Meet the screenwriter of Luca Guadagnino's 'Bones and All'

Meet the screenwriter of cannibalistic tour de force, Bones and All | Soho House

David Kajganich is the visionary screenwriter and producer behind Luca Guadagnino’s new awards magnet, which hits Soho House cinemas this month

Wednesday 16 November 2022   By Hanna Flint

‘I shouldn’t say this on the record,’ David Kajganich tells me in a lower ground floor conference room of London’s Corinthia hotel. ‘But I do some projects for free up front to help them get made – including this one.’ 

This one happens to be Bones And All, the Ohio-born screenwriter and producer’s third collaboration with Italian-Algerian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, which previewed at this year's London Film Festival and provided the circumstances for our chat. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. A 1980s set coming-of-age love story, Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet star as cannibals on a road trip across America. 

Not your typical teen romance or an easy sell to studio bigwigs who might want to sanitise the gory subject matter to make it more like Twilight than Near Dark. But the risk, Kajganich says, was worth the reward. ‘We all deferred payment to make it, hoping it would turn out well and that we’d be able to sell it to a studio and make back our salaries, which we did,’ he says (Warner Bros bought the film for UK distribution and MGM for US). ‘Those are ways in which I retain a kind of power to pick my projects – by being willing to take a bet on myself.’

Meet the screenwriter of cannibalistic tour de force, Bones and All | Soho House

Kajganich seems to be the go-to guy for adapted screenplays. It wasn’t always that way. His background is in fiction writing, having completed a prestigious writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa before going on to become an English professor at the same institution. One fateful day, after seeing Krzysztof Kiéslowski’s Blue, White, and Red trilogy at a movie theatre, he tried his hand at screenwriting. 

Over three years, he knocked out three spec scripts. One of them, a period horror called Town Creek, sparked a bidding war and eventually landed at Warner Bros. The Joel Schumacher-directed film was released in 2009, with the title Blood Creek, but before that he was tasked with penning adaptations of Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum and Stephen King’s The Invasion. The former fell through and the latter saw Kajganich hired to adapt several more King novels (It, The Stand and Pet Sematary), but ultimately the drafts didn’t get greenlit. 

However, a couple of his scripts did catch the attention of Guadagnino at a fortuitous moment in both their lives. The director was looking for a writer to pen a remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, which StudioCanal had the rights for, and asked Kajganich to watch it and report back. His initial reaction was: why bother? Deray and his lead stars Alain Delon and Romy Schneider playing ex-spouses (who were divorced from each other in real life) had done a blinding job. When Kajganich spoke to Guadagnino he admitted as such. ‘I thought, “I’m walking away from a job with a director I really admire”, but I didn’t want to get a job under false pretences,’ he says. ‘So I said, “I really don’t understand” and Luca said, “That's the answer I was hoping for. So let’s start from scratch.”’ 

Meet the screenwriter of cannibalistic tour de force, Bones and All | Soho House

A Bigger Splash and an adaptation of Dario Argento’s Suspiria later, their creative partnership has truly solidified because of mutual respect and a shared understanding of storytelling. ‘We both think that empathy is the real currency of what we’re doing,’ says Kajganich. ‘That might mean a very stylised film, it may mean a very grounded, naturalistic film in other cases, but all of our conversations are about character and we also love a good risk. The combination of those two things – that humanistic point of view, but a willingness to go into crazy genre space – we just hold hands and walk into the abyss.’ 

Camille DeAngelis provided the fictional chasm for these filmmakers to explore. In her novel of the same name, she introduces Maren, a teenage girl who is rejected by her family because of a secret, unquenchable hunger for human flesh. Seeking answers about her cannibalistic urges, she meets others like herself and during one um, meat-cute (forgive the pun) discovers a kindred spirit in Lee. The further they travel, the more Maren discovers herself beyond the marginalised world she’s only ever known, and after reading the book Kajganich questioned whether he was the right choice. ‘I spoke directly with the author, because even though it’s a heightened genre story and it did feel personal to me, I wanted to make sure that she was permissive of a man writing the film.’

When he first reached out to DeAngelis to request a chat, she said, ‘Let’s talk in a week and I want to talk about subtext.’ The screenwriter spent the next seven days imagining what in particular she meant. ‘I was sure in my ignorance that she meant feminist subtext or subtext about eating disorders or something,’ he recalls. ‘And when we finally spoke, she said, “I will be supportive of anything you want to do with the script, all I care about is that the film is vegan.’ 

Meet the screenwriter of cannibalistic tour de force, Bones and All | Soho House

DeAngelis had turned vegan not long before writing the book and saw it as a metaphorical way to both empathise with and get through to meat-eaters about their own flesh-eating. The rest she left up to Kajganich and so he got to speaking with Guadagnino, ‘about the thematic and moral and ethical implications of what we’re writing about’, and set about devising his own story that would retain the book’s soul, but had a cinematic originality. 

That meant a few genre changes to make it less supernatural more magical realism. He watched Badlands and Two-Lane Blacktop to get a feel for visualising this sort of road movie. And he switched up Maren’s parent-child relationship from mother to father with Andre Holland brought in to play Russell’s on-screen dad. This casting meant Kajganich was navigating the choppy waters of an adolescent girl, but a Black biracial girl to boot. The film doesn't explicitly grapple with the racial experience of Russell’s Maren traveling on her own through overwhelmingly white Midwestern counties and states, because the filmmakers felt they didn’t need to. 

‘This is a film trying to articulate the experience of two people being pushed to the margins by the compulsions they have, and you don’t see a lot of people actively pushing them aside, right? There aren’t any police investigations. There aren’t angry mobs of people chasing them,’ says Kajganich. ‘It is their own intuitive understanding of what society will accept and what it won’t, and ways that they’ve been abandoned by people they love. When you have something as powerful in the middle of this love story, this coming-of-age story as this cannibalistic horror concept, it’s important to let it do the work. So, it relieved us from having to point at other ways that young people are disenfranchised, like body image, gender, race, you know, religious beliefs.’ 

Meet the screenwriter of cannibalistic tour de force, Bones and All | Soho House

That being said, the film does code certain moments with racial subtext. ‘If you look at the background actors in the scene at the carnival where Taylor and Timmy are holding hands, we made sure that some of the glances that are being pointed at them aren’t welcoming,’ explains Kajganich. ‘Or the woman at the Greyhound station. It’s ambiguous. Is she responding to Taylor’s character as brusquely as she is because she’s having a bad day, or is she responding to a mixed race young woman who’s asking something of her?’ 

The screenwriter is more than cognisant of the optics of a white man telling this story. He therefore hopes his empathic approach to storytelling would negate any blind spots. ‘People like me have been doing this for 100 years,’ Kajganich remarks. ‘I have a real sense that if I can’t get into a project and really build something that is substantive and nourishing, then I should f**k off.’ Not just yet, eh?

To see what screenings are coming up at the Houses, click here.

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