[Editor’s note: The following story contains spoilers for “Bones and All.”]
When David Kajganich was first presented with Camille DeAngelis’ novel “Bones and All,” the screenwriter didn’t initially realize the cannibal romance was intended for YA readers. Instead, the “Blood Creek” and “A Bigger Splash” writer was taken with the book’s fairytale quality, the wonderful romance at its heart, and its ability to interrogate “other”-ness in an entirely new way.
It was also, of course, fairly juicy — literally and figuratively — and ripe for the screenwriter to apply his own ideas. It helped that Kajganich’s frequent collaborator, director Luca Guadagnino, came on board to direct the film, bringing along stars Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet to play the love-crossed young cannibals at its center. After debuting at Venice, earning accolades on the festival circuit, and enjoying a very tasty opening weekend in limited release, “Bones and All” arrives in wide release this week.
And what a cinematic treat Kajganich and company have crafted for viewers. Ahead, the screenwriter shares with IndieWire a feast of insights into his script, from changes and cuts to DeAngelis’ novel and his own personal connection to the material, plus some thoughts on an ending well worth savoring. Enjoy!
[Once again: The following story contains spoilers for “Bones and All.”]
Luca Guadagnino Was Always in the Mix
While Antonio Campos was originally attached to direct the film back in April 2019, Kajganich was initially eager to reteam with Guadagnino, with whom he had previously worked on both “A Bigger Splash” and “Suspiria.”
“I sent this book to Luca, the same month that I received it,” he said. “We had just finished ‘A Bigger Splash, and we’re heading into ‘Suspiria.’ I was sent this book by the originating producer, Theresa Park, and I knew immediately it was something that would really interest Luca. So I sent it to him and he was just so busy, he was prepping two movies, at that point, he couldn’t read it.”
Guadagnino is a notoriously busy filmmaker, and when he couldn’t commit to the project, “Christine” and “The Devil All the Time” director Campos signed on. (Kajganich said he and Campos had a productive meeting early in the process, during which he was already unpacking some of the changes he wanted to make to DeAngelis’ book.) After Campos took on HBO series “The Staircase,” he had to leave the production, opening up space for Guadagnino to step in.
“But when Antonio dropped off, I sent my actual script to Luca and asked him to take a look and he read it and he really thought he knew how to do the film, so he was back on board,” Kajganich said. “It was always my original plan, it just took a while to come to fruition.”
Yannis Drakoulidis/Courtesy of MGM
He Had a Different Take on What the Title Means
In DeAngelis’ book, the title “bones and all” is literal: cannibals like Maren (Russell), Lee (Chalamet), and Sully (Mark Rylance) eat every part of their meals, including the bones. But that’s not exactly practical, and translating the act to the film simply didn’t make much sense.
“I’m a very practical person and I tend to really appreciate when genre films take a practical approach,” he said. “When I read the book, I thought many times as I was reading it, I understand the fairy tale conceit of consuming an entire other person, but if we’re really trying to ground the world of the film, it’s going to be impossible for an audience to believe that’s doable. Just, simply, the amount of person weighs, regardless of what the components are [is too much]. If you’ve ever tangled with the bones of a Thanksgiving turkey, it’s not something you would ever really be able to ingest.”
But Kajganich didn’t want to lose the title, so he set about using it as a metaphor for the consuming power of Maren and Lee’s relationship.
“I loved the idea of turning the title of the film to mean something different, so that when Michael Stuhlbarg’s character talks about this concept of ‘bones and all,’ it’s almost this mystical thing,” he said. “People talk about first love or undying love or enduring love, this thing that you suspect can’t be possible in the way that it’s being described. … That was part of why I tried to flip the title to mean this thing that may be an abstraction or it may be literal, but you’re not in a position to know until you get there.”
As for the film’s ending, when it seems as if Maren has finally eaten someone “bones and all,” Kajganich leaves that idea open for audience interpretation. “Whether or not audiences think that’s what has happened is up to the audience, which I thought was a more interesting way to leave an audience,” he said.
His Take on the Metaphor of Being a Cannibal Is Very Personal
Kajganich said he tends to be drawn to material that “allows a Trojan horse approach to storytelling.” DeAngelis’ book really fit that bill as a genre outing that’s also a coming-of-age tale, a deep romance, and an exploration of what it means to accept yourself in a world hellbent on rejecting you.
