A BIGGER SPLASH Writer on Process, Horror, and Rock & Roll

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

David Kajganich has made a career of teasing out the more complex and often darker aspects of what it means to be human. Writer of The Invasion, True Story, and the newly released A Bigger Splash, he has gained greater and greater recognition for his ability to tackle nuance and emotional intricacy. Taking a break from his upcoming AMC project, The Terror, Kajganich sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about writing processes, storytelling, and rock and roll.

John Bucher (JB): Storytelling is about trying to find meaning and what it means to be human. That’s one of the key reasons I’m interested in horror films. They really get at those issues in a unique way.

How about you? Have you always liked horror films or did you fall into that later in life?

David Kajganich (DK): Like a lot of teenagers watching cable television in the ’80s, I lived on a pretty steady diet of horror films. When you’re in that hellish period, going through what seem like seismic changes in your life, you want the world outside to feel as big and urgent as the one going on inside you. I think the heightened reality of genre films speaks to that need in kids. It’s soothing in a way. While some of my friends were gravitating to John Hughes or Spielberg or Conan the Barbarian, for me it was horror. Carpenter, Cronenberg, those fantastic Bob Clark films… All packed full of visual and tonal metaphors for what the id feels like when it’s leaking under pressure, or how the superego feels while it’s being slashed to pieces. Tough stuff, but I’m so grateful to those films. They got me through.

JB: I think one of the things that really interests me about your new film, A Bigger Splash, is it seems like you’re getting to tackle some themes that you might not have encountered by working in horror films. Especially working with a director like Luca Guadagnino, who’s interested in more nuanced ideas than many American directors. What sorts of themes did you get to explore with this script?

DK: The difference between a lot of “American” films and “European” films, to the degree we want to generalize, is probably less about their having distinctly different themes–I think most people in so-called “first-world” countries are concerned about the same relatively short list of anxieties–than about differences in narrative shapes and attitudes. It’s a cliché, but I do think serious films coming out of European traditions of cinema are more comfortable with nuanced narrative tools than are American studio films. Even the simplest sort of ambiguity seems to set off allergic reactions in studio execs here, let alone the idea of exploring characters and their choices without giving the audience encouragement to judge them.

I came to A Bigger Splash after years of working on American studio projects where most of that kind of ambiguity was squeezed out of scripts through the development process. And if you don’t do the squeezing yourself, you get rewritten. I’ve certainly experienced that. But with Luca, I walked into a scenario where I was encouraged to embrace all methods for ambiguity from the beginning. It’s a more novelistic attitude toward narrative, but that’s what I know and feel energized by. I studied fiction writing, not film, and when I moved to Los Angeles to start working here, I owned far more books than I did films. It’s about even now.

JB: Talk a little bit about your process. 

DK: I know writers who have built a process that works for them and then bring that process into every project they write. That takes a strength of will I just don’t have. I’d rather adapt to the collaborators I’m working with and the timeline we’re on and then scramble in private to figure out how to make it work for me. I’m sure the former is more efficient, with less mental wear and tear, but what I like about the latter is it leaves room for surprises, and those surprises are where I get pushed, where I get better.

Regardless, I think it’s crucial to not fetishize a process, whatever it is. I don’t think I’d be able to do this work if I always had to write the same hours every day, or had a page quota, or a lucky font, or whatever kinds of things writers contrive to feel safe and in control. I think that feeling of safety is a delusion and it took me years to learn that. That sort of thing can make it easier to get in your own way, to help you delay heavy lifting on a project. I think you can’t hold on hard to the things that make you feel assured in your work without eventually asking the work itself to reassure you. I don’t want that. I want the risk because I want the growth.

So it’s really helped me, personally, to just agree with myself that I’m going to feel exposed and provoked by the work, driven by fear, all of that. That it’s going to be a mess. That “process” is going to be the thing I figure out as I’m doing it to get myself out of it on time and in one piece, rather than something I hone over time to get into the work. That’s also a delusion. You have to just start, and start from zero every time.

JB: One thing that I admire about your work is that you really seem to have a gift for taking a character that someone else has originated and giving it a whole different life of its own on the page or on the screen. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to character and how you begin to put flesh on something that starts as just words on a page?

