All-Consuming Romance: the director and star of Bones and All on the transcendental act of cannibalism

My Cannibal Romance: Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell are Midwestern emo excellence in Bones and All.
My Cannibal Romance: Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell are Midwestern emo excellence in Bones and All.

Bones and All director Luca Guadagnino and star Taylor Russell on macabre metaphors, America’s lonely heartland and living in the moment.

I like to see people doing things that they don’t know they’re doing. That’s what we filmmakers do; we’re trying to seek out the invisible and put it on screen.

—⁠Luca Guadagnino

Taylor Russell believes making Bones and All changed her as an actress—and she wonders if all those lucky enough to work with its director, Luca Guadagnino, feel the same way.

Elegant and sensual on the surface, all the Italian director’s films—from the lush summer reverie of Call Me by Your Name (2017) to the liminal Danse Macabre of Suspiria (2018)—soon ripple to expose great depths of emotion churning beneath hypnotic exteriors. The challenge this poses to his actors is immense, at once asking them to conceal and reveal their characters’ inner urges. But it’s clearly also alluring, given that he counts the likes of Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson and Alba Rohrwacher as frequent collaborators.

“Luca stirs you to question how far you can go, what you can do, what’s the top of your talent,” says Russell. “To be on a set like that, you’re never going to not be transformed, not be challenged, not be changed in the best possible way. That’s who he is, as a human being. That’s the rarity of Luca.”

WATCH: TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET AND LUCA GUADAGNINO CHAT TO LETTERBOXD ABOUT THEIR DELIGHT IN AUDIENCE REACTIONS TO BONES AND ALL
Luca Guadagnino, il direttore.
Luca Guadagnino, il direttore.

Bones and All is in some ways a departure for Guadagnino—notably, it’s his first American film—but its themes of love, death and self-discovery fit within his oeuvre. Set across swaths of the Midwest in the late ’80s, it centers on Russell’s character, Maren, a teenager who hits the road after indulging a long-repressed impulse to eat human flesh. After she meets gorgeous drifter Lee (Timothée Chalamet), who shares this violent hunger, the pair set out in a blue pickup truck, finding solace in each other at the margins of a society that will never accept them.

“Maren and Lee try to challenge their own nature,” says Guadagnino. “In a way, that’s an interesting punctuation of how, particularly in growing up, we face our sense of control over the way we are, how we are made, and how we fail through the process of wanting to change.”

Adds Russell: “There’s this beautiful meeting between freedom and breaking away from your familiar life. Maren’s asking for freedom, but at the same time it’s terrifying, because she’s never had it before.”

It’s early October, and Guadagnino and Russell are in a suite at the Whitby Hotel, speaking about Bones and All ahead of its gala presentation at the New York Film Festival. Traveling the festival circuit has been an exhausting, gratifying experience for both. At Venice, where Bones and All had its world premiere, Guadagnino was awarded the Silver Lion for best direction, while Russell won the Marcello Mastroianni Award, given to an emerging actor or actress.

I felt so seen, so loved, so adored by him, in a way that I wasn’t expecting to feel. That doesn’t happen all the time. If you’re lucky enough to get to work with directors who see you that way, it’s like winning the lottery in acting.

—⁠Taylor Russell
“My concern is with being wild,” says Russell about losing all inhibitions to play her character Maren.
“My concern is with being wild,” says Russell about losing all inhibitions to play her character Maren.

Today, seated across from each other at a table overlooking upper midtown Manhattan, the director and star are in high spirits and eager to discuss their collaboration. Still, there’s much about the experience of working together, and the metaphorical richness of the story they’ve told, that strikes them as ineffable.

“I never think about my movies from a bird’s eye view,” declares Guadagnino, warding off any questions about connections between Bones and All and his previous work. “I am in the moment. Things sum up to something that has a meaning—possibly, hopefully—but afterwards, not when you’re doing it.”

Guadagnino first encountered Bones and All through a screenplay adaptation by David Kajganich, who also wrote the director’s darkly comic romance A Bigger Splash (2015) and the Suspiria remake. Drawn from Camille DeAngelis’ 2015 young adult novel of the same name, the story of adolescent longing and of outsiders seeking communion moved him deeply. While the need that binds Maren and Lee evokes visceral horror, their appetites are undeniable, innate.