“Everybody’s gone through experiences where we’ve been pushed to the side, particularly people who have the monikers of being ‘other’ in our society, whatever that means, and that’s a long list of things that could mean,” the writer said. “What I really loved about the book was that it seemed to speak to all of them under the metaphoric heading of ‘cannibalism.'”
For many, Maren and Lee’s cannibalism — a part of their biology they can’t change, something that terrifies their families, an aspect of their lives that becomes more pronounced during puberty — sounds like a sterling stand-in for sexual orientation or gender identity. Kajganich gets that, but he was eager to make “Bones and All” even more inclusive of that kind of “other”-ness.
“I did think a lot about it while conceiving and writing the script, how much did I want to code in all of the things that this could stand for?” he said. “Normally I don’t love the idea of pushing metaphors so hard because to my mind, why discuss something through a metaphor if you can just simply go at it directly? But this story, the metaphor was so elegant, and it had such a broad application.”
But that doesn’t mean Kajganich rejects that sexual orientation or gender identity reading that many can apply to his script. After all, that’s why he connected to when he first read the book.
“I grew up gay in a very rural part of the country and in the ’80s, and it felt dangerous,” he said. “It felt like I might end up really hurt or killed or might have come to the decision to end my own life because of all of the ways that, if [my identity was] known by the wrong people with the wrong intentions, it could really destroy your life. That was how I responded to it.”
Still, he’s eager for many sorts of people to see their own struggles reflected in, yes, Maren and Lee’s own desires, no matter how outlandish they might sound at first blush.
“There are probably a lot of people in a lot of categories of pain or personal fear and anxiety, that could unpack that metaphor in a different way,” he said. “I didn’t want to be too prescriptive about it, because I do think it could have to do with gender, it could have to do with orientation, it could have to do with race, it could have to do with where you sit on the economic spectrum. It could have to do with where you sit on any number of spectrums or continuum. And I just thought, ‘Why push it into any one or several literal directions when it really stands up on its own?'”
©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection
Why He Gender-Swapped a Main Character
Fans of DeAngelis’ book will likely be surprised at a few of Kajganich’s other changes. One big one: In DeAngelis’ book, Maren sets out on a cross-country trip to find her long-lost father after her mother abandons her. In the film, Kajganich swaps the parents: It’s Maren’s dad (Andre Holland) who raises and then leaves her, and her mother (Chloë Sevigny) she goes searching for.
“I was thinking a lot about the idea of, not just being a person in the world who isn’t been helped with any real guidance, but the specific situation of being a young woman who’s not been given guidance,” the writer said. “It seemed to have more pathos, the idea that a young woman wouldn’t have been given guidance by her mother. As much as a father can offer practical guidance, there’s something I’m sure about a woman’s experience of being at odds with what her body needs, regardless of how you want to unpack that metaphor.”
So much of both DeAngelis’ book and Kajganich’s script centers on the desire, from both Maren and Lee, to be given guidance from the adults in their lives. Maren in particular is obsessed with the idea that her cannibal parent will somehow be able to explain her existence, set her on a path that makes sense, be able to heal her outsider status. For Kajganich, having the ultimate disappointment come from her mother was even more striking.
“I thought that the betrayal that Maren might feel of knowing that there was a parent who could have spoken directly to her experience, not across the line of gender, but within her own gender, that seemed more crushing to me, that seemed more emotional to me,” he said.
MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection
Why He Cut Lee’s Original Love Story
While DeAngelis’ book also hinges on the love story between Maren and Lee, the novel also includes a subplot about another girl that Lee fell in love with before he met Maren. Big problem: Rachel wasn’t a cannibal, and when she discovers Lee’s secret, it ruins not only their relationship but her entire life. Kajganich snipped that, all the better to bolster Maren and Lee’s bond.
“With Lee’s character, I wanted the dynamic between Maren and Lee to be fairly exclusive,” he said. “It’s the reason I also changed the gender of the carnival worker that Lee murders so that he can offer a meal to Maren, because I didn’t want there to be moments where we would be second-guessing Lee’s intentions. So if Lee had this previous girlfriend that he was still pining for, or if Lee had this sort of moment of sexual connection with another woman at the carnival, that it was possible to misread Maren’s understanding of the situation. When I took those away, and it was just Maren, and she didn’t have to worry about jealousy, somehow it made their love story just more accessible.”
