It takes a lot of work to make something simple. Exhibit A: “Call Me by Your Name,” the coming-of-age first romance of a 17-year-old American in 1983 Italy. “We had a little movie about the simplest story, yet it took a global effort of 10 years to get it across the finish line,” says producer Peter Spears.
He and fellow producer Howard Rosenman read the Andre Aciman novel in 2007 and quickly optioned it. The story centers on the romance of Elio and the 24-year-old Oliver, who’s working as his father’s assistant for a few months.
There were challenges even from the start. “Potential financiers didn’t understand the movie,” Spears says. Some worried “Nothing bad happens.” Spears would tell them, “That’s kind of the point.” He adds, “They would ask ‘Could we make the mother evil?’ or suggest, ‘The stakes need to be higher.’ I always said, ‘It’s about the human heart, how much higher could the stakes get?’ ”
Since the story spans a few months, “The movie could only be shot in summer in Italy,” Spears says. “If we lost shooting in summer, we had to wait a whole other year to get on the runway again.” Several times, a director and actors would commit but inevitably someone dropped out to take a bigger-paying job and the yearly wait began anew.
Shooting in Italy was a new experience for the producers, so early on, they contacted Luca Guadagnino, a longtime filmmaker who heads production company Frenesy Films. He started out as an adviser on the project, along with Marco Morabito.
Emilie Georges from Memento in France understood the material right away. She and Rodrigo Teixera from RT from Brazil — two artist-driven companies — immediately said, “We want to make that movie.”
The producers sought advice from James Ivory, the Berkeley-born filmmaker whose biggest hits were period pieces based on literary novels. Ivory started out as an executive producer and ended up writing a new screenplay.
Guadagnino’s involvement deepened and his schedule cleared, allowing him to direct. “When we had the right people, the movie started to happen,” says Spears. The pre-production in Crema, in Lombardy, was fast because Guadagnino lives there and knew the area well. He constantly added personal touches, like bringing plates, paintings and linens from his own home.
He set the tone for production, as the intimate film is filled with details and layers that create the right mood and texture. “Luca’s sensibility was the missing piece. Now, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. In every frame of that movie is Luca’s touch,” says Spears.
It became a global effort, with a team representing America, Italy, France, Brazil, Thailand and England, among other countries. “It was guerrilla filmmaking,” says Spears.
Sony Pictures Classics bought the film on the eve of the January 2017 Sundance, and the festgoers’ reaction proved it was worth the wait; the audience was stunned by the movie’s simple warmth and sensuality. The film enjoyed equal success at the Berlin festival.
The movie, like Aciman’s novel, captures the tenderness, excitement and heartache of a first love, which comes with the knowledge that it’s never going to be as intense again.
In subtle ways, the movie is radical. Even modern LGBT classics like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Carol” and “Moonlight” have positive depictions, but their gay characters are all tortured by their urges. That’s not true for Elio.
This alone makes “Call Me” important in terms of gay cinema, but it’s more universal than that. Audiences of all sexual persuasions and ages are relating to the film’s emotional honesty and heart.
Spears quotes author Ayesha Siddiqi, who once advised, “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” Spears offers a variation of that: “We wanted to make the movie we needed as kids.”