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A conversation with Miami alum, screenwriter Dave Kajganich

Kajganich on a panel at the Venice Film Festival.
Kajganich on a panel at the Venice Film Festival.

When Dave Kajganich graduated Miami and began grad school at the University of Iowa, he would not have imagined finding fulfillment writing for film.

Instead, he was a fiction writer. This suited him, especially in Iowa's prestigious Writer's Workshop.

"There was, at the time, a fairly emphatic bias in the Workshop against writing for film and television. It was a different era," said Kajganich in an interview with The Student.

"I loved film. I just didn't consider it a worthy pursuit somehow, which is idiotic to me now."

It took a few particularly well-written films (Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy) and an attempt at crafting a screenplay to change his mind on the matter.

"I fell in love with the form, which is so simple in a way," he said. "Character action is the engine. It takes what can be distractingly abstract in fiction writing and strips it away."

The barebones structure of screenplays matches well with Kajganich's writing philosophy: one of unfaltering attention to detail.

To him, every piece of action and dialogue should be controlled and intentional. To ignore that is to tell a poor story; to abuse it is to be irresponsible.

His films -- many of which fall under the "horror" umbrella -- are complex, and they never underestimate the intelligence of the viewer. From the complicated relationships in 2015's "A Bigger Splash" to the politically-fused horror in last year's "Suspiria," his well-crafted narratives are an iceberg: the meatiest bits of story often never break the surface. Discovering them alters the viewing experience, making for enthralling cinema.

After two collaborations with acclaimed director Luca Guadagnino ("Call Me By Your Name") and a stint as creator/showrunner of AMC's limited series "The Terror," Kajganich has cemented his status as a talented screenwriter. And, a TV series sold to HBO and an upcoming project with Ridley Scott could further cement his reputation.

But as he mentions in the Q&A below, not everything in Hollywood is a bundle of roses.

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Sam Keeling: Going into your filmography...

Dave Kajganich: Don't go too far back! [Laughs] There are some clunkers in there.

SK: You've explored many different facets of the horror genre. What draws you to horror?

DK: For me, it's the best genre to take anxieties that people don't necessarily want to consider in their daily lives and to create a safe space in which to unpack them. Horror allows you to turn up the volume up on anxiety so you can explore it more clearly.

I'm puzzled by horror films that don't utilize that aspect of the genre. For instance, with "Suspiria," we did a lot of press for it, and journalists asked us about equivalencies between witches as a horror concept and communities of women as a political concept. I was so gratified by those questions as it meant the subtext of our film was landing. I don't know why you would make a horror movie about witches if you weren't interested in unpacking the politics of women's power, specifically how patriarchal societies respond to women's power. That's what the threat of witches has long been a symbol for. To explore one without the other seems to be missing the point of what a horror movie can be, or ought to be. Why evoke the symbol, but not explore the anxieties that are its antecedent?

SK: It can also be the most gratuitous genre. Is that a tricky balance to find?

DK: Of course!

I wrote a film years ago that was called "Town Creek." Even then, I knew the studio would find that title boring.

SK: So it became (2009's) "Blood Creek."

DK: [Laughs] Yes. I would love to strangle the person who made that title change.

The reason it was called "Town Creek" is because I wanted a title that evoked the kind of unremarkable place names that become talismanic, through war, by being transformed into the names of a battles. The Battle of Yorktown, the Battle of Belleau Wood, etc.

The film was a horror film, but with a war movie's structure. It involved two brothers, one of whom was had just come home from the front lines in France before he goes missing. The film was set in the 1940s.

When Warner Brothers bought it, the first thing they wanted to do was modernize it. I said, "The themes and the subtext of this movie fall apart if it takes place now. It's meant to put a lens of horror in front what happened in the years right after WWII."

They said, "We're not going to greenlight a period horror film." It was my first job, and I was terrified to lose it, so I thought, Well, someone's going to do this. It might as well be me.

Unfortunately, the film ended up getting made. The director and his first AD (assistant director) rewrote the script without me and pulled all kinds of things out of it that were there to insulate the film from being gratuitous.

When I saw what was happening, I wrote the director an email saying, "I know this is out of my hands now, and I know you don't have to listen to me, but here's a short list of things I care very much about that I hope you'll respect." One of them was that even though a main character is based on an actual historical figure from the Third Reich, I didn't show a swastika in the script. It's a powerful symbol and there was no reason to use it in the story. To use one would have the effect of seeming cavalier about what it stood for and I wanted the director to respect my choice of not decorating the story with them. Months later, when I saw the poster for the film, I felt quite sick about it: It was the back of Michael Fassbender's head with a swastika carved into it.

