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Building Emotional Complexity and Character: A Conversation with ‘Bones and All’ Screenwriter David Kajganich

David Kajganich shares with Script how the book came to his attention, writing a love story with horror grammar, collaborating with director Lucas Guadagnino, building his filmmaking tribe, and so much more. Plus, he shares invaluable advice for writers adapting a novel.

Bones and All is a story of first love between Maren, a young woman learning how to survive on the margins of society, and Lee, an intense and disenfranchised drifter; a liberating road odyssey of two young people coming into their own, searching for identity and chasing beauty in a perilous world that cannot abide who they are

When watching Bones and All, your stomach will twist in turn for two ultimate reasons. One reason is the seemingly realistic gnawing, ripping, and eating of human flesh. And the other reason is for the underdog love and coming of age story that transcends on screen between two outcast and loveable characters, wonderfully played by Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell.

Bones and All is an adaptation of Camile DeAngelis' horror-fantasy fiction novel of the same name, by screenwriter and producer David Kajganich, who is possibly one of the most humble and gracious humans you'll be lucky enough to come across in this industry - those are just the facts. 

In this conversation, David shares how the book came to his attention, writing a love story with horror grammar, collaborating with director Lucas Guadagnino, building his filmmaking tribe, and so much more. Plus, he shares invaluable advice for writers adapting a novel. 

[L-R] Taylor Russell as Maren and Timothée Chalamet as Lee in BONES AND ALL, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis.

[L-R] Taylor Russell as Maren and Timothée Chalamet as Lee in BONES AND ALL, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: How did this book initially come across your desk and what essentially hooked you?

David Kajganich: This was a bit of an odd one, because I'm usually someone that finds my own material. But every once in a while, I'll get an email or something in the mail from someone I don't know, who said, ‘I watched your work and I think you're the right fit for this.’ And this was one of those situations. I read the book, I often assume it's probably going to be horror, and it's probably going to be character-driven horror, but this was different in that this was a love story inside of this kind of horror grammar. I was so touched that anybody wanted to trust me with a love story, which is not something I've done before in my career. And also, the love story that was taking place inside of the larger frame of a young woman coming into her identity. 

I had lots of concerns out of the gate once I had read the book, and I thought I do have a point of view about this, I do think I understand how to adapt this, but I want to make sure I'm the right person. Not just from my point of view, but especially from the author's point of view and also the originating producer Theresa Park, I wanted to just triple check that it was OK that a man tried to articulate the story because it was going to have to change into to a visual medium. And so, I knew there were going to be changes, maybe big changes done to the book, and I just wanted to make sure that everybody was excited about what I could bring to it.

David Kajganich. Photo by Lionel Hahn.

David Kajganich. Photo by Lionel Hahn.

Once we jumped over sort of that question and kind of landed on our feet, and I talked to Camille [DeAngelis] at length about what she cared about preserving in the adaptation, one of the surprises of that conversation was she even more so than that the story of a young woman's awakening was a story that could be used as a kind of vegan tale, which is not what I was expecting. I had sort of picked up I suppose on it a little bit in the book but was wondering if I was sort of projecting something onto it. But one of the things she wanted to empower me to do if I wanted to, and I did, was just simply take that subtext and be much more explicit about it. 

There are scenes that I added that aren't in the book, one of them is their first kiss in a slaughterhouse where they're talking about how cows have parents and siblings and friends and a language. And another is the campground scene with Brad and Jake, when you realize one of them actually is not an eater, but has just fetishized what they do to the point where he's a groupie - things like that to sort of work into this story, the idea that in the same way that if you murdered a person, you are causing destruction inside a whole life that you haven't considered. You do the same when you eat a steak. You could make a case that they're not morally equivalent, but at least in terms of the subtext of the film, I wanted to try to create a space where they could be. And Camille was very happy at the end of the process, reading the script and thinking, ‘OK, he heard me. He really did try to code some things into this film that are important to the author.’

Sadie: I love that you brought that up, because there is moral and ethical high ground woven into this world and especially these two characters who are eaters, and the choices they make. And then there’s some unspoken rules that come into play, how do those rules set the course for world-building and characters?

