Top image: Still, ‘A Bigger Splash’ 2016 © Studiocanal
Like David Hockney’s painting of the same name, Luca Guadagnino’s new film A Bigger Splash is bright, beautiful to look at and yet ultimately concerned with what is happening below the surface.
A loose remake of Jaques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, this time the psychosexual drama takes place under an Italian sun, on the island of Pantelleria – the dark volcanic rocks and powerful scirocco wind rising up from the Sahara, seeming to exacerbate the characters’ internal conflict.
Guadagnino’s starry quartet is led by long-time collaborator Tilda Swinton. The two have been friends for over 20 years and he likens her to family. She never intended to be a part of A Bigger Splash but when she finally came on board, her input shaped the narrative drastically with the decision to make rock goddess Marianne Lane mute, due to vocal surgery. Marianne has gone to the island to to recover with her filmmaker boyfriend Paul (played by a strong and mostly silent Matthias Schoenarts). But their peaceful haven is irreversibly disrupted when Marianne’s ex-boyfriend – the comically verbose music producer Harry, played remarkably by Ralph Fiennes – arrives uninvited with his coquettish daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).
We caught up with the director to discuss some of the film’s key elements, from music to food, and why being a director is like divining water.
Angelica Pursley: Rock and roll plays a central role in the film – from the worlds the characters inhabit to the music featured. Was this always a key element of the film’s concept or did this only happen when Tilda Swinton came on board and changed Marianne’s career from an actress to a musician?
Luca Guadagnino: No no, it was from the very beginning of the concept of this film. Harry Hawkes [Ralph Fiennes’ character] was the pivotal element to the concept of rock and roll because of him being a music producer to The Rolling Stones. He is carrying this spirit of constant enjoyment and sensual abandonment to the riff of music.
I’m a very boring person when it comes to my own life, but when it comes to making movies I’m very much inspired by things that are odd to me in my private life. I never did drugs, I never go out, I don’t go to clubs…I don’t go to concerts because I don’t like the crowds. But I’m completely fascinated by that world and I try to be very truthful to that world if I have to depict it. Rock ‘n’ roll itself has always been inspiring to me. I mean, think of the great movie by Jean Luc Goddard called One Plus One on the making of Sympathy for the Devil. That movie strongly influenced me, and I tried to encompass that lesson of cinema in this movie as well. Or again, speaking of the Stones, think of the Scorcese movie Shine a Light – another great concert movie which really was fantastic to look at, also Stop Making Sense Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert movie. So I think this film has always been informed by a great attraction and interest in the music world.
AP: You’ve said that having The Rolling Stones music as an element of the film was vital from the outset, and they ended up not only allowing you to use their tracks but also informing certain parts of the film. Why do you think they were so accommodating in this instance?
LG: I don’t know if they were accommodating, I think they just wanted to understand what we were going to make. Once we agreed to show them what we were doing, they realised that there was something in it that was meaningful to them and they allowed us to go ahead.
AP: In terms of Marianne Lane’s character, was she inspired by anyone in particular?
LG: We were talking a lot about Ingrid Bergman for the private Marianne Lane and for the public, the rock and roll persona, I think we had a lot of images of Chrissie Hynde and Róisín Murphy. For me, at least, those were the references, but then the unconscious works by itself so you end up having her in a dress that reminds you of Ziggy Stardust, but that was really by chance.
AP: Speaking of the costume design in the film, can you tell us a bit about working with Raf Simons and Dior?
I made a movie called I Am Love in which the costume design was done by Antonella Canarozzi, for which she earned an Academy Award nomination. When we came to the idea of creating this grand dame from the Milanese bourgeoisie, I thought that instead of going for a simple naturalism, in a way we had to hyper conceptualise the idea of a matriarch. I had always admired Raf Simons work – he’s one of the most intellectual of the artists in fashion – and I thought he could understand. Also the code of what he was doing at Jil Sander was very relevant to what I wanted to do. So we worked with him and his team and when we finished that movie, having had such a great return from it, I felt it was kind of natural that we looked toward working together again.
AP: What were you going for in terms of her silhouette?
LG: We wanted to get a sort of classic, timeless need for quietness. Which you get. It’s super classic but in a different way, with light, modern touches.
AP: You seem to have a strong relationship with fashion. What is it you enjoy about fashion film?
LG: Sometimes I do allow myself into a relationship with a company that has a history whose legacy you can try to summarise into a lovely little film. Sometimes it’s nice to do something small, sometimes it’s nice to do nothing and just rest, or to do something else, like a documentary about fascism in Ethiopia. I’m very eclectic.
AP: So you enjoy flexing your muscles in different areas…
LG: I would say: tasting as much as possible and not denying my mouth anything in particular.
AP: That actually brings me nicely onto my next point which is the elements of food in the film. It was a notable facet of I Am Love and you seem to be referencing it again here…
LG: The food in A Bigger Splash is there because when you are on a holiday, you eat. You eat all the time. I mean I think it’s important to make the food in my movies less relevant than people think it is but more relevant to the fact that it’s normal that you have people eating food. We all eat.
AP: Did you plan the particular food that is in the film beforehand?
LG: The ricotta came later while we were on the island prepping the movie, it came out of my relationship with the place, and David [Kajganich]’s – the wonderful writer – capacity for grabbing reality and making it a part of the movie.
AP: From what I’ve read you come across as a very collaborative director…
LG: No director that is of quality is not collaborative. It’s an exoticism the idea of a director who is dictating everybody with his vision, a sort of stupid idea which comes from the remoteness of our work from the general public. No, it’s ridiculous. Directing is a complete collaborative conversation. All the directors I know that are great are collaborative. You would be stunned to see how much Spielberg is collaborative, it’s just that the director is a rabdomante [water diviner], he has to look for water and he has to get the water off of the ground and the thing that comes off of the ground is the film.
AP: Did you allow for much improvisation in this film?
LG: I don’t know if I would like to label it as improvisation, I would say it’s more an embodiment of what you do and dealing with the reality of actual doing it, instead of the abstraction of the page.
AP: How would you describe your presence on set?
LG: I think you would have to ask the people that are on set with me. I don’t know. I know that I try to avoid as much as possible physical efforts because I am a very, very lazy person. I hate to put myself into a physical stress if I don’t need to. Sometimes you need to put yourself into stress – but I try to be quiet.
A Bigger Splash opens in cinemas across the UK on February 12th