The new film Call Me by Your Name is about a life-changing affair between young Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer), but what went on behind the scenes was just as significant. As Hammer told us recently, director Luca Guadagnino fostered an environment on set that both protected his actors and challenged them to be as honest as possible in their work. The result is an acclaimed film where the stars do the best work of their lives, but it also continues in the intense relationship between the stars and Guadagnino. The director has described it as “a very profound familial bond with the people I’m doing the movies with, where you literally and constantly fall in love with all of them,” and in the following interview, he expands on that notion, addresses some of the think pieces about the movie, and talks more about his hope of making sequels to it.
When did you entertain the idea of casting Armie as Oliver?
Since I got to meet him in The Social Network, really. I was impressed by that film and there was a great generation of actors in it: Just think that Dakota Johnson was there, Rooney Mara was there, Andrew Garfield, Jesse Eisenberg. And then there were these two brothers, who I really thought were two brothers because I couldn’t believe someone could do that digitally. I thought, no, nobody can act that way, when in fact it was Armie, twice. So after [Guadagnino’s 2008 Tilda Swinton film] I Am Love came out, I had the privilege of meeting him. We generally spoke about life for two or three hours and I loved him. I had a sudden and immediate attraction to him.
What was your read of him in that meeting?
I like the way he speaks, I like the words he uses, his buoyancy, his enthusiasm. But I also like that with him, suddenly he has a shift of humor. He can become kind of melancholic without even controlling it. He’s not someone who is in command of his own expression in an artificial way. And for me, fragilities are important when you work with someone. Of course you want someone who can give a performance, who is acting, but even more, I want someone who is able and eager to let the camera investigate him or her deeply. As you know, I wasn’t part of this movie as a director, for a long time. Originally, I was a producer.
James Ivory was supposed to direct, with Shia LaBeouf cast as Oliver, correct?
Right, in the Ivory version. We tried to make the movie with Jim and we didn’t succeed. It’s one of the great regrets of my life, as an admirer of Jim’s work. I would have been happy not only to see a new movie by James Ivory, but also to be producing it. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen because the rules of the market — or, as Renoir would say, the rules of the game — are sometimes quite cruel. Despite the fact that ageism is a significant problem when it comes to cinema, I personally believe that one of the most exciting things for me as a cinephile is to witness a new movie from a very old director. James and Shia would have been another movie, and every avenue was tried, but the only way it could see the light was if I directed it for five weeks with no money.
So I thought of my passion for Armie and I sent him the script. After a week, I heard, “He wants to talk to you.” What I didn’t know is that he was going to pass. So he picks up the phone, “Hey, how are you,” and it becomes a long conversation. He goes, “I’m scared about this role.” Why? “I don’t know. I’m scared.” I told him, “If you’re scared, it might mean that you want something.” Which could sound like a sleazy way of approaching somebody, but the truth is that fear and desire are the polarizing elements of most of our actions. I think Armie wanted to have that fear and act it out.
What did you interpret his fear as?
I don’t think it was, “Oh no, I don’t want to play a gay character,” because he had already done that twice.
In J. Edgar …
… and in a film with Stanley Tucci, Final Portrait. Long story short, I think the complexity of the project from his standpoint was, “Will I be able to let myself be the medium through which a lot of complex, intimate emotions can be expressed?” But he is a mine of gold, and I am the digger.
I don’t think most directors had done much digging with him.
Probably there is a sense that things have to fit the mold. Maybe they thought the mold of Armie belongs to a different era of filmmaking, but I think the mold of Armie is the mold of cinema, with a capital C. I do believe in that.
He talks about making the movie as though he were still in love with it.
Wait til we do the sequels.
He said it’s really changed him.
I’m happy. I like transformative things. I welcome transformation in my life and I like transformation in other people’s lives. I like to be the agent of it.
So how were you transformed by making this film?
I simplified my approach. I have more trust in the power of the language of cinema without [additional] style. And to understand that I am capable of loving multiple times with multiple people, but also to be faithful in every sense of the word to the love of my life. Also, I aged making this movie.