DK: Of the four films I’ve had produced, three have started with source material–a sci-fi novel for The Invasion, a true-crime memoir for True Story, and a 1969 film for A Bigger Splash. Each kind of adaptation comes with its own challenges, but I try to think about character the same way for each. As someone who trained in fiction writing, I learned the old-school Aristotelian vision of character, which is that you know a person not by what he or she thinks or says, but by what he or she does. So that’s what I’m aiming for on the page–a plot that is essentially a documentation of character choice and action.

Certain types of source material make this more challenging than others. A memoir is going to present its protagonist through interpretations of events that can’t help but be self-serving, however nobly intended. In the case of True Story, I felt it was my job to try to ignore the prepared narrative the author was telling me about himself and focus instead on the choices he’d made in the relevant chapters of his life instead, with the freedom to interpret them fresh for a story about him rather than a story of him–or maybe the better word in this case is “uninterpret” them.

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Unreliable narrators aside, novels and films are theoretically less complicated on this level, but I wouldn’t want to write a remake or adaptation if I didn’t feel I had a similar license to “uninterpret” the characters. With a Stephen King adaptation, for instance, you might be talking about a 1200-page book that has to be reconfigured and curated into a 140-page script. You simply cannot do it without thinking about the characters from a more stripped-down vector than the author. So you look for those moments of decision and action to build them up from, knowing that a lot of what the characters say and think in the book, however revelatory, is going to have to be left aside.

This is all to say I try to approach character from an assumption that character and plot are the same thing. This gets more difficult in genre films, but if you’re careful, you can honor an audience’s plot expectations of that genre by subverting them through character. The best example I can think of is this: Take the trope from a hundred poorly-written horror films where the “final girl” goes down the basement stairs. Usually, she’s aware on some level there’s something horrible down below, but she goes anyhow in a way that defies psychological reason. She goes though some contrivance or other to fulfill an audience’s expectation of increasing danger and terror. But when you see Clarice Starling go down those stairs in act three of The Silence of the Lambs, you know exactly why she’s doing it–exactly what in her character’s ambition and moral matrix requires it. That’s a reveal of plot that’s indistinguishable from a reveal of character. That’s masterful writing.

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JB: In A Bigger Splash, you bring in a little bit of rock and roll, and that’s new for you. Where did you draw from to make that feel so real? Because it feels very real.

DK: Thank you for saying that. I did a lot of reading and interviews to make sure that when people from the world of rock see this film, they’ll feel it was paying attention. I’m a research writer. It’s something I love. One of the great joys of this job is that, project-to-project, I have no idea what I’m going to be studying next, what world I’m going to have to try to put my head and emotions fully into, so as to try to make it feel actual on the page.

Before I started the first draft of A Bigger Splash, I read every official and unofficial book about The Rolling Stones and watched every official and unofficial documentary about them. I needed to build a space in the factual world of 1990s rock-n-roll that Marianne Lane and Harry Hawkes could have occupied. What Rolling Stones albums, for instance, could Harry have produced? Once I decided that, I found as many first-person accounts of being in the studio during the recording of those songs as I could.

Incidentally, I had a very interesting email forwarded to me during prep for the shoot. It was to our music supervisor and it was from Mick Jagger. At some point The Rolling Stones read the script. We wanted their blessing since we were asking for the rights to some of their music. And they gave it to us, which was a monumental thrill, but in this email Mick Jagger was asking how I knew the story Harry tells in the film about recording “Moon Is Up” and having Charlie Watts play a trash can instead of a drum. I had read the substance of that anecdote, if I’m remembering correctly, in one of Stanley Booth’s books about The Rolling Stones. But I’d used it in the script in this sort of ball-out way and I was a little concerned at first that Mick Jagger might be annoyed about it. But he couldn’t have been more game. He was essentially writing to correct a detail in that scene as I’d written it, and I can tell you I was very happy to have the adjustment. You’re not going to get a better fact-checker for a story about The Rolling Stones than Mick Jagger.

Of course, I also drew from the music itself. Listening almost exclusively to The Rolling Stones for a year certainly makes you better at writing about rock and roll. Actually, it makes you better at just about everything. I highly recommend it.

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JB: Can we talk about your new show for AMC, The Terror?

