In Conversation with Director Luca Guadagnino on new film A Bigger Splash

Rock legend Marianne Lane is recuperating on the volcanic island of Pantelleria with her partner Paul when iconoclast record producer and old flame Harry unexpectedly arrives with his daughter Penelope and interrupts their holiday, bringing with him an A-bomb blast of nostalgia from which there can be no rescue. We interview director Luca Guadagnino about his inspiration behind the new film.

A: What is the concept behind A Bigger Splash?
LG: I envisioned 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 behaviour and bring back the pasts of our lead characters. 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. I see this as a completely modern psychological relationship drama.

We started from the idea of a fracture between a world that is no more – the rock ‘n’ roll world of the end of the 20th century – against a sort of new conservatism that is, in a way, ruling us today. To me A Bigger Splash is a truly contemporary portrait of our time and a side of Italy that is 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 glamour, the passion, the safety are cracked open and they descend to their most primal instincts. Yet out of it, something actually grows.

A: Could you explain the reasons for the cast selection and your decision to work with Tilda Swinton?
LG: I think Tilda and I are celebrating our 21st year of brotherhood and sisterhood. For me, any occasion to partner with Tilda in the exhausting and exhilarating task that is 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 of things that are not just motivated by the work, but by the idea that when you do a movie, you are trying to do something that is meaningful. With her it’s not just directing an actor, it’s really partnering with a filmmaker. In general that is what I am looking for in any collaboration. With Tilda, of course, being family, it is a natural and organic step. When she joined this project, having read the full script, as it once was made up 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.

I dreamt of working with Ralph Fiennes when I was younger. I was plotting films with Ralph way before I started making films myself, and also with Tilda, so this is like the dream team. Ralph has always portrayed these great conflicted characters that have this brooding melancholy, and a dark energy, but also an incredibly romantic one. However, 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.

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 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 his father is one of the greatest European actors of the 1970s, Julien Schoenaerts. But Matthias has his own identity as an actor, and has his own way of being.

For Dakota, I think I have been blessed by the gods of cinema. It always happens in a movie that you are gigantically late on something, and we were so late in casting Penelope. We were really approaching the moment in which we had to shoot the film, and I met a lot of actresses from that generation that I was really intrigued and fascinated by. And one day, a friend, Brian Swardstrom, who is Sam Taylor Wood’s agent and also Tilda’s agent, mentioned Dakota. And then I spoke to Sam because she had been working with Dakota on Fifty Shades of Grey but nobody knew anything about it yet – the movie didn’t even have a trailer yet. Dakota came to see me when I was prepping the movie in my hometown, Crema near Milan, and she is a really sharp woman. She knew exactly what she wanted and she knew exactly what the character was about, in a way that was really stunning because she had read the script just a few days before. She came to Pantelleria and she started working and again, it was really exciting to see her and to see the interaction between her and the rest of the cast.

A: What was the importance of using Pantelleria as the location for the film?
LG: Pantelleria 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 are talking about the conflict within the four, but also we are talking about the conflict between the four main characters and the landscape, and I do believe you can feel that. As Gilbert & George said, “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 are 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 is 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.

Now on theatrical release nationwide via StudioCanal.

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1. Still from Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, 2015.