“In this case, what’s interesting about cannibalism is that it’s a condition you have that you can’t escape from,” says Guadagnino. The director would never describe himself as squeamish—as those who recall Suspiria, with its sequences of dancers’ bodies cracked and contorted beyond recognition, can attest—but he also saw his characters’ hunger as something primal and profound.

Guadagnino is no stranger to macabre studies of the body, as evidenced by his 2018 Suspiria remake.
Guadagnino is no stranger to macabre studies of the body, as evidenced by his 2018 Suspiria remake.

“Cannibalism is a taboo, cannibalism is a metaphor, and cannibalism pervades our sense of religion, our sense of fear,” he says. “I’m not Catholic, but I come from a Catholic country. Every day, there are acts of cannibalism happening—in my country, and everywhere where there is a mass communion, because you are eating the flesh of Christ in the shape of the wafer. You’re consuming God within you. It’s a transcendental act.”

The idea of alienating audiences with that side of the story rarely crossed his mind, if at all. And while shock value never drove him while filming sequences of Maren and Lee feeding upon other drifters they encounter, Guadagnino admits reports of viewers recoiling from those grislier moments “delights” him—as does any deep emotional response. A look at Letterboxd, even before the film’s wide release, reveals an audience eagerly lapping it up. “Never has the sight of dried blood around the mouth felt so sensual,” exclaimed Iana Murray. Asked Izzy, “How can something so brutal feel so delicate?” And Liam enthused that only Guadagnino “could make me feel both utterly sick and moved to tears at the same time.”

This pleases the director. “I’ve seen people touched by Maren and Lee, which means they surrendered to their characters and their quest for love, and they didn’t judge them for a condition they have to be dealing with,” he says. “The moral struggle of these characters comes across to the audience that’s seen the movie so far. I love to see people crying for them and embracing them.”

Crying for the young lovers’ plight is encouraged.
Crying for the young lovers’ plight is encouraged.

For Russell, it was easy to empathize with Maren’s cravings, and even easier to relate to the loneliness of her struggle toward self-knowledge and acceptance. Reflecting on the role, she quotes a favorite writer, the Ukrainian-Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector: “Who has not asked himself at some time or other, ‘Am I a monster, or is this what it means to be a person?’”.

“That’s what Maren is asking and wondering during the whole film,” she adds. “This question comes up at that age, when you’re a teenager and feeling everything for the first time.”

Before landing Bones and All, Russell was best known for her leading role in the Escape Room franchise, as well as co-starring in Trey Edwards Shults’ Waves, an agonized family saga that earned her a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Performer. It was the latter role that brought her to Guadagnino’s attention, and he was convinced to cast her after a brief conversation over FaceTime.

Acting opposite Chalamet, one of the most popular actors of his generation since starring in Call Me by Your Name, has introduced Russell to a much wider audience. On set, the actors bonded quickly as they worked to capture the deep, often dangerous dynamic between Maren and Lee. “Timmy and I both feel very comfortable with each other as artists, as people,” Russell says. “When you have that sense of spontaneity and freedom with somebody, so much can be born. A lot can happen. It’s the sweet spot of where you want to be when you’re working.”

Confirmed by Bones and All: Cannibals can drink coffee.
Confirmed by Bones and All: Cannibals can drink coffee.

Russell connected deeply to Maren as she traveled the country during filming—an experience that brought her back to her own childhood. The actress had moved sixteen separate times before she’d turned sixteen, as her father pursued a career in acting. “I was never stationed in one place,” she reflects. “There were lots of opportunities for transformation, but at the same time for having to measure what was left behind, for feeling the loss of a place, for having dreams and not knowing, ‘Have I seen this before?’. I sometimes wasn’t sure, especially as a little girl. It was a gift that I could act that out as an adult in this way.”

Guadagnino prepared for filming by first traveling through the Midwest alone, a month-long trek that opened his eyes to the beauty and desolation of America’s heartland. Seeing people and places left behind by the rest of the country, and sensing their fierce dignity and sense of morality, he resolved to make his movie on the road, moving the production from state to state and shooting on practical locations so as evoke the sights and sounds of Maren and Lee’s nomadic lifestyle.

And so, after filming commenced in Maryland, Guadagnino led his crew to Ohio, Nebraska, Indiana, then Kentucky. “It’s about trying to be at the height of the place you’re in and the characters you’re with, not above them,” says the director. “That makes for me the magic of this job, your ability to observe and find things.” Asked to expand on that exploratory process, Guadagnino pauses for a moment, then frowns. “I don’t see myself working,” he says, suggesting Russell would perhaps be better-equipped to speak about his methods.

