It’s the opening weekend of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, and a conference room entrance is chock full of reporters from around the world mulling about and clamouring to interview filmmaker Luca Guadagnino and actors Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet about one of the most anticipated films of the year, Call Me by Your Name (which opens in Toronto and Vancouver this weekend and expands across Canada throughout the winter).
Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, Call Me by Your Name had been positioned as one of the top contenders for year-end critical praise and award season buzz, something that doesn’t seem to stun Guadagnino, Hammer, or Chalamet despite a line up of more journalists in a single place than I had ever seen before in my life. I dare say that if I conducted my interview with them more recently, the line up to speak with them would have been even longer.
For his latest, Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, the upcoming remake of Suspiria) works from a screenplay by estimable cinematic legendy James Ivory, adapting the bestselling novel of the same name by award winning author André Aciman. Call Me by Your Name – set in the summer of 1983 at a Northern Italian villa – concerns Elio (played by Chalamet), a sexually curious, Jewish-American seventeen year old who develops a crush on Oliver (played by Hammer), a visiting graduate student spending the summer researching with the young man’s academic minded father (Michael Stuhlbarg).
For his efforts, Chalamet – who has been having a breakout year between Guadagnino’s film and his turns in Lady Bird and the upcoming Hostiles – has been receiving thunderous praise and critical acclaim for his work as the shy and awkward Elio. Hammer has received some of the best notices of his career in support of his younger co-star, and Guadagnino has already entertained the idea of a sequel that would pair the actors together once again.
But before we get too ahead of ourselves, here’s a chat with the three of them about the lengthy process of getting Call Me by Your Name produced, Chalamet’s involvement with the film almost from its inception, Hammer’s terrible dance moves, and the joys of working on a deliberately paced love story in a modern era that often demands instant gratification.
Luca, you were originally supposed to co-direct this film with your screenwriter, the legendary James Ivory. How did that change into you directing the film on your own?
Luca Guadagnino: The film went through a very long process from when we first saw that there was even a possibility of making it. First of all, we had to get the rights to the book, which was the easier part. I was trying to make this film solely as a producer with a different director, but it couldn’t end up getting made because we couldn’t find the money. During that time we were always trying to see if we could find different directors for this particular film, but we either couldn’t come up with the money or we couldn’t find someone who was available or the he or she we approached just didn’t want to do it. I don’t want to name any names, but some of the people who turned this down are people you would know very well. (laughs)
So at this point, James Ivory came to visit me at my home in Crema, in the north of Italy, and he’s a friend who I was working with as a producer on this film, and he was, in a way, protecting it. By chance, we just asked ourselves if we should just start coming up with our own ideas for the film. We worked on the script together for a year, which sounds like it was a bit of a job, but it wasn’t. There was no contract between us, and we just went ahead and did it. The script came out nice. (laughs) People loved it.
I loved James’ work, and I grew up with his films, so I thought it was important that during this period where he had lost his greatest partner and collaborator, Ismail Merchant, that he would make another movie. We tried to put it together for him alone as a director, but even then we couldn’t quite come together and find the money. I remember I went to Cannes three years ago to try and sell it, which was discouraging. The market there is this giant massacre with all these people who only give you five minutes and then they’re done with you forever. I couldn’t understand that with such strong material and the promise of giving them a film from a proven master that they still wouldn’t give me the money!
It’s a testament to the team that made this film that it got made at all. As it always is in this industry, people always want to focus only on what’s current, and I am a classicist. I love the things that are classic, and to me, James is classic.
James needed more time to pull the project together on his own, so the budget started to get bigger. James asked if I would help out and work together with him so we could do it in less time and for less money. That was the time where I thought, “Okay, we’re going to do this, and we’re going to nail it.” But then people became more suspicious wondering how two directors were going to co-direct this movie. They didn’t believe that this would be an unfiltered relationship with no ego in place. Nobody believed in it, and they started to say they only wanted to do it with me.
We all wanted to see this film because of the beauty of Aciman’s novel. So James blessed my directing of the film with his generosity, and here we are. In the meantime, the budget of the film went from an initial estimate of twelve million dollars to about three million dollars. And we went from twelve weeks of shooting to about five weeks of shooting. We got it done, but it was tough.
When did you decide on your choice of lead actors?
Luca Guadagnino: Timothée was a part of this production from day one. Brian Swardstrom, the husband of Peter Spears, one of our producers, is a great agent with great clients, and he not only handles a lot of high profile stars, but is always on the look for younger talents. He said to us that he had this young man we should meet, and back when I was only a producer on the film, I saw him and I agreed that he was great. He was fantastic. This was about five years ago, and he always stuck in my mind. I never wavered or changed my belief that Timothée was the best choice for this role.
And I’m in love with Armie. I’m in love with both of these actors. I remember meeting Armie after he did The Social Network, and I followed his career from there. I always found his way of performing surprising and deep. And in the novel, Oliver was always described as “the movie star,” because he had all of this charm, and Armie has that kind of charm, so he was perfect to fit the role. In the 80s, young men were looking older, and the character of Oliver is 24, and Armie looks about 27, and he was just perfect in terms of grace and look.
Timothée, you have been attached to this project since you were seventeen, but now that you were older when the film finally got made, was it a challenge to go back to that teenage mentality, or did the years of experience in between help inform Elio?
Timothée Chalamet: I’m honoured that you think I had to jump back to being young and awkward. (laughs) The primary challenge for me was trying to play a character I thought was ten times smarter than I was! (laughs) What’s good about the sort of long process of making this was that I got to sit with this for a while. When we first got out there, we had a few weeks in advance of shooting to look at that dichotomy that you’re illustrating. Before this, I was often shooting projects on sound stages or close to where I lived, and here I was out in this gorgeous place taking piano lessons and Italian lessons, and establishing that sort of a routine helped to do away with those parts of me that I felt wouldn’t appropriately bleed into the character. When we started production, I felt comfortable with what I knew of Elio and what was left over of my own personality and experiences that I could bring to the character.
Can you remember what you felt like seeing the finished film for the first time?
Timothée Chalamet: I remember everyone told me that I had to watch the film before it premiered at Sundance because I was told I would be too overwhelmed if I waited to watch it for the first time with an audience. I ignored all that advice, and I saw it for the first time there and with an audience, and everyone was right! I was too overwhelmed to focus on the movie. (laughs) But the real take-away from that experience and what I appreciated about it was to see that I was a part of this project that was so rare and that took its time. Movies and media don’t take their time much anymore, and that might have been what overwhelmed me. It really feels like an homage to great American and European films, and to the work of James Ivory. I almost don’t remember what the question was because I get overwhelmed just going back to the feelings I had in that moment. But it was really great.
There’s a very specific kind of physicality to these roles. Oliver is very cocky and assured, and you can see in how the character walks and carries himself, and Elio is someone who’s trying to emulate that while trying to come into his own as a person. What’s it like finding the physicality of these characters?
Armie Hammer: Well, in the case of Timmy, that’s just great acting. He’s WAY smoother than I am in real life. (laughs) But that’s such a wonderful dimension to doing something like this. I won’t speak for Timmy, but I will say that with a character like Oliver, as he existed either on the page or in all of our heads, he was a character that always existed so deeply within his own body. All of his physicality and sensuality is part of his body at this point when we meet him. He’s always present and aware of textures and feelings and everything going on in his body. That’s indicative of who he is as a person.
Timothée Chalamet: I mean, it’s something that I always struggle with at first. Trying to find a balance or rhythm takes time. Fully committing yourself to this kind of acting takes a lot, and I think it’s easier for me to do something like this at twenty-one than I would have been able to do when I was seventeen, and I first started getting to know this character. I don’t really have a full answer to that, though. I’m really stumped. (laughs) If you have any suggestions, let me know. (laughs)
Armie, pardon me for saying so, but your character in this film has some really terrible dance moves.
Armie Hammer: (laughs) Oh God, yes. (laughs) I’ve said this once or twice before, but I have never in my entire life – either as an adult or as a child – ever been that uncomfortable in my entire life. Nothing that happens in this film was harder to do than that dancing. (laughs)
Luca, how did you create the right atmosphere for Armie and Timothée to get to these places emotionally?
Luca Guadagnino: I wanted to be playful, but raw. I dunno, maybe you could call that sadistic playfulness? (laughs) I’m kidding, but when people talk about methods of directing you’re always comparing it to being a sort of God, or a dictator, or anyone who’s trying to manipulate certain situations. I think the greatest portrait of a director is Vincente Minnelli’s [Two Weeks in Another Town] with Kirk Douglas, and you can just see that this director is a monster, but a fascinating monster.
I guess I don’t like to be too much of a dictator, but I do like to indulge in the idea that my role as a director allows me to manipulate the people I work with. But I like to do that in an open and transparent sort of way. You know, you bring them to this place and you essentially play with them. I wanted to tease them because they are two young, straight men, and I wanted them to see how they kiss one another. I wanted to dare them any chance I could.
I also wanted a lot of material so I could talk to my friends afterwards. (laughs) I have a lot of gay friends, and I just had to tell them stories of what was going on. You know that Disney cartoon where there are all those crows hanging out on a power line? Every day was like this when I told those stories on set and off. It was fantastic. It became like this lovely Greek chorus of gay men following the production along.