Making Lee into a one-woman man also removed some of the usual beats of a romance, which made it feel even richer to Kajganich. It’s a miracle these two even find each other, he thought, so why make things even more complicated with another woman?
“I think two cannibals meeting on the road and being able to look at one another with real curiosity and see real integrity on the other side of that gaze [is rich material],” he said. “I didn’t want to interrupt it with the hallmarks of a typical romance story, which is that there’s always a moment of doubt, always a moment of jealousy, always a moment of competition. They didn’t want that in their relationship, because I thought they’d come so far already. It seemed unnecessary and a little manipulative to then push them around inside a continuum of jealousy or security. I didn’t think we needed that.”
And when Kajganich was on set with stars Russell and Chalamet, he knew he had made the right choice.
“Their chemistry was amazing,” he said. “We knew on set on the first day that it was going to really have a lot of power, their connection. So I was really glad I had made the decision I had about not interrupting their arc with those moments of jealousy.”
Why He Changed Maren and Sully’s Relationship
Snipping Rachel from the script is hardly the biggest change Kajganich opted to embrace: In DeAngelis’ book, Sully is eventually revealed to be not just a fellow cannibal, but actually Maren’s long-lost grandfather. For Kajganich, that was a bit too much.
“I’m always thinking practically, films lose me all the time when they overstep, I’m always thinking, what’s reasonable and what’s necessary to tell the story?” he said. “When I thought about how many things an audience could accept as coincidence or contrivance, my tolerance is low, so I tend to write as few contrivances or as few coincidences as possible.”
And turning Sully into a relative stranger who also happened to be a cannibal helped loosen up a wealth of other possibilities for the film. Suddenly, it wasn’t all about this big! crazy! reveal!
“When I started to think of Sully not being Maren’s grandfather, it opened up all possibilities about how he might relate to her in very, let’s call them disorganized ways. … I like the idea of Sully being a real agent of disorganization in the film, as opposed to an organizing principle.”
How He Wants People to Interpret That Changed Ending
While Guadagnino’s film features a final act that follows Maren and Lee as they enjoy a relatively calm (and quite short-lived) existence in a college town, before it’s upended by Sully’s final appearance, DeAngelis’ book only takes Maren into that seemingly idyllic space.
When DeAngelis’ book concludes, Maren has not only killed and eaten both Sully and Lee, but she’s also moved on from those relationships quite quickly, and she’s living alone in a cute small town, auditing classes, and working in the school library. She’s also hunting new prey, including a potential new paramour she charms, only to kill and eat him in the library’s basement. While DeAngelis’ ending sets up a new chapter in Maren’s life, it might leave fans of Maren and Lee feeling pretty cold.
Kajganich opted to change that, ending the film shortly after Sully and Lee’s death, with Maren still dreaming of her bond with her cannibal lover. Even that required its own edits.
“What I want to do is try to understand the book well enough to know what its soul is,” Kajganich said. “I really hoped to give an audience and the readers an emotional and intellectual and psychological experience. When I was thinking about the ending of the book, the original script had a coda at the end, where you see Maren is out in the world and has survived the ending, but we decided during production that we didn’t need it. Whether that final shot is a dream or a death dream or a fantasy or a memory, it clearly leaves the audience in a place where the connection between Marin and Lee has a lasting energy.”
Still, for Kajganich, the desire to show the audience a believable, somewhat bright future for Maren was of essential importance. How else could a coming-of-age tale end, after all?
“[We] had to convince the audience in those two hours that Maren, she’s going to be OK,” he said. “She has the ability to have connections with other people, but also a real connection with herself, she will be a friend to herself in some capacity for the rest of her life. We see her navigate all of this with a real sense of grace, but also a sense of self-love. She has respect and love for herself, despite the trauma that she’s carrying around. If you didn’t know that by the ending, that ending would’ve concerned me, but I think you do feel it by the ending, you don’t need to see that Maren’s literally OK out in the world.”
“Bones and All” is now in theaters.