Rock legend Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is recuperating on the volcanic island of Pantelleria with her partner Paul De Smedt (Mathias Schoenaerts) when iconoclast record producer and old flame Harry Hawks (Ralph Fiennes) unexpectedly arrives with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) and interrupts their holiday bringing with him an A-bomb blast of nostalgia from which there can be no rescue. "A Bigger Splash" is a sensuous portrait of desire, jealousy and rock and roll, under the Mediterranean sun.
With his last film "I Am Love", Luca Guadagnino wanted to explore the closed world of Milanese high society and what happens when true and dangerous feelings of desire arise and their mortal consequences. In "A Bigger Splash" he visions a film about love, beauty, desire, sex, sexuality and the danger of an old lover who by his own presence and actions can trigger destructive behavior and bring back the pasts of our lead characters. And by unleashing this past, our characters are drawn into their truest version of themselves and enter a tangled nexus of sex and burning desire, pushing them to a dark side. It's a completely modern psychological relationship drama; our classic cinematic bones and structure take shape in a most modern way of storytelling and characters who lead us to a charged and unsettling climax.
The film is inspired from the raw energy of Martin Scorsese, deep human insight of Jonathan Demme and the work of Patricia Highsmith and Paul Bowles with their acute sense of noir and ability to capture characters in a world foreign to their own. And this in turn brings out their truest impulses; usually meaning both the passion and danger of intense love and it's darkest corners. The film is about the idea of a fracture between a world that's no more, the rock ‘n’ roll world of the end of the 20th century, against a sort of new conservatism that's, in a way, ruling us today. "A Bigger Splash" is a truly contemporary portrait of our time and a side of Italy that's usually reserved to very few. Here people who seemingly have what they want are quite vulnerable and are trying to retreat from their world, only to find it encroach upon them. And once this happens, the glamor, the passion, the safety are cracked open and they descend to their most primal instincts. Yet out of it, something actually grows.
Interview With Luca Guadagnino
Q: How did this project come to you?
A: Studiocanal approached me because they had seen the film, "I Am Love", and they're interested in collaborating with me. I always had been very interested in collaborating with Studiocanal because they've been working on a very high level, and they're a wonderful home for directors. They really worship director vision. Studiocanal had rights in the 1969 movie, "La Piscine". The movie has some sort of cult status in France, which made Studiocanal think there was a strong starting point for a new version of the film. So we decided we should use "La Piscine" as a sort of inspiration, something that could allow us to investigate the things that were part of the original film, but in a way, things that could be broader. I personally was really intrigued by the concept of how desire drives the politics between men and women and between people in general. How this force, desire, can be overvalued or neglected, can be ignored or focused upon, can really be a destructive, productive, fertile force.
Q: And how did David Kajganich come on board?
A: I proposed to Studiocanal the idea of working with an American writer. I had been a great admirer of the work of David Kajganich for many years, because I had been reading his work before. I asked if he was interested in working with me on this, and he was, and we started a collaboration that I am very happy with, in which we dug into the politics of desire. We started from the idea of a fracture between a world that's no more, the rock ‘n’ roll world of the end of the 20th century, against a sort of new conservatism that's, in a way, ruling us today. We wanted to make this reflection in which these characters, not only do they fight between each other in a very private way, but in a way they also are players of a bigger game, a game of conflict that's a generational conflict. It’s a conflict between life in the world and the conflict between the injunction of the enjoyment that comes from this rock ‘n’ roll generation and the need for safety that comes from those who feel that they survived the great deluge of rock ‘n’ roll.
Q: Harry is your ambassador for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. He’s raging against the passing of time and represents that lifestyle?
A: I do believe that your attention always has to be towards those who are the minority, who are embarking in desperate adventures, and of course Harry is. Harry is neglecting to acknowledge that his search for a total honesty, a capacity for truth and enjoyment, is in total contrast with his need of an emotional rescue. He doesn’t understand that. I do also believe this is the great conflict of what's you happening now, where the younger generations are, in a way, more conservative than the older ones. Having been left without the capacity of administrating the outburst of desire, they rather prefer to neglect it. Maybe this is exactly the outcome of what happens when your parents, or the generation who should be guiding you, are guiding you towards a complete lack of responsibility. It’s interesting but it has consequences.
Q: Where does Marianne fit into this? She is a rock ‘n roll star but seems to be craving a settled life with Paul?
A: Marianne Lane is this gigantic rock star. She has been cut from the same cloth as Harry, the cloth of these fabulous rock personas. As a producer, he has empowered her. She and he were together and they're mates and living in the same environment and basically speaking the same language, but Harry does not understand that you can change. You can decide that you want to have a different angle and perspective on your life, and this fracture of not understanding this change in Marianne’s life is another reason for the dramatic outcome of Harry’s reaction to the people he's with. On the other hand, you can say that in order for Marianne to survive she must eject Harry.
Q: How important was the location in this film?
A: We must move the location from a generic resort or villa to some place like Pantelleria that embodies a very dangerous sense of otherness, and a sense of a natural urgency that creates another level of conflict with the characters. Because we're talking about the conflict within the four, but also we're talking about the conflict between the four main characters and the landscape, and I do believe you can feel that. A Landscape without people is a sort of crypto-fascist image. A landscape is always carrying the obscenity of human presence, and that’s why I wanted to have this impossibly strong force of Pantelleria against the incredibly strong conflict of these four private people so that you can say that they're facing not only their own conflict but also the powerful and unpredictable otherness of the island. Pantelleria is a truly special and particular island that's halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. The rocks there are dark, almost black from the volcanic activity. And the winds are legendary and powerful; known as the scirocco that blows from Africa to the island. They go there for a holiday, and they end up being in the middle of a powerful natural presence. As has been said before, nature is indifferent to what you want from her, and I think that you can see that in the movie.
