Luca Guadagnino And Cast On ‘Call Me By Your Name’ And The Alchemy Of Conjuring The Butterflies Of First Desire

Call Me By Your Name
Chris Chapman

Luca Guadagnino doesn’t fall in love easily. “It was not about falling in love,” he says of the ultimate decision he made to direct his new film, Call Me by Your Name. “I fell in love once in my life, and I have been with the same person since. So I give a great level of importance to the concept of falling in love.”

Instead, perhaps, it was resignation that made him take the helm. Guadagnino had been attached to the adaptation of André Aciman’s delirious summer romance for nearly a decade—first as a consultant, then an executive producer, then a writer—when he finally took the plunge into directing it. Producers Peter Spears and Howard Rosenman had optioned the book before it was published in 2007, and were working with another director to mount the project. They had reached out to Guadagnino because the book is set in Italy and he knew the filmmaking landscape of his home country.

Over the years, he took his producers on scouts all over Italy. “The book is about this specific place called Bordighera,” Guadagnino explains. “We went all through Liguria. We showed them the Bordighera village and a possible house that could meet the storyline.” Later on, he says, “we imagined a different setting; Sicily.”

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When the original director dropped out, they went to another and another, and the dance of seduction lasted varying lengths of time with each, until all of those suitors fell away. It was Spears who suggested perhaps his friend James Ivory should direct, with a script that Ivory and Guadagnino could work on together.

Guadagnino couldn’t deny the pleasure of elevating his level of involvement with each new turn in the road, and working with Ivory on the script was a joy. “He showed up at my place in Crema, and we started working together. It took us a year of back-and-forth between Crema and New York, and we started from scratch. It was a very interesting script, because it was filled with the typical imagery of Ivory.”

But still, there was no luck for the production. Guadagnino put together a budget, but financiers wouldn’t bite with a director nearing his 90th birthday. Ivory finally suggested Guadagnino join him as a co-director. “But nobody believed in this concept,” Guadagnino sighs. “It was important to me to make this happen for James. I would have loved to see his version of the film. We worked a lot. But nobody believed two filmmakers could make a movie together—unless they were brothers, or a pair to begin with.”

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Guadagnino could be fast and nimble in a way Ivory wasn’t practiced in. He was used to tight shoots and compressed schedules, and that would be attractive to financiers. It soon became undeniable: if this movie was going to go ahead, Luca Guadagnino would have to step up. “I believed in this project and I didn’t want to see it go,” he says. “That was the reason I did it. Everybody got paid nothing. We did it because we wanted to do it.”

So what was it about this story that inspired such fevered devotion, and yet such hesitation to take the reins? Call Me by Your Name is a love story, in its most unadulterated form. Elio is the 17-year-old boy whose narration guides us in Aciman’s novel, as he meets Oliver, a 24-year-old graduate student come to stay for the summer at Elio’s father’s Italian villa.

Certainly, there is a cross-generational controversy ready to ruffle some feathers, but that feels almost incidental. As Elio and Oliver’s attraction deepens, moralistic arguments seem weightless. And, by his own admission, Guadagnino felt “comfortable” with this story. “Because maybe I knew the people that I was talking about,” he says. “I knew the emotional journey they were going through. Butterflies in the stomach is the most beautiful feeling you can feel, no?”

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But he is not alone in finding this kind of connection with the story. The book’s fans are diehard, and you don’t have to be gay, or Jewish, or to have summered in Italy, to remember the stomach-churning joys of first desire. For those who fall for it, Call Me by Your Name makes them fall hard. So much so that when their friends share those feelings, their reactions make it feel like the novel is somehow being adulterous. Guadagnino’s film had to hit that same balance of the personal and the universal.

He made it his own when he became its director. “For me to believe in something means to be completely invested in it,” he says. “To be absolutely honest in my approach, for better and for worse.” It’s a necessary step for any project, but especially so when the subject is this achingly emotional.

He started where he usually does; he leaned into his cinephilia. The films that sprang to mind: Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, Bertolucci’s La Luna, Rohmer’s 80s films like The Green Ray and Pauline à la Plage (Call Me is set in 1982). Also Pialat’s À Nos Amours, and Téchiné’s Wild Reeds. “There was something about the countryside in all these films,” he enthuses. “I try to make sure that I have the pores of my imagination very open to soak in reality, but on the other hand, I rely very much on the imagery of my cinephile upbringing, so it’s a battle between those two—or it’s making love between those two elements.”

Guadagnino is heavily versed in movies—he rivals Tarantino for the ease with which he can relate subjects to cinema. And he’s no snob, either. When he says he sought Armie Hammer for the part of Oliver, he waxes lyrical about how good he is in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, in spite of its challenging critical reception. “It’s a beautiful movie,” he insists, and he means it. Hammer had the movie star quality that he knew the Oliver of Elio’s wistful glance needed to encapsulate. “But also, there is a sensitivity to him that is so deep.”

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For Hammer, “there was no way I couldn’t do this movie,” the actor says. “I read the script, and then immediately went and read the book, and came to the conclusion that these were two of the most beautiful and amazing pieces of source material I’d ever seen for something that could hopefully become a movie.”

There were fewer references for Guadagnino to tap when it came to casting Timothée Chalamet as Elio. At 21, Chalamet had already made a mark with a run on Homeland and in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. But Guadagnino found him through Peter Spears’ husband, agent Brian Swardstrom, who had just signed the young actor. “We met and it was instant recognition,” Guadagnino recalls. “The guy I was talking with had this brooding, unbiased determination and ambition to be a great actor, and yet he had this kind of soft, ingénue naiveté of a young boy. Those two things together were incredible.”

The film rests on Chalamet’s shoulders. We rarely break his perspective, and yet Guadagnino’s version of the story omits the internal monologue of the book. Everything relies on Chalamet selling the this-way-and-that confusion of first love in glances and private moments. It was the biggest change the director made. “I personally don’t like the first person account of a story in a movie,” Guadagnino says, keen to stress that it suits the novelistic form better. “Sometimes I like the omniscient narrator, as in Barry Lyndon or The Age of Innocence. I tried to think about what would happen if we had an omniscient narrator, and I discarded that, too.”

Instead, he turned to indie musician Sufjan Stevens to ask for a song that could channel Elio’s thoughts for the audience. Stevens surprised him by contributing two, “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon”, which chart the extremes of Elio’s experiences with Oliver. And he remixed a third of his own, “Futile Devices”, for the film, with lyrics that couldn’t have been more apt if they’d also been written for Call Me by Your Name. “And I would say I love you/but saying it out loud is hard/so I won’t say it at all,” he sings. “But you are the life I needed all along.”

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“We envelop the movie in the voice of Sufjan Stevens,” Guadagnino says. “I asked him to create songs that were, in a way, some sort of narrative for the film.” Guadagino doesn’t fall in love easy, but “it’s not hard to imagine being in love with Sufjan, because he’s such a pure artist with such an incredible imagination, and an emotional world that is so deep.”

A film script is not a play, the director insists. There is no need to burden it with unnecessary dialogue. Film, after all, has the close-up, and the camera’s eye can draw the perspective of its audience. If theater shouts to the gods, film whispers to the front row. So there’s a quiet to Call Me by Your Name; it says just what it needs to and no more. “I want to empower the moment of uncertainty,” he says. “There’s a Tim Burton movie, Batman Returns, which, for being a movie about comic book hero, has that same kind of attitude; it makes that movie a masterpiece. And you have the greatest of all, Mr. Spielberg, who from his height of communicating with every person in the world still devotes himself to a very, very precise behavioral presentation of people.”

As Chalamet navigated bringing the audience into Elio’s inner world—aided by the sumptuous cinematography of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who paints the frame like a gilded memory of times past—the book became his bible. “It was a tremendous gift,” Chalamet explains. “There’s this certain freedom you want to give yourself when you act, and the ability to jump off a cliff, but the greatest responsibility in making this movie felt primarily to the people that had been fans of the book. And André Aciman even more so, because this was his child. But I found myself going to the book in scenes that were harder to play, and moments that didn’t make as much sense to me.”

Hammer had less help from Aciman’s text than his co-star. “The perspective of the book is almost entirely Elio’s interlocution,” he says. “His feelings towards Oliver are very subjective and capricious. It’s the confusion of his infatuation. So for me, going off the book, I had to filter everything through that understanding.”

