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Exclusive Interview: “SUSPIRIA “(2018) Screenwriter David Kajganich Talks About the Male Gaze and Female bodies

Monday, January 28, 2019 | Interviews

By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS

While director of SUSPIRIA, Luca Guadagnino, is fairly new to horror, screenwriter David Kajganich has been carefully carving his own niche into our little world for some time now. Going all the way back from the 2007 adaptation of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, merely called INVASION, to the upcoming PET SEMATARY, Kajganich has been reimagining our nightmares and reexamining what has been making us scared in these classic films. We sat down with Kajganich at last year’s Fantastic Fest to discuss adapting the beloved Dario Argento classic for new audiences.

(Mild spoilers below)

In regards to using dance in horror in SUSPIRIA: dancers are their bodies, but here it is not sexually objectifying. I saw those red rope costumes in the dance performance as viscera, and not bondage.
You are right about the costumes, that wasn’t meant to be sensual. These same women are going to be covered in blood at the end of the film. They don’t know it yet, and you don’t know it yet, but the witches do.
We worked really hard to make sure that there wasn’t any shred of the male gaze in the picture. One of the things I am finding so interesting about the reviews is the people who say, “it wasn’t sexy enough.” I think they may have misunderstood the film if they think that just because there are young women in the film, and they are dancing, that it necessarily has to be sensual. The film originally started with a quote responding to art from the day. It said that dance should be charming, show beautiful bodies, and have nothing to do with philosophy. That’s what people like Mary Wigman were responding to in their work.
When I started to talk to Luca about doing this remake, one of the first things I wanted to talk about it why this coven of witches would be inside of a dance company. When I proposed this idea that they were using dance as their spell work, it makes perfect sense. It is a good reason to be hidden inside of a dance company. The way that the coven is using the bodies of the women in the company, to transmit influence and energy is a tough thing. They are using these women’s bodies for their purpose and it had to be felt in the dance. It couldn’t just be entertaining or titillating or anything that dance is usually relegated to in film.

How did you go about studying female movement and actively avoiding the male gaze?
To me, these dance sequences carry a lot of information. It couldn’t be the case that I just write “Dance scene here.” I had to figure out a way, not to choreograph them, but to block them for the story. I then hoped the choreographer would then be able to use that blocking. It worked out perfectly.
I went back and watched Mary Wigman and Pina Bausch and Martha Graham, and a contemporary choreographer named Sasha Waltz, and I tried to understand how they were using the body of the dancer to communicate anxiety. I was focusing on movements and repetitions and juxtapositions that made me uncomfortable. Not just as a man receiving that information, but as a body receiving that information.

“Horror is horror. We should just keep making the best that we can.”

What about the movements made you uncomfortable?
I think the way the dancers use their bodies, to either replicate upsetting associations or confronting the body in a way we aren’t used to being confronted. There is a wonderful piece of choreography by Mary Wigman called “Witch Dance.” The dancer is moving across the ground very slowly, and then opens her legs. It is not a sexual gesture, but because 90% of the connotations are sexual it immediately has you in the palm of its hand. It curates your experience of watching it. Movements like that are instructive to me.

It confronts sexuality without being sexual.
Exactly. It confronts what you are bringing. It’s not being encouraged or called for, but you are bringing it anyway, because you are trained to do that. That dance was fascinating to me. That the physicality of dance could engage you in a way that your rational mind was not in control of.

How did you go about finding your voice in adapting a beloved film?
I had so many reassurances. One, that Luca was helming the film. We had worked on A BIGGER SPLASH, and I knew he wasn’t interested in anything prescriptive or reductive. He is somebody who embraces ambiguity as much as I love to. We also knew that anyone who knows anything about the original, understands that it is about a coven of witches at a dance academy, so why try to play that game again? But more to the point, we wanted to explore the coven as a group of real characters, as opposed to tropes. Not diminishing the value of the original at all, but it really just wants to scare you with witches. We wanted to use the occasion of a coven, hiding inside of a dance company, in Berlin in the 1970s, as a way to understand what happens when you deny women public paths to power. Women will start amassing private power. How is it both empowering and corrupting? How might it look along the spectrum of leadership styles? Once we started to ask questions like that it was impossible to replicate the original. These questions were taking us so far afield, we knew we were okay. As long as we were sincere and rigorous, and honored the original by trying to show we love and respect what Dario did.
I’m not a superfan of the original in the sense that I didn’t let it get in my way. I didn’t feel like I had to imitate it, which was really helpful. That movie is iconic.

Certainly some elements from the original made it in to your version. Were there other elements you wanted to include, or did it develop in such a way that you didn’t want to force it?
There isn’t a list of things that didn’t make it into our film, that would have been Easter eggs. I have only watched the original film twice in my life. Once as a teenager, and when Luca proposed the remake I watched it again. I understood that if I were to over study the original it would be a study of it style, and I knew that Luca wasn’t interested in that.

As SUSPIRIA is a very female story, did you ever hesitate to tell this story, as two male filmmakers?
It is daunting. Luca gets a lot of credit for being a sensualist filmmaker, but I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit for being a humanist filmmaker. We both believe the same thing; we do this to forge connections. We want empathy to be the currency of the things we make. To back away from a project because it regards someone who isn’t you, would not have felt right. Then the onus is back on you to make sure that you have done as much rigorous thinking and homework, and been exposed to the best art that will lead you to the core experience you are hoping to create. I think it helps that neither Luca nor I are particularly sold on the male gaze anyway. In fact, we are both gay men. I grew up in a house of sisters. I’m sure there are all kinds of things about my identity for me to still unpack, and writing this movie helped me do some of that. That was a part of what was exciting about writing this film. I certainly didn’t feel like I was the wrong person to do this film because of my gender; I have a queasy relationship with my gender anyways.
I was humbled by the opportunity, and I was not concerned that I would not give it my best shot, I was only concerned if people would be open to us doing it.

I appreciated the fact that you actually use the word “horror” when discussing SUSPIRIA. Nowadays certain filmmakers shy away from the label.
I think it is crazy to use the term “prestige” when it comes to the genre, as it presumes most horror doesn’t deserve attention. Or, somehow, you can’t assume it has an intellectual value. I’m the first person to stand up and say a film doesn’t have rigor or this particular film is cynical. Sure, there are a lot of shitty horror movies. But there are also a lot of shitty comedies, and you would never say that there is a “prestige comedy” coming out. It is a double standard that is worrisome.
At the same time, I get why someone would watch this and say it isn’t horror. Is it drama? Each of the protagonists has one foot in horror, but then one foot in another movie. Dakota [Johnson] is in a school story, Lutz [Ebersdorf, Tilda Swinton] is in a war movie. There is a lot going on in this film, so I understand people might not know what to call it.
Horror is horror. We should just keep making the best that we can.

You have made many dark films. What attracts you to horror?
I’m drawn to it as a way of exploring anxiety and intention by turning it up. I think people want to unpack these things, but it can be really tough to find safe ways to do it. Or, at least way where people feel rewarded for it. Horror is one of those ways. Comedy is another. They are flip sides of one another. They both have their main currency in anxiety, they just approach unpacking it in different ways. This is why some of my favorite horror films make me laugh, and some of my favorite comedies make me cringe; they are related. A lack of comic timing drives me in the direction of horror.

Deirdre is a Chicago-based film critic and life-long horror fan. In addition to writing for RUE MORGUE, she also contributes to BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH., FILM THRILLS, and HIGH DEF DIGEST. She's got two black cats and wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero.