Why Bones and All's screenwriter took a realistic approach to the film's cannibalism
David Kajganich has written several horror screenplays, including director Luca Guadagnino's 2018 remake of Suspiria, but the writer was still surprised when producer Theresa Park (After Yang) sent him a copy of the 2015 cannibal-romance novel Bones and All. Written by Camille DeAngelis, the book concerns a teenager named Maren, who is afflicted with a desire to eat human flesh, and her relationship with Lee, another cannibal, or, to use the book's term, "eater."
"I know people think of me for horror projects, but to be asked to write about the awakening of a young woman, and mainly then to play that out in the field of a love story, was something that I'd never been asked to do before," Kajganich says. "Once I was sure, talking with the book's author, that she also thought I was a good choice to do this adaptation, I leapt at it."
Directed by Guadagnino, the film stars Taylor Russell as Maren and Timothée Chalamet — with whom the filmmaker worked on 2017's Call Me by Your Name — as Lee. The movie is the third collaboration between the director and writer, after Suspiria and 2015's A Bigger Splash, but Kajganich reveals that Guadagnino initially declined to tackle Bones and All.
"Luca and I had finished A Bigger Splash when I was sent this book and we were gearing up for Suspiria," says the writer. "While I was reading this book I thought, well, I know the perfect director for this, I know that this would interest him in the same ways that it's interesting me. He had just no bandwidth for new projects at the time, and so I thought, okay, maybe reading the book is not the first step for Luca, maybe it will be reading the script. So I went off and wrote a script over the next few years. I just stole hours here and there to do it."
DeAngelis' book is set in the second half of the 1990s — at the start of the book, Maren's mother takes her daughter to see Titanic in the theater. But Kajganich decided to have his screenplay take place in the '80s, which the writer felt would emphasize the outsider status of his protagonists.
"That was a choice I made early," he says. "In addition to the practical elements of wanting to have characters go looking for answers instead of just being able to call up information on their phones, I remember that period as a time where a lot of people were promised a lot of things in terms of economic security, and it didn't materialize."
Kajganich explains that he was inspired by "the idea of being in Reagan's 1980s for this road trip through a lot of corners of this country that weren't very prosperous. It just felt like a good fit for me, tonally. The point is that some people did make quite a lot of money in the '80s. No one I knew did growing up."
The writer also resolved to explicitly depict the acts of cannibalism in the film, moments which DeAngelis describes with comparative obliqueness in her original novel.
"The book has a kind of fairy-tale tone to it and so it glosses over some of the images," says Kajganich. "I just thought, if you were translating this into a visual language it would be coy to back away from the particulars of what they do when they are eating. My instinct was: Let's be as grounded as we possibly can, let's be as practical as we can, let's see what that life is like in a very specific naturalistic way. Maybe that will help an audience disassemble the instinct we have to make these characters monsters in our heads."
In April, 2019, Deadline announced that Antonio Campos (The Devil All the Time) was set to direct Kajganich's script, but the filmmaker later departed the project.
"We had flirted with a different director for a little period of time," says Kajganich. "When that director had to step aside, I went back to Luca and said, 'Just please give it a read.' He said, 'I really can't take on another project.' I said, 'Okay, but please read it,' knowing that would probably hook him and it did. He called me as soon as he was done and said, 'I'll do it if Timmy Chalamet does it.'"
"Of course I was won over by the beautiful quality of the writing of David Kajganich's script," says Guadagnino of why he eventually decided to make the film. "But the actual real pulling-in point must have been how this character could carry a moral struggle within oneself, an urge of overcoming something they felt was something they couldn't deal with. In one word, I would say it was the characters."
In addition to Russell and Chalamet, Guadagnino was able to assemble a cast which also included Mark Rylance, André Holland, Chloë Sevigny, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Halloween Ends director David Gordon Green. Kajganich is one of the movie's producers and was on set for every day of the Cincinnati-based shoot, the Ohio-raised writer having set many sequences in locales with which he was familiar.
"I thought what I was doing was adding authenticity to the script, and I did, and the production design team picked all of that up and ran with it," he says. "What I didn't expect was, you know, those weren't the happiest years of my life, my teenage years. I'd forgotten that when you put [in] a million specific details like that, when you actualize them, when you walk into a set that's full of all of these things, they have a great associative power. I found myself on many occasions walking into one of our sets and having to sit down for a minute because all of these memories were rushing in."
Bones and All is the first film Guadagnino has shot in the US and Kajganich compares seeing the director on-set to watching David Bowie play an alien in "the first few minutes of The Man Who Fell to Earth. Luca is by nature one of the most, if not the most, curious person I've ever met. He was really interested in getting on the ground. I think his point of view was, I do not want to impose the America that I have learned from other films onto this film, I need to be able to be sort of more of a mirror than an interpreter."
Given that Noah Baumbach was shooting his '80s-set adaptation of White Noise around the same time, was the Bones and All team tempted to team up with the other production to get better deals on vintage props and costumes?
"We were both shooting in Ohio for parts of our productions and I remember so many times we were ready to hire someone, and then we'd hear they'd gone to Noah's film," says Kajganich. "We were like, Ah, if we'd just been an afternoon sooner! We were definitely competing for resources. You're right, it would have been better if we had joined forces."
Bones and All premiered at this September's Venice Film Festival, where Guadagnino won the Silver Lion for his direction. Kajganich has also found seeing the movie with crowds to be rewarding.
"I've watched the film with non-festival audiences three times now and I learn an enormous amount," says the writer, whose film has been nominated. "I maybe should invest in a pair of infrared goggles because I spend a lot of my time peering over my seat at everyone behind me."
Kagjanich is delighted that the movie has provoked laughter as well as shock. "I am so pleased because this is that kind of film," says the writer whose movie has also been nominated in the category of Best Film by the Independent Sprit Awards. "It's a film about anxiety more than anything else. Of course anxiety has two sides, the side that you can play for humor, and the side you can play for horror, and the film twirls [around] that point quite a lot. To the degree that people find the film funny, I'm so gratified."
Bones and All is now in limited theatrical release and will expand nationwide on Wednesday. Watch the film's trailer below.
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