“The film set is a very oppressive and artificial place, because you have to get that spontaneity and that sense of freedom out of the oppression of time, of money, of crowded places—with questions happening at the same time, interruptions, and things that don’t work,” the director offers. “And yet, you have to be present and vigilant to capture the unexpected and the free.”

Guadagnino is fond of saying that every film feels like his first, but he’ll just as readily admit that’s not entirely true. Through the process of making art over and over, “you get to understand better how to be prepared for the moment in which an epiphany is happening,” he says. Through that artistic growth, and the increased comfort it’s allowed him, Guadagnino has also learned more about how he’s perceived by his cast and crew. “I am quite organized, a bit of a boss, and very intense,” Guadagnino admits. “But also, I love my actors, and I love my crew, because we are a family.”

Russell offers a story to illustrate this point. One of her sharpest memories from set, ironically, came from one of the only times filming took place on a soundstage, in order to capture a key scene in an apartment that brings Maren face-to-face with eccentric fellow “eater” Sully (Mark Rylance). Watching playback, Guadagnino and Russell were approached by a crew member who expressed skepticism about the way the scene was being set up. “Everyone here is a filmmaker, and this is everyone’s film,” Russell recalls Guadagnino responding, a sentiment that’s stuck with her.

“I believe in hierarchy but, at the same time, I believe in artistic collaboration,” explains the director. “That comes with a horizontal sense of dynamic that makes everybody a great protagonist of the possibilities that you should unchain while making a movie.”

Rural Americana landscapes and natural lighting evoke the pastoral works of Terrence Malick.
Rural Americana landscapes and natural lighting evoke the pastoral works of Terrence Malick.

Though Guadagnino looked most to the overpowering nature of American landscapes to inform the film’s romantically brooding atmosphere, he and cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan (2020’s Beginning) also studied influential cinematographers such as Vilmos Zsigmond and Néstor Almendros, masters of natural light who filmed iconic ’70s movies like Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Personally, the director was inspired by Nicholas Ray’s noir They Live By Night and the work of photographer William Eggleston, whose snapshots of mundane American environs—abandoned storefronts, empty living rooms, a lone light bulb—captured their vivid beauty and hidden character.

Guadagnino offered Russell a range of film references, from Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, both of which he describes as “beautiful and opaque visions of people running from their own nature”, to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Malick’s Badlands, mythic American sagas of outlaw violence and lovers on the lam.

The lovers from 1973’s Badlands (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) enjoy a rack of (non-human) meat in the countryside.
The lovers from 1973’s Badlands (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) enjoy a rack of (non-human) meat in the countryside.

“Loving the iconicity of Hollywood cinema very much, there is a capacity for contradiction within the characters created by auteurs like Bresson and Varda that I thought was a way to bridge these two worlds,” explains Guadagnino. “That’s why I offered those references to actors, so that their characters were not being inspired by the oppression of a three-act structure and arc, but by contradictions within the behavior they were to express.”

To that end, Guadagnino sent over three very different films to his cast—Chantal Akerman’s meticulous character study Jeanne Dielman, Nagisa Ōshima’s taboo-breaking erotic romance In the Realm of the Senses and Roberto Rossellini’s neo-realist tragedy Germany Year Zero—that all probed deeply into the human mind by focusing intently on the body.

“These references were helpful physically, even more than emotionally,” comments Russell. “What is the body language of somebody who feels on the outside and is oppressed or bound up in some way by the invisible shackles of the world around them?” Germany Year Zero, about a young boy scrabbling through the leveled ruins of postwar Berlin, left a particular mark. “It’s a heartbreaking story,” Russell enthuses. “There’s this fight against the external environment, then against what’s happening internally, and that’s an affliction that’s exciting and provocative. It ignites me to think about that.”

Germany Year Zero was one of several films about the tension between the mind and the body that Guadagnino encouraged his cast to watch.
Germany Year Zero was one of several films about the tension between the mind and the body that Guadagnino encouraged his cast to watch.

Russell admits that she’s ignited equally by Guadagnino’s own inquiries into human form, which Bones and All furthers through moments of seduction, brutality and—in a scene in which Lee dances wildly to the KISS anthem “Lick It Up” —⁠liberation. “The physicality of all his characters is always so specific and something that you remember, or at least I do,” she says. “Timothée in Call Me by Your Name, I can think about his body language, his movements, and the same is true of Dakota Johnson, Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash.”

