Not every movie can claim to take you on vacation to Italy with Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, and rising star Matthias Schoenaerts. But Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino has managed to bring the Mediterranean sunshine to American theaters with A Bigger Splash, a sexy thriller of mounting tensions as a rock star’s idyllic retreat with her younger lover is interrupted by a visit from her past. Raf Simons and the House of Dior complete the luxe getaway with their costume contributions, and Guadagnino has made fashion films for them in return. He's also made several documentaries, including a film about Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci, but he is probably best known for the 2009 romantic melodrama I Am Love, also starring Swinton. Their friendship and collaboration has spanned decades; the pair made their first film together, The Protagonists, in 1999.
Ahead of A Bigger Splash’s release into theaters this weekend, Guadagnino spoke to MTV about rock and roll, collaboration, and working with his friend and possible alien Tilda Swinton.
This movie seems like it must have been a blast to make. The characters are dealing with complex emotions, but there’s a real sense of camaraderie that comes through. Was this film as fun as it looks like it must have been? How important is it for you as a filmmaker to have an open and collegiate environment on set?
Luca Guadagnino: Well, I don't find the actual act of filming amusing. It's very stressful and tiring, and I am quite a shy person and I like to spend my time in an environment in which I am not surrounded by many people. But that's the kind of work I chose for myself and so I'm embarking on it with arms wide open, even if it stresses me out. Having said that, I believe very much in harmony and in the possibility of listening. So if I wanted to make a movie about conversation with a lot of people in which you have to really try to understand each personality, then you can never impose your own argument over them but actually try to understand a communal voice that can rise out of the community. That's what I have as a sort of attitude toward cinema.
I like the way the movie handles rock and roll, and the idea that the dream of radicalism or libertinism is dying out. Where does the rock generation go from here?
Guadagnino: I think this is a movie about desire. It's a movie about how people express desire and how these desires clash with one another. The movie is set in 2011 and I wanted to make it clear that this is a movie about grown-up people — not young people — in which the presence of youth was in a way a spectator to something that was an inside joke between adult people. I thought that the direction could have been one of the last remnants of a generation of rock and roll, a revolution that didn't manage to keep its promises, and there was a double edge to it. On one hand you had the possibility of a sort of fulfillment of energy, fulfillment of sensuality to this rock and roll, and on the other hand the idea that you could do anything you wanted and that after you there was nothing. Basically, after rock and roll, there was the deluge. So it's a sort of double game between a sad failure and a great triumph.
There are a lot of movies with great-looking casts, but few are as sexy as this one. Could you talk about the role that sex and sensuality play in your films, and in this film in particular?
Guadagnino: I find myself dealing with things that I find myself able to be in control of. So it's not that I am in cold blood, and I say, "Now I have an idea of sexuality," and I work it out. It's just that for me it's about really having the possibility of complete control over the material. And if I have control over the material, I feel that I can really dig into something that makes me explore human behavior in a very total and complete way. And in human behavior you definitely have to take sexuality into consideration because we are made out of it. Maybe I'm an old-fashioned Freudian?
You give the audience a lot of room to observe and make their own choices about what's motivating the characters — what they think and feel, and how we interpret their actions. How do you go about crafting those behaviors? Is that from the script or was it something that developed in casting or on set?
Guadagnino: Well, it's the nature of the beast, I would say. Making movies is about dealing with great collaborators in the best-case scenario, and I hope people understand that there are a lot of great collaborators here, starting from this wonderful cast; to the wonderful David Kajganich, who wrote the script; to Walter Fasano, who edited the movie; to Yorick Le Saux, who filmed it; and to Giulia Piersanti, who made the costumes. You know, all these personalities concur to find the right tone and the right balance to do the things you want to do. It's a collaborative effort.
This movie feels very European. How have your films been received in the U.S. as opposed to Italy or the U.K., for example?
Guadagnino: The U.K. and the U.S. are both very generous with me; they both make me feel at home. Italy, in terms of the reaction to my work, has always been very dismissive. I think that even if A Bigger Splash and I Am Love and other movies I made may feel European, probably there is a sort of curiosity over its Europeanness that I pull out from the Anglo-Saxon world, and in particular from the United States, that is much more open and generous and ready to engage than in the very kind of narrow-minded scenario of the Italian imagery. I don't know. Can I say something? I am much happier to be welcomed by the Americans and the U.K. than Italy because you are such a diverse and wide and exciting audience, an audience that is very well groomed by a lot of competence in cinema, so that's great, that's a great feeling. The reviews have been great for A Bigger Splash and it makes me happy. It's fantastic.
Let’s talk about Ralph [Fiennes]’s dance. I hear that was all choreographed, which is such a testament to the weird mechanical magic trick of cinema. Tell me about that scene, and about the value in film of preparing your images ahead of time.
Guadagnino: I like the idea of being a modernist classicist. I like the idea that what you do, you pull off something that shouldn't be fashionable when you do it, but should be spiky and edgy within the frame of a classic image. And the idea of Harry's dance being a sort of signal of his melancholy and his energy at the same time — the same contradiction I was telling you before about rock and roll, it was important to me. We had to have that very organic sense of embodiment of dance from Ralph. And Ralph is such a meticulous actor, such a wonderful, generous actor, and he wanted to be sure that everything that he was going to play out in that scene was going to be performed in a complete, organic way that didn't feel contrived nor staged, even though it was really well chiseled and very well prepared. I am happy to say that it comes out of a very organic thing. It seems to be preceding the moment in which he does the dance. He seems to be someone who has always danced like that.
Tilda [Swinton] is often presented as a kind of supernatural alien presence, but in your movies she’s very human. What is your relationship with her as a collaborator and artist?
Guadagnino: What can I tell you? I can tell you that she's a wonderful filmmaker and that to engage with her means to engage with someone who has a great idea about cinema. She has a great generosity toward it. She doesn't think about the movie from the perspective of her own character but she does think about the movie from the perspective of the movie. And that's fantastic and what it takes to be with the best. Tilda is a great human being and she has such a beauty, an inner and outer beauty, and it's always a great pleasure for me to pay homage to those beauties.
You're working on a remake of Suspiria next, and I hear you're returning to the maternal. Is there anything you can say about that project?
Guadagnino: Suspiria is a longtime project of mine. Suspiria is really about trying to get to the ultimate horror experience for an audience, to do something that makes them jump in the seat the way I felt I jumped in the seat for the first time during a movie like The Shining or The Exorcist. I know this sounds over the top and a bit arrogant from my end, but I at least want to try to make people have the same thrill that I had when I saw my first Dario Argento movie. I saw it when I was 14, in the mid-'80s, and it was such a ride. I want to offer a ride into dance, motherhood, witchcraft. We'll see.