David: Rules are an interesting question when you're writing a film like this. I didn't want to spend time building a full mythology for the eaters in the way that a film like Twilight might have felt obligated to do that, just because that takes time and there was so much else to talk about. I thought if there was a way to do it from the character's point of view, and obviously, having a character who is somewhat new to understanding how this works is a useful way to do it. I thought if a character in the story is talking about the rules, because the character is motivated to do it for one reason or another, then that's acceptable, that's building character. But I never wanted to put lines in any of the character's mouths that were just to educate the audience in terms of how it worked. I don't mind a feeling of mild confusion in the audience, it helps me actually sit up more and listen more and triangulate more. I would much rather an audience be more active in that process by giving them naturalistic details instead of expository details. It's not a hard decision to make. But it does require sort of good collaborators to pull off.

When I understood Luca [Guadagnino] would be directing the film, and some people who are probably likely to be in the cast, I wasn't concerned at all because these actors are so good. And they don't need expository lines coming out of their mouths. I'm sure most actors hate them. On set, we had a lot of fun with the naturalistic dialogue, because it felt earned, and it felt funnier somehow when you're sort of sneaking glimpses into somebody's weird sense of humor, or the weird sort of references they have for things or their foibles that you wouldn't have time for if you were just delivering exposition to an audience.

Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. There is that sense of levity that makes the audience feel emotionally connected to the story and characters.

David: Humor is the other side of the same coin as horror. When a horror movie doesn't use something comedic in its language, or a comedy doesn't use something upsetting in its language, it's like they missed half of the possible ground to play around on. Humor is really important to this film.

When we saw it at Venice, which was the very first time I'd seen it with an audience, it's a bit of a formal festival. It's a bit of a formal crowd. And when people weren't laughing, I was like, ‘Oh no, we miscalculated something.’ But when we got to Telluride, and everybody was in their fleece jackets, and hanging out watching the movie, they were laughing a lot. And I thought, ‘OK, I can relax.’ [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] Well it worked! What was the writing adaptation process like for you on this?

David: This was a particularly odd one. I also produced this film, so I have sort of a bigger point of view about it. And I know that there is no way that having a studio develop it with me is going to be the better choice, because there's so much in this film that would frighten most studio executives. [laughs] And spend months negotiating those things, I would much rather just simply do this on spec and take the time I needed. For this project, I had to steal hours here and there from other things I was contracted to write. It took a long time, maybe two and a half years, actually to get a first draft. But I was so glad I did it the way I did, because it allowed me to make a lot of decisions about tone that I wouldn't have really been able to make if I had a studio executive or producer, frankly, on my shoulder, that wasn't Theresa, who also wanted to do it this way.

When it came time to make the film, we decided, let's just keep this going and try to avoid any attachments that require oversight. And so, we all deferred our salaries, we made it as cheaply as we could, we got private investors who weren't necessarily film investors. Timothée obviously was a big, big part of that. I mean, so much so that, Luca has gone on record saying this film wouldn't have happened without him. And I agree with that. And, so in that way, he sort of produced this film also with us by bringing the kind of voltage to it that allowed us to get the financing we needed.

[L-R] Taylor Russell as Maren and Timothée Chalamet as Lee in BONES AND ALL, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis.

[L-R] Taylor Russell as Maren and Timothée Chalamet as Lee in BONES AND ALL, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis.

At the end of the day, when we wrapped the film, and when the final cut came through, we still didn't have a distributor, and no one had bought the film yet. And it's exhilarating, a little scary, but more exhilarating to do what we did, which is bet on ourselves.

In the writing process, but also in the production and post-production of the film, we had every bit of creative control a team of people can have. And I'm so addicted now to this. It's all I want to do is put these films together with friends, powerful friends, [laughs] and do it the way we want to do it, and then worry about the marketplace. And you know, we've been rewarded this time because we were able to sell the film well. It's being marketed very well. The rollout has been wonderful. And so, it feels like a great marriage between a creative team and a business team. But the creative team needed to do its work first in this case, and we were able to do it.

Sadie: I think that’s so wonderful you are basically building your own film collective and carrying on that spirit of independent filmmaking. Especially allowing yourself to take time with the material rather than rush it out in 30 days. [laughs]

David: [laughs] Oh my gosh, when people tell me, ‘I wrote that in two weeks’ I get hives. I don’t know how anybody does that. It's excruciating to think of doing it that way. [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] It kind of makes my stomach turn, how is it possible? So, in terms of working with Luca again, were you the deciding factor in hiring Luca as the director?