It was humiliating, and a problem for me as I was the only credited writer. And that's simply not accurate. That's happened to me other times, as well. The Wachowskis rewrote (2007's) "The Invasion," but didn't take credit for it, likely because they saw the damage they had clearly caused the film. I wanted to take my name off of it, but was told I'd make an enemy of the studio and would have to pay back my sole-credit bonus, which was covering my rent and car payments at the time. I couldn't financially do that, so I had to swallow the embarrassment and hope the damage to my own career wouldn't be lasting.

So, the movies that are from early in my career - I wasn't in control of. I'm sensitive to issues about gratuitousness in horror and the kind of reckless exploiting and exploding of certain social mores. I was never interested in doing that. But I happen to have a few things in my early credits that are absolutely reckless due to other people's choices. But there's no real forum to correct the record.

My point is: horror movies are a risky proposition from a screenwriter's point of view. There are all kinds of ways to trigger an audience's anxieties. Some of them, I find them responsible, and some I don't. But when you're only the screenwriter, and not also the director and/or a producer on the film, your control over those things typically gets taken away very early in the process.

SK: That alludes to the fact that there can be a volatile relationship between writer and director...

DK: There can be, absolutely. In features, the writer almost always loses battles with the director. In television, though, the writer almost always wins. It's one of the main reasons I've started working in television as well as features.

SK: What are your good and bad experiences with that dynamic?

DK: Well, this experience with "Town Creek" ... I still feel bruised by it. With "The Invasion," it wasn't the director so much as the lead producer who second-guessed things at the 11th hour and hired a whole new team to do reshoots. It wasn't the sort of film he knew how to make and you just couldn't give him any help. He was too triggered.

In another case, I wrote a script called "True Story," for which I did years of research. It was about an actual family that had been murdered, and how those murders were used as the subject of a disgraced journalist's book. I wanted for it not to be a sensationalistic film. It didn't have to be. The script I wrote was about the journalist agreeing, in a queasy way, to empower a man who was convicted of killing his wife and children, in order to rehabilitate his own career. To me, it was a story about a dance between two narcissists, and it was dark.

The director rewrote the script and threw much of that narrative out, replacing it with a narrative about the creative impulse and the artistic process. I didn't understand it at all. It was the director's own obsession grafted onto a story where it didn't belong. I still grieve about that film because I promised so many people in my research for it that I would protect them, that I would protect their story from being sensationalized. I wouldn't show the murder of the children, for instance. I wouldn't create out of the case a redemption story for a journalist who exploited a familicide for personal gain.

The film - through no fault of mine, but nonetheless - broke those promises. It was a terrible experience. I begged the director to talk with me, to read my research. I was willing to put it in my truck and drop it off so at least he would have the benefit of it. He never spoke to me once. I never got a call or an email. And the film was a disaster, saved from complete disgrace only by the work of the excellent editor Christopher Tellefsen.

That's just the way it can work. Being a writer in features is risky in that regard. You get to control the narrative, but only to a point. Past that? If you're working with a director that wants your collaboration, then you'll still have influence on the final film. If you're with a director who is insecure - and there are many - then you're out on your ear.

SK: Is there a way to know how much control you'll have before working with a new director?

DK: Not in features.

What you can do - and what I do now - is contact writers who have worked with that director before to go in forewarned and forearmed. And with a few successful productions under my belt, I have more control now over who I say "yes" to and where I set up my projects.

The director I'm about to work with for the third time is the Italian director Luca Guadagnino. We couldn't have a better collaboration. If I want to, I can be on set every day - or in the editing room, or for casting conversations, production design meetings, etcetera. Luca leaves all those doors open because he only works with people he respects, and whose intellects he finds interesting. It's a true partnership, devoid of ego.

So, I've had some horrible experiences, but I've had incredible experiences as well.

I just worked on two projects back to back with Ridley Scott, who is everything one could hope he'd be: humane, wickedly funny, intellectually a force, and collaborative as hell.

Unfortunately for a lot of young feature writers, it's just blind luck that dictates who they end up working with first. It can be sublime, or it can be ridiculous. [Laughs] Luckily, I've had my ridiculous experiences and now I'm on to the sublime ones.