116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
David Kajganich became attracted to the eerie growing up near the shores of Lake Erie. This rural Midwestern kid and Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum from Sheffield Village, Ohio, has turned that fascination into a screenwriting career that skews toward the macabre.
Now 52 and based in Los Angeles, he’s following his latest work, “Bones and All,” on a globe-trotting indie film circuit. This tale of disenfranchised people, laced with a touch of cannibalism, premiered to rave reviews Sept. 2 at the Venice International Film Festival.
“Timothee Chalamet is in the film, and where he goes, so goes people's attention,” Kajganich said. “I've just never been a part of the raucousness of that premiere. There were so many people that were so excited to see him in the flesh. He's like one of the Beatles. The screaming hordes of people who just could not believe that he was wearing a backless halter (on the red carpet).
“There was so much energy flying around that premiere that it was quite exhilarating to stand on the side and just take it all in.”
The film has since traveled to festivals in Telluride, Colo., and Austin, Texas.
And Iowa City.
Kajganich (rhymes with “mechanic” or “Titanic”) skipped a New York City screening to come to FilmScene’s Refocus Film Festival this past week. “Bones and All” was the opening night selection Thursday at the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City. The inaugural event also featured a talkback with screenwriter Kajganich and author Camille DeAngelis, who wrote the book on which the movie is based.
The film will have another screening Saturday night at FilmScene’s home in The Chauncey, also in downtown Iowa City. But Kajganich won’t be in that audience. He left Friday to attend a Saturday screening in London.
The Gazette caught up with him by phone Monday afternoon in Iowa City. He said he came to town early to do some teaching and additional programming for the festival.
Teaching also is in his blood. He studied at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop from 1992 to 1994, and while he’s returned to the UI a few times for master classes, he taught “for a number of years” at his undergrad alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he majored in English. In 2003, he moved to L.A.
Q: What are some places you look forward to hitting for food and fun while you're in Iowa City?
A: I’ve been back and forth over the years, so every time I come, everything's slightly different — not hugely different — but gosh, I love going to the Englert, I love going to see who’s there. Prairie Lights is, obviously, a must-stop. I feel there's a very specific energy in that bookstore that I've never seen replicated anywhere else. So even just going and standing in it, basking in it, is really lovely.
Just the fact that I'm here in October — it's my favorite time to be in the Midwest. And so I'm spending a lot of time just walking around the streets, going and visiting my old neighborhoods. And, of course, going out to the Black Angel, making the pilgrimage.
(As for food), I used to go to the deli counter at New Pioneer all the time. To me, that was the place that I spent all of my extra money when I was a starving graduate student. I didn’t go to the bars. I know I missed out on some probably pretty spectacular conversations, but I also could wake up at 8:30 in the morning and start working.
Q: Are you a full-time screenwriter and producer, or what have you put together as your career?
A: I probably am at the moment, like 70 percent screenwriter, 30 percent producer. And then I’m (going to) direct my first film next year, so I’ll add one more whole category to the resume. In television, writing and producing usually come together, but in films, it doesn't always come together. So I've been producing a couple of films that I didn't write, for the first time.
I don't love producing, I'll be honest. It's a very difficult job. ... Producing is a lot about managing people in their worst moments. And often, you have created their worst moments. I find my heart really hurts producing, in a way that it doesn't in writing.
Q: When did you make the career leap?
A: I had no intention of being a screenwriter. It wasn't what I thought I would do. I studied fiction at the (UI) Workshop, and I thought I would teach to pay my bills until I had written a novel that was good enough to be published. And then I would just keep writing and teaching.
I had no conception in graduate school that I would be writing for the screen. And I would even go so far as to say that screenwriting as an ambition was somewhat frowned upon when I was in grad school because television hadn’t become yet what it is today. I would say some of the best American literature happening right now is happening on television.
And so I think the world of television changed between when I graduated from Iowa, and when I started my writing career. And film — it just didn't occur to me that that was something a fiction writer could do well because you always hear about books being adapted, and it's rarely the author who's adapting it.
So I just happened to wander into a very specific film on a very specific day, and just thought, ‘I would like to try this. If nothing else, maybe it will help me write better dialogue.’ That's what I thought a screenplay would do for me.
I ended up falling in love with the forms of screenwriting. In a screenplay, you have two things: You have what a person is doing and what a person is saying. Those are the only two things that you really can explore. There's just something so pure about that sort of hyper focus — the idea of getting lost in the internal spirals of a novel and all of the style questions that come with writing a novel that people will read directly.