David: While I was reading the book, we had just done A Bigger Splash and we were sort of ramping up to do Suspiria. And I thought, I don't think this is just me projecting, I actually think Luca would really love this story. And he was so busy when I sent him the book. He's like, ‘I'll try to read it, but I don't know when.’ And I thought, well, maybe I don't have to wait. Maybe I can just start my work. Luca at some point said, ‘I really can't fit this in.’ And so briefly, I worked a bit with a director who you may know Antonio Campos, and had one conversation with him about it just to see if he wanted to be involved. And he did. I went off and wrote the script, and had finished the script, and then at that point, he had to drop off because they were going to make one of his passion projects. And I thought, ‘OK, maybe this is good serendipity.’ So, I got back in touch with Luca and said, ‘There's a script, will you read the script?’ and he said, ‘Darling, I'm so busy, but I'll read it because we're friends.’ And then he read it and called me and said, ‘If Timothée Chalamet does it. I'll do it.’ [laughs]

[L-R] Screenwriter David Kajganich and director Luca Guadagnino.

[L-R] Screenwriter David Kajganich and director Luca Guadagnino.

I was so happy when Luca came aboard, because I knew it's not just a question of something as banal as style or, or even taste, I knew that he would understand these characters soulfully and lead the actors to understand them soulfully and that the film would have a real sense of emotional complexity, and even spiritual complexity to it that not a lot of other directors I know of might have seen in a film like this. So, I was really so happy and relieved.

Sadie: His vision is very clear in this film, but it's also the way he's able to communicate that emotion, especially through his actors, it's a whole other level of craftsmanship.

David: And it seems so obvious now, but it wasn't until people started writing about the film that neither of us had considered, ‘Oh, this is a weird meeting place between Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria.’ It's not what we were thinking about as we were making it, but when people started to say it, I was like, ‘OK, maybe that's part of what my intuition was about him responding to this material.’ It is about the awakening into full identity of young people but also through the forcefulness of a horror grammar. There aren't many people I know that sort of love these things equally. And there can be creative transference between genres like there is often with Luca.


Sadie: And it was all meant to be. Taking a step back, what inspired you to become a writer?

David: I have a jokey answer, which is I went to a terrible public high school where the English classes were the only classes that really sunk in for me. So maybe if I'd had a really brilliant physics instructor in high school, I’d be a physicist, but I just followed the energy.

I went to college thinking I would study fiction, I wanted to write novels. And then I went to graduate school for that. So, my early part of my life was all gearing up to write books. And then I just went to a very specific film on a very specific day, I [Krzysztof] Kieślowski’s Blue, White and Red, a triple feature, and thought, this is sublime. And this isn't something you could do in a novel. So, I wanted to write a screenplay just as an experiment. But I also thought, maybe it would help me write dialogue better, or at least it would be worth doing it for that reason. And then just fell in love with the form. It's so stripped down, it is so calm and sane [laughs] as a form goes, you can't get lost in spirals and spirals of internal rumination, it is just what people say and what they do. That's what you have. And if you believe as I believe that, you know that all of this has to be driven by character action, it is the most precise way to do that. You can tell so clearly if it's working in a screenplay or not working, and I think in a way that you can't tell in a novel. You could spend years writing a novel and realize this isn't driven by character action at all.

And so, I just fell in love with the form and just started writing screenplays and haven't really looked back. I've written very little fiction since then, and we're talking now 15 years of a career, never thinking this was actually going to be my life's sort of work and my bread and butter, but I just got hooked. And then when you start collaborating with really interesting people, the actors I've been able to work with and now the directors and I'm a communal kind of guy, I'm a bit of a hippie, so the idea of choosing between writing a novel by myself for three years or spending my life with these incredible people [laughs] it's not really a big decision for me, I know where I want to go.

Sadie: It’s a night and day comparison, right? Have you ever thought of being a playwright, also because of that communal experience?

David: Yeah, some things I've taken on thinking that they would be screenplays and then put down because I realized, actually, this is a play. It's just about time. When the pandemic started, I mean, respectfully, I was so excited to have some unknown number of months, just kind of with the peace and quiet and my computer. And I wondered if what might come out of that was a play. And it didn't in this particular moment, because I had so many other things that I was either contracted to do or wanted to do more. But I would love to not only write, but direct for theater, because I just think it's what you're saying is, it's stripping everything down even more to just its bare minimum. I remember reading, a number of composers talk about how it's not the symphony that actually is the real test of your ability. It's the string quartet, because there is no hiding. And I think theater is probably everything I love about screenwriting is probably amplified in playwriting and directing for the stage. I'd love to dip into that.

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Sadie: I’m sure it’s such an interesting experience to have. With a film, you get one chance but with theater, it’s like a living and breathing thing, like playing live music.

David: And maybe that would have scared me, that idea 10-15 years ago, but it doesn't now. So maybe it's the right moment to jump tracks.

Sadie: Well, take my money, how do we make this happen?

David: [laughs]

Sadie: What themes are you interested in tackling as a storyteller?

David: I wish that I had a more cohesive list, but honestly, I just want to work on things that are out there somewhere, not in the middle of the road. Let me put it this way, I don't go to the movies to be entertained. I know a lot of people do. And you know, every once in a while, there's a movie that's undeniably so charming you want to go and just be carried away by it. But I go to be provoked, I go to be questioned, I go to be confronted. And so, I tend to look for projects that allow me to do that from the screenwriter’s side.

It's quite a moving question, actually, like the amount of joy and energy I get from waking up in the morning, a bit afraid of what I have to write that day. But knowing that I have the support of collaborators, or my husband, who's a filmmaker, knowing that I can fail day after day after day, and still have the energy to keep trying, and I mean, fail, because, you know, all this kind of writing, particularly the tricky stuff, the hard stuff, it's an act of dedicated extensive empathy. And those muscles they deflate really quickly if you don't use them. And so, I try to work on projects that keep those muscles activated all the time. And those tend to be more intense, or they just tend to be they're not like comedies [laughs] if you know what mean.

I tend to work on fairly intense things, and I've continued to on everything I've got on my plate going forward is pretty intense. But I know I've got the support to get through it all. It doesn't matter to me anymore what genre, doesn't matter if it's big or small, doesn't matter if it's aimed at this audience or that audience, it doesn't matter if it's for TV or film; just give me things that feel a bit dangerous, because they ask more of me and an audience and a cast and a director than a lot of other projects might. I want to be out there working hard, but the work being the work of empathy.

Sadie: I love that. I can't remember who said this, but I’ve heard this quip countless times before, ‘write what scares you,’ And I think that goes perfectly hand in hand with what you’re saying, questioning yourself but also having empathy and understanding behind the emotional toll it can take on you. It’s important to have the support system.

David: Yeah, and it's not a complaint at all. It's like you're alive when you're doing something that requires a connection with other people to stay centered and grounded. It's a world of ideas, right? I live in a world of ideas. How thankful am I for that, right? But sometimes you need to be back on the ground with people you love, and I have those too and I'm the luckiest person in the world if you ask me.

Sadie: I totally agree. Well, now knowing that you first wanted to start out as a novelist and now you’ve com full circle in adapting a novel as a screenwriter, any advice for those adapting a book

David: The most important thing, and this isn't the easiest thing necessarily to explain, if you don't already have a way of thinking about it in your head - it is moving a story from a textual medium to a visual medium. The comprehensive importance of that can't really be overstated. I think you sort of have to think a bit more like a poet when you're adapting to the screen, because you have units of image and that ought to, I mean, really ought to carry the bulk of the work. And so, you've got to find it in yourself somehow, to stop speaking a textual language and start speaking an imagistic language when you do an adaptation. It's really hard if that's not what you were trained to do, if it's not intuitively how you think about the world. And maybe the best informal training for that is something as simple as watching movies with the sound off. Watch five movies you love, watch them with the sound off and realize how much of the story is being told visually. And that's not just for a director to decide, that's for the writer to decide, both obviously, but at least for the purposes of a script, if you want a great director to pick up a script and think this is for me, it has to be a visual script. And that's a hard thing. It's a big job making that transition.

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And I guess my other piece of advice would be that you have to have a strong point of view, a very strong point of view. And that point of view needs to be in conversation, which sometimes means being in conflict with the point of view of the book itself, or whatever you're adapting, but as long as the conversations exist, sort of in an organic way, with an organic set of terms, deviation from source material isn't the problem, abandonment of the source material is the problem.

Sadie: Right, which we have seen a lot of before, unfortunately, but there are some writers who are able to carry essence of the source material visually.

David: Yeah, and there are tricks. One thing that helps me is to pay very close attention to my first experience of reading a book and try to have the script, hopefully, the film, recreate a bit of the energy of that first reading. That sometimes works, because it's energy before you start projecting yourself into it. I think it's important to pay attention to that.  


The other piece of it that's really important is to understand when you're projecting your own story onto a piece of work that you're adapting, you know, my experience of the 80s, in the Midwest and feeling ‘other’ was that I was gay and in the closet. And I could easily have imposed that onto Bones and All. But you can't do that. It's important to understand how your personal connection is useful to you sort of in terms of your energy for the adaptation, but it can't start dictating what the adaptation is.

Bones and All is now playing in select Theaters. 

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