A bigger splash
HI David, I’m very happy for this interview, because it’s quite rare to have an american writer and a european director working together!
Yes it’s rare! And I’m very happy too to be interviewed by a writer’s guild, because I believe a lot in the guild’s work.
Can you give a fast pitch of the movie?
It’s a very loose remake of La Piscine, a 1969 film by Jacques Deray. What we have done is taking from a studio’s point of view a remake because it’s an economic opportunity.
Courtesy Paolo Roversi
So under the cover of that we decided to take a real artistic opportunity and just take the very basic bones of the story of La piscine and make an interesting choice because the original film is structured like a thriller, and one version of that could have been we went in this direction, really tighten up a thriller inside of those characters’ lives. But that was a lot less interesting to us that something much messier, something that was not a genre film, but that was a drama that sort of have ends of the great architypes of the thriller popoular from Hitchcock from Chabrol and use them sparing this, so the film doesn’t end up to a thriller, but it kind of confounds you in the way the tension of the thriller does. So it’s interesting now when the film is about to be marketed to the world we hope no one takes the easy approach and define it as a thriller, because I don’t think that anybody could be particularly satisfied if where expecting a thriller; but I think there’s that kind of tension that if you go thinking that is a drama you will be surprised by the fact that it’s actually playing with genre and there are moments of real anxiety but there are also moments of bizarre humour. It’s a very strange mix of things by design and we decided to do that, to go in the other direction and take the artistic opportunity to make something crazy and sort of impressive. Also the performance of the actors you don’t expect this sort of performance from them and I think is one of the joy of this collaboration, everyone was willing to do something a little odd.
How where you involved in the project?
Studio Canal had approached Luca several time to see if he would be interested in remaking and initially he was not so interested in the idea of a remake. And at the same time he was reading script for a studio project in America and read two of my scripts for different projects, and there was something in my writing that he thought: “If David would like to work with me on this remake of La piscine maybe we could do something interesting with it together”. And off course I jumped the chance because I have been working in Hollywood for a decade and trying to write very precise, very ambicious scripts and then not having them made or having them made and then been rewritten by directors or by others people. When the film finally gets to the theater I can’t take my friends anymore, because it’s so disconnected from the work I did on it. So I was getting very tired of having movies come out with my name on it that weren’t at all reflective of what I was trying to do. So I took a jump to the chance to work on that, with an european studio, to try to have a collaboration that was less disposable. That’s exactly how this turned out: I’ve had such a strong collaboration with Luca, and then with Tilda, Ralph, Matias and Dakota, when they came on board, there was such a wonderful way of working on a narrative because everyone was sort of teasing out the things in the script they really loved and we were adding to the script every day on the set, just to honour the interesting conversations everyone was able to have about the anxiety they were bringing to the table, the personal connections to the even most subtle things about the characters, we put them into full bloom because the actors wanted to go there. When you have people who are skilled as these people saying let’s take more risk, let’s be less on point in term of a consistent tone, lets be even less processed in term of our structure. I credit the actors so much for being willing to go in directions that were counterintuitive… It’s one of the most beautiful collaboration, something that would never happen in Hollywood.
So you spent a lot of time on the set?
Yes another way this was a different fun for me. I’ve been on sets before, but never to sit next to the director, talking about the shots and talk with the actors. It’s a level of collaboration even in the moment of the production of the film that is impossible in America. Writers, despite our aggressive guild, we are often sidelined once our work is done, it’s the nature of the process that the screenwriter does his work first and therefore it’s the first that gets out of the conversation, they perceive our job as been done and that you don’t have a lot after that point to offer except disagree with people about changes. Most of the screenwriter I know aren’t that way, they are not egotistical, they don’t have their own agenda by protecting their words, we want very much a sit at the table to be able to be a part of the creative process from start to finish. Luca gave me a real taste of what that’s like and I don’t think I’ll be doing more studio films in America, I don’t know why I would spend my freedom that way, when I could be here with collaborators who are really interested and be a kind of family during the production, that’s impossible in America.
