It seems even a pandemic cannot quell Luca Guadagnino’s creative spirit. The Italian auteur, known for the arresting “A Bigger Splash” and the body horror-remake “Suspiria,” among a bevy of uncompleted projects like “Lord of the Flies” and “Blood on the Tracks,” has recently signed on to direct “Scarface,” and is currently producing the John David Washington vehicle “Born to Be Murdered.” But it’s his debut as showrunner, for his new HBO series, “We Are Who We Are,” which has garnered the most recent buzz.
Set on an American army base in Italy, and following two teens — the restless anarchist Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) and the bold Caitlin Harