'Call Me by Your Name': Luca Guadagnino on Finding a New Take on the World's Oldest Story
This director got rid of a traditional three-act script to make the film that had Sundance swooning.
It's the classic storyline: Boy meets girl (or, in this case, boy meets boy), they fall in love, they are torn apart by circumstance. We've seen it play out on screen countless times. And yet, filmmaker Luca Guadagnino and his exceptional cast in Call Me by Your Name give the tale a freshness and a raw, quiet urgency that somehow makes the oldest story in the book feel new again.
In the film, based on André Aciman’s novel, breakout talent Timothée Chalamet plays Elio, a teenage boy spending a languid summer in Italy with his parents and a slightly older graduate student who comes to assist his father on a research project. The student, played by Armie Hammer, soon becomes more than a friend to Elio, as the two begin a passionate affair. Taking place in the '80s, the film could easily be about politics, but it's not about politics. It's about the searing, beautiful, gut-wrenching pain and pleasure of first love.
Lushly shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (of Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives fame) with an original score by indie folk hero Sufjan Stevens, this gentle but staggeringly emotional film feels poised to enter the canon of great gay and mainstream cinema alike. In a press conference in advance of its New York Film Festival screening, Guadagnino spoke with festival programmer Dennis Lim about adapting the film from a popular book, working with Sufjan Stevens on the original score, and more. Our favorite takeaways are below.
Three-act scripts are less human
Guadagnino admitted that, although he had been involved with the production in various capacities from early on and found the original book "endearing and beautiful," he never intended to direct the film. After years of development challenges, he was ultimately tapped for the role, but still approached it with hesitation.
"There was something very strong to me about these characters," he recalled, but the story perhaps felt too personal. "I was possibly resisting something I felt I knew."
The director was also fearful of falling into the traps of cliché coming-of-age storytelling. To avoid doing that, he channeled films like Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause and Maurice Pialat's À Nos Amours. What he appreciated about these movies was their ability "to really avoid the crux of a narrative" and keep characters at the center, leaving "the flesh and bone, blood and sperm and every biological fruit of the characters, in a way that is really connected to an odyssey because we are like the people in the script."
Thus, he eschewed a traditional narrative structure to "prove [to] myself that I could tell the story from the perspective of somebody like you or I instead of the perspective of a three-act script."
"I felt that a movie in present time would be more efficient and strong in making an honest being, the truth of this character."
You don't always need a narrator—or even an antagonist
Another way that Guadagnino avoided cliché was by getting rid of a clear antagonist. As Lim pointed out, "There is something quietly rousing about the fact that there are no social forces aligned against the characters, the only thing that they're really fighting out there are their own impulses and time in some way."
The director agreed, arguing that there doesn't always have to be an "artificial" contrast to the main characters. Even the framing and editing of the film is somewhat unorthodox. While the book is narrated by Elio's character, the movie has no narration. It takes place in the present, though the visuals and cutting style give it a memory-like haze.
Guadagnino said, "I felt that a movie in present time would be more efficient and strong in making an honest being, the truth of this character," noting that he feels that a narration from your main character "kills the surprise."
He does give a surprising nod to narration, by recounting that Sufjan Stevens and his lyrical score could be considered the narrators of Call Me by Your Name.
Music as narration
Music played a key role, not only as a sort of narration, but as part of the plot, as Elio is himself a piano player. Guadagnino told the audience, "The idea of the content of the soundtrack started from two important guidelines. One was that Elio is a genius pianist in the making...so we wanted to be very close to Elio. We didn't want to have the usage of music that was commentary on the imagery but more something that could have stood for Elio himself." His team also wanted to be sure to be consistent with the time period and the background of this particular family, researching what would have been playing on the radio in 1983.
Similar to his approach to the film's script and structure, Guadagnino said, "we wanted to have a sort of narrative that could have made justice of the year that the book was made, drawn by the narrative of Elio, but we wanted something that wasn't as close as first person."
He chose Sufjan Stevens to compose original works for the film because his music "had some beautiful elusiveness on one hand and on the other hand poignancy, that were really resonant." But it wasn’t easy to get the notoriously private musician on board. Once he agreed, he wrote more original songs for the movie than originally requested, including "Visions of Elio" and "Mystery of Love," the former of which is the only audio in the entire emotional closing scene of the film.
"The process was really plagued by heavy rains that lasted almost the entire shoot."
The "natural light" is unnatural
Guadagnino met cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom when the director was producing Ferdinando Cito Filomarino's Antonia, and then had to "beg" Filomarino to let him sign the DP on to this project. Guadagnino let the audience in on an incredible secret from Mukdeeprom's work on the film, which appears to be shot almost exclusively by the natural Italian summer sunlight.
According to the director, "the process was really plagued by heavy rains that lasted almost the entire shoot. So he created a light that was completely artificial," in an attempt to recreate what would have been that sun-drenched landscape.
On-screen chemistry by instinct
When asked about casting his two leads, Guadagnino recalled meeting Timothée at the suggestion of the young actor's agents, and immediately the director knew "that he had the ambition, the intelligence, the sensitivity, the naiveté and the capacity to be Elio." At the time, Guadagnino was producing the film but still hadn't signed on as director. Once Guadagnino did agree to direct, his conversation with Timothée about taking the role "was the beginning of everything in a way."
He also approached Hammer directly, having enjoyed his performances in The Social Network, J. Edgar, and The Lone Ranger, which he calls "an unlucky film that went unappreciated." Even without doing chemistry tests, Guadagnino knew he had the right mix. "I would say I found two men [to] play the roles [who are both] capable of showing fragility, and I think that is important," he shared.
Call Me by Your Name hits theaters on November 24, 2017.