Q: Let’s talk about your cast and working with Tilda Swinton again?
A: I think we're celebrating our 21st year, this year, of brotherhood and sisterhood. For me, any occasion to partner with Tilda in the exhausting and exhilarating task that's making a movie, is always an important occasion because I like to plot with her. I do believe that myself and Tilda, in this very intimate and broad relationship, have the capacity together to conceive things that are not just motivated by the work, but by the idea that when you do a movie, you're trying to do something that's meaningful. With her it’s not just directing an actor, it’s really partnering with a filmmaker. In general that's what I am looking for in any collaboration. With Tilda, of course, being family, it's a natural and organic step. When she joined this project, having read the script full, as it once was, of dialogues, it was her contribution to initiate the idea that in this sea of words that Harry is wrapping everybody in, Marianne should not be able to participate in this game of words, that she should be voiceless. I think that this concept of Marianne losing her voice is an amazing example of the level of filmmaking that Tilda can bring to a project.
Q: And why did you think of Ralph Fiennes to play this force of nature that's Harry?
A: Since I saw Ralph in Schindler’s List, I have always been a huge admirer of him, of his charisma. I also saw his feature as a director that I really loved. I dreamt when I was younger, when I was fifteen, sixteen, I dreamt of working with him. I was plotting films with Ralph Fiennes way before I started making films myself, and also with Tilda, so this is like the dream team. This movie also encompasses for me the knowledge that I should be grateful for my life, because I am living the dreams of when I was young.
Q: So how did you approach him and was he immediately interested in playing Harry?
A: Ralph has always portrayed these great conflicted characters that have this brooding melancholy, and a dark energy, but also an incredibly romantic one, but I have never seen a Ralph Fiennes character in which he was manic and unleashing himself. I remember I was watching the trailer for the great Wes Anderson’s "Grand Budapest Hotel", and I thought in this trailer how cheeky, how ironic and light Ralph was. I had a strong sensation that there was something great in this man that could be close to Harry, because I think choosing your players is not about the acting, it’s about, in a way, finding elements of them in the characters and the other way round.
Q: So you want to find actors that have at least a little of the character in them? Or feel that they recognize the character?
A: I think you always have to make a sort of documentary when you do a movie, not just to fulfil this decadent idea of drama and acting that I’m not very drawn to. So I met Ralph after I saw the trailer and I met this very intense man. And the preparation, the work, the discipline, the complete self-giving that Ralph has displayed in playing Harry has been incredible and fabulous.
Q: The Rolling Stones music is an essential part of the story. I wondered what you would have done if you couldn’t use the songs? Was it hard to get the rights to The Rolling Stones songs?
A: Pantelleria, 'The Rolling Stones', they're always two pillars in the conceptualization of this film, since I met for the first time my friends at Studiocanal. This is going to be rock ‘n’ roll, and this is going to be Pantelleria. If you don’t acknowledge 'The Rolling Stones', you cannot claim to know rock ‘n’ roll. I think we started working on the script, and David wrote this amazing character, beautifully rooted the reality of 'The Rolling Stones' history.
Q: Did the band have any further involvement with the film?
A: We started a very shy and respectful communication with the band and the management. We even went to see them in Rome when they're doing a concert and we had this wonderful meeting with Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts, who were very elegant and nice, and they gave us some tips. The Stones perfected the accuracy of a part of Harry's monologue, and that was fabulous. We wanted to not only have the character being a part of the history of the Stones, we also wanted them being acknowledged in this history by playing the music. Also, we wanted the music of the Stones in the film because of the history of this film. I am a cinephile and I am always thinking in terms of the reality, on one hand, and this is another cinephilic lesson that comes from Jean Renoir. Leave the door open to reality when you shoot a movie, but on the other hand I am thinking about the lessons of the great masters who I've been educated by. In "A Bigger Splash" the people are being slammed by the context of Pantelleria. On the other hand I was really thinking of the great Jean-Luc Godard film on The Rolling Stones, "One Plus One", the movie is all about the attempt of creating ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, and it’s intercut with snippets of typical Godardian sequences of political statement outside London. So you see that 'French New Wave', it’s an Italian, French, Anglo-Saxon connection that's replicated, hopefully in a way, when you've Anglo-Saxon characters and players and music, and all is intertwined.
Q: Let’s talk about Matthias Schoenaerts. Why him?
A: I met Matthias four years ago now because someone told me that there was this fantastic young Belgian actor who played in a very powerful film called "Bullhead", which I hadn’t seen. I was in LA and I got a screener. This guy is really a force of nature. He happened to be in Los Angeles, and I met him. I had this meeting with him that was really touching for me because I saw in Matthias the integrity and solidity of a man of great skill and great inheritance, because Matthias’s father is one of the greatest European actors of the 70s. But Matthias has his own identity as an actor, and has his own way of being. Then I met him again after he made "Rust And Bone", and we had a sort of aim to work together, so for me it was only natural that when we started to cast, let’s get him to play this brooding character.