Luca Guadagnino, the director of A Bigger Splash, spoke with us on the NYC press day for the film which took place at the Park Hyatt. Guadagnino enjoys working with actors who have depth and are experienced in the art of filmmaking. Such actors make the best collaborators. He selected Tilda Swinton because of the synchronicity of their working relationship. He has always been impressed with Ralph Fiennes’ work and was intrigued with his directing talents on Invisible Woman, which Fiennes also acted in portraying Charles Dickens. Guadagnino felt Fiennes would be a kindred spirit of collaboration.
In A Bigger Splash, Tilda Swinton plays Marianne Lane an iconic rock star who is recovering from throat surgery and is with her lover Paul (Matthias Shoenaerts), vacationing on the island of Pantelleria. They are joined by Marianne’s former lover Harry Hawkes, a dynamic record producer who is looking to reestablish his relationship with Marianne in a desperate attempt to ground himself and his soul in the riches of their former love excesses. Uninvited, Harry brings with him his newly discovered daughter Penelope, provocatively portrayed by Dakota Johnson. Together, the foursome create a dynamic that becomes a whirlwind which eventually leaves destruction in its wake. Luca Guadagnino spoke about the filmmaking process on the island, the actors and much more, giving us a sense of his depth of vision, his flexibility and his directorial acumen.
Creating this film was a unique process.
It was terrible. (we laugh)
What was the greatest problem of the island, Pantelleria?
If you ask me personally, I don’t like to be where it’s too hot. I put myself into a terrible hole. I hate snakes (we laugh). It was tough, but I wanted it. I didn’t want to make a travelogue movie of nice people in a nice place. I wanted to make a movie in a place that pushed the cast and really questioned them and brought out their neuroses in a tough way. It wasn’t an easy choice, to be honest.
You were trapped on the island?
Three months, between July and September. The logistics were terrible. If you need something, you have to wait for it. You have a lens or two that breaks? It’s going to take three days. It’s not going to take three hours.
I thought the choice of the island was amazing. It is a volcanic island. The relationship among the characters becomes explosive, so metaphorically it was a wonderful choice, as difficult as it was.
Could you talk about the explosive relationships with the characters, the “lava” coming up so to speak and the force and desires that evolve?
I think it’s about the denial of it and the impossibility of restraining it and about tearing down that force. You pretend that it’s not there, but then eventually it’s going to break the surface, no matter what. And that is more significant when it comes to relationships that we’ve gotten through all our lives. You know we are the substance of the bonds that we make in our lives, the people we choose to be with. I wanted to explore that. I wanted to explore what is the significance of not being able to sever the ties that bring us together and what are the consequences when you decide that you don’t want to have anything to do with someone emotionally any more. There can be consequences that are terminal and that are really paradoxical. That’s what I wanted to do.
You’ve seemed to have established a nice relationship with Tilda. What do you think is the key to that?
First of all there is a kind of spirit, I would say. You can’t deny the fact that there is a chemical element of how people go together. We go along together very well. We have a similar approach to things we like. I personally am in awe of Tilda’s capacity and courage of really giving herself to the movie that she’s doing and having the intelligence of a filmmaker which doesn’t stop at the actual act of acting, but spills over to collaboration on a cinematic level. I think she knows that I am someone who is devoted to something that is not drama but to reality and I think she likes that very much.
How did you decide on Ralph Fiennes, other than the fact that he’s a phenomenal actor?
I think a lot has to do with the subconscious. I remember that I saw him as we all did in Schindler’s List, and I was like shocked by the power of his performance in that movie and his decision of playing that crazy character the way he did. Then he made Strange Days and The End of the Affair, and one of my favorite movies which is Quiz Show. And I always kept thinking of him. Then I forgot, not about him, but I forgot that I should call him to do this movie when I had the script. Then a few years later I saw the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel. And this M. Gustav gliding over the surfaces of the hotel in pink which made me think immediately, “Oh, of course, of course. Ralph is not just a brooding character he is also an live character,” so I asked to meet him immediately. And I saw his movie Invisible Woman which I loved. And I like directors because as I said before about Tilda, I like filmmakers. Not just actors. I like to deal with filmmakers because I like the way filmmakers think. And we found one another. And I’d love to keep going with him as much as I keep going with Tilda.
What about Dakota Johnson?
She’s fantastic. She’s one of your treasures. You should be proud of her. (we laugh) A national treasure. She’s great. She’s clever, she’s wise. She’s like an old lady whose got her balance. She’s beautiful in a way that is unpredictable. You have to think…for us it’s difficult as we work with actors. Every generation has a type. How many Sylvester Stallones we went through in the 1970s and 1980s and the only one was him. The right one. And you see all these actresses and they all look the same. And then you see Dakota and Dakota has this very beautiful face that is very truthful. Plus the fact that she has this amazing DNA. She knows that I am struck by her belonging to the aristocracy of cinema. But she knows that that doesn’t mean anything because what is important is the individuality of Dakota Johnson. As a person she’s really witty and she’s very sharp. And as an actress she makes choices that are not banal. And she is really original in the way that she goes for the choices she makes. We are going to do another movie together.
