Call Me By Your Name Interview

Interview: Director Luca Guadagnino and Stars Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet on Making 'Call Me by Your Name,' the Potential for a Sequel, and Crafting the Romance Between Their Characters

December 15, 2017Ferdosa Abdi

Call Me by Your Name is one of the most buzzed-about films of the year, and deservedly so. It is a movie that defies contemporary storytelling methods and opts to embody the way of the classics from Italy. Anyone who is familiar with the work of director Luca Guadagnino knows they will be watching a master take his time to craft his story and characters in a way that makes you feel like you are a part of the relationships.

The film follows Elio (Timothée Chalamet) during the summer of 1983. Like every summer, Elio's family invites one of his father's students — this year, it's Oliver (Armie Hammer) — to stay with them to help with their academic studies and to explore the history Italy has to offer. And as Elio and Oliver become attracted to each other, we watch as their attraction builds into a relationship that changes the both of them.

Call Me by Your Name had its Canadian premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, where I sat down with Guadagnino, Hammer and Chalamet for a roundtable interview to discuss the difficult process of making this masterpiece and the work put into crafting the romance. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

How did this film come to be?

Guadagnino: The movie went through a long process in the possibility of making it, because first it was a book, then it was a script and a film by another director, which unfortunately — and I was producing it — couldn't be made, because we couldn't find the money. It's as simple as it is. It's about money.

And then we tried to make it with other people; we approached other directors. Sometimes we found someone who's interested in it, and we couldn't find the money. Or someone who we thought was great and they didn't want to do it (and I don't want to name the names, but they are people you know very well).

And then [James] Ivory came to see me at my house in Crimea, in the north of Italy. And he's a friend and we were both linked to this film. I was producing it and he was, in a way, protecting it. We said by chance, "Why don't we try to find our own ideas for this movie?" And so we started to work on the script together for a year.

But it wasn't like work. It wasn't like doing a job; no contract, let's do it. And the script came out nice, people loved it, and I love James. I grew up watching his films, so I thought it was important — after he had lost his great partner, Ismail Merchant — for him to make another movie.

So, we tried to put it together for him, but unfortunately that wasn't the case. We couldn't find the money. I remember I went to Cannes three years ago, and it was like a massacre. It's a market with all these people; they give you five minutes and it's done and you feel frustrated. "I'm trying to let you give me the money for making the movie for a great master! Give me the money!"

Why do you think it was so difficult?

Guadagnino: I think it's because of the theme of the film, and I think it's because — probably it's always been [like this] in this industry — about what is current. And I am a classicist and I like what is classic, and James is classic. So, it was like, "James needed more time, so the budget was bigger, then why don't you help me do it so we can do it in less time and [with] less money?"

And that was the time I felt, "Okay, we are going to do it, we are going to nail it." But then people were suspicious — how can two directors co-direct a movie? They didn't believe in the unfiltered relationship, which had no ego in place. In that case, no one believed. They all started to say, "We would like to do it with you." And we all wanted to see this film — in the first place, because of the beauty of the novel by André Aciman.

So, James blessed this and here we are. Of course, in the meantime, the movie went from a budget of $12 million to a budget of $3 million, and from a 12-week shoot to a 5-week shoot.

During this whole procedure, when did the two names of these actors come up, and under what circumstances?

Guadagnino: Timothée was part of this project from day one, I would say, because the husband of Peter Spears, who was one of our producers, is the great agent Brian Swardstrom, [who has] a great roster of clients. And he is so wise. He not only has famous people, but he also looks for young people. And he said to me — to us — I have this young man that you should meet. And, as a producer, I said, "You’re right. He's great. Fantastic."

That was 3 years ago?

Guadagnino: More, I think. He's 23 now, and he was 17 [then]. He stuck in my mind. I always said, "We have to do it with him." I never changed my mind when I became the director of this. And Armie — [sighs] — I am in love with him. I'm in love with Timothée. I'm in love with these actors very, very much.

I met [Armie] after he did The Social Network. I followed his career, and I always found his way of performing surprising and very, very deep. And in the novel, Oliver is described as "the movie star," because he has this charm. [looks over at Hammer] Yeah, he has this charm; he is a movie star.

Armie said the other day, during the press conference, that you had to talk him into the role because he was scared of taking it. What did you say to change his mind about it?

Guadagnino: I think I can be very insistent. I really, really, really wasn't ready to not have him in this movie, so when he started to say, "You know, I have doubts because I am not sure that I can get into the space of intimacy; I am fearful about it," I said, "It's great to have fear. It means that you [have] desire. It means that there is something that you are not telling yourself." And this conversation grows and eventually, at the end of the phone call, he said, "I'm in. I'm in."

Armie also said that sometimes you had a fun, sadistic way in your directing. What kind of situations did you throw them in?

Guadagnino: Sadistic playfulness. The director has always been the one that relates to God, to a dictator, to anybody who is really trying to manipulate situations. One of the greatest portraits of a director is Vincente Minnelli — Two Weeks in Another Town with Kirk Douglas, and you see that he's a monster. Such a fascinating monster.

So I guess I indulge in not being a dictator, but I indulge in the possibility my role gives me: power to kind of manipulate people. But I do it in a harmless way; because you bring them there — you play with them.

So what did you think in that situation? What was your motive behind just throwing them together and saying, "Kiss now"?

Guadagnino: Tease them. I wanted to tease them because they are two young, straight men, and I said, "Now show me how you kiss one another." Pure teasing. A dare. There is a lot of material to use to talk to my friends afterwards — my posse of gay friends. [imitates himself and his friends gossiping]

Can you talk about working with the same actors as a director? You said that’s something you really like to do...

Guadagnino: I like the bond between me and the people I work with. I grew up watching and loving the movies of Jonathan Demme — what this great master told me about the concept of family and the construct of family as the hope for society to evolve in a better way. Not the nuclear, patriarchal family, but "the family," which [is] not only bonded by blood [but] also the bond of friendship and cultural influence.

So, for me, cinema is basically about family, and I have worked in the last 30 years with many people — same editors, same hairdressers, same producers, and people who jump from role to role. Then we invite new people. Tilda, I've been working with her since 1996 (20 years almost). It's fantastic. I've been lucky, because I never found myself in a situation of difficulty. I never had to deal with people who are difficult, and I avoid conflict when I work.

Do you think we will ever revisit these characters?

Guadagnino: Yes, I do. I think it's going to happen.

Hammer: He's already working on a script.

Guadagnino: It opens with a steamy scene with Oliver, and I'm not teasing — it's true.

I would prefer an opening scene with you dancing...

Hammer: Yeah... I've said this once or twice now today: I have never in my entire life, either as an adult or as a child, ever been that uncomfortable.

Something that's great about both of your characters is that they're both very well fleshed-out. You guys do an amazing job. There's an intricate physicality to both of your roles. You are very cocky and assured. You've got the sort of way that you walk. It's just great that you try to emulate that. You're also very awkward most of the time...

Hammer: That's just great acting. Timmy [does it] much smoother than I can.

So you already have these great roles on the page — what's it like finding the skin of these characters?

Hammer: It adds another wonderful dimension to it. I won't speak for Timmy, but Oliver — as a character and as he existed either on the page or in all of our heads — exists so much and so deeply in his body. He's so grounded down deep in his body, and that's where his physicality comes from.

That's where the sensuality comes from. He's very present and aware of the feelings and textures and everything that goes on in his body. And that's very indicative of who he is as a person, something that I wanted to make sure to try to get as much of that as possible.

How did you get into understanding what Oliver's job and area of study is? Did you do research?

Hammer: Oh yeah, I did. Because, you know, he studies the classics and he studies Greek literature and the philosophers and all that. So I definitely went back and went over some of Heraclitus' work and stuff like that, because there's a reason that Heraclitus was chosen. And his philosophies, in terms of knowing yourself and pleasure and all those things, are very part and parcel with who Oliver is.

Timothée, you said you kind of lived the romance; you plunged yourself into it, with this full-time dedication. How do you balance it with your real life?

Chalamet: Yeah, something I struggle with deeply is trying to find some sort of balance between fully committing yourself to acting and, at the same time, finding some sort of normal — whatever that means — development. And it's less easy at 21 than it would have been at 17, and yet I don't have an answer to that. Because that's something I'm really stumped on — what to do what to do when not acting.

Armie, how did you handle this filming process while still being a husband and a father? Did your family join you?

Hammer: I went out by myself, first to get settled and get situated, and tried to get into this and, you know, do it with as little distraction as possible. Which was an amazing thing for my wife to let me do, because this is all part of the process, and this is all this is what we've chosen to do with the rest of our lives (knock on wood). So it's all about figuring out balance. But at the end of the day, I'm not going to know how to do it perfectly, because I think that that's what people still struggle with for the rest of their lives.