All of those things go away because almost no one is going to read the actual screenplay — it becomes the foundation and the blueprint for the film. And so I like getting out of my own way. I like the lack of self-involvement that comes with writing a screenplay because it is entirely for other people to direct, to design, to perform.
And so I just liked the idea that I could be somehow more honest in a screenplay, because I wasn't worried about how I would be perceived.
Q: What was your first screenplay?
A: The first screenplay I wrote was with a friend. We were two fiction writers who decided to write a screenplay for fun, and it was never made. It was optioned for a period of time, which emboldened us.
But the first screenplay that I wrote that was produced was a screenplay called “Town Creek,” which became a terrible (2009) movie called “Blood Creek,” that was rewritten by other people. It was turned from a very somber sort of 1970s-esque horror film into a very pop 1980s kind of horror film, directed by Joel Schumacher, who's sort of infamous for applying a kind of pop sensibility to everything he touches. And so it was a terrible marriage of script and director, and the movie is, in fact, terrible.
But the thing that I think was very important about that experience was, it's one thing to write something that is not received well in a workshop and a class of 50 people. It's a whole different thing to have your name on a terrible film that has been seen by millions of people. The humility that you learn and the sense of humor about your own career — those have stood me very well. I like the idea very much that there's only a certain point to which I can take myself very seriously. It saves me from myself a lot.
At the time, I was humiliated by having my name on a bad film. But in retrospect, I think it was really important that I learned with that experience as a teacher.
Q: It looks like you've written mostly in the horror genre. What draws you to that?
A: If you look at my credits, there's a lot of spooky stuff on there. And I think that's partly because somehow, horror movies are just easier to get made. But I've certainly written a lot of films that haven’t been made, that weren't horror films. My body of work is different from how it looks on the outside.
I grew up in the ’80s on cable television — like a steady diet of horror movies on cable. I sort of see horror and comedy as being on two sides of the same coin — that coin being anxiety. So, I think for my own self, I enjoyed more films that took a slower approach to unpacking anxiety than a comedy does.
Horror spoke more directly to my experience of adolescence (as) a closeted gay kid in a rural town in the Midwest, mostly hiding from things that I didn't want to be part of my life. And so horror was a conduit for feeling a lot of that anxiety without having to declare it all.
So that, I think, is why I had an interest from an early age. I felt comfortable in my own skin watching a horror movie in a way that I didn't with other kinds of movies.
And then, when I moved out to L.A. and started a career, when I would go up for jobs that were horror jobs, I think you could just hear in my voice that 14-, 15-year-old kid who was released by horror movies.
I think that energy came across somehow. And I think I started getting those jobs because I could speak to what horror should be, as opposed to what it often is, which is sort of productive. I was all about the idea that horror was actually a fantastic way to unpack character.
Q: (Referencing one of the themes in “Bones and All”) I couldn't think of a better way to phrase this: How do you make cannibalism palatable for the viewers?
A: (He laughed.) I did have some days of worrying about that question. But I think it's pretty clear both in the original novel and our adaptation of it, that, yes, you're meant to experience it in the film as a kind of naturalistic, real thing.
But I think at the end of the day, so much else in the film is unpacking what it means to be disenfranchised in this country — whether that means in terms of class, whether that means in terms of race, whether that means in terms of being too young to be taken seriously by the adults in the room, whether that means any number of things.
When you realize that the world of the story is a world that is primarily on the fringes and is primarily about people who feel disenfranchised from the social mores of mainstream society, then you understand that the cannibalism is one more metaphor for that.
So I think you have to take it literally in the moments when people on-screen are eating other people. But I think when that's not directly happening, it takes on a lyrical or a metaphor of its presence in the world.
Q: Why was it important to bring this film and yourself to Iowa City?
A: This is where I trained. This is where I spent two of the most formative years of my life and wrestled with story in a very sort of serious and soulful way for the first time in my life. So the idea of coming back here with my latest round of wrestling with the story — it’s an honor.
It's quite a privilege to know that I've drawn some kind of circle from the place where I received so much wisdom and knowledge and advice and counsel from writers I really admire, and that I felt wildly excited to study with.
And to come back and show that I've done something with all of that knowledge — that I listened and that I'm trying to do something in the world that communicates on the same vibrations. Not maybe to the same heights. I mean, I studied with some amazing writers, but the language of ideas is alive in me still. It didn’t wear off. It's only gotten stronger.
Comments: (319) 368-8508; email@example.com