Why 'Bones and All' Took Its Road Trip to the Midwest
Director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich explain why the Midwest felt like the perfect setting for the cannibal love story.
Luca Guadagnino's Bones and All may be best described as a cannibal love story, but it's also a road movie. The '80s-set horor-romance follows 18-year-old Maren (Taylor Russell) as she departs from Baltimore, Maryland to Fergus Falls, Minnesota in search of her mother, hoping to get answers about her lifelong, inexplicable hunger for human flesh. Along the way in Appalachia, Maren meets a fellow "eater" named Lee (Timothée Chalamet). He's the kind of wanderlust young man who prefers to be in-transit and conveniently has a truck that can help get her where she's going—and more experience when it comes to feeding their bloodlust and going unnoticed. Together, they hit the road.
Through the two wayward flesheaters, Bones and All ultimately explores what it can be like as an outsider to feel seen and deserving of love for the first time. Lee and Maren give into each other and their individual heartache on long rides across wide open highways, overgrown back roads, and pit stops along Appalachia, the Midwest, and the Plains. The setting of their journey on the road only magnifies their emotional one. The so-called "flyover states" that they travel through rarely get the love themselves that they deserve, but Bones and All makes a point to capture the landscape in a breathtaking way that helps support its fairy-tale-like world.
While the road trip is one of America's greatest traditions, more often than not they inspire images of the trips down the Golden Coast, Southern gothic fantasies, Route 66, and Thelma and Louise diving headfirst into the Grand Canyon. Rarely do we consider long drives among nothing but corn fields on Interstate 94. Although some road movies like American Honey meander through Oklahoma and Kansas or have the destination of Chicago like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the Midwest is rarely romanticized in cinema's on-the-road itineraries, and it's seldom the route that actual travelers take on summer vacations. (As a former Minnesotan myself, I certainly don't remember many of the Midwesterners I grew up with planning out week-long trips on the freeway, simply because of how "boring" neighboring states were made out to be.) In Bones and All, though, a Midwestern road trip is powerful enough to be both an allegory for American beauty and Americana horror.
Bones and All is based on Camille DeAngelis' novel of the same name, which is set in the Midwest for the most part, but primarily features fictional towns. When screenwriter David Kajganich (Suspiria, A Bigger Splash) adapted it into a screenplay, the Ohio native who has also lived in Iowa felt compelled to amplify its Midwestern odyssey. Kajganich says, "I grew up in a rural part of Ohio and traveled around the Midwest a lot in my formative years. I find that landscape at once both very beautiful, and also a little harsh in the sense that you can can be in a town one minute and really in the middle of nowhere a few minutes later. There's something about a road trip traversing a landscape that feels like it has its own energy, its own secrets, its own hidden compartments, and its own dangers. It felt really important to this film that these characters really be at odds with the landscape and in harmony with it at different points along the story, and the Midwest just felt like a very natural canvas for that." As that translates to the screen, location really does become a character, as Maren begins her journey from Baltimore to Fergus Falls, Minnesota with only enough money for a bus ticket to Columbus, and from there, travels through Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, and Iowa to reach the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Director Luca Guadagnino says Kajganich wrote the script before he came on board and agrees that the Midwestern setting is "certainly coming from him because of his roots." He says, "But when I stepped into the project and I decided to make it, given how much I knew about it because of my friendship with David, I felt, oh yeah, I think he's wonderful to get it there."
Bones and All is the Italian director's first project set and shot in the United States. While they primarily filmed in Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska and Ohio, even before scouting filming locations, he traveled throughout the region to get acquainted with the area. "I spent a month in the Midwest traveling around and really going adrift to understand it without having a specific agenda—not looking for location, but really looking for the country," Guadagnino says. "I came to see it, and I fell in love."
What he discovered was "a beautiful country, an endearing landscape, a great place for communities, and nature and human melting in a wonderful way." He says, "I found the Midwest so endearing that I really felt like it was great to pay testament to it there."
On screen, Guadagnino explores subtle beauties that can be found in the Midwest—making a point to linger shots on imagery that often goes unnoticed. Details of hearty breakfasts or warm, floral wallpapers in diners and small-town homes are pointedly captured to evoke a certain quaintness, and there are many stunning, long shots of fields and farmlands. The director explains that this scenery spoke to him because of how "you can see the way in which nature is articulated with the human environment." He says, "You see the beautiful humility of the Midwest, people working the labor, but also you see these little communities far apart from one another, maybe sometimes left behind. That was quite beautiful."
Kajganich further explains that they didn't necessarily go into production looking to capture "postcard shots," or stereotypically beautiful shots of the landscape. Instead, he says, "[Guadagnino and the Director of Photography Arseni Khachaturan] found whatever environments that would naturalistically be part of the story. They found the beauty in them, whether they're terribly dynamic places or not. They were a lot of places you would be on a road trip—in gas stations and diners and fields—none of which is terribly remarkable, except it becomes remarkable depending on who's looking at it and what they're feeling. I think that's what this film's able to deliver to an audience, a very subjective understanding of landscape, instead of objectively a dramatic one."
Guadagnino explains Middle America in many ways alludes to the nation as a whole, or represents what we still think of as Americana. In Bones and All, that doesn't just mean open roads, desolate gas stations, and farm country, but nostalgic county fairs or the summertime ease of cooling off in watering holes. In terms of the visuals and plot, it calls back Terrence Malick's 1973 teen runaway film Badlands, but Guadagnino also looked elsewhere for inspiration. "Badlands was in the back of our mind because it's such an important title and it was in our subconscious. I honestly focused more on one movie and one artist. I focused on [the work of photographer] William Eggleston, and I focused on this movie by Nicholas Ray, They Live by Night, which is not specifically set in the Midwest."
The Midwestern setting also ends up elevating the horror aspect of the film, especially because it's an '80s period piece. Guadagnino says, "That was important to me—the idea that the vastness of America could be reduced to the Midwest, and that moment of history could be seen in a place where you couldn't see the successes of the American economy during [the Reagan era]. Actually, you would see the flip side of it." In the world of Bones and All, many towns Maren and Lee pass through feel forgotten or lower-middle class, and there's certainly a darker addiction narrative that runs throughout the film. As Kajganich describes, there's also a "horror grammar" to it that makes its quiet, rural setting feel like "there's always the chance that something or someone that could do them harm could enter the frame at any moment." And then because Americana feels inherently heightened in the heartland, what can be frightening about it is elevated, too—like the ways in which whiteness and faith perpetuate shame, or how nonconformity is viewed.
While that seediness feeds throughout the film, Guadagnino and Kajganich's affinity for the area is ultimately at its helm. Although the director looked to other references, he says it really was the Midwest itself that inspired him. In fact, his favorite memories from his travels surrounding the film remains getting to see the sunrise and sunset in Nebraska. ("Nebraska was quite something … I will never forget.") He says, "I wanted to show a corner of America in a way that was respectful to it, and looked as if we were really seeing it at the height of America, not putting ourselves on the shelf. I hope that this comes across."
When Lee and Maren finally confess their love to one another, they are sitting on the side of the road, overlooking a pasture that looks like it goes on for miles. As the vast sky turns to dusk, they make a pact to try to "be people for at least a little while." Eventually, tragedy strikes and their plans go awry, but Bones and All finds its final shot return to that same vista before the credits start to roll. Just like the Nebraska sunset Guadagnino has held onto, it's a shot you won't soon forget. If only we could be like Lee and Maren, hop in the pickup, and drive straight-on until we reached those Midwestern sights that Bones and All captures so lovingly ourselves.