Working on the lush Italian-set love story Call Me by Your Name in his second collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom was met with an unusual request—to shoot the entire film with one lens.
In point of fact, Guadagnino’s ask was in keeping with Mukdeeprom’s own aesthetic interests, though he had never met a director with whom he could explore this visual idea. Taken from the filming practices of David Cronenberg, the idea was to craft a “neutral perspective,” supporting a sense of intimacy and realism while intruding as little as possible on the reality the actors were living.
“The producer asked me, should there be some other, wider lens? Just in case? I said ‘No, no. I want to tie my hand to this approach, because this is how I work,” the DP says. “I think if you limit yourself to something, you struggle inside your idea.”
As enthusiastic as Mukdeeprom was about the one-lens idea, when he finally got the green light to employ it, he wasn’t so sure that it was right for the film at hand. For the DP, it would take a thorough vetting of the film’s location to lock in his approach.
What resonated with you about Call Me by Your Name, and what were your first steps in figuring out your take on the project?
I bought the book before I received a script, and I liked the book a lot. Then, I received the script and I saw that it’s different from the book. I worked slow and thought slow, at the beginning, using my imagination that I had reading about what was going to happen. What it could look like. Luca already knew that I only shoot on film, so there was no question about film or digital.
I had already shot one movie in Italy so I knew what I would encounter in the film. I tried to figure out, technically, what were the most important things, which was that it needed a very good exposure point. When I called for a test, what I needed to do was find the right exposure for the very wide dynamic range of the scene. I had to put myself into extreme conditions to try to find the sweet spot, and that gave me confidence about everything.
The film really captures the beauty of Crema, Italy. What was your visual approach to the setting you were working with?
At the beginning, I worked slowly—I have to get my feelings about everything. At first, I didn’t have the actors or anything yet, so I began with the place, the location.
I went there, I walked around, and I tried to get a feeling for everything—during the morning, during the day, during the evening—to see the color, to see how the light changed during the day, and input it into my data.
I’m not the kind of person who is after some kind of certain look, because I don’t believe in that kind of idea. If the film is set in the ‘80s, it doesn’t mean that in 1930, it shouldn’t look that way. Nature doesn’t change during just 40 or 50 years. The architecture does change, of course. What I believe in is the momentum of everything. I try to imagine everyone can have their own view about anything, about what they’re going to do—their own interpretation. I try to think, if I were Elio, what I would feel about things, about place. Observation is my point. I try to observe every moment. I never interfere with the work of the director and the actor because I respect that very much. I never put any of my equipment in the way. The actor should have freedom to move in the set.
Did you shoot primarily with natural light?
At the beginning, I was thinking about shooting with all natural light, but the weather conditions did not permit me to do that. At that time, there was historic weather in Italy—it was too hot. I had to adapt my technical approach to that, so I had to order a package of lights. I ended up with 15Ks, down to 2.5. With the lighting approach, I observed the director and the actors. It seems like we should have the idea of what we’re going to do, but it’s not so like fixed like that. It always has flexibility. So with observation, I follow them. I adapt to everything that happens in front of the camera.
What was the thinking when it came to the film’s color palette?
The film is all about nature, so the color palette is so wide. I accepted everything, whatever was in nature. I didn’t force it to be anything. Of course, there’s the color palette of the costumes and the set, which involves a lot of people, also. This is another type of observation that I have to do.
Where are you in the process with Guadagnino’s next film, his remake of Suspiria?
I am doing it now. I’m in Rome to do the color timing. It’s just the first half, but it’s pretty good. I’m very satisfied.
That film must have been a very different challenge for you to tackle.
Yeah, but my approach is the same, in terms of the spirit. I’m the type of person that, when I work, I put down the reference [material]. If somebody gives me references, I just look at it and put it away. I keep it, I accept it, but I don’t want to be someone [else]. So I try to not to see much of movies, during shooting.