Timothée, you were involved in this process from the very beginning. And you essentially are growing up through this project. What was it like going back to this teenage mentality? Because Elio is a lot older and more intellectual than the average high schooler. Everyone is dealing with prom, but Elio is here dealing with this lovely romance. So what was it like to transform into Elio, and then back into Timmy?

Chalamet: Well, I'm honored they think that I had to go back to playing Elio. The primary challenge is: how do I play someone that is about ten times more than I am? So what's good [is that] we got to be out there a couple of weeks in advance... I was out there so far in advance that I did piano lessons, Italian lessons, [and] had really established a routine.

I felt like I did away with the parts of me that wouldn't appropriately bleed into the character. What I felt was left I felt comfortable with and, ultimately, to be in Luca's films, you just follow what he tells you to do. And if Tilda Swinton looked the way she did in I Am Love, and Ralph Fiennes looked the way he did in A Bigger Splash, [that] seemed like a good roadmap to follow.

What helped create the romance and sense of desire? Did Italy add anything?

Chalamet: Yeah, absolutely. Luca said something yesterday that really made me raise my eyebrows. He had been on a [film festival] jury with a director who said to him, "You must desire the actors you work with." And I think Luca's [style of] filmmaking [is] like he desires everything — the characters, the food, the landscapes. So, certainly, Italy — a country of romance languages and drenched in history and decadence — is almost a character in this romance.

If there is a sequel — because, from what I understand, the book does take place over the course of a couple of decades, and you see these characters change — where do you think you guys will find Elio and Oliver? And would you like to diverge away from what the book did, if you did read the book?

Chalamet: Oh my gosh, if I tell you my ideas I am gonna reveal myself as the poor writer that I am...

Hammer: I'll tell you what I'd like to happen. It's a really funny thought for there to even be a second movie. Part of me [says] we should never go back and try to do it again, because it was such a special experience. It was so unique and really one of the most creatively satisfying and fulfilling things I've ever done in my life.

So I'm hesitant to talk about it, but at the end of the day, if they actually came to me like, "We are making another one," I'd say "I'M IN." "Do you wanna hear what it's about?" "Nope, don't care."

What were your thoughts when you saw this movie?

Chalamet: Everyone told me to see it before we went to Sundance, because I wouldn't be able to see it there because I'd be too overwhelmed. So I ignored all that advice and saw it for the first time there, and I really didn't get to see it because I was overwhelmed the entire time.

There's a lot of things that I really appreciate. The first is [it] being a project that felt so rare, that takes its time, when movies lately don't really take [their] time. And I love the shot in the movie where we bike into the distance and it kind of holds. And I love the way the trailer's cut. All that's missing is a low baritone voice narrating what's happening over the course of the trailer.

So to get to be a part of a film that feels like an homage to the greats... Yes, [seeing it for] the first time was great.

It's great that the relationship between your characters is never made totally explicit until about an hour into the film, and you guys have a really great scene where you're walking around town and you sort of make your feelings known. So what's it like working with a story that's a romance and that takes its time to really set up these characters, where you can have a lot of time playing with the flirtation between each other, rather than just rushing to this sort of meet-cute romance?

Hammer: I think it's a great, great element of this movie. It takes its time, almost luxuriously. If it's a shot that could last for five seconds, it will go for 15. And it will be beautiful, and you are there and it just feels like a wonderful, languid, slow pace that perfectly reflects the pace of what's going on on-screen.

So the fact that there is this build-up — I think we all know that sometimes the build-up is even better than getting what you want. That anticipation, the excitement, that feeling of satisfaction — I think, honestly, that is a great thing not only about this film, but that's how Luca lives his life. Anticipation and enjoyment.

It's a beautiful life lesson, because we live so much in a time of immediate gratification. "I want this. It's going to take more than 30 minutes to get it? I don't want it anymore." It's kind of crazy.

How do the two of you move on to the next project? Because you embraced and enjoyed this experience so much. I can't imagine that another experience will be like this.

Chalamet: Yeah, I know it's going to be difficult to find a project that is as immersive as this one... We shot where it was taking place; it wasn't a center of industry or a big city, but rather Crimea, a small town in Italy.

I'd go to Luca's apartment at night, saying, "Oh, what's a good movie to watch?" He'd throw on Alien and then he'd talk for 30 minutes after it's done [about] why it's a good movie and what shots work or don't work. It's like a master class. So I struggled deeply in the fall, going back to New York and going back to school and wondering, "Did all that just happen?"

Call Me by Your Name is now playing in Toronto and Vancouver and expands to other cities throughout December, 2017 and January, 2018.

You May Also Like