. Certainly my and Luca’s attitude about characters like this is that it’s not our place to judge them. It’s our place to define them clearly for an audience, but also let a lot of ambiguity creep into their motivations and their decisions and their contradictions. The fact that you find them sympathetic is really a pleasure to hear because it means that we did our job well, which is we put them in front of you in a way that wasn’t about packaging them morally or packaging them in some digestible way and that you still found, in all of their troubled desperation, something worth sympathizing with.

We definitely set out to write characters that were in moments of crises in their lives and not judge them for that, but also pay very close attention to the ways that people try to get themselves out of their crises. And it’s often not pretty, it’s not flattering.

Did you have a favorite character or one that you related to the most?

DK: When you think of a favorite character, it’s hard not to go toward Harry’s corner because he’s such a revolutionary. He’s just such a fun character to spend time with. Even when he’s being aggressive, it’s still fun to watch because he behaves in the world in a way that I think a lot of us wish we could — without filters, and with total candor. So it was certainly a lot of fun to write that character, and it was an amazing amount of fun to watch Ralph play him.

And then we have a character like Penelope [Harry’s daughter, played by Dakota Johnson] who, up until the last moment, we see her is performing for someone — with different agendas, obviously. But to have a character spend two hours in a film, and then you only really see them unguarded in the final moment — kudos to Dakota for really being able to step into a performance like that because it was not an easy performance. It was not an easy thing to ask of an actor, and I thought what she did was remarkable.

To answer your question, do I have a link to any character more than any other? I think Marianne’s character is someone who has clarified for herself in this moment in her life what she wants. And what she wants is something more quiet and grounded with Paul than she’s ever had with anyone else — certainly than she had with Harry. And the fact that she has to do some relatively unpleasant things to protect it... I find that very moving.

Harry in the film is very concerned about losing his relevance, both to the world and to the people he loves. In Marianne, you have a character who’s deciding she doesn’t mind if she loses relevance to the world. I think she actually would find it a great gift, in a way. At the end of the day, I think her desire is the least flashy desire in the film, but I think it’s one that’s really about growing roots and having a deep relationship with someone she loves.

What was the hardest scene for you to write?

DK: We took a very specific attitude about exposition in this film, both with the flashbacks and with exposition and dialogue, in that we were only going to use it when the characters needed it, not when the audience needed it. So a lot of the early scenes were a challenge because normally when you’d be setting up all these relationships you would be including exposition that an audience needs. But I was deliberately going the other direction and meeting these people in their lives in the way they would actually be talking to one other, which is not about filling the audience in on how they know one another, or where they met, or any of those pieces of information.

It’s liberating to let all of those things go, but it means the dialogue that is actually being said has a lot more to do with character. So modulating those early scenes well, particularly because a lot of them are silent before Harry arrives, it’s just a different way of writing than I’ve done before — and a liberating one. I cherished the opportunity to write scenes that were about emotional connection as opposed to emotional information, but they are hard. They are challenging.

On the flip side of that, what was a scene that you felt like was really easy to write — that came together really well?

DK: The pool scene between Paul and Harry. It’s obviously one of the more intense in the film, but I feel like I knew those characters well enough by that point. The first draft of that scene I wrote it all out at once — I didn’t stop myself. I was amazed at how much of that actually was retained in the final script because normally you would massage a scene like that for weeks to get it right.

I think I spent enough time thinking about how Paul was sublimating his anger and how Ralph was really trying to play this kind of double game of allegiances with Paul and Marianne. When it finally came time to do it, for some reason it happened a lot more quickly and easily than I would have expected, which was a relief.

But there was so much they needed to say to one another through the whole film that they hadn’t that I guess in a way I already had those lines lined up in my head.

It seemed really natural — like a fight between old friends in a long relationship with deep wounds. It seemed almost like it boiled over, or was accidental, whereas in the original movie I felt like it was much more angry and on purpose.

DK: I think we decided really early on that everyone in the film kind of murders Harry. When Marianne turns him down and says she loves him but she’s not willing to be with him anymore, we referred to that on set as the first murder of Harry.

And when Penelope sort of plays his provocative rhetorical game back to him, when she says she wants to go home after probably having slept with Paul, we referred to that as the second murder of Harry.

So by the time Paul actually kills him, in a way he’s already been murdered by the other two people he loves most. We talked a lot with Ralph about in that scene when he’s underwater that he’s kind of ready to go. If this world now means the three people he loves the most have turned on him, then he’s not interested anymore. Which is an odd way to write a death scene, a murder scene. But it’s one of the things that we spent a lot of time trying to modulate perfectly.

In your mind, did Paul and Penelope sleep together?

DK: I think my answer to that question is simply what’s on the screen is the information you need, which is that she would like to and Paul is not immediately opposed to the idea. Whether they finally did or not, I don’t even know that I’ve decided that for myself. I think it’s fairly clear they probably did, but even to a character like Marianne, that’s probably beside the point. And what a relief to have a film that has that attitude.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length. A Bigger Splash opens today and you can find our review of the film here.


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