Call Me By Your Name was hailed by many at January’s Sundance Film Festival as this edition’s best, and given its ingredients the raves were hardly surprising: the talents of director Luca Guadagnino, co-writing by the iconic James Ivory, a soundtrack by indie pop darling Sufjan Stevens, cinematography by renowned Thai DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom…
The romantic coming-of-age tale injected the Utah winter with some much-needed heat, via both its lushly depicted Italian summer, and its two steamily charismatic leads: the luminous breakout star Timothée Chalamet and a never-better Armie Hammer.
Chalamet plays Elio, a teenager summering in Italy with his academic parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) in 1983; Hammer plays Oliver, a 20-something visiting scholar under the tutelage of Elio’s father. The two fall into a sweetly illicit affair as the summer pulls on, set against a colorful backdrop that includes a gorgeous country mansion, Elio’s parents and their acquaintances, the boys’ other romantic possibilities, and the scenic Northern Italian town of Crema. Guadagnino adapted the 2007 novel of the same title by André Aciman alongside Ivory and his longtime editor and co-writer Walter Fasano.
Back in Park City, I spoke with Guadagnino and Fasano, coming off the film’s rapturous reception. The pair are perhaps best known for 2008’s I Am Love and last year’s A Bigger Splash (which together with this title, make up the director’s so-called “Desire Trilogy”), as well as their upcoming remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. In our conversation, Guadagnino discussed his directorial thrust toward, as he puts it, “simplicity”: a quality he finds in the medium of 35mm, and consciously aims for with every other technical decision—from reducing his arsenal of lenses down to just one (for the entire film!), to more or less wholesale rejecting color grading in favor of an organic direct-to-camera naturalism. Call Me By Your Name is hardly a simple film, of course, yet hearing director and editor talk about what a pleasure the experience was, you’d almost believe it was easy to make.
Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Can you tell me how the whole project came to you?
Luca Guadagnino (LG): The original producers on this film, Howard Rosenman and Peter Spears in particular, they nabbed the rights when the book was almost out on the shelves—Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman; it’s an amazing book. They read it, they fell in love, they wanted to make a movie. They asked me to read the book and imagine where the story could be set [i.e. elsewhere in Italy from where the book is set]. I read it, which led to more and more involvement from my side. In the meantime, I grew my friendship with James [Ivory]. James came to see me at my house in Crema. He enjoyed the place and enjoyed the company. He started to come more often and we began to say, “That book that Peter and Howard want to make a movie about … it’s so beautiful. Why don’t we try to make a script?” We did it without any assignment, on the grounds of the pleasure of doing it. We spent time every now and then and finally got a draft. As I often do, I invited Walter Fasano to join the process of writing after we knew we were really going to make the movie. The draft that James and I, and later Walter, wrote, that is what you see in the movie.
MM: How long did that writing process take?
LG: I would say that between James, Walter, and me, it took a couple of years. Made in our spare time. I was making A Bigger Splash, James himself was doing many things. This movie hasn’t been made as a business, it hasn’t been made for the industry, it has been made out of pleasure.
MM: Can you talk about the adaptation process and some of the choices that you made while adapting the book?
LG: The book has been described as a deeply contemporary reimagination of the Proust canon: the longing of memory and the action of memory on one’s life. It is sprawling in time because it is set not only in one summer but, say, over 35 years. It’s the idea of a love that lasts forever. Aciman employs 350 pages to go through the lives of the characters. We wanted it to be set in the present time, so we had to make a lot of choices in diverting from the book, to find ways of keeping its essence. I think this question would be even more poignant when asked to Walter, who not only wrote the script with us but also edited the movie, which means he controlled the rhythm and editorial choices.
MM: Walter—some people find it difficult to edit something that they’ve written. Did you experience that?
Walter Fasano (WF): Luckily, between the writing part of it and the editing part, there is the shoot. I tried to stay off the set. Luca knows well that I don’t like to be around the sets of movies that I’m editing, but here I felt from the beginning that something very special was happening.
The first draft was a little longer, but in terms of adaptation I think all the right choices were made. All the things you get from reading the book are here, transposed to a different medium. Mainly we worked on the change of setting, because the movie was originally set in other places—at the seaside in Sicily. The setting not only brings consequences to logistics and to the characters, but the flavor of the place is so important. This is one big achievement I think Luca brought to the screen. Luca had in mind precisely what he wanted. He brought together a number of wonderful actors and human beings to have, I think, a life-changing experience in a foreign place. He made things happen on the set emotionally. The editing part of it—the footage was gorgeous. It was simple, in the purest way you can imagine. It wasn’t tough to put things together.