Yes. Is that why you’ve Tilda to do another movie?
Yes. We are shooting this movie Suspiria
Oh. It’s one of my favorites.
Thank you. I hope not to disappoint you. (we laugh) I already see the haters with their fingers on the keyboard.
Really? That should be interesting. I want to see your take on this.
It will be very, very wild.
Is everyone in this film involved?
Tilda and Dakota.
Tilda called this film another look at La Piscene.
That’s a good way to say it. It’s a smart way to explain the film. I told you she’s very smart in a very deep way. Another look at La Piscene…yes. Let’s face it, how many stories can we tell? Why are we looking for originality for the sake of originality? I think that’s something overrated. I think point of view is more important. By the way Akira Kursowa’s Ran is one of the greatest movies. It’s King Lear. But it’s integral to the filmography of that master and it’s a movie that surprises us and enlightens us and uplifts or whatever. It’s a fantastic film. Yet it’s King Lear. It’s another look at an old story.
Could you talk about the music and songs of Mick Jagger that you included in the film. I found it fascinating about how you selected the music you did for the soundtrack.
I don’t have a specific or particular log for composers for the soundtrack, even if there are many that are great. But I am not very comfortable with the idea of a soundtrack. I think the authorship of the movie has to stay in the hands of those who have a long trajectory in making the movie happen. Usually, the composers come at the end when the movie is edited. They have two weeks to make the soundtrack and it’s done. The bulk of music that we have on our back in the history of music is so huge. Imagery works better with something that pre-exists.
These movies about rock and roll, much of it is about desire. I think they intertwine fairly well, because there is a sort of similar nature of nostalgia that is both in desire and in rock and roll. We had to have a sound being really powerful that breaks the surface of the movie. And if you are talking about power, you can’t avoid The Rolling Stones. You can’t. And that’s one of the things that I had very clearly in my mind from the beginning. I had a very firm conversation with the studio. I knew it was expensive, but it was so important to have that music.
Then the larger canvas of the soundtrack expands from rock and roll to symphonic. We have a soundtrack made out of pieces composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim in the 60s, more or less at the same time in which the Stones were exploding and it’s this fantastic composition he made in New York, by the way. It’s a symphonic composition he made in New York collaborating with Klaus Voormann.
He collaborated with the Beatles and the Stones.
Yes. So all of it is intertwined.
We were talking earlier about Harry being connected with rock and roll and Paul being connected with films. There’s a different sensibility and that’s a part of this film, that you wanted to show the two different sensibilities. What is it in their sensibilities that you connected with? How do they contrast?
I think Paul is in a position that his freedom is pained. He is actually constricted by Harry. For all his liberty, Harry is a cloud to Paul, because he does not let Paul be what he wants to be. That’s why Paul in the movie’s backstory feels this impossibility and tries to kill himself because he doesn’t know what his place is in the world. He has been ruled by people, like Harry. Harry even says to him I am going to hand you my girl. In effect he’s saying I made your relationship with her, which is terrible. But let’s face it. The baby boomers came off of that…that generation has not yet finished the party. They think the party is still going. What is the feedback and power and dominion of the enjoyment instead of the transmission of the knowledge of it? What happens when the father tells you, “Enjoy,” instead of telling you, “Let’s find our voice and I will help you to take the wand of command. That’s what Paul and Harry are fighting about and that’s were Harry’s ultimate fate springs his doom from. He cannot see this imperative of enjoyment is unleashed and then it must have consequences. And that’s what I wanted to explore.
These characters are incredible characters whether you like them or not from a personal perspective. I just wanted to know what it was like weaving these characters with their myriad objectives into a cohesive picture onscreen?
Well, that’s like the philosopher’s stone. That is why every time you do a movie you end up being completely insecure the day it opens. How is it going to go? That’s why we do movies that are not machines driven by corporations and marketing departments as much as we love marketing departments. I think a movie is not a movie without marketing departments, to be honest. But that doesn’t mean the marketing comes before the film.
When you do movies that are without the safety net of being a product, then it’s a bet. Of course, you always try to have the distance so that you can see how all the pieces are going along together and that’s why you have these great collaborators like these fantastic actors or the people who help you do the movie. But it’s always an unknown country where you are traveling and hopefully, you become the king of that country. At least you’re going to be left alive.
A Bigger Splash opens in NYC on May 4th.