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Berlinale: Luca Guadagnino on Why ‘Call Me by Your Name’ Strikes Such Deep Chords

After becoming a standout title at Sundance, Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” had its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival on Monday, where it was also very warmly received. The film features Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, and was shot and edited in a matter of months. Guadagnino spoke to Variety about how the stars aligned for this powerful summer love story to become a potential career game-changer for him.

You really hit your stride with this movie, which seems like your most personal work. Is it?

I’m not so sure about that. I would say the reason this film is striking deep chords is probably due to the way I approached it. It was a way of absolute simplicity. I asked myself if I wanted to create a piece that was a sort of conversation between the storyline, the characters, and the medium, or if I just wanted the characters and the story to flow. And I said to myself: ‘Step back! Have faith in these people and this setting.’ So I chose to make the movie in the most lighthearted and simple way. I think it’s probably the movie I made with the most calmness, applying in a very specific and literal way my motto, that we should live with a sense of joie de vivre.

‘Call Me’ kind of came out under the radar. How did it originate?

Everything started with [producers] Peter Spears and Howard Rosenman. They bought the book and wanted to make it with another director, in another incarnation. Because the book is set in Italy, I was helping put the movie together from the Italian side, including the executive production. That was 10 years ago. James Ivory was part of the film as a sort of godfather. Then we went into a place where that version of the movie didn’t happen.

James and I, who have a friendship, we started to think: “Why don’t we try to make our version?” Kind of as a game. There was no contract; we weren’t paid to make it….Then I invited Walter [Fasano] to work on the script more and to really fine-tune it. After that, I decided I was going to direct the movie myself….It became this Italian, French, Brazilian co-production and everything came effortlessly, just for the pleasure of doing it. We shot this movie in May, near where I live [in Crema, Northern Italy]. We edited in June and July. It was very simple.

As I understand it, Timothée Chalamet got involved three years ago.

Yes, because Brian Swardstrom, the great agent who is Peter’s husband, brought this young actor – who was 17 at the time – to our attention. He had just made “Homeland.” I said: “I think it’s a wonderful idea.” We got Timmy at this moment [of his life] in which he’s never going to be like that, ever again. He knows he’s going to be a big star. And when I say big I mean it.

How did Armie come on board?

I saw him in “The Social Network,” like everybody, and then cultivated my passion for Armie with the movies he made afterwards. I always found him a very sophisticated actor, with a great range. So when I came to think of Oliver, because everybody swoons for this boy in the movie, I thought we could use that quality, his incredible charm. But also we could play with it. Not just have the beautiful boy but someone who could create irony and have plenty of range.

Yes, but how did you get him?

That’s a funny story. He’s very well-mannered. When I asked him through his agent, he was going to pass. But then we spoke, and at the end of the conversation, he said to me: “I’m in!”….Then the agent called him and said: “What’s going on – you were going to pass?” And Armie said: “Well, the conversation was too good. I couldn’t pass.”

The movie really captures this Northern Italian summer atmosphere, besides of course the mix of summer and adolescence. And one reason I think the atmosphere is so strong is the photography. What was it like working with Thai DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who of course regularly works with Apichatpong Weerasethakul? 

Unlike the previous DPs I’ve worked with, Sayombhu works with light as a character. The way he works with light is sculptural. He’s not just interested in creating a look. He needs the light to be engaged with the characters, as a character itself. And also he’s a very spiritual person. I don’t want to sound New Age, but it’s important when you have a DP on set who connects with the actors. We were shooting the peach scene, and when we shot the first take of the confrontation between Oliver and Elio and we said, ‘Cut,’ he was in a corner of the room all alone, crying.

You are now working with him on ‘Suspiria.’ It’s been a busy year for you.  

I wanted to make two movies in year, and I did. I shot this movie in May/June, and then I shot “Suspiria” in October, November, and December, even though I still need to keep shooting a few more days this year.

What can you tell me about ‘Suspiria’?

We will be completing shooting  in Berlin in a couple of weeks. It’s set in Berlin in 1977, when Berlin was divided into East and West. It’s a movie about guilt, and it’s about motherhood. It has no primary colors in its color palette [unlike the original]. It’s the opposite of “Call Me.” “Call Me” is light, warm, and summer-ish, and “Suspiria” is winter-ish, evil, and really dark.

 

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