It really isn’t until an hour into the film that Elio makes his feelings explicit. What’s it like being able to work with material where you guys can explore the characters as individuals first and then as part of a relationship second?
Armie Hammer: That’s such a great facet of this movie. This is a film that handles time as a luxury. If there’s a shot or a lingering glance that normally lasts for five seconds in most films, Luca will take fifteen. It’s a wonderfully slow pace that expertly reflects the pace of what’s happening on screen. The film takes place over the course of months, not days. There is this build up, and I think we all know on a human level that quite often that build up can be better than ultimately getting what you want. Anticipation and excitement are two of the best things you can feel in life if they’re felt for the right reasons. Honestly, that’s such a great thing, and that’s how Luca lives his life, with that anticipation of enjoying something. It’s such a beautiful life lesson because we live in a world today where more and more we demand instant gratification. “I want it now.” “If it takes more than thirty minutes for me to get it, I don’t want it.” That’s kind of a crazy way to live life.
Timothée Chalamet: Yeah, and I think that means that it’s going to be hard for me to find another project that was as immersive as this one. The projects that I have worked on since haven’t been this lived in or luxurious. It’s not a case anymore where I could just go to Luca’s apartment and ask him for a movie recommendation, and then he’ll throw on Alien and then talk for thirty minutes afterwards about why it’s a great movie. Working with Luca is a master-class at all times, and he takes his time with everything he does. In the fall after shooting this, when I went back to New York and back to school, it all felt surreal, almost like it never happened.
The geography and setting of the film in Italy really informs this love story between two very different kinds of outsiders. How did the setting affect your performances?
Armie Hammer: It absolutely helped us out a lot.
Timothée Chalamet: Luca said something yesterday that really made me raise my eyebrows a bit. He said he was once talking to the head of a film festival jury who told him that he really must desire the actors that he works with. Having worked with Luca, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think he desires everything around him. He desires the characters, the food, the landscapes, the weather, and when you set a film in Italy – this country of a romance language with so much history – that just drenches the film in so much character and precedence.
The place where we shot was this enormous estate about twenty minutes outside of Crema, where Luca lives, and I’m pretty sure no one owns it at the moment. I remember during the shooting, Luca entertained the idea of buying it because he ended up falling in love with it. There was a squad of ten people who talked him down and said, “No, no, no, this is a bad idea.” (laughs) I don’t think anyone lives there now.
Armie Hammer: Nope. It’s for sale. Do you wanna buy a villa? I know a guy. It’s beautiful.
You once said that you like to work with the same actors that you’re familiar with, and here you move slightly out of that comfort zone with your leads. Why do you prefer to return to the same performers, and will you be doing it again with your cast here?
Luca Guadagnino: I would gladly work with anyone who worked on this project again, and in many cases I already had before. I like that bond between me and the people I work with. I grew up watching and loving the films of Jonathan Demme, and what this great master – God bless him – taught me the most was that the concept and construct of family gave us hope for the future and a chance to move on. He never really meant that in the sense of a nuclear, patriarchal family, but the families born from love, cultural influence, and friendship.
For me, cinema is really about family, and I learned that from him and his films. I have worked for the past thirty years with many of the same people: same producers, same hairdressers, people who jump from role to role. Over time, you allow new people in and the family grows. Tilda [Swinton] is someone I have worked with six times over the past twenty years, and it’s fantastic. I’ve been so lucky because by surrounding myself with these people I have never found myself in positions of insurmountable difficulty. I don’t like people who are difficult. I avoid conflict when I work. And I’m actually working on a follow-up to this that features Elio and Oliver, so I hope that they would come back for this. (laughs)
If there is a potential sequel, since the book takes place over the course of several decades, would you like to diverge from what the book did or would you like to stick closer to what happens?
Timothée Chalamet: Oh my gosh, if I answer that I’m so afraid that I will reveal myself as the poor, poor writer that I am. (laughs) I do have my own ideas of what I would love to do, but I am WAY too scared to reveal any of that. (laughs)
Armie Hammer: It’s a funny thought for there to even be a second one of these, and there’s a huge part in my head that thinks we should never try to go back and replicate what we did here because it was such a special, unique, and creatively satisfying experiences that’s up there with the best things I have done in my entire life. I’m hesitant to talk about it, but if anyone came up to me and said we were doing another one of these, I would say, “I’m in!” immediately. “Well, don’t you want to hear what it’s about?” “Nope! I don’t care!” (laughs)
Call Me by Your Name opens at Cineplex Varsity in Toronto and Fifth Avenue Cinemas in Vancouver on Friday, December 15th. It expands to Montreal and Ottawa on December 22nd, to Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton on January 12, and to other Canadian cities throughout the winter.