The writer normally is the person who is there from the very beginning of the movie, how he could not be involved in the production process?
Sure there’s a technical sense of having the writer there to help you solve the story problems during the production, when a location falls through or when a scene is not taking off, there’s a number of logistical problems that come up, why wouldn’t you have the person who has the story the most clear in his head there to help you on the spot figuring out the different way? Every production is full of little trips, little stumbles just by the nature of shooting in such an intense remote location, we can’t go with the things we expect all the time. It was a joy try to figure out five different options for a scene that seemed there was only one way to do it.
About your collaboration with the actors I read that the idea that Tilda’s character was without voice comes from her.
Yes it was such an interesting process I loved it. To have an actor that ingaged in the preparation for a film it’s rare. These actors they are such exquisite in their process, I mean the research they do and that sort of preparation in understanding the kind of emotion, the gutts of these characters. Originally in the script Marianne Lane was an actress, a british actress who was learning an american accent. So already in the script there was an issue of this character doing something with her voice that was unnatural for her, the original script is full of moments where she was in one accent or the other and was unable to move beetween the two or someone was distrustfull of her because she doesn’t sound quite wright. So there was already the concept of something being wrong with her voice. And what Tilda do was a beautiful challange for us, as she said she wanted the opportunity to remove that from the film, and see if the movie would fell together around the absence of her voice. And it was a beautiful idea, because originally in the script Marianne Lane had the most lines of dialogue. And so I had a call from Luca and he said: are you sitting down? And he said I just spoke to Tilda she had an idea about Marianne doesn’t speak in the film. And I tought I don’t know how exactly how we are gonna do that, but let’s try. Then Tilda invited Luca and me in Scotland, where she lives, we spent one week in her house and went trough the script and talked about the things that she would have to say, that were unavoidable. It would have been lovely if she didn’t speak the entire film, but it’s not possible in terms of getting across the emotional informations, some of that are quite specific. An so we have a nice sort of bargaining session on dialogue lines, until we got to what the film is now. I think the result of this is wonderful. The character of Marianne originally in the script we took to Tilda is a kind of a balance for the rest of the cast, she was really trying to keep everyone grounded and not so triggered, and to take away her ability to do that, putting her in a position where every kind of speaking might ruin her voice forever. Everytime she does say something you know is a risk, so you pay even more attention to everything she says because you know it’s a choice that has potential consequences. I love the effect of it.
And also the idea of music production setting came after that? Especially about the character played by Ralph Fiennes?
No we knew that Ralph was gonna play a music producer. The Rolling Stones are the muse of the film. I think that’s the other half of the choice of Tilda of going with the rockstar, that would put her and Ralph’s character in the same world, and Paul have to stand outside of that. It all worked very beautifully, that the sort of thing of having collaborators coming from different disciplines, Luca from directing, me from writing and Tilda from acting, and having those conversation is the best really. It creates this kind of beautiful mess and I love that about the film.
We can feel this in the movie, that has a very free language, there’s drama and also humour and often humour is used in dialogue to mask feelings, when characters have to say something hard, that kind of lies underground the humour.
Yes, I think when you have four people in a house you have to be willing and able to have the major currency of communication not being the thing that are spoken, people don’t occupy space and reveal their agenda with language.
It’s a wonderful way to take a situation that could be quite redondant and flat and give it real life and take a more naturalistic approach. I certanly don’t definy it a naturalistic film, you know the direction is very aggressive and rock ’n roll. But I think in terms of how people are speaking in the film it’s really important that it felt like four people who knew one another in a deep way. Each character speak in such a specific way. I remember one of the first cast reading it was such a beautiful example of the script offering a hand to the actors, even in the rhythm of the language. It’s not the case in Los Angeles that anyone ever take a script and thought about the rhythm of language! We are not trained in America to think about that, because people don’t go to the theatre in the same way they do in Europe. You know people in the film industry they love film on television… maybe that’s an unfair generalization. But I can’t have a conversation about the best playwriters with a studio executive. But here it was really moving to me that if someone wanted to change even the world order in a line they would ask, they would ask me if it was alright! Can you imagine? And of course my answer was always: absolutely, whatever you think it’s best. Because we really trusted one another and I felt that the script was really meant something for everyone and that’s not something very usual in America.