MM: One of the best things about the film is its electric performances. What’s your secret to directing great performances?
LG: Allowing myself to really fall in love with these actors and actresses. I think that is the secret, if there is any. It’s something I truly look forward to doing every time. It’s dangerous in a way. It can become messy. But there is no other way. You can let your actors lose themselves on camera, but you have to give them love and desire.
MM: What does that look like—positive feedback?
LG: I don’t think it’s about positive feedback. You can ask the actors, I’m not very soft. It’s not about acting as a technique … it’s about a coincidence between the actor and the character that has to be brought up from the depths to the surface.
MM: How did you find these actors?
LG: I met Timmy [Timothée Chalamet] because he had been introduced to me by Peter Spears, the producer, and Brian Swardstrom, the agent. One thing about Timmy I understood immediately was that he was a wonderful actor and a fantastic person. Armie Hammer I had been in love with since I saw him in The Social Network. I had an instinct that he would be perfection for the role. Michael Stuhlbarg is a living legend, and any director having the chance to work with such a wonderful actor—it’s a no brainer. Amira Casar was already my friend. I have known her for many years, but this was our first time working together. I’ve been following her career working with some of the greatest European auteurs—like Catherine Breillat and Werner Schroeter. Esther Garrel: We went to a casting, my casting director put her to my attention. She is the daughter of [French New Wave filmmaker] Phillipe Garrel and the sister of [actor] Louis. Not only is she cinematic royalty, she’s a wonderfully sensitive actress. There are other actors I found by strolling the countryside, who were non-actors. There are these two magnificent theater actors in Italy, Marco Sgrosso and Elena Bucci. Elena I’d worked with already in A Bigger Splash, where she played the maid. They play the couple that comes to visit in one scene.
Choosing people that you want to be with is the secret. I had the privilege of sitting on a film festival jury with Quentin Tarantino as the president. Quentin told me something so strong. He said, “You can’t make a movie if you don’t choose your actors.” Often you get movies offered to you where they say, “That’s the script; we have the star,” and even if I love the star I end up saying, “no, thank you,” because it has to be my choice.
MM: How much rehearsal time do you spend with them?
LG: Not so much. I prefer to spend time with them, than spend time rehearsing. It’s much more accurate to understand how to handle an actor by having dinner with them, rather than rehearsing with them.
MM: So you just hang out, and chat?
LG: As much as I can, and as little as I can.
MM: Walter brought up the locations. How did you find some of the more important locations—like the main house, and some sites in the city—and how did you block out the performances in those spaces?
LG: I knew the house, because it is a house that sits very beautifully in the countryside outside Crema. I fell in love with that house many years before we ended up shooting. When we adapted the script, the new draft moved the action from Sicily to [Crema,] Lombardy. I felt immediately we had to use that house and I was crossing my fingers that we could get it. We got it, of course.
Blocking is the essence of directing because it’s about the recreation of life. I believe it’s important to put yourself into an uncomfortable position, something that is challenging and very difficult to achieve as a director, instead of being comfortable. That’s why I always, for instance, add characters in front of the camera, instead of doing a master shot/reverse shot with close-ups. If you nail the movements of these people in the frame, you are really nailing life. It’s difficult, but the more difficult the task, the more engrossing the achievement. It’s also about the confidence you have in your actors, and how you make sure that space is alive.
MM: Which scene in particular are you thinking of here?
LG: What comes to mind is when Elio comes down from his bedroom, wearing the shirt the father’s friend gave to him, the flowery shirt. You see people when he comes in, moving around, drinking champagne; he shows a picture, all these little details. I hope that scene or other scenes in that movie can give you a sense of life.
MM: Walter, your job has a lot to do with crafting the tone, making sure that the audience is with you where you want them to be.
WF: For me it is a matter of shaping it. It’s more of a sartorial thing, as opposed to shaping it like a sculptor, because you have tons of hours of materials, and you must understand what to do. It’s more a matter of maximizing an inner sense of poetry; maximizing the quality of what you see.
I think that this movie is important for Luca and me, since it marks 20 years of us working together. It’s a kind of résumé of movies and things that he loves, that we love in life. In particular French movies from the ’80s, like some of the mature Éric Rohmer. We also cannot easily get rid of the strong influence that maestro Bernardo Bertolucci has had in terms covering the land, thinking about the relationship all the farmers have with their land in 1900. I think our film was a way not only to pay homage but give a personal sense to this kind of exploration of landscape. It was a thing in cinema of the past from the ’50s to the ’70s, though it’s too lost in the movies today, in which spaces are more functional. We gave ourselves the mental space to let landscape lead … giving long duration to shots.
