Director Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash opens in the UK today (on 12th February) and sees the Italian director reunited with his I Am Love star, Tilda Swinton. Swinton stars as Marianne Lane, a rock singer recuperating from a throat operation on the island of Pantelleria with her sensitive filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). When their friend Harry (Ralph Fiennes) turns up unannounced with his newly discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) in tow, we’re set for a tale of desire, jealousy and rock n’ roll.
DIY sat down with the wonderfully animated director who was straight away in with the compliments: “I love your voice, it’s so strong!” and spoke to us about what the film means to him, how the actors cannot help but project themselves onto their characters and about meeting The Rolling Stones.
I understand it was Tilda Swinton’s idea to play Marianne as a character who cannot speak. Was this the reasoning for making her a rock star who is recovering from surgery?
It’s a movie about how you pursue your desires and what do you want from the other. And how do you impose your desires on the other and how do you escape from the imposition of the desire of the other. And it’s about grown ups. And in this generation the grown ups are part of the rock n’ roll generation in my opinion. This led me to the concept of a past revolution that didn’t completely fulfil its promises but still brought with it a sense of unleashed freedom and a present generation who is, in a way, feeling oppressed by this freedom and actually need rules and wants to be ruled out. So I loved the ambiguity that could come out of the rock n’ roll [aspect] on these terms. I thought it was energetic and liberating, and at the same time frustrating, because of this promise that wasn’t encountered in reality. And when you’ve got this character of Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) you have someone who is existing right now around here, this kind of bigger than life, spirit of the party who truly believed that things are gonna be the same forever. You have Marianne Lane who is a performer so is used to change and morph. We know that all these performers they go through phases, they change and the question is: “Who is the conservative one? Who is the one who wants to really survive and who is one who is incapable of surviving? And what is survival?”
With the rock n’ roll and I thought that was fantastic and I think rock n’ roll is a cannon for the 20th Century so we play with this cannon. It’s a live cannon, you don’t play with literature you play with something that is flesh and blood and sperm and sexual fluids. You use it in a way that’s still relevant and when it comes to rock n’ roll it cannot come but to the Rolling Stones. It then becomes more important that you address properly the legacy of such a legend and you make them part of the movie, not as a decoration but more importantly part of the characters themselves.
One scene in particular looks set to become iconic and that’s Harry dancing to ‘Emotional Rescue’.
‘Emotional Rescue’ was a neglected piece of music when it came out.
The lyrics say quite a lot about Harry as a character…
Absolutely. I think we are all in search of emotional rescue.
So that piece of music was specifically picked for that scene, it was important?
It was in there on day one of the writing of the script, we wanted that.
So it would’ve been a major problem if you failed to secure permission to use it?
Yeah. I challenged myself twice already in my career. Once when I did I Am Love and I shot on John Adam’s music but I didn’t know if I could use the music. And I edited it on the John Adams music and eventually we invited him to see the movie and we said: “What if he says he hates it and he’s not gonna give us the music?” and he said yes, so I took that risk once. And then I did it again. I cannot avoid taking risks, otherwise why do we do our job?
If the Rolling Stones had said no what would you have done?
I don’t want to think about it! Don’t let me go back to that.
Thank god the Stones are great guys and recognise a good movie then.
They are lovely. I met with Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts backstage at their concert in Rome with Ralph. I am not that easily impressed and I don’t give a shit about famous people honestly, I don’t give a shit about them. But then you end up being backstage of the Stones concert and you meet these people and you see that they’re flesh and their eyes they’re really carrying that fucking life and that fucking talent! They are unassuming, they’re real, they’re kind. Oooof! And then we saw the concert! By the way, Charlie Watts looks like my father, that was really fabulous! The white hair at the back, he’s a little bit like Gino.
It’s interesting because my father, who I am very dearly attached to, he’s 84 now so he wasn’t a rock n’ roll person at that time, he was the generation before. So for me it’s exotic, that generation of Harry and I wanted to stick to it because I felt it was so strong.
You’ve worked with Tilda before but how did you come to cast the other principles?
The great privilege of growing up and being consistent in your work is that you can become listened to. So I became listened to by these fantastic people and once they got me in the room and I could talk to them about the movie, they said yes.
Ralph hasn’t played a character like this before…~
Ralph… You will see what’s going to happen next. He’s unleashed! [laughs]
You’ve unleashed the dragon!
He unleashed himself. He’s divine.
Penelope is a fascinating character, she’s pretty mysterious. What was the thinking behind writing that character?
I think that Penelope is Dave Kajganich the writer. He’s a wonderful writer.
The location is incredibly important. What made you choose Pantelleria?
I wanted them to be adrift. I didn’t want them to be in the backdrop of a sunny, lovely place. I hate that. I hate postcard movies. You know like, you’re Italian, you make a movie set in Italy you can’t go into the ‘Under The Tuscan Sun’ kind of syndrome. You can’t, you have to do something that is real. So I said: “They should be adrift, so on an island and they should be in Africa even if they’re in Italy”, so I said Pantelleria and Pantelleria became a character because Pantelleria is so urgent, it’s so present that it needs to be portrayed as something that has to do with the action of the film, not just as a backdrop. It’s suffocating but still it’s grand.
You took some inspiration from Patricia Highsmith who’s rather the Queen of these classy thrillers.
She’s fantastic. All Highsmith’s novels - well all the novels I’ve read of Patricia Highsmith’s and I also read about her - they’re all about power. They’re not about the perverted sexuality of characters it’s about power. I believe that a relationship is about power and what is power in the Foucauldian terms. What happens when people are forced to exercise power on other people and how that identity fluxes in power. These are Patricia Highsmith things for me and that’s what I tried to get from her.
Is there a character in the film that has the power?
Well, they all shift positions. I think that Marianne Lane in a way ends up being the decision maker for all the kind of decisions we can think of and that carries a lot of ethical question marks. That’s my perception and I am shy to say that because maybe someone comes into the movie and says, “Oh no I think it’s the snake, or I think it’s Paul…”
We have a major character that doesn’t need to speak to portray her thoughts and feelings and I feel a lot of this is down to Tilda herself, the way she carries herself…
A magnificent filmmaker. She can do anything. She said to not let her speak so that she can react in a different way than words to Harry and to the island and to everybody. So we took off the dialogue and then we shaped the script in a different way. A movie is a movie. You shoot and things happen during the shoot and you must welcome these things.
Did anything take you by surprise while you were shooting and then you added them to the film?
Well, the ricotta scene is one for instance. It was a different scene and then one day I went to buy ricotta and I had the same experience they had and thought to myself, “Oh, when Harry wants to get her back to him he should allure her with something that is not a social gathering, it’s more private and quiet.” And he shows her that he has another emotional corner to himself, so her brings her there. That’s the fatal moment in which she gets moved by it and he feels that she’s going to go back to him but he didn’t understand, ‘no’.
Let’s talk about the character of Paul.
Every movie is a documentary about the actors playing in it first and foremost so a lot of him is Matthias. I love Matthias his powerful fragility is amazing, Paul’s fragility. And only Matthias could have done that. I love him, the camera loves him.
Paul’s recent past is never fully explained…
I like an audience to be like Hansel and Gretel and to find their way back home by following the little pieces but not having them a paved road.
A Bigger Splash is released in UK cinemas now.