Luca Guadagnino’s playful sensuality extends beyond his desire for actors. The director of arthouse hits I Am Love, A Bigger Splash and now Call Me By Your Name lavishes focus on anyone who has his attention. Michael Stuhlbarg, co-star of Guadagnino’s new film, channels his attention through lugubrious, monastic-like focus. When I talked with both the former dances with his id for all to see and the latter negotiates with his ego before saying a word. Put them together and you get a snapshot of Call Me By Your Name’s sexual ethos: muted sensuality, or as the director put it, “We were free to show everything and we decided not to. And in a way it was a very liberating experience.”
Goodwill for Call Me By Your Name has already propelled the film to nearly $1 million and that’s from just four screens in New York and Los Angeles thus far. In our conversation, Guadagnino refuses to talk theoretically about his work but Stuhlbarg does (he shares his summum bonum of parenting). We also cover James Ivory’s script, the work of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the director’s cartesian philosophy of sound following the image, and yes, talk of a sequel.
Luca, I read an interview where you said today’s cinema isn’t being used to interpret reality. So because Call Me By Your Name doesn’t have a formal antagonist, what are you saying about the nature of identity?
Luca Guadagnino: Well, it’s a complex question and I feel very shy about answering the question because I resist the temptation of being theoretical about my own work. We should have a great conversation about the work of a colleague probably or someone in the canon. I can tell you this: I believe that when you show behavior and when you unfold, in a way, the consequences of behavior and the way the different behaviors clash between one another, it’s where I found the best surprises as an audience member in cinema. So whether we succeed or not with Call Me By Your Name, it is, in any case, the approach that we want to use to make the movie. So it was not about the drama of these people in the film, but more about how can you capture these invisible threads that unites and separate these people as if it was real life. I don’t know if I answered your question.
It was a convoluted question.
Guadagnino: It wasn’t convoluted. It was a very consistent and important question, but it’s me, I don’t want to interpret my work.
Michael, when Professor Perlman gives that talk to Elio at the end, you know he’s accepting his son and he understands his son, but you also hear regret in his voice. He talks about a time when he felt desired for his body. What were you conceptualizing he was going through in their conversation?
Michael Stuhlbarg: I just wanted to be honest as a parent. Honesty in every relationship requires one to take the risk to bear one’s soul to, perhaps, judgment coming at them. And I think Professor Perlman at that time could observe what his son was going through by offering a glimpse into his own past that perhaps his son didn’t know. Maybe he’s taking a risk. I think he says, if I remember correctly, what kind of parent would I be if I didn’t speak? I think he’s offering up a part of himself to his son at a time when his son needs it. I understand that his father is not just a father, he’s a person and had a life before he met Elio’s mother. He has some, perhaps, joy at the fact that his son has felt something so deeply and perhaps a sense of regret from his own past that he didn’t take a road that he wanted to. Or maybe a road he wanted to take and did take and it didn’t workout. I think he’s offering up a part of himself to his son that his son needs at that moment.
Luca, had James Ivory written the script by the time you were involved?
Guadagnino: We worked on the script together. This script happened to be the one we shot. It’s the outcome of the decision that James and I made, an attempt to try to make our version of this film.
Michael, what drew you to their script?
Stuhlbarg: First and foremost it was Luca inquiring whether I was interested in participating in the project. I had seen I Am Love and was dazzled by it. I loved the boldness and the nuance, the subtlety and the breadth within the piece and the challenge of it. So I was familiar with a spectacular filmmaker. I didn’t know the novel. And when I read it I was taken with the particular challenges that are set up in playing this kind of role. And at the same time trying to take in all that information about being a scholar and trying to make it, you know, he’s as a humanist as well. There were just many challenges to the prospect of who this man was. Plus, the opportunity to get to shoot abroad is always a wonderful thing. It’s one of the things I love about this job when it happens: getting to see the world and seeing the different way people live. And then getting to read Andre’s novel, I can see the rich source material. There were many things that drew me to the project and I’m grateful that I was thought of.
Luca, it was raining for most of the shoot in Crema, but the film looks so rich and warm. Will you talk about some of the visual choices you made with your cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom?
Guadagnino: I think that it’s a testament of the sensibility of Sayombhu, the light of this film. He had to create light from an artifice because we really were constantly assaulted by this weather. It wasn’t nice at all. We had the rain tower ready to be used for the scene at the train but we didn’t have to use that because that was real rain. I think that when I was younger I used to have a lot of visual references and a mood board. In growing, I felt more confident in myself to the tone that comes off the given elements of the movie. The location, the period, the performances. So I think that the reference that really came into my mind was the work of Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours on the lighting. Then that got translated by the sensibility of Sayombhu. We really narrowed our choices though, because we used 35mm, one camera, one lens, and mostly it was about, even if it was artificial, you know, the way light behaved was the reality of the given location. I liked the way Sayombhu exposed because he goes all the way toward the darkest side of the spectrum instead of the brighter. That is something he does. It’s in a way quite strong because it makes the image three-dimensional, gives some more depth to the image.