What were you like when you were 17, Elio’s age?
I was a very lonely, skinny, melancholic visionaire. I was in Palermo, and I was really invested in pushing the envelope. I remember at that age, I convinced the principal of my school to be the director of the play at the end of the year. I did Ionesco, and it was crazy. It was insane!
What did you do?
The title of the piece was Excessive in Extremis. And it fortified me because it was a catastrophe of sorts. There was not much of an audience, and to make something so personal, motivated by the impulse of doing something strong no matter what, and then to get the reception we got …
What was that like?
Oh, the fury of the principal when she saw the thing! You know, when I went to [the Venice Film Festival] years later with The Protagonists and there was booing in the movie theater, I thought, I don’t care. I already got my boos at 17. I trained myself for that, I would say.
Why were you lonely at 17?
I was not like Elio. Elio jumps on the dance floor and is divine, but I wasn’t that kid. I was sitting in the corner, looking at people dancing. It was shyness, it was maybe embarrassment, but also I think it was the great position of control.
You were shy in your personal life, but bold in your art.
Had you been with men by the time you were 17?
I desired them, but I wasn’t until I was 22.
Well, I was very picky, also! And I didn’t know anything about sex and love and interaction. Maybe I was too cerebral.
Were you with girls?
No, I’ve never been with girls, honestly. I regret that. This is a very analytical conversation, but now that I’m talking to you, I made a difficult and stupid choice at that age of falling in love with my best friend, who was straight. Later, I met this guy when I was 22, and the second we had intercourse, I didn’t want to be with him anymore, and I left.
Why? You were afraid?
I don’t know. I felt depressed. I like sharing things, I like a community, I like to be with my friends and get to know new people, but when you’re 22 in Palermo and you get this young man and you feel the emotion for the first time of this physical encounter, it excludes everything. You’re not so sure if you can go to your friends and say, “That’s the boy I’m dating.” People could not say that easily in 1988 in Palermo. I had to leave this encounter with him and only him. I had to learn in time to bridge my personal feelings and emotional encounters with my life as part of a community.
How did you bridge that?
I completely dismissed the notion of self-censorship and being a prude.
How do you foster a safe place for people to do things on camera that they’ve never done before, that they might be hesitant to do?
I have been with the makeup artist and editor for 25 years, have made three movies with the same DP. It’s family. It’s a nontoxic environment. I really invite the actors’ collaboration not just as performers, but to really participate in making the film 100 percent. Also, I’m very blunt. I don’t tell lies, not when I’m making a movie. It can be a beautiful thing to be direct, because people are rarely direct.
How does that collaboration work with the actor when you’re shooting something like the scene where Elio masturbates with a peach?
That is the perfect example. I was struggling with the scene since I read it in the book. I thought it was a scene that can only play in a book, because you could go into your imagination. I also thought it was a metaphor for sexual impulses and energy. I didn’t believe in the actual physical possibilities of masturbating yourself with a peach. In translating this into a movie, I was both admiring Aciman’s work and dreading Aciman’s work, and I knew that scene was kind of infamous for readers of the book. I’ll tell you, Kyle, many times I said, “We have to remove this from the script.” I didn’t want something that could be exploitative, sensationalist, or even involuntarily ridiculous. So it was a process, a long process.
What convinced you it could work?
One day I tried, physically, to masturbate myself with a peach because I was asking Timothée to do it as a character, and I wanted to prove to myself that it was not doable so we would not have to do it. And actually, when I got the fruit and put my finger in the fruit and started to debone it, already that act gave me a cinephile memory, reminding me of a great moment in this version of Madame Bovary [called Abraham’s Valley] by Manoel de Oliveira, the great Portuguese filmmaker. In it, the Bovary character is young and full of lust, she wants to fuck this guy. She sees a flower, she grabs this flower, and she puts her finger into the flower. It’s an incredible scene about the sensuality in all things. So I thought, “Finally, we have a lead here that can make this scene doable.” Then I tried to put the deboned peach on me and it actually worked, it wasn’t just a metaphor! So I threw the peach away, composed myself, and went to Timothée and told him, “Timmy, I tried the peach myself, and it works. We can film the scene.” And he goes, “Of course it works! I tried it myself as well.”
