The San Sebastian audience became the first in the world to see all eight episodes of Luca Guadagnino’s HBO and Sky Italy’s eight-part series “We Are Who We Are.”
The second episode of the series aired on HBO in America this week. The media had only received the first four episodes to review in advance. Thus, it was at San Sebastian Film Festival, where Guadagnino is president of the competition jury, that the acclaimed director fully unveiled what he calls “my new movie” to the world.
At a press conference in San Sebastian, Luca Guadagnino revealed that he sees “We Are Who We Are” as a film rather than a series, that he used digital technology to give the story a contemporary aesthetic and the show is an American “Paradise Lost,” signaled by the election of President Trump. He also weighed in on the new Academy Award qualification rules.
“We Are What We Are” takes place on an American army base in Italy during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign. It’s told from the perspective of two teenagers, Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), who are establishing their gender and sexual identities. Told in a naturalistic style, with some scenes lasting more than half-an-hour, “We Are What We” begins with Fraser’s lesbian mother (Chloë Sevigny) given command of the camp. Over the course of the series, Fraser and Caitlin’s friendship develops as they attend impulsive weddings, grieve over a friend and attend a Blood Orange concert in Bologna.
Luca Guadagnino said the decision to screen the series as one long 446-minute film at San Sebastian was more in keeping with his vision of the story than watching it episodically. “The show has been conceived as a whole and I guess in television you work in episodes, but in this case, we really worked on it as a whole, as a feature film. So I didn’t need to change my approach [to storytelling] much.”
Guadagnino sees making television as part and parcel of working as a director today: “I didn’t choose that now I want to make television.” He said the desire is to make stories that can be for television or the cinema. “I don’t see limitations that I should set myself on where to tell stories.”
The only change that he made to accommodate the small screen format was, “I decided to work with three great cinematographers, Fredrik Wenzel, Yorick Le Saux, and Massimiliano Kuveiller, shooting in digital despite the fact that I constantly use 35mm in my work. That’s because the concept was the here and now that I wanted to convey and for me, that felt more easily addressed through digital technology.”
As it draws to a conclusion, “We Are Who We Are” reveals itself to be about the demise of America with the rise of Trump. His election victory is concurrent with the death of young under-prepared America troops in Afghanistan. Guadagnino says he originally went back to 2016 because, “If you are telling a contemporary story, to avoid abstraction, you have to give a little perspective. If you want to say something about the now, it’s better to go a little bit back in time so you can contextualize events, even simple things, like what poster is playing at the movie theatre.”
However, now the show is finished he realizes that there was a bigger reason to pick this specific point in time, “To set up the show during the Presidential campaign is because the series has a shift. It starts in one way, before moving in another direction. I can really see now that it is about a sort of ‘Paradise Lost’ at the end of the Obama period.”
An aspect of the show is gender identity, another race. Guadagnino ended the conference by talking about the new American Academy rules for films to qualify for Oscars. “The idea that you have to expand the access to the filmmaking job to all sorts of people that are not immediately welcome is necessary and mandatory. I welcome and salute those rules with great enthusiasm.”
However, he warns that the result may not make product any more inclusive. “It’s not that if you cast an actor or actress who is a member of a minority who, let’s say, has to be highlighted, the movie in itself will have necessarily a progressive agenda. I don’t want to name films but there are films where diversity is at the centre of them and yet their ideas are very reactionary.”