“Bones and All” is one of the most tonally adventurous films of 2022, a lyrical romance that’s utterly sincere yet also darkly comic, profoundly unsettling, and punctuated by gory scenes of cannibalism. While screenwriter David Kajganich and director Luca Guadagnino are no strangers to audacious genre-bending — their reimagining of “Suspiria” remains one of the boldest and most original horror films of the last 25 years — keeping all of the elements in balance for “Bones and All” created new challenges and demands for them and their collaborators. Perhaps the key collaboration when it came to setting the distinctive mood of “Bones and All” was the one between Guadagnino and his composers, the Oscar-winning duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Guadagnino had long been a fan of Reznor and Ross’ work with Nine Inch Nails, and of the scores they’d composed for films like “The Social Network” and “Gone Girl.” But he didn’t know if he could get them for the modestly budgeted “Bones and All.” He told IndieWire, “My agent proposed that we send the script to Trent and Atticus, and I said, ‘Would they be interested in such a small movie?'” It turns out that Reznor and Ross had been waiting for the call. “A few years ago we had made a short list of people that we felt would be intriguing collaborators to work with, and Luca was one of the names on that list,” Reznor said. “I remember getting wind that Luca was interested in us and that it was a love story about cannibals, and that was about all the information we needed.”
The composers and director met virtually during the pandemic and felt an instant connection. “Luca was very articulate from the beginning,” Reznor said. “He said, ‘It’s a love story. I’m gonna shoot it in an understated fashion. It’s gonna feel naturalistic. I want the music to be a character. I don’t want the music to overpower the film.’ He had a list of descriptors of what the music needed to do, and they weren’t powerful brass lines or anything like that. It was just feelings. And in addition, he said, ‘Maybe it’s an acoustic guitar, a lonely acoustic guitar playing a beautiful melody that could anchor the piece. Maybe that’s right. Maybe it isn’t. It’s up to you.’ And that was enough to get us started.”
Reznor and Ross began writing music before the movie was shot, which then evolved as they saw what Guadagnino and his actors brought to the material. “Our focus was on getting the basis of two particular guitar themes that Luca felt were appropriate to the love story,” Ross said. Guadagnino had made it clear to the composers that the love story was his main area of interest and they wrote accordingly, expanding upon and modifying the romantic themes after seeing the first 4 1/2-hour cut of the movie. “When this cut showed up and we saw these characters come to life and we saw the subtleties the actors brought to it, it was a really important moment in our roles as composers,” Reznor said, recalling that he thought “Wow, this is what an artist can bring to the table.”
The guitars that evoke feelings of longing and romance in the love story turn more ominous whenever Sully, the terrifying antagonist played by Mark Rylance, enters the film. “Luca said he wanted an extreme perversity to be associated with that character,” Ross said. “It’s rooted in an acoustic guitar with various other organic elements that have been treated entering around it… it curls into something pretty that can go fairly intense. A lot of it’s blowing — there’s some weird flute, the spittle of a sax mouthpiece.” Reznor added, “This is someone who’s lost his mind by being in this state for so long, and Luca said ‘I would love it if you could sonically imply perversity and something uncomfortable and decadent.’ When it came to that side of it, we felt confident. We know how to make you feel uncomfortable.”
The challenge came in putting the audience on edge while also honing in on how to express what Reznor called “the beautiful and sad and romantic aspects of the relationships,” but to a certain degree the footage itself led the way. When they watched Guadagnino’s first cut, they “couldn’t believe how alive it felt,” Reznor said. “It didn’t veer from what we knew was going to take place, but it just felt magic and became something that we weren’t expecting. It blew us both away, to be honest with you.” “There was an emotional impact to that first viewing, and that was a viewing with no music at all,” Ross added. The music that emerged grew not only from Reznor and Ross’ reactions to the film but from many long conversations with Guadagnino, who calls himself “very privileged” to have worked with the composers. “These are real filmmakers who make beautiful work,” he said. “Not only do they do it with their individuality, but they merge their work with the fiber of the movie and become part of it. I don’t think this movie could [exist] without them.”