In Italy too, usually it depends on the director how much he wants to respect the script.
To me that’s one of the most important things a guild can do. Keep a conversation going and even a very aggressive conversation with both the film community as well with the public, that these things are not spontaneously done on the set. There was a campaign in Los Angeles for a while with famous lines from films with someone wrote that. A guild can be crucial in educating people about the fact that this is crucial part of the process. When you see the premiere of a film and you see the director and you don’t see the writer, there’s something unfair about that. To be invited here and be a part of the gang in Venice is such a lovely privilege, while it’s something that should be obvious, but the writer often gets the second row, in the back of the photo, and that’s too bad. Writers we are typically trained to expect that and I think it’s orrible and a Guild can really do something.
Yes that is one of the reason we founded WGI ad why we are doing these interviews!
The writer is like… some way you build the frame for the house, in some production you build the house and to be treated like you just painted the house at the end of the process it’s an orrible thing to do. That’s why I encourage your guild strongly to have an aggressive tone with directors and producers, to say: don’t forget that this alla starts with us.
Have ever happen to you that you didn’t recognize your script in the final film?
Yes especially once I worked on a film for three years, often for free. It was a real story and I spent a lot of time in research, it was a murder case in Oregon, a father killed his wife and children and a lot of people where still alive. I spent a lot of time in interviewing and I promised them this is not going to be sensationalistic, this is a serious drama and I wanna promise you that will be respectful, because initially no one wanted to talk with me. Its hard to get people open up if they don’t trust you, but I did. And then two years later the director took over the film, took over the writing and never called me, never e-mailed me, I offered all of my research, I offered to tell them anything they need to know, but nothing, we never spoke. And when the film came out I was orrified, because I knew that if the people I had promised would see this film would think that I didn’t kept my promise and it’s an orrible feeling, because my name it’s still on it and people don’t understand what I did and what I didn’t do on the film. And that happens to all the writers.
That’s even worst because writing is a very personal process, you need to become very involved in your story.
Yes also because usually you work on worst experiences people have in their lives, I mean marriage’s ending, reletionship with children and I cry at the computer all the time, you get inside of these characters heads and you try to feel something of what they’re feeling to bee able to approximate it on the page and it’s not on camera. I mean for the actors that process is the image you see on the screen, but the writer goes trough it too. And it’s forgotten so easily that the writer has to be in a way, not to the same technical level of actors, very involved with his empaty, you have to be actor too in a way. And maybe that’s the reason why there’s not so many writers on set, because they have such a strong vision of the film that it takes a maturity to not push this vision. But again that is why it’s wonderful having a guild, I can’t tell you how many things come out from being in a guild in America, that I just can’t imagine having to go without. The ability to bargain collectively and strike if necessary, the ability to have insurance and medical benefits.
One issue where we are discussing a lot here in Italy are the royalties and the rights from revenues especially with the new technologies.
It’s crucial to do that now and to do in real forces, because no one wants to grant anyone a slice of that pie. We are having the same conversation in the States, if we strike again anytime soon it will probably be about that issue. Because the studios don’t wanna budge an inch, they know that the revenues from this kind of streaming on line platforms are going to increase exponentially in the next years.
What do you think about Netflix? Here in Venice had been screened the first film to be released contemporary on-line and in cinemas.
