As the words “Somewhere in Northern Italy” splash across the screen in the opening sequence, Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino turns our gaze towards the flat lands and fresh lakes that act as the perfect canvas for his latest film “Call Me By Your Name.”
Growing up in Palermo, southern Italy, Guadagnino’s work introduces us to places rarely seen by cameras. He has directed several critically acclaimed feature films, such as “I Am Love” and the 2016 favourite “A Bigger Splash.” His work is immersive, inclusive and bold; he gravitates towards the unconventionally beautiful and subtle normalities of everyday life that are so frequently left untouched and unspoken.
Since its premier at Sundance earlier this year, “Call Me By Your Name” has been coined by many a “queer masterpiece.” It’s received critical acclaim and early Oscar predictions and will grace the big screen for a main release from November this year. It is an inimitable sculpture of love in its most tender form from a truly masterful director. During his recent visit to Australia, as a guest of the Melbourne International Film Festival, Guadagnino spoke with me about simplicity on screen, working with Sufjan Stevens and why “all the world loves lovers.”
After watching the film just two days earlier, I left the theatre feeling bolstered—moved by the generosity of these characters and the courage in their vulnerability. Few directors handle love in such a delicate and truthful fashion, and here I am now, sitting with one.
Luca Guadagnino in Australia for the Melbourne International Film Festival, 2017. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
You shot this film in Crema in northern Italy. Why did you film it there when the book is set elsewhere?
The book is very specific in its location. The book is set in Liguria and it’s so concise about the place. You know it’s about Liguria because the house is there facing the Mediterranean and the ocean, it’s very steep. It’s clear in the way the skies are, the way they go to the town. It’s very, very specific to that. And then of course they go to Rome (in the book), which is another very specific elaboration on a place. I think that specificity spoke for the book, but not for the film. So I didn’t go from one undefined space to a very defined one, but I went from a very defined location to another very defined location. Because I thought that what was resonant for Aciman as the writer of the book, needed to be resonant to me as the filmmaker.
“I wanted to try to pay homage to what I feel when I am there; to make this place alive on screen, as it is a place that has never been brought to screen before.”
So why Crema? What is it about this town that was important to you?
Because it’s about the things that are resonating to me; it’s my hometown. I wanted to try to pay homage to what I feel when I am there; to make this place alive on screen, as it is a place that has never been brought to screen before. So it was about this sort of sensuality.
The film itself is quite sensual and erotic, not just in the main relationship between Elio and Oliver, but in the relationship between the characters and their surroundings. I know this was your first time working with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. What was your approach when filming this with him?
It was always about simplicity; it was always about putting the audience in the middle of things. We shot with one camera, one lens, entirely on film. We didn’t put any technicality in the middle of the story and in the middle of the performances. We wanted to be immersed—it was very simple like that.
Can you tell me a bit more about northern Italy? And Crema in particular? We obviously see it in the summer mostly and in an isolated setting within a setting…
Northern Italy is a vast terrain, and like so many beautiful things, it cannot be chiseled to fit one thing. But Crema is all flat; it’s a flat land. It’s agricultural—there’s a lot of breeding and a lot of cows. It smells of cow poo a lot because they have to put things on the soil. I like it so much because the rhythm there is very slow. I have lived there for seven years now.
Where’s home for you when you’re writing?
If I’m writing, I can write everywhere—I could even write here. It depends, it depends on where I am not distracted. I need a place where I am not distracted, absolutely.
What do you consider when you’re choosing a location for a film?
It has to do with the story and with the characters themselves. It also has to do with it (the location) being the only place possible for it and having a place that has been untouched by cameras.
Is there a particular film that resonates with you because of where it transports you? Not necessarily an affinity with a character, but with place?
Oh so many! It will be random to say a film out of the blue. I have no idea what to say today. Maybe today… Cemetery of Splendour by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
How did you end up coming on board with this film? I understand that at one stage, you were going to be co-directing it with James Ivory?
This movie was supposed to be made by at least six different directors to begin with. I was at first the consultant, and then the executive producer, and then the producer, and then finally director and producer because there was no way to get around to making and telling this story with anybody else.
I feel like we don’t often see films like this: love stories between two males where there isn’t this crushing sense of pressure or societal obligation from anyone else in the immediate narrative. The concern around sexuality here stemmed from the two leads. Is this something you were conscious of when reading the book and then making this film?
I think that’s always a choice that comes from the idea of it, more than the reality of it. It’s an edited idea, in that it has to do with our preconceived cinematic experience and that we believe there always has to be a contrast. It’s as old as literature… It’s about Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet, but that’s a canon because, in a way, it’s not necessarily truthful to the reality of these situations.
“I do believe all the world loves lovers. I really do.”
In saying that, I thought this film was particularly striking in that the other characters in the story were very supportive of Elio and Oliver…
All the love! “All the world loves lovers. All the world loves people in love.” It’s a beautiful Prefab Sprout song that I really wanted to pay homage to with this movie. I do believe all the world loves lovers. I really do.
Was there a character in the film that you were more drawn to, or that maybe you recognised yourself in?
No, because I love them all. I really love them all. I identify mostly with Anchise and Mafalda, but I love them all.
The film transports us to our youth and a time of reckoning with life. How personal or familiar is this film for you?
Every movie you make is personal. I guess even Alien is personal to Ridley Scott—it’s a movie about a fantastic creature in a fantastic world, even though it’s science fiction. So my answer is yes. It’s personal, but it’s not necessarily personal by the book of it’s origin or plot. It’s personal because it resonates deeply in me.
“I wanted to have a narration that was not the banal usual literary narration. I wanted it to be more about something that really came from the soul.”
Sufjan Stevens wrote the soundtrack for the movie. How did that come about and what was the process like?
I invited him to work on the film and collaborate with us. I wanted to have a narration that was not the banal usual literary narration. I wanted it to be more about something that really came from the soul. I wanted his epiphany in the movie and I had the privilege that he said yes. And not only that… I asked him for just a song and he gave me two and did a piano arrangement of Futile Devices, because the score is made up of piano pieces.
What about the closing song? It moved me so deeply…
Visions of Gideon—when we heard that song! I got the song from Mr. Stevens whilst we were filming and I asked Armie and Timothee and my editor to listen together with me and we really were all just so struck by it. We couldn’t believe it. It’s a very striking song, both are (Mystery of Love and Visions of Gideon).
In the film, the story has a definite end point, whereas the book continues for a little longer and elaborates further on the story between Elio and Oliver. What was behind the decision to end the film where you did?
Well, I wanted the movie to be all about present time—I didn’t want to make a movie about nostalgia. I thought it was not necessarily cinematic to bring an audience suddenly into another character, because if you grow up so much (as Elio does in the book) you actually become another person. I think the movie grows slowly with them, and probably the material that is in the end of the book can be used for telling more stories of Elio and Oliver, so we’ll see. I have some plans to tell more of their story, yes.
Call Me By Your Name will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival (Canada), New York Film Festival (USA) and the San Sebastián Film Festival (Spain) in September. It will have a main release in the UK on 27 October, in the US on 24 November and Australia on 26 December.