Writer and Director Luca Guadagnino Reflects on ‘Call Me By Your Name’

Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name (2017) © Sony Pictures Classics

As writer and director Luca Guadagnino kicks back in his director’s chair onstage at the 55th New York Film Festival, he places his left elbow on the chair’s canvas back and grips his mic in the two o’clock position. He is holding forth on friend and frequent collaborator Tilda Swinton. “She’s always very wise,” Guadagnino says, “she really is the ancient one.” And while he speaks, the image of the auteur behind the wheel of a sleek sports car in his native Italy is hard to shake.

And in many ways, at this particular juncture, Guadagnino is very much in the driver’s seat. His film “Call Me By Your Name” has had a triumphant run on the festival circuit since its Sundance premiere at the top of this year. Now that it finally pulls into the New York Film Festival, advance press pooh-poohs queer cinema from historical films like “Milk” to those documenting interior struggle like last year’s Oscar-winner “Moonlight,” while heralding this picture as the latest second coming.

“What would it feel like if a gay movie was, well, just kind of regular?” a local New York paper asks in a review extolling the film’s “unencumbered gayness” just before its October New York premiere. But as the film prepares for a Thanksgiving theatrical release, with all apologies to Dinah Washington, if Guadagnino flipped on his car radio, he might be snapping his fingers to the song, “What A Difference A Month Makes.”

On November 7, the studio releasing the film tweets a still of the protagonist – a teenage boy, nuzzling a minor female character above a blurb touting “a romance overwhelming in its intensity.” The juxtaposition would seem to deny the actual plot of the film, which is said seventeen year old, played by Timothee Chalamet, falling for a 24-year-old academic, played by Armie Hammer, who alights to the former’s parents house for a wet, hot Italian summer.

It’s certainly not a social media campaign that supplies any hint that ripe peach young Elio will have his “American Pie,” Philip Roth-ish way before the older Oliver devours what Guadagnino calls “the raped fruit.” In fact, both Guadagnino and Andre Aciman, the American author who published Call Me By Your Name in 2007, recall iterations of the property that omit the peach scene. Conversely, both Guadagnino and his star Chalamet admit to pitting a peach and trying the stunt at home before shooting began, as it were.

But the internet didn’t have time for produce, and the Sony tweet was all it took to unleash the trolls on Guadagnino’s film. “Have you seen?” memes surfaced pairing Cate Blanchett and her on-screen husband in “Carol” and Jake Gyllenhaal and his on-screen wife in “Brokeback Mountain.” The term “hetero-washing” emerged as a hyphenate. The film’s longtime lone detractor, forgotten actor James Woods, who hash-tagged a tweet about the film with the acronym for the North American Man/Boy Love Association as far back as September, thought he was finally getting some hater traction.

And, of course, in the real world, the list of those accusing actor Kevin Spacey of sexual assault, many of whom were teenagers themselves at the time of the attack, clicked over into the double-digits. All in all, this was beginning to resemble nothing so much as a replay of Mariah Carey trying to release “Glitter” in the wake of 9/11. Let’s cut back to our fashion-forward oracle, Tilda Swinton. “It is really a question of time,” Guadagnino recalls her advising him, “and I don’t think things happen in the time that you think they should happen. They happen when they have to happen.”

And in many ways, though it’s taken the same amount of time that separates its two leads – namely, a decade – in many ways, a big-screen iteration of “Call Me By Your Name” had to happen. Guadagnino details coming on as a consultant of sorts more than a decade ago. “The movie was happening until it didn’t happen,”  Guadagnino recalls of the “year after year” of preproduction, “because it was very difficult to put it together. We lost our director, we looked for other directors. We were approaching many other people.”

In the meantime, Guadagnino’s station began to rise. He makes slicing motions in the air, raising his hand upwards. “I started to become an executive producer,” he remembers, “then I was asked to be a producer. We were really trying to make this happen.” Enter James Ivory, the later of six-time Oscar-winning team Merchant Ivory Productions, who also knew the producers. “He was the godfather of the project,” Guadagnino says, “and one day he came to see me in my house in Crema, which is the same area where we shot the film. We said to one another, ‘Why don’t we try and see how we’d do this film ourselves?’”

And that’s how his film came to bear Ivory’s name as screenwriter. Ivory came through Lincoln Center last year with a 25th anniversary print of an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End that he directed. At that time, he described pursuing Forster while he was alive, but the author was quite famously opposed to big-screen adaptations of his work. Not so his estate, Kings College, once he died in 1970. Ivory remembers a trip to Cambridge shortly after Forster’s passing. “They asked if we wouldn’t like to make A Passage to India,” Ivory recalls, “and we said, ‘No, we’d like to make A Room with a View. And they were like, ‘What?’”

For Ivory, it was merely a way of getting to Italy, where he’s primarily remained for the last 30 years. However, expatriation does not stop him from adding to the “Call Me By Your Name” fray from abroad. Just after the film receives a ten-minute standing ovation at the New York Film Festival, Ivory issues a statement lauding what Film Comment has called “skinny-dipping with frontal, flapping male nudity” in the infamous Sacred Lakes bathing scene of his Oscar-winning “A Room with a View.”

He also takes a moment to put the American leads of his latest picture on blast. “American actors,” Ivory tells Variety, have a “contract that they could not be shown nude. But in those days — in the ’80’s and these were all British actors — they didn’t give a damn.” He claims his screenplay for “Call Me By Your Name” was no exception, saying, “there was all sorts of nudity. But according to Luca, both actors had it in their contract that there would be no frontal nudity, and there isn’t, which I think is kind of a pity. Again, it’s just this American attitude. Nobody seems to care that much, or be shocked, about a totally naked woman. It’s the men. This is something that must be so deeply cultural that one should ask: ‘Why?’”

Guadagnino dances around the answer by saying, “James wrote the script, but we wrote it together so I knew the script by heart. We are two different directors for many different reasons. He is American, I’m Italian, different generations. I’ve been influenced by his canon with Ismail Merchant, not only the more recent ones, but the ones they did in the 60s. But I think we are very different. I guess I would say my approach is more French.”

French? “I will be honest,” Guadagnino says of the sniper fire all the way from Ivory’s adopted Italian home, “because New Yorkers are very direct. The ways of cinema are very cruel, complicated, difficult and merciless. Among the unfairness of life, there is also the fact that we could not put together the version of this film directed by James Ivory. It was much more costly film and it was a much different film that didn’t meet the standards of the market. I have to be blunt, that’s it.”

Still, Guadagnino doesn’t see Ivory’s complaint as adversarial. “In fact, he was very generous until the end,” Guadagnino says, “when the producers went to him and said it was very hard, but we tried. It was in fact impossible, but it is possible to make a teeny-tiny version of the same film if Luca does it, something that requires less money and less shooting time, would you bless the film?”

He brings as much ambiguity to the close of his press conference as he does to the close of his film. And forget mean tweets, Guadagnino brings a canon to this gunfight. “I’ve always felt myself very restless in films about coming of age that are hinging on the cliché,” he sums, “on what is the assumption that the narrative has to deliver in order to get there.”

“There is a cliché for every generation,” he continues, “but there has to be a way to avoid those traps and really connect it to an audience. And this is where my arrogance shows up, but I wanted to do that with this idea that there is always a contrast against the lovers. That idea that love will triumph is so artificial. Maybe in the gay canon, it will be bittersweet?”