Actor, writer, producer, director – but he’s also the man that first optioned the book a decade ago...
How and why did you first get on board with the project? I had read an early version of the book in 2007, just as it was about to be published, and I fell in love with the writing and felt compelled to try to make a movie of it. Since then, it’s been about a ten year odyssey. I don’t know that many people thought it was an obvious choice for a movie. We had a lot of years of hearing ‘no’ and people not quite understanding what the story was, and what the stakes were. We almost immediately reached out to Luca Guadagnino, who I’d been friends with prior to this project. My husband is the agent of Tilda Swinton, so we knew Luca, and had spent lots of time with him in Italy.
How did the casting come about? Timothée has always been this character.
His dad is French, his mum is American and Jewish, he played the piano as a kid and relearnt it for the movie, and the bi-nationality of the character, and knowing how to jump in and out of English and other languages… and he’s so incredibly bright. In just so many ways he was Elio. He’s right on the cusp of being a young man. He’s right there in that perfect wriggly moment of his whole life beginning, and the camera captured that feeling so well.
How did Armie get involved with the project? Luca has already been a huge fan of Armie from his The Social Network days, and had been keeping an eye on him throughout his career. Luca made a phone call to Armie’s agents, and said he wanted to send the script. I believe that Armie’s first response after reading it was, ‘Oh my gosh, wow, this is incredibly beautiful.’ In fact, his wife had read the book and loved it, but I think he was nervous…
They had a phone call and talked through his thoughts and feelings, and Armie said he’d actually told his agent before the call with Luca that he was going to say no. Then after his call
with Luca he rang his agent back up and said, ‘Well, I’m doing the project!’ [Laughs] Luca said that he just told him to look in his heart and the answer was there.
We’re so excited he’s getting the response he’s getting - he really rose to the occasion, and took on the challenge open-hearted, and with as much commitment as anyone could’ve done. You can see that up on the screen. Both guys did – it’s really beautiful. They both entrusted themselves to the story and the director and the honesty of the moment and when people say chemistry, I think that’s what people are seeing up there. Beyond the fact that they also both have great chemistry in person, too.
You said the script went through a few iterations as it was developed - was there anything that was left out – à la the
peach scene? That scene was always in the book, so it was always there. Everyone asks if it’s going to be there, it’s always the first thing people ask about.
A friend of mine had read the script but not read the book, and was so moved by the scene with the peach – not because of how outlandish it was, but because of the intimacy of that moment.
No matter if you’ve done that exactly, the things you have done with someone you love – and perhaps something else even that intimate and deep – and the realisation that there’s someone else willing to join you in that intimacy and to join you in that place where there’s no self-consciousness… I think it all wells up for Elio – that’s why he breaks down in the moment – because there’s another human being who doesn’t find this thing sick, and who is able to meet him at that moment wherever he is and understand it completely.
In the book there’s another somewhat famous scene we don’t have; a bathroom scene where one watches the other go to the bathroom, and it’s the second scene that people ask about – but these are these crazily intimate, private things that people do that no one talks about. That you think you’re alone and crazy for having done, and to process that I’m not alone in the world for having felt human in those moments.
Not to sound gushy but watching the movie made us feel like we were falling in love again, because of moments like that which are so unspoken, aren’t telegraphed on screen and that have
a subtlety to them… I think you’re right. People have said, ‘It’s not as graphic as it should be’, that, ‘They’re pulling punches sexually-speaking.’
But I think the film is incredibly sexual. It’s a sexual film, especially between two men, and that for me, is for as long as I can remember – and I’m 50-years-old.
I think it’s remarkably sexual and sensuous between all the characters, and which is in keeping with the style of the director, which is very much how Luca shoots intimate scenes, and depicts sensuality in all different kinds of ways.
I think it does a great job of staying true to the sensuality of the book, and I think it’s refreshing that there’s no second act scene-ending break where all of a sudden someone is beaten up or dies or gets sick…
The music adds a beautiful ambience. How did Sufjan Stevens get involved? Luca knew the song Futile Devices, and had played it for me and told me how specifically perfect it was for our movie and how he loved it. Like a man possessed, he found a way to reach out to Sufjan. He had thought there may have been a narrator at one point. He wanted to float the idea of Sufjan being the narrator, and while Sufjan said no, he knew the book and he loved the script and said he’d write a song for it.
He sent two songs. I remember the day they arrived. I was sitting in Luca’s living room, and we played them, and we were all blown away. No notes, nothing. It was just perfection. He also sent a reworked version of Futile Devices, with a piano arrangement, more in keeping with the spirit of Elio and his piano playing. Then it was an embarrassment of riches to have even more songs.
That final shot, the close-up on Elio’s face, Timothée had an earpiece on and he could actually hear the song while he was there for that last shot. It was not something that was laid in later – the music literally informed the shooting of the movie and that moment.
For many people, the last paragraph of the book is famous in itself, and it has a real punch, and I thought that when we knew we wouldn’t be doing that last bit of the script, I was interested by how they would create something as effective as that last paragraph, and yet I was blown away. I can’t imagine anything stronger than what Luca created in that last shot. It’s so filmic. It’s everything that words do when they’re put together so well – and they certainly are in the book. But that shot is without words. It’s the definition of cinematic.
On a more specific, and probably more personal level, how does it feel knowing that you’re going to have an impact on a whole generation of LGBT+ who see it, and that this could go down as a classic
in queer cinema? The last few years I’ve been involved in a group called Freedom to Marry in the US, which was advocating for marriage equality. I worked with the poet Richard Blanco on a movie celebrating that, based on a poem he wrote. So the fight for equality has been a big part of my life.
It’s overwhelming to hear you say it and to understand on a primal level that it could be true.
I have 11-year-old kids, and if I’ve created something that makes the world they’ve come into a little bit better in any way, that would be fantastic. I read somewhere the quote, ‘Be the person you needed when you were a kid,’ and I feel in lots of ways we all – Luca, myself and all the other producers – maybe made the movie we needed when we were younger.