I found the sound design for the various sex scenes more erotic than anything you show on screen.
Guadagnino: My take is follow the images and also follow the narrative that’s outside of the images. It’s very Cartesian what I think I need in terms of sound. Like you see them, they are having lunch, but then you have to think in retrospect: what is happening in the kitchen and on the other side of the house? So we investigate these background and in the foreground and what is on the screen. There was a very good production sound, but then you add the reality of the things. I don’t think you need to hide the usage of sound, which to a degree needs to be artificial. I think in the case of my following movie Suspiria, sorry I’m talking about it, but it’s an example of how the sound, because Suspiria is really about sound. It means in ‘sighs’ in Latin. We approached that not as a some sort of fantastic element but for drawing the idea of sighs and the uncanny from the reality. So it’s really important to be logical with sound in my opinion.
For a movie that’s just over two hours, a lot happens and I think it’s because the scenes are short. How did you create the drama with this brisk pace?
Guadagnino: Thank you. I don’t know. I wish I had a better answer but I don’t know how to explain how we proceed. I don’t know. I think it’s really about following your intuition and being in absolute contact with your collaborators whether they are the performers or the technicians. And to be open, as I said in another interview, I think it’s about listening and I think the more we are all wanting to be open to one another the better we are. I don’t have a recipe. I don’t storyboard. I don’t analyze the movie to the purpose of its effect. I admire those colleagues who are able to do that, but for me it is a bankruptcy of the craftsmanship that you have to put into making film. You know, it’s like thinking that the movie is a script. The script is not the movie. Any decision that you can make about the movie that are basically about the mise en scène are not necessarily the end of the process of making the film.
Talk about the bit with the Italian couple discussing Luis Buñuel during one of the Perlman’s meals.
Guadagnino: Well, it’s really interesting. I think one of my privileges is to be able to work with very different identities, you know? It’s beautiful because I don’t do Italian films. I don’t do strictly Hollywood films. I do movies that I happen to have the privilege of being able to make and I have the luck to work with the people I like to work. In that specific case, we had Americans from different generations, from different backgrounds. We had the Italians, English. It was a mixture of things. The couple is played by Marco Sgrosso and Elena Bucci, two of the most striking powerful theater actors in Italy. I love them and I know them since many, many years and they ended up in A Bigger Splash. The thing I like the most about my work is it’s like a family, you invite your friends and you do this thing.
So I called them and I said I have this little scene that we added in the script about this couple coming to dinner, because you know usually that kind of family, the Perlmans, it’s a typical family that have a lot of guests coming. Usually the relationship between the friends explains a lot about the people that live in the house. So I said can you come and be this neurotic couple of intellectuals who are, you know, like they want to be current and at the same time they don’t care about the people in front of them, but they love them. It’s a strange narcissistic couple and yet they are irresistible to their friends.
About that scene… they are fantastic, they improvised. I mean, we went online and looked up what happened in 1983, on that month and that day. We discovered that Buñuel was dead. [Stuhlbarg laughs and claps.] We said okay, improvise about Buñuel. We went into rehearsal and Michael’s reaction shot surprised me because what I love about him is you don’t see Michael Stuhlbarg, you see Mr. Perlman watching his friends and he’s enjoying the spectacle and he wants that spectacle to happen every now and then. You know it’s like something about their family and it’s beautiful. And it was generous because Marco and Elena came up quickly to act and went away. But yeah, if we do the sequel they will be back, for sure.
So are you seriously considering continuing with that last part of the book that isn’t in the film?
Guadagnino: To call it a sequel is not nice. It’s like the Antoine Doinel chronicles. It is for me a landmark in the history of cinema and in general I think every movie I do it’s a dream of a dream of a dream of a movie I really like. And so for me that these amazing characters happen to be living in the next fifty pages of the book by André Aciman. In a way, they now outlive the book and they are now creatures of their own. I think there is a way in which we want to see what happens to them. I think it’s great. It’s not like a sequel. We don’t want to exploit any possibility, and I put in big brackets any success of this film. I would try to make the sequel even if the movie wasn’t successful because I want to see these people. There are a few episodes, there is documentary about the growing up of the kids. So I think how great would it be to see Timothée Chalamet growing up as a man? In three years time he is going to be twenty-five. We leave Elio as he is almost eighteen. What if we catch up with the real age of Elio and Timmy, and we make the second chapter about him being twenty-five, which is seven years later. What happens in that gap? What happened to all these people? How did they end up meeting again together? I think those characters are affecting enough that probably there will be more to say about them and more to see of them. I have some ideas though. The beginning of the sequel is fantastic.
Call Me by Your Name is now in limited release and will expand in the coming weeks.