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“It was almost like he was reading the enemy’s manifesto,” Chalamet jokes. Elio, after all, is us. He’s why we connect Call Me by Your Name to our own comings-of-age. And we empathize all too easily with the crazy degrees to which his emotional perspective shunts him. We’ve all known the pleasure and the pain of an Oliver.

“There is a universally human quality to Elio,” Chalamet says. “There’s a tension on the surface of his existence, and he’s in a transitionary period in his life, becoming a man and dealing with feelings of sexual impulse for the first time. It felt rare to read a story about a young person who’s this complex. It’s no surface representation of what young people are. And as an actor, you seize that kind of opportunity.”

There’s also a life to Elio’s relationship with Oliver in the film that relies on these two leads bringing every tool in their arsenal. It depended on their ability to find one another as friends, not just colleagues, before cameras rolled. Guadagnino got them out to the location weeks before shooting. He had finally settled on making the film in Crema, his adopted hometown, in a house he had once fallen for and wanted to buy. “But I couldn’t afford it. I sublimated by putting it into the movie. Now I have that house forever in me.”

When the actors arrived they found “paradise”, Hammer says. “I was sucked into this idyllic, perfect world there. It seems as close to perfect as anywhere I’ve been. It’s just that much more relaxed and laid back. Waking up in the morning and squeezing apricot juice to drink. It was about slowing down and enjoying all of those little things.”

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Uniting the two actors in advance was essential to making them feel comfortable. “It was a genuine proximity our souls felt to one another in those early weeks,” Chalamet recalls. “The friendship sprouted very easily, very naturally, very organically. It was really the random luck of the universe.”

Of course actors say this kind of thing to journalists all the time. And they’re actors—it’s their job to make it sound convincing. But as they reunite for the film’s promotional trail, there isn’t much effort or artifice between them. “Actually I was video Skyping with Timmy last night,” Hammer says. “It feels like I got a new best friend and brother out of the process. There was a huge amount of trust we put in one another to do this. It required a level of vulnerability in both of us that would only have been possible if we felt safe around each other, and we did.”

“Any actor who plays a role should give him or herself the benefit of a window of time before shooting in which they can soak into the character,” Guadagnino says. “For these specific characters, and this story, one part was the environment, and they had to become part of that environment.”

Guadagnino is no dictator. He describes filmmaking as a “symbiotic work”. “It’s all about the point of view. How do you coordinate the efforts of all the people to create this point of view? You can listen to a great symphony of Mahler and have a bad experience, because the conductor and the orchestra are not aligned to make that symphony resonate in the ears of the listener. Or, you can be lifted to the heavens.”

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Filmmakers, he insists, are “charlatans. We’re imposters. So we all have to put on the best dress and make people pretend we’re not imposters. It’s alchemy. We make smoke and mirrors out of elements of identification for an audience to a story and characters.” He treats every movie as his first. “And what I learn about the experience as I grow up is not to panic if something is half good if not fully good. Cinema has the power to use only the very best possible of takes. Sometimes you find a glance and you know that’ll be the take and you won’t need the rest.”

His laidback approach worked on his cast, who talk of their time in Crema like they, too, had a whirlwind summer romance. “The process of shooting this film felt as languorous and relaxed and laissez-faire as the movie itself,” Hammer says. “Effort does not necessarily equal talent, right? I’ve been on movies where it feels like everyone is working really hard, but it doesn’t necessarily make anything better.”

“On American sets you work 12-, 14-, 16-hour days sometimes,” says Chalamet. “All that volume over a short course of time can actually be less conducive to telling a story accurately. Luca’s films are as sensual as they are intellectually stimulating. And he has a confidence as a director that meant I never felt any anxiety or pressure that we were running out of time.”

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“This is just a movie that deals with pure, almost archetypal human emotions,” continues Hammer. “There are no special effects and no big set pieces. To get to experience that, and live in that, and breathe that for two months, was one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given in my entire life.”

The film made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Guadagnino, meanwhile, has been finishing Suspiria, his reimagining of Dario Argento’s legendary horror. He liked the idea of shooting two movies in close proximity, because he’d lingered for six years between his previous two works, I Am Love and A Bigger Splash. Still, he admits, “The downside of these kinds of ambitions for film is that you don’t have time for yourself.”

Call Me by Your Name belongs to audiences now. “It’s like having a child, and then the child grows up,” Guadangino says. “This movie is a child out in the world now.”

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