What did you shoot that you didn’t include?
Much. There is a scene that happens under the lime tree where Elio and Oliver are teasing one another — this is before they kiss. It was a very well-acted scene, but we felt in a way that it was too precious, that it wasn’t necessary to delay the moment where they would confess to one another. Then there was a scene after they made love. In the movie, there is still a piece of it, where they’re kissing under the moonlight, and what I shot is that the scene happens at the same time as the father and mother are in their bedroom, hearing the muffled voices coming from the garden. The mother is putting creams on, the father is reading a book, and they are looking one another in the eye and smiling. She goes to the bed, he touches his wife, he smells the creams on her, and they start to make love. I’m sorry for cutting the scene because it’s quite beautiful, and it’s beautiful to see adults having their moment of sex. That, we will definitely put in the extras of the film [on home video].
Some writers have said the film is not explicit enough.
It’s really something I don’t understand. It’s as if you said there are not enough shots of Shanghai. I don’t understand why there has to be Shanghai in this movie.
There is plenty of sex and foreplay and sensuality in it, though the complaint is that we don’t see Oliver and Elio engage in actual intercourse. Did you shoot anything like that?
We shot some things, but one thing is important to say: We didn’t have any limitations. I also think it may be my unconscious knowledge that many gay films pride themselves on being explicit. It’s almost like a subgenre! Listen, there is a book by William Burroughs called Queer, which I wrote a script for when I was 20. I was completely naïve, although I would love to make that film. That is a movie where you need to see the actual sex because, as per Burroughs’s descriptions, it’s about the war that is excavated inside him: The character Lee is infatuated with Allerten and it devours him. You have to show how the sex and the impossibility of the relationship is informing their behavior, and I agree that a version of that film cannot be shy about the sex. But why this?
Do you think Call Me by Your Name is shy about sex?
There is sperm on the torso [of Oliver], which he wipes off! I don’t know. It is cheap voyeurism, I would say. Because I am a voyeur myself, I pride myself on a more dignified and sophisticated sense of voyeurism than a need to stare at other people’s sexes.
It’s been interesting, too, to see how people have reacted to the notion of a sequel.
Sequels. I want to make five movies.
Do you already have in mind what you would do?
The second, I have very much in mind. I think I want to see them grow up. How great would it be to see those actors grow older, embodying those characters?
Is the whole notion of a sequel something that sprung up from the years-later epilogue of the book?
It sprung out of my love for these characters and my desire to visit them again, and in doing so, to be with the same people I did this movie with.
At what point did you start mulling over this idea?
Sundance. Because I didn’t completely realize until then that they were characters who could go beyond the boundaries of the film.
I think some people would prefer that the characters not go beyond the boundary of the film, because the ending with Elio is so powerful.
It would not remove the power of the final shot of this film, because that is about him being 18. What we would see in the sequel is him being 25.
The film is also about the intensity of first love. By necessity, the second film would be and feel different.
Maybe in the sequel, Elio and Oliver only meet after two hours of the movie. I want to follow them, Mr. Perlman, Marzia, all these people. Maybe the movie opens with how Mafalda the maid is living in the house, all alone! I definitely would buy myself the freedom of a movie that is not bound to a textbook of rules. Once, I dreamt of making a sequel to I Am Love, which was basically about Emma, Tilda’s character, living with no money on the periphery of Rome. It would be about her daily routine, like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. Five hours of watching Emma go to the supermarket where she’s a cashier, going home to cook a meal, eating her meal, and then one day she bumps into the daughter, who’s a big artist. I thought about doing that. The only problem for me is that for a director, time is very limited in general. You can do a certain amount of films and no more than that.
You know, I am 46. To make a movie is long. I have to learn how to discipline my ambitions.
This interview has been edited and condensed.