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Luca Guadagnino on Creating His HBO Series, Trump’s America, and Why He’s Remaking ‘Scarface’

Jordan Kristine Seamon, Jack Dylan Grazer

Luca Guadagnino, the Oscar-nominated auteur behind “Call Me By Your Name,” is taking his swooning, lyrical style to the small-screen with “We Are Who We Are,” an immersive and deeply moving coming-of-age story.

The HBO-Sky series, which debuts this September, follow two teenagers, Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), who live on a military base in Italy. It explores their burgeoning friendship — Fraser is artistic, shy, and volatile, while Caitlin is more outgoing, but also dealing with her own nagging insecurities. The series, Guadagnino’s first for TV, also grapples with issues of sexuality and gender identity. He directed all eight episodes of “We Are Who We Are,” and says he purposely set the show in the midst of the 2016 U.S. presidential election as a way to comment on the political tumult unleashed by Donald Trump’s victory.

Guadagnino spoke to Variety shortly after the first trailer for “We Are Who We Are” was released.

How would you describe “We Are Who We Are”? Is it a TV series, a longer narrative feature, a miniseries? 

I feel like on the one hand that this is a new film of mine. It feels like a movie to me, but I enjoyed the episodic-ness of the story. This is a series and it depends on how it clicks with an audience if we will see these people again. I have sort of a penchant for bringing back to life characters that I love. I truly love all the characters in this show. The greatness of doing TV is that if there’s a good outcome, this can come back, which would be beautiful to me.

What inspired the project?

Lorenzo Mieli [ed. note: who produced the show for The Apartment along with Mario Gianani for Wildside, both Fremantle companies] and Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri had developed a concept about the life of teenagers today vis-à-vis gender fluidity in American suburbia. When they talked to me about it, the first thing I said was I’m less interested in the topic as a sort of starting point. I’m more interested in the behavior of these people. I think in order not to be generic why don’t we set this in a micro-America, a place that can work as the part for the whole. I proposed the military world. I had a very wonderful conversation once many, many years ago with Amy Adams — you get to have these meetings with these great actors as one of the privileges of this work — and she told me that she spent part of her upbringing in Vicenza, in a military base in Italy. From synapses connecting to each other, I had this image in my mind.

Because this is a series, I said to Lorenzo, “If this goes well, next time they can move to another base. They can be in Japan or Africa or anywhere.”

In the show, the characters refer to the military base as ‘America’ despite the fact that it is in the middle of Italy. That geographic dichotomy seems to mirror the way that many of the characters feel a kind of emotional displacement or discomfort. Did you view the setting as a larger metaphor?

I always feel displaced. I never feel in the right place as a person. I do believe that despite every action we can take to claim the nature of our identity, eventually the human condition is that we are always trying to reclaim an emotional state of belonging. This show is about the kids not knowing who they are, not knowing what they are, and feeling displaced. Of course, there’s a transitional element of being a teenager that is specific to that age. It’s said that when you’re grown up, you know more about yourself, but truthfully all of these characters feel lost.

Fraser and Caitlin are both 14. That strikes me as an interesting age, because you’re definitely developing a stronger sense of identity, and yet you’re still wholly dependent on your parents.  Why did you want to focus on characters at that particular age?

If I remember when I was 14, I was deeply, deeply unsatisfied by my incapacity to understand how to put in action the big plan I had for myself in my mind. I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to get it. Eventually I even realized that I didn’t completely know what I wanted. I love this age, because you have grand ambitions and at the same time you have no means to fulfill those ambitions. You have only curiosity, only craving, only the capacity for experimentation. Every day seems to be a fight between life and death. That’s something beautiful about that age.

When the trailer for “We Are Who We Are” dropped, there were a lot of comparisons online to “Call Me By Your Name.” Both works are set in Italy and involve younger men. Do you see a commonality?

I will never complain about people’s laziness, but that sounds very lazy. “Call Me By Your Name” is about the past seen through the prism of a cinematic narrative and this is about the here and now. This is about the bodies and souls of now. I think they are so different.

Why did you decide to set the show during the 2016 presidential election?

The effects of the 2016 election are still being felt right here, right now. The seismic shift throughout America and the world of what it meant that Obama’s presidency was followed by Trump’s presidency and how people did not see it coming, are still being grappled with. It has to be said, that just as [Silvio] Berlusconi was the autobiography of Italy, Trump can also be seen as a sad chapter in the autobiography of the United States.

We are dealing with a kind of populism that springs from the plutocrats. It is shaping the world while at the same time a phalanx of youth is shaking the world as well and not taking that bitter medicine.

“We Are Who We Are” has a fair amount of full-frontal male nudity. That’s rare in American films and television shows. Why do you think that’s the case?

I always felt embarrassed when I saw in films the camera strategically not showing something. I also think that to show nudity — male, female — if it’s in the context of something that makes sense, is a way to liberate the eye. HBO has been wonderful in endorsing my choices. They could have felt provocative or radical, but I saw them as organic. By the way, there is nudity in general in my movies. That’s part of living. We are naked part of the day and part of the day we are dressed up. I always think I should pay respect to that condition of being human. Sometimes we’re naked, so why not?

You have about a half-dozen projects listed as in development on your IMDB. What’s behind that?

I am a relentless workaholic. I’m someone who has never tried any drugs, because I’m too scared for my own health. But I feel like when I was born, I fell on a “Scarface” mountain of cocaine, because I work 13 hours a day.

Are you working on a sequel to “Call Me By Your Name”?

I call it a second chapter, a new chapter, a part two or something like that. I love those characters. I love those actors. The legacy of the movie and its reception made me feel I should continue walking the path with everybody. I’ve come up with a story and hopefully we will be able to put it on the page soon.

You’re also attached to a remake of “Scarface.” What attracted you to that project?

People claim that I do only remakes [ed. note: Guadagnino previously remade “Suspiria” and his film “A Bigger Splash” was inspired by “La Piscine”] , but the truth of the matter is cinema has been remaking itself throughout its existence. It’s not because it’s a lazy way of not being able to find original stories. It’s alway about looking at what certain stories say about our times. The first “Scarface” from Howard Hawks was all about the prohibition era. Fifty years later, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma make their version, which is so different from the Hawks film. Both can stand on the shelf as two wonderful pieces of sculpture. Hopefully ours, forty-plus years later, will be another worthy reflection on a character who is a paradigm for our own compulsions for excess and ambition. I think my version will be very timely.

What have you been watching during lockdown?

I watched again “Comizi d’amore” (Love Meetings) by Pasolini. I saw a great movie called “The Vast of Night,” and I watched for the second or third time “Doctor Sleep,” which is a movie I admire greatly.