Guadagnino sees his own cinema, at least in part, as “an ongoing conversation with myself about bodies that matter”, but this is intuitive rather than intentional. Dialogue, after all, is only an externalization of his character’s emotions, an articulation of urges being expressed more nakedly elsewhere. “Behavior comes from body language,” he says. “If you remove the spoken language and the drama of importance, and you let the actual behavior become the important thing, it becomes all about that physicality. I like to see people doing things that they don’t know they’re doing. That’s what we filmmakers do; we’re trying to seek out the invisible and put it on screen.”

Body language is key: Maren’s and Lee’s positions signal the former’s introversion and the latter’s extroversion.
Body language is key: Maren’s and Lee’s positions signal the former’s introversion and the latter’s extroversion.

For Russell, trusting Guadagnino meant relinquishing any self-consciousness in front of his camera. Filming Bones and All left her fulfilled but also raw and vulnerable. What playing Maren required, beyond dramatic intention, was total surrender. “I never want to feel like I’m conscious of looking a certain way or doing a certain thing,” Russell says. It would disappoint, even scare her, to feel that way watching herself on screen. “That’s hopefully what preparation covers, and then you can be wild on the day. My concern is with being wild.”

Russell only knew that Bones and All was working when she traveled to New York for additional dialogue recording. In viewing early cuts of certain scenes, the emotional wallop of seeing herself through Guadagnino’s eyes nearly knocked her flat. “I felt so seen, so loved, so adored by him, when I saw those pieces, in a way that I wasn’t expecting to feel,” Russell recounts, her eyes abruptly welling with tears. “That doesn’t happen all the time. If you’re lucky enough to get to work with directors who see you that way, it’s like winning the lottery in acting. That’s what I’ll hold onto the most.”

Filming Bones and All, she goes on to explain, was a transformative experience in many ways outside of any potential impact it will have on her career. “As I get older, the great gift of being alive on this planet is how meaningful it is, this work in particular,” says Russell softly.

Star and director hit the red carpet at the New York Film Festival premiere of Bones and All.
Star and director hit the red carpet at the New York Film Festival premiere of Bones and All.

Attuned to the energies of the rural sprawl she and Maren were traveling through, from open miles of highway to wind-stricken cliffs and foreclosed farms, Russell found various “symbols” arising for her throughout production. “Every day, it felt like there was some sort of synchronicity between my unconscious mind and what was happening in front of me and around me,” she explains. “Themes of spirituality are pretty present in my life, but they were especially present with Maren.”

One day, while filming in Ohio, Russell felt an unexplainable feeling wash over her and left the set, traveling deep into the surrounding wilderness toward a river she had never visited before. There, she somehow understood, she was to wade into the stream and receive a sign, in the form of a fish (“I know, strange”) swimming alongside her. “It was hard to find this river,” she recalls. “I walked 40 minutes down this long trail. I was alone and I was terrified, but I kept hearing this encouragement to keep going, keep going.”

Eventually, Russell encountered a fellow traveler, a ceramicist, with whom she spoke for a while; that art form, involving the shaping and sculpting of materials from earth, carries deep personal meaning to her, another sign. He told Russell she was going the right way, so she pressed on. Hearing the stream before she saw it, she soon arrived at the water’s edge. “I walked into the river and stood there for maybe ten minutes, just still, silent, listening,” Russell recalls, eyes shining. “And then I felt something on my ankle. It was this giant fish. I opened my eyes, looked down, and I saw it move past my legs.”

She exhales, as if lost in the memory, before returning to the room. “I don’t know what else to say about that, other than that magical things like that kept happening to me. I felt very connected to the environment. I felt protected.”

Russell as Maren, feeling at home in an environment that will protect her at all costs.
Russell as Maren, feeling at home in an environment that will protect her at all costs.

As the actress recounts all this, Guadagnino leans forward in his seat, enraptured. “Taylor has her own stories,” the director remarks warmly, once he’s sure she’s finished. “I didn’t know that one,” he murmurs, holding her in his gaze. “It’s beautiful.”


Bones and All’ is now playing widely in the UK, US and other regions, and coming to Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and more on 1 December, courtesy of United Artists Releasing.

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