Sufjan Stevens on How His Wary Dance With Hollywood Led to an ‘Outrageous’ Oscar Nom

The indie rocker is up for Best Original Song for "Mystery of Love" from "Call Me By Your Name."

Sufjan Stevens
Andrea Morrison

Sufjan Stevens is very much the outlier in this year’s contingent of Oscar song nominees, and not just because he comes from the indie-rock world. His contributions to “Call Me By Your Name” mark the first time he’s ever written original songs for a film… which may come as a surprise to anyone who’s gotten accustomed to hearing his existing tunes licensed for everything from “Little Miss Sunshine” to “This is Us.”

Stevens has been wary about hooking up with Hollywood, for reasons he explains in this pre-Oscars conversation with Variety. But he couldn’t have been more thrilled about how his first official foray into movie songwriting turned out… or about having Mary J. Blige and “Coco” as company in the best song category.

VARIETY: What this film and a lot of your work have in common, maybe, is combining a sense of sadness with a sense of wonder, and letting those things coexist, even though they might seem contradictory. Did you get any sense that these mixed emotions in your music is why director Luca Guadagnino was so dead set on getting you for the film?
STEVENS: It’s funny, because I feel like the songs themselves are a lot sadder than the movie is. There’s a slight despondency and sorrow to them that equates the transcendence of love with sorrow and with loss. And that’s what the film is about, ultimately. But the experience in the film of captivating each other’s hearts, there’s so much delight in it. The songs are a little more of a bummer! [Laughs.] If they’re taken out of context. But I don’t really like categorizing states of emotion, because I feel like we’re all complicated beings, and that we have a full capacity for experiencing things simultaneously. There are elements of resentment, curiosity, surprise, manipulation, desire and grief all built up into the experience of love. It’s very complicated. And it’s fodder — endless fodder — for songwriting for a millennium.

Even though your music has been heard in several films and TV shows, Guadagnino said that you weren’t the easiest guy to get to…
Yeah. I have to admit that I have trouble with music in film. And I often wish that there was a mute button. [Laughs.] I feel that film is such a fully immersive, fully engaged, multi-elemental experience that it can so easily misuse and abuse or overuse sound in a way that feels provocative or manipulative. And I think I’m just hypersensitive to that as a musician and as a songwriter, in just knowing the effects, positive and negative, from a musical environment, and how adding that to the visual scheme can really kind of fall flat sometimes.

Also I was on tour at the time and had just finished a record so that’s another reason I was not available. I was just all over the place. But once we got on the phone, it was set in motion, and then once I had a moment to myself at home to really contemplate the project and read the script and the book, everything came together really quickly. I ended up writing the songs in just a few days. It was really painless and effortless.

And I also decided to keep the production side of things at arm’s length. I didn’t want to be involved. I didn’t want to go visit the set. I didn’t want to meet any of the actors. I think being absent and being outside of the movie industry was helpful to me, because I felt an autonomy and a freedom to create without any kind of expectation. I know how that world works— that the director’s job is to be very intentional and deliberate and coercive with his vision. Actors thrive in that environment, and that’s how great cinema is made. But for me, that environment is really terrifying.

But at the end of the day, it was just so clear that Luca had such an authority in how he uses music. He’s bold and explicit. He loves for music to become like a partner, or to become complicit, almost, in how the narrative develops. It’s not just a soundtrack or a transition or an emotional cue. He does it in a way that’s so considered, and there’s so much scholarship to it, that he gets away with murder.

You have three songs in the film — the two new compositions, “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon,” and then the remix of the song he asked for, “Futile Devices.”  “Visions” isn’t the nominated song, but it’s remarkable, in that you provide the soundtrack for what is basically one of the greatest end credits sequences of all time, in which we just see a long, highly emotional close-up of Timothee Chalamet while your song plays out…
Yeah. It’s an incredible performance. For Timmy to be positioned in that way and for the camera to be unchanging and unflinching, with his spectrum of emotions being displayed like that, it’s so insane, and beautiful and profound. And all the while, there’s the clatter of cutlery and plates being set for dinner in the background! Which is also really beautiful.

Did Luca call to let you how he was using the songs, or did he let you be surprised?
I came to him with the songs and I said, “Let me know if these work. If not, I’ll go back to the drawing board.” And he got back to me pretty soon and said, “These are great.” And he may have sent me a little update here and there, but it was not specific at all. And then I happened to be in Italy about a year ago, and he invited me to a screening, and that was when I first met him, as well as when I first saw how he was using the songs in the film.

Initially, Guadagnino suggested that you should provide voiceover narration, from the point of view of Chalamet’s character as an adult, a la the novel… Did he thank you at that point for talking him out of that idea?
Yeah, he kind of admitted it’d been a bad idea. It was clear that the film needed to be really simple and pure and uninterrupted.

In “The Graduate” Mike Nichols used Simon and Garfunkel songs to tie the film together. Your songs aren’t wallpapered through the film, but do you see a connection?
There was a kind of approach to the film that had originated probably in a more general understanding of my repertoire. Luca had a very specific understanding of how he wanted to use the song “Futile Devices.” He didn’t maybe know specifically how he was going to use the other songs, but I feel like he knew from the outset that there was a synchronicity of truth and understanding about these experiences, between us, as a director and a songwriter. And I don’t know if he says this to everyone, but when I sat down to watch it, he said, “I want you to know, in some ways this film is an homage to your music.” I don’t remember exactly how he worded it, but I remember being kind of embarrassed about that. But then after I saw it, I was like, oh, I understand what he meant. It’s not really an homage to me, or whatever. It’s about a certain musical and aesthetic world.

You come from the indie-rock world, so some people might expect that you would not want to crow too much about an Oscar nomination. But on your blog, you posted your embossed invitation to the governor’s ball. I take it from that you are taking some pride in having the term “Oscar nominee” attached to your name, and that you are embracing Hollywood embracing you?
Well, it is Hollywood [laughs], but it’s incredible to be part of this small project and that these small, quiet songs are being given a voice and given recognition on the scale of the Disneys and the Pixars and the “Star Wars”-es of our world. I think it’s pretty outrageous and amazing. So I’m totally surprised by it but really feel blessed and honored to be up there with Mary J. Blige and the songs from “Coco.” I laughed and cried through every single rendition of “Remember Me” in “Coco,” because Pixar is so brilliant. You know, they sing that song like four or five times in that movie… I’m just thrilled to be nominated and to be there and be witness to it all. It seems like a once in a lifetime experience.

Aside from a little-known documentary, you haven’t done film scoring, and it seems like you’d be a natural for that, because obviously you have a facility with purely instrumental music…
I’m always keeping my eyes and ears open about that. I’ve done music for ballet, which is kind of a similar method, so I feel that I could do it, but it would have to be the right project and right director and the right thing because it’s probably something I would only do once in my lifetime.