I think it’s very difficult to get certain kind of projects made. Beasts of no nation was a project that in very rare circumstances a studio may have taken on, if there was a big movie star and if there was enough elements of a sort of thriller to be able to sell it around the world. And maybe those are considerations that you can avoid when you go through a different venue like Netflix or Amazon. Now I think there’s a great movement from the traditional studio model in America. I think the studios are worried because they see that the bet they made ten years ago that the way to get people into cinema as rather than at home watching television, because tv was getting so good, was with bigger and bigger super-hero movies and 3D, which was supposed to save the film industry, and what I think they are realizing is that even those stories have to be well constructed and well acted. And I think it’s very hard when your dealing with a hundred million dollars budget to take that kind of risks that make a good performance. The fact that Netflix gave Cary Fukunaga a platform to make a movie on that subject, to make it the way he wanted to make it, there’s no downside to that as far as I’m concerned.
And you don’t fear that big screen is going to disappear?
Yes but at the same time I don’t want to feticize the screen, I don’t want the screen to preclude access. Maybe in the case of Beasts of no nation it’s a film that would be reduced in a small screen. But I have a feeling that in the future there will be some interaction beetwen cinema venues and television venues, maybe there will be a overlapping. I wouldn’t be surprised if the future Netflix will open a chain of theaters across the country, Sundance already have one.
What is positive is that we will have more platforms to watch different contents and so we will see the demand of scripted contents increasing.
Yes also when you see some of Stanley Kubrick films and they are in that strange ratio, a box ratio on the screen and you think why did he make that choice? He made that choice because he assumed his films would be seen in television and the fact that he didn’t mind that gives me hope, he obviously didn’t feticize the big screen. And the interesting thing now is that great cinema directors are directing for television and they can modulate their direction for that venue.
Coming back to A bigger splash, how is your vision of Italy? I found in the movie references to old vision we can see in Rossellini’s work as Viaggio in Italia or Stromboli, do you agree?
Yes of course, I love Italy I spent a lot of time here in my adult life and I was delighted to work on a project here, but I never been to Pantelleria. It was impossible logistically to get me to Pantelleria before the writing on the script, and it’s a place you can’t really research on line. But I found some blog in english of people living there and I studied the story of the island, so I was releaved when I finally flew to Pantelleria that it looked and felt the way I imagined in the script. But I should mention another thing about Pantelleria, as soon as Luca decided to set the film there, obviously when you are talking of one of these island you have to open up some kind of conversation about the clandestini. We had a lot of conversations about how to do that, I know that it’s been a little controversial already, weather people think we have been opportunistic with our use of that in terms of our plot and how it interacts with our main story with a completely different sort of problem. First of all if there’s any consistant conversation about that issue I think it’s terrific, it’s still people talking about it, it could only be good. From our point of view the story is about three of these four characters, excluding Penelope, who are looking at their pasts and trying to decide what of their past to keep and moving forward in a healthy way, some characters do that better than others, one doesn’t make it at all and I think setting that against this greater in terms of relevance, tragic epic of people coming from north Africa trying to get to Europe just to get themself and their family safe. To me it was interesting to place this two relevance next to one another and in a way to let the audience decide how to judge them.
It’s interesting because you have those wealthly characters living in a bubble and on the other side the reality of this situation that make a big contrast.
The movie is about the unintended consequences of love, when you give someone vascular access to your heart and then it doesn’t work out you still feel that connection and you would do anything to protect those people. In the film characters are trying to protect one another and there are consequences to that and we wanted for an audience to feel a morally ambigue sense that one of these consequences is infact that the clandestini are being offered up as a potential explanation for the event at the end of the film. Of course in the film no one takes it very seriously, but the fact that that choice is taken by one of the character is not a small decision, we wanted it to be a provoking decision, it’s meant to start a conversation in the audience about how far this character has gone and weather it’s a choice one can have sympathy for. It wasn’t easy so I wasn’t surprised to hear some boo at the end, because if you perceive the film as being superficial about that of course you’re trying to advocate for something you care about. I’m just only sad that the film may have been misunderstood.
La foto di copertina è di Fosca Gallesio