We’ve had wonderful reviews we are very proud of. In one of them in particular, a writer was very good to me: He said that a less experienced director would probably have cut an intermission scene when the two guys ask for a glass of water from a local woman, and they see a photo of Benito Mussolini. Every time I watch this part of the movie I am happy! I was always saying to Luca, like an old man, “We’re not cutting this by any means!” Once we had a producer tell us to cut this scene because it didn’t feel useful to the story’s progress and we said, “No, no, no. This is the heart of the movie.” When the two characters walk away you can see a farmer hiking, in this way you can navigate the movie with the characters, experience their landscape. When plot points do come, you feel sincerely what is happening.
MM: Luca, do you allow a lot of improvisation on set?
LG: I do! It depends on the moment. I like the idea that something could happen that you don’t expect. When Elio and Oliver are speaking at the fountain about the book of the princess and the prince, Oliver comes out of the water and says, “Let’s go to the village to pick up something,” and Elio makes this whole fuss, making fun of the way Oliver speaks. That was improvisation. It was fantastic! It was a wonderful, wonderful moment and it speaks to the intelligence of Timothée.
MM: Can you talk about what you shot on?
LG: It was shot on 35mm. We used only one lens. I asked Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the Thai master cinematographer, to wrap the movie into a sort of idyllic gentleness.
MM: How did you get to work with him?
LG: I produced a movie called Antonia, which is a wonderful movie that was presented in Karlovy Vary by first-time director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, a young master himself. Ferdinando, when I asked whom he’d like to film his movie, he said, “Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, he’s the guy who did Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” I said, “Yes, of course!” We wrote to Mr. Mukdeeprom who after one month wrote back and said, “I’m in! I’m in, I’ll do the movie.” And we said, “No, you have to read the script first!” So I sent Ferdinando to Bangkok to meet with Sayombhu, who was filming at the time. Ferdinando and Sayombhu ended up shooting the movie Antonia together. It’s about a young poet who believed in Italian independence. Then I had to convince Ferdinando to allow me to work with Sayombhu, because every director is very proprietary with his camera operators. In the meantime, Sayombhu made the Miguel Gomes films [Arabian Nights], and is now filming Suspiria with me.
MM: What does he do on set that you like so much?
LG: He brings a wonderful Buddhist wisdom into the place. He’s so skillful, like no one I’ve ever met in my life. He knows cinema by heart. He has a feel for light that’s amazing.
MM: The colors in all your films are beautiful, and no less in this one.
LG: I don’t believe in color grading. It’s a pit where people embellish, with make-up, images that are flat. If you see the footage Sayombhu has captured, he has made perfect what was already great. We don’t cheat anything. Same in Suspiria, you will see. I Am Love, we shot it on 35, we had to go to the chemical lab. I am from that generation. It is strange to me when people do most of the work in post-production—I just don’t understand.
MM: Is that why you always shoot on film?
WF: When we cut our first project together, it was a short film in 1995 or ’96. It was shot in 16mm, and we edited it with a traditional Moviola. We started making movies with film, where you would cut the negative. As an editor I really love to work on movies shot on film. It helps so much in understanding what parts are the best parts. We were blessed to have some of the footage have problems in the lab. There’s a scene in which—during the Sufjan Stevens song “Futile Devices”—there is a close-up of Elio in magic hour, in blue light. The lab called us and said we had problems with the footage. The problem was that some light had leaked onto the film. We don’t know if it was a problem with the shooting process or the developing process, but when we saw it, we loved it. We felt it went so beautifully with the out-of-focus moments. There is nothing digital, we didn’t edit it at all. It gives the movie an analog feel, something we love and want to preserve and look after as best we can.
LG: I liked simplicity, the space to breathe… so the best choice was 35.
MM: You said you only shot on one lens? What?
LG: One lens. I wanted it to be straightforward. I didn’t want there to be technology between the camera and the performances. Only one lens. Nobody could believe that—in the credits they wrote “lenses,” and we would say, “No, no, no, there was just one.” It is the same thing with Suspiria. We’ve gone from one lens of color, to the entire roster of color you could use. For Suspiria I was very bold in using large lenses, from 10-14mm, mostly, which I haven’t used much in my career so far. You’ll see.
MM: Finally, what was it like working with Sufjan Stevens, of whom I’m a big fan?
LG: Sufjan is a master, and the privilege was incredible. I dared to ask the question and the answer was positive. My music supervisor warned me that Sufjan had always said “No, thank you” to any offers to collaborate film makers. But for us, not only did he give us two new songs, but a reimagination of the song “Futile Devices” for piano. He is such a humble, wonderful artist. MM
Call Me By Your Name opens in theaters November 24, 2017, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.