Luca Guadagnino with the stars of Call Me by Your Name, Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet. Photo by Maarten de Boer/Getty Images.
Luca Guadagnino makes sumptuous movies, and so he needs sumptuous music for their soundtracks. The Italian director has used the works of Sufjan Stevens, the Rolling Stones, and, often, American composer John Adams to elucidate the emotions his impressionistic camera draws from his actors. In his latest film, Best Picture contender Call Me by Your Name, this includes a heartbreaking scene of a young man staring into a fire, crying, while one of Stevens’ original songs plays over the crackle of the flames. The rest of the film varies wildly from that deep moment, whether it’s excellent skanking sound tracked by the Psychedelic Furs or Bach performed on the piano as seduction.
To further understand how he thinks about music (and, honestly, to fan out about John Adams), we called Guadagnino to discuss what music has meant to his life and his films. Clearly the pairings are paying off: Just today, Stevens was nominated for Best Original Songat the Oscars, for “Mystery of Love.”
Pitchfork: Call Me By Your Name begins with John Adams’ “Hallelujah Junction” playing over the title credits, and I Am Love’s soundtrack is entirely Adams’ music. What is it about his music that you love?
Luca Guadagnino: I discovered John Adams’ music in 2005, when I was editing a movie in Spain. It was my birthday, and the legendary Gareth Whigham, an executive from Sony who I was working with, gave me, as a present, Naive and Sentimental Music, by John Adams. I put the disc in the CD player, and suddenly when those first notes, dun dun dun started, I immediately got completely kidnapped by the musical world of John Adams. Since that first epiphany, I started to dig in to him. I started to look for everything that I could find recorded by John Adams, and I became a sort of an encyclopedia of what he has done as a musician.
There is something Wagnerian and also something minimalist into his music, which I found very fantastic because he just goes beyond the strict rules the minimalists gave to themselves. The world of the music of John Adams is a world that comes with a very great package of intellect that I found fantastic. It comes with a capacity of interpreting reality, interpreting the history of the reality, interpreting the history of the United States, and understanding even the boundaries of music to become a cunning exploration of the identity of human nature and the politic relationship that ties all us in. I can’t think of how to put it differently.
John Adams comes to me constantly. I can say to you that really that moment in 2005 was transformative and changed my life as a director forever. The ambition I have, that I blush in speaking it out with someone, is that maybe, one day, John Adams will compose a soundtrack for me.
How did you end up using his music for your 2009 film, I Am Love?
I started to work on the shoot with his music. We edited the movie with his music and then we faced the brutality of the fact that we didn’t have the rights to his music. What we did is that Tilda Swinton [who stars in the film] wrote him a letter and he replied. He said, “I’m happy to see your film.” We showed the movie to him, and at the end of it he turned to us and he said, “Fantastic. I’m happy. And I also want to ask you if you can put music by John Adams in the main title?” Which is something that I really wanted to do, and I didn’t dare to ask, but he asked himself.
How did that feel?
It felt fantastic.
So many of your films involve the piano, either in the script or on the soundtrack. What is your relationship with that instrument?
I don’t know. I’m not an expert. I go through music in a way that has to do with my instinct, by the way. I like the concept of piano as a dialogue. There’s a great, beautiful album by Ryuichi Sakamoto called Back to the Basics, in which the great, legendary Sakamoto reflects on his own roots that you see in Ravel; he creates this beautiful piano poem that is completely inspired by that great French musician. I found, in that work, the sum of what I feel is piano for me, which has to do with dialogue. It’s a dialogue. In fact, in Call Me by Your Name, we have extensive usage of piano because those notes, in a way, are the interior and exterior dialogue between Elio and himself, and Elio and Oliver.
When you were Elio’s age, what were you listening to?
I was listening to soundtracks. I think I was listening to Sakamoto.
Was that a cool thing to listen to when you were 17?
