Luca Guadagnino says his Italian romance about a young man falling in love for the first time explores the “possibility of accepting the other in his or her otherness.”
When Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, the love story adapted from Andre Aciman’s novel about a young man (Timothee Chalamet) who falls for a research assistant (Armie Hammer) during a summer in Italy, picked up four Oscar nominations, it capped an amazing year for the film that began at the Sundance Film Festival almost exactly a year earlier.
Guadagnino, 46, who was attached as a producer before coming on to direct as well (taking over from James Ivory, who penned the screenplay), earned his first Oscar nomination with the film, which he produced with Peter Spears, Emilie Georges and Marco Morabito. The Italian helmer spoke to THR about sexual politics, onscreen eroticism and that sticky peach scene.
Some people are viewing the film as a standard-bearer for gay cinema or LGBTQ cinema. How do you view it?
I do believe the movie’s political, but not in the sense that it’s about a political topic. It’s political because of the way it shows a sensitive topic: This is a movie that says, yes, you can be compassionate. Yes, a relationship doesn’t need to be a relationship of power but can be a relationship of mutual understanding and absolute capacity of losing yourself in the gaze of the other. If by political we agree to mean the possibility of accepting the other in his or her otherness, this is a very political movie.
Is it an LGBTQ movie?
I think it is, in the fact this is a movie that cannot be classed into a specific box like LGBTQ politics. And I put a very big accent on the “Q,” Queer.
You made several changes because of the budget, including setting the film nearly entirely in one location. What was the impact of working under those constraints?
I’m a true believer that unlimited means is not the right thing to make a movie. I find you always find great, fascinating avenues to make your ideas speak if you limit the means of doing so. Of course, you wish you had more time, you had more extras, you had more means to do and achieve something. But the truth is that within limited means you find the best ideas. For me and my collaborators, that’s something that happens often for us. And it happened with this movie.
Why did you make the film less explicit than the book or Ivory’s original screenplay?
Here’s the story: The script that James wrote was something that he was working on for himself to direct. I was really adamant to see that film, to see what would have been James’ version of his novel. But once I became the director, I had to appropriate the script myself. And in the process, I realized I was making a film about intimacy and I didn’t think that intimacy was going to gain anything from the exposure of explicit sex acts. I thought it was kind of off-topic. I didn’t want scenes to make an audience discover the practicalities of sex between two men or a boy and a girl. Much more interesting for me was to understand how to portray the necessity of losing yourself into the gaze of another. If I think a sexual scene is going to move forward the meaning of the movie, the development of characters, then I will be absolutely, completely explicit. As I was in past pictures. I’ve never been coy about that.
Everyone talks about the peach scene in the film. What was the challenge in shooting that?
It is an infamous scene from the book in which Elio masturbates with a peach. I was struggling with that because I thought it was unfilmable. One day I realized that the point of the scene has to lie not in the act of masturbation but maybe in the moment before when the boy had this decision in his mind and prepares himself to do it, when we shift and focus on the taking of the pit from the peach. First of all, the image is quite erotic — but it is a finger and a peach. It reminds me of a film that I love, which is [Abraham’s Valley] from Manoel de Oliveira when the protagonist, who is a woman who is repressed in her sexuality, is fingering a flower. So that came to my mind. And it gave Timothee drive to make it in a way that made him feel he was honing the scene without being exploited. And also my DP, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, was of great help. He is a Buddhist master and has a complete unmorbid attitude toward life and sex, so he set the tone for the scene.
How did you get such intimate and powerful performances out of both of your lead actors?
I tried to build trust, I tried to build enjoyment. And I wanted to be playful with my actors. I wanted them to feel safe, and that’s what we do. I tried to spend time together as we are friends and to explore things as if we were a playground.
You’ve said you’d like to make a sequel.
We leave Elio facing a future of where he doesn’t know what he is going to become. It would be interesting to see how he deals with becoming a man, and how other people in the story face their changes. I like people’s transformation. I’m interested in that. It’s something extraordinary to witness: the way in which people change through time, through experience. That’s what I fancy in life and film. The beautiful spectacle. Life in itself.
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.