What do you do when a hurricane hits? Well, if you're a wealthy 20-something, you might hole up in your parents' mansion with a bunch of your wealthy, 20-something friends (along with two fish-out-of-water plus ones) and have a hurricane party. Such is the course of action for David (Pete Davidson) and pals (Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Rachel Sennott, Myha'la Herrold, Chase Sui Wonders, Lee Pace) in satirical slasher Bodies Bodies Bodies.
Director Halina Reijn is bubbling over with enthusiasm for the movie when she speaks to Total Film over Zoom from her hotel room in LA. "For me, the main theme [of the film] is group behavior and our primal need to belong to a seductive group like that," she says. "How far do we go? Is the killer inside of us or outside of us?"
And this group certainly is seductive – young, attractive, and wealthy, nothing is off limits for the protagonists of Bodies Bodies Bodies. Except, maybe, likability, because no one in this group of friends seems to actually like each other. This paranoia is captured perfectly by the focal part of the movie: the titular game, bodies bodies bodies. A "murderer", who is assigned by drawing lots, has to secretly "kill" someone in the group when the lights are off. When the lights come back on, the rest of the group must guess who did the "crime". In this case, though, someone does actually end up dead. "I used to have a very tight friend group – now everybody has children and it's not like the old days – but we used to play that game all the time," Reijn says. "And it would always be a total disaster, everybody was upset, total psychological warfare. And then two weeks later, we played it again."
There is a lot of ostentatious wealth on display in the film, with champagne and swords both being literally part of the furniture. Many of the characters feel like they encapsulate a uniquely Western upper class and, more specifically, an American upper class. Reijn, however, is Dutch. "I think group behavior and the difference between where you come from and whether you're poor, I don't feel that it is only limited to America, so I could bring that to the film," she says. "And my own experiences with wanting to be the popular girl and always thinking that I didn't fit in, and I think all of us have alien syndrome or we think we're not normal, and we think we look stupid, and we move differently."
It makes sense, then, that the majority of the movie takes place entirely in the dark – even after the lights come back on in the game, the looming hurricane strikes and wipes out the power. "The girls actually had to light each other very often with their phones," Reijn tells us. "It created a whole new perspective on ensemble acting – not only do you have to focus on your acting and on the lines, but also you have to make sure that your co-star looks good. So it was a lot, but I think it all helped in creating a feeling of being a group and making it authentic and believable that they are friends."
Reijn's career started in the theatre in her home country of The Netherlands, working primarily with the Dutch director Ivo van Hove, and her time on the stage has firmly influenced the way she works as a filmmaker. "We did really long takes. Everybody had to learn their lines as if it was a theatre play, a very raw approach," she explains. The movie includes plenty of fast-paced exchanges between the group of friends as they fire off Gen Z cliches and buzzwords at each other in intense single takes.
"Even though we were very aware that it is a satire, and there's a lot of humor in this, I did want the acting style to be hyper-realistic, and for the girls to really get into it. If they cry, they have to cry. I feel that is something I brought from how I operated in the theatre with Ivo van Hove. So, even though the outcome might be more commercial and accessible, I still feel that I brought all those elements to the set."
The movie's screenwriter Sarah DeLappe also has a theatre background as a playwright. Reijn says they wanted to make the movie "a modern version of a Chekhov play, but with inspiration like Heathers and Clue, but at the same time really taking also from our theatre backgrounds. I thought that would be an exciting idea." The absurdity of Clue and the tongue-in-cheek brutality of Heathers are certainly present in Bodies Bodies Bodies, as one by one members of the group meet their gruesome ends.
So, as well as a knowledge of Chekhov, does Reijn think her experience as an actor impacts anything else about the way she works as a director? "When you watch actors, it looks really effortless and easy, and just such a joyous thing to do. But it is actually incredibly embarrassing," she laughs. "You constantly have to try stuff out with your own voice and your body and your emotions, and sometimes you're naked, and there's a lot of pressure because everybody's waiting and it costs a lot of money and you have to do it now and you have to learn your lines. So I feel that making [the cast] feel safe – and that is also about making them feel collaborative with me, that they don't just have to do what I tell them to do, but that I'm actually really working with them – I feel was really important for me as an actor. So I think I can bring that to the table."
"This is also a very queer film and, to me, it's very important to be a collaborator in that sense, to really hear their idea and, again, to really do it together," she adds, referencing the central relationship between Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) and Bee (Maria Bakalova). "I think that's the most important thing – you have to have a structure on the set, but there's not a hierarchy in that sense that they are lesser than or just the execution of somebody else's idea. They are the idea."
The movie's depiction of sexuality is frank and resists any kind of sentimentality – the opening scene shows Sophie and Bee kissing and touching each other in the woods in a sequence that's sensual without fetishizing. "I think sensuality, from a female perspective, is so important right now. And, finally, we have the space to explore it, and that's what I want to continue to do," Reijn says. "I hope it comes across that even when there's not a real sex scene going on, it's still sensual and primal. That is something that I want to explore in my work, and that is where I find my freedom and express myself. I'm ashamed of all those things in myself, but it's helped me to put them on screen."
Bodies Bodies Bodies is released in US theaters nationwide on August 12, before arriving in the UK on September 12. In the meantime, check out our picks of the other upcoming movies to get excited about in 2022 – and beyond.