My absolutely dear… I don’t understand the concept of being cool. I have been seeing a lot of people basically going through their lives in the attempt of being cool. I don’t know what that means. I can’t think of myself as striving for coolness. I think I’m the most uncool person in the room. Always have been, and maybe even proudly so. No, I would have never, ever, ever, ever done something for the reason of trying to be cool or because it’s cool. I did it because I loved it. In 1987, I went to see The Last Emperor, which is Bertolucci’s nine-Academy-Award winner. I’ve been blown away by the movie and by the soundtrack, which was David Byrne, Cong Su, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. I bought myself the CD, I played it and played it. That Sakamoto, I think probably nobody knew that I was listening to him because I basically was listening to Sakamoto in the solitude of my bedroom. I did it because it was a sort of deep inspiration for me, again.
The reason I ask that is because Elio wears that Talking Heads shirt throughout the film, and you have this feeling that he’s wonderfully of two minds, one more classically minded and intellectual, and one where he just wants to be a kid and feel excited about rock music that’s young. What you listen to helps define who you are at that age.
Absolutely, I agree with you. But I don’t think that someone who is in academia who is going through an upbringing in the classical world is necessarily devoid of intellect for the pop world. I don’t think that Elio, being the bright young man who wants to be a great pianist, who is invested in culture because he lives in a world of culture, has learned that culture is an elitist thing that shuts off everything else and only gives life to just the high art. I think what he has learned, as a kid interested in culture, is that culture is the complex element that makes our life what it is, which includes everything. A speech. The body of someone you desire. The music of the Talking Heads. The leaves on a tree. Everything. I think the great mistake we would do as people, and for me as a filmmaker, is to say that to be invested in the classical world means that you are not invested in the real world. They are part of the world at large.
Why did you want Sufjan Stevens to write original music for Call Me by Your Name?
I believe Sufjan is one of the greatest American artists. Someone pointed out his music to me six years ago and I got to be enamored with his voice. Then the more I delved into his canon, the more I detected the greatness of his lyrics, the complexity of his body of work.
His song “Visions of Gideon,” which plays over the end credits, is so crucial to the movie, it’s like the song and that scene couldn’t exist without the other.
In the script, you have a line at the end saying, “Elio stares at the fire and thinks of his life.” It was always in my mind that he tended to be with one shot. I also thought about putting different kinds of songs in that moment. This was before I got the music from Sufjan. Then Sufjan showed me these songs. I was one week into shooting and I listen to the songs. I was with my editor and with Armie and Timothée, and we were shocked by the beauty, commitment, and attitude in these songs. So we immediately felt that “Visions of Gideon” was the perfect song for this moment in which Elio thinks of his life. When we shot the scene, I put the earbud in Timothée’s ear and played.
There is very prominent dancing in both Call Me by Your Nameand A Bigger Splash, your 2015 film. How did the Bigger Splashscene with Ralph Fiennes dancing to the Rolling Stones, which is now pretty legendary, come together?
Well, there was a great line in the script that Dave Kajganich wrote, in which he said, “Dance, it is life.” We see the way he dances. That was our guideline for me and Ralph Fiennes.
Did you like “Emotional Rescue” before the movie came out? I couldn’t stop listening to it after I saw the movie!
You’re asking me if I like the song? Of course! I have complete control over my work. I would never put a song in a movie that I don’t think is a great thing to be doing.
What about the dancing in the Italian clubs in Call Me by Your Name? How much was that choreographed?
We had a consultant that created the movements for the crowds. We had kids that were playing kids of the ’80s, but they were kids of the 2000s. Armie created his own choreography and he adapted that to the historical precision, and then Timothée jumped in and made it his own, which was great. It’s a mixture of historical accuracy and hubris.
Do you like to dance?
If I’m drunk, I do. But I don’t drink a lot so it’s something that’s happened, I would say, three times, four in my life. The last time that I was drunk and I danced was at the party for Call Me by Your Name.
What were you listening to?
I DJ’ed and I put just ’80s music, from the famous international ’80s pieces to the tacky, tacky, tacky, tacky Italian music of the ’80s.
Were you a big Italo disco fan in the ’80s?
No, I was more interested in the pop music of the ’80s—Mina, Patty Pravo, Loredana Berté—that we use in this film, that are possibly the typical brand of upbringing for a young gay guy, in Italy. But that, I understood afterwards.