DK: Absolutely!

JB: How did you come across the source material? What about it really grabbed you?

DK: For readers who aren’t familiar with it, it’s based on the story of the lost 1845 Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage. I was tracking the novel before it was even published, as I’m both a fan of Dan Simmons and also of the history of polar exploration. I used to be a wilderness guide and you get very interested in stories of survival when you do that for a living. They’re good fodder for late-night campfire stories, but there’s a lot to learn from them as well. When I found out Dan was writing that book, I really could hardly wait. It was taking two genres I love–a high-adventure tale and the Gothic horror story–and marrying them. I knew it was going to be brilliant. But the rights got snapped up by someone even more on top of it than I was, initially to do as a feature film.

It then went through a number of iterations over the years–some of which I was attached to write and some not–before it finally landed with Ridley Scott’s company where we developed it for AMC. If you’ve read the novel, you know it’s going to be a big show. We start shooting in October, to be on the air in fall 2017. The writers’ room has been fantastic. I’m showrunning with the spectacular Soo Hugh and we’ve taken the entire team down the rabbit hole of research. We’re all Franklinophiles now, reading Arctic journals and listening to recordings of pack ice. Our offices look like a Royal Maritime Museum exhibit. It’s a committed group!

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JB: What is the best piece of advice you ever got about writing?

DK: Develop the strongest point of view possible. I mean that mostly in the context of going out and getting work, which I take to be the spirit of your question. Obviously, you want to do this in your own writing, but I have also found myself rewarded nine times out of ten for going into a pitch meeting with a very tough point of view, telling studio executives and producers what a project is instead of asking them to tell me.

That requires advanced work you have to be willing to do: learning a project backwards and forwards until a sincere, earned point of view emerges. I don’t mean posturing, but finding a real understanding of a project and how your sensibility can fit into it in a way you can truly care about. Executives and producers sit up when a writer comes in with the confidence of already having done some of that work. I don’t mean giving them outlines or anything like that. I mean being able to go in and say, with certainty, “I know you’ve probably talked about options, but this is a horror film. This is not a thriller.” And then, of course, being able to communicate why. This doesn’t mean you can dictate the outcome of a project, but you can launch the writing phase of it in a way that gives you as much control as possible.

JB: You’re someone who was successful on the festival circuit, with producing a short film. There’s a lot of writers who wonder, “Is it worth my time to be involved with short films?” Having done the festival circuit, what do you have to say about them? Does it get you anywhere? Does it help you? Can you talk at all about that?

DK: I love talking about that short. Thanks for asking about it. It’s called In the Clouds and it’s by a wonderful writer and director named Marcelo Mitnik. We shot all over Buenos Aires with a fantastic crew and cast, including some real heavy hitters from Argentine cinema. It ended up screening at almost a hundred festivals, winning a slew of awards, and getting a number of distribution deals, including with HBO. It was a complicated shoot–in 100-degree heat, two languages, and three currencies–but it was a project we all loved and believed in, and I’m a better producer for having been involved with it.

As for whether making a short is worth a writer’s time and energy, it’s a question of expectations. A short is not likely to launch you, or bring you much closer to finding reps or job offers–I’ve seen brilliant shorts fail to garner momentum for reasons that are beyond me–but taking a short to festivals can present smaller opportunities that come out of meeting and connecting with other filmmakers you meet. Genuinely interesting collaborations can come of that and, to me, that’s the point: Working on projects you find vital is the way forward.

Marcelo, for instance, met a director on the festival circuit whose short he loved, and who loved his. They talked and he ended up co-writing and exec producing her next short, a documentary about a Vietnamese artist. He jumped into it because he loved the project and it ended up being nominated for an Academy Award. Will that help him professionally? It certainly won’t hurt. But my point is it came out of a simple conversation between two like-minded writer/directors who found each other at a festival between screenings of their shorts.

To me, that’s an example of a great reason to be involved in a short, because it helps make you visible inside a community of working filmmakers and gives you opportunities to find people you’d like to work with, and who’d like to work with you, outside of the hoops and competition of the industry. Collaborations that come out of that kind of pure attraction of two sensibilities are usually the best, and they can lead to incredible things.

A Bigger Splash is in theaters now.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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