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First love, first flesh and Americana in ‘Bones and All’

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VENICE, Italy (AP) — It is early afternoon in late August at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani and Luca Guadagnino has just returned from the Palazzo del Cinema at the Venice Film Festival to do a tech check for his new film “ Bones and All ” the day before the world premiere. It was the first time he’d seen it projected on a massive screen and he is buzzing with excitement about the film, an American odyssey about young cannibals in love, and, in particular, his star Taylor Russell.

“You see how she vibrates?” he said with a smile.

After seeing Russell’s affecting performance as a shy teenager in a grief-stricken family in “Waves,” Guadagnino had just one 40-minute conversation with the Canadian actor, over Zoom, before deciding that she had to be his Maren, who finds herself alone and adrift for her unquenchable hunger for human flesh. She was the only person he’d even considered to join himself and Timothée Chalamet for this metaphoric Midwestern road movie about youth, love, identity and disenfranchisement. He likes casting that way: Off a feeling rather than an audition.

The film, an adaptation of a young adult novel, “found him,” he said. The Italian director of “ Call Me By Your Name ” and “A Bigger Splash” has always been drawn to stories about outcasts. Here, with the help of screenwriter David Kajganich, he’d get to play at making something beautiful (though he doesn’t like that term) out of something rather shocking on paper. And it all hinged on whether or nor Chalamet wanted to take this leap with him.

“I felt right away that what was shared between Maren and Lee was a tender love story,” Chalamet said. “And I thought if anybody could pull off the other elements of the film — to handle everything sensitively, to not make it about shock value or being fake edgy — it was Luca.”

There would have to be some gore, though, and Guadagnino turned to his longtime collaborator Fernanda Pérez, a makeup artist he’s worked with since his first film, “The Protagonists,” from 1999, to figure out the bodies and blood. These characters, he said, were not Hannibal Lecter. They were not civilized intellectuals “milking on their own perversities and brutalities.” Their condition, he said, is “unavoidable and feral and terminal. They’re like animals.”

And it was really fun to figure out.

“For me making movies, apart from the difficulties and the financial problems and the hurdles and the agents and trying to make everything work, it’s still a playground. It’s like playing with dough,” Guadagnino said. “Me and Fernanda were really putting the blood on their faces. It was beautiful to find all the shades of blood.”

They’d consulted with a pathologist who told them how difficult and time consuming it would be to bite and chew human flesh, and the actors took that and just kind of went for it. By the time Chalamet arrived, Russell and Mark Rylance, who plays another cannibal, had already filmed some of their scenes and he got a visceral sense of just how committed they were.

“I saw how they were 10,000% in,” Chalamet said. “It was just tactile. Something that needed to be accomplished. And on the day, it was go time.”

“Bones and All” is more of a road movie than anything else, and they found inspiration in the American Midwest. Filming in the U.S. was a first for Guadagnino, who began this odyssey in Ohio, paying homage to Kajganich’s home state. He found it to be endearingly beautiful and also “very left behind,” making it the perfect setting for a 1980s period piece.

“I hope this movie comes across as a very immersive journey into the landscape of America instead of being a movie about it,” he said. “I’m a little boringly classicist. I like the idea that when you go and explore a place, you do so by not imposing your gaze upon it.”

They shot the film quickly and were always on the move, sometimes changing locations every nine hours. It helped Russell feel immediately part of the family. In her preparation, though she had a lot of time to think about Maren and what she wanted to say with her, she had hit a wall because she knew she needed to be with Chalamet for it to come together.

“The gift of filming there is that we didn’t know anybody except for each other,” Russell said.” I loved shooting in the middle of America, in Ohio and Nebraska and Kentucky. It informed our characters in a really strong way because there was a lot of freedom. The wind, I felt like it was speaking and dictating the mood, especially on the cliffs in Nebraska.”

Chalamet was also able to steer the direction of his character, Lee, in a more profound way than he’s experienced in most of his roles, where he strictly follows the text. In the book, Lee is a bit more of a jock and an alpha male “protector” to Maren. That version, he felt, wasn’t right for him. Instead, he saw Lee as fragile and possessing a unique style that blended both male and female styles, like a cropped cardigan with pearl buttons.

“He’s fiercely individualistic and is among the shadows as much as he’s screaming to be seen,” Chalamet said. “That’s all true in my experience at that age.”

After playing at various festivals over the past few months, “Bones and All” is finally opening in theaters nationwide this weekend and, partially due to Chalamet’s insatiable fandom, there is the possibility that it could become a teen favorite for years to come, the way “Twilight” struck that adolescent nerve — even with the R rating. Both stars found the themes resonant to their own lives.

“When you’re young, you fake it to make it. You act the way you are until hopefully people see you that way,” Chalamet said. But underneath that is all insecurity, self-loathing, terror, fear. Then to have the goodness or your humanity rather confirmed in love and by someone you find yourself in a relationship with? That felt true.”

And Guadagnino doesn’t mind if people use “genre” and “horror” when they talk about the film, either.

“When you are an adolescent or when you are a teenager, when you are a person that is not yet fully formed, you deal a lot with that sense of wonderment and fear and fogginess of vision,” Guadagnino said. “I might have approached the idea of a genre unconsciously because it’s resonated with the idea of anxiety that comes with being someone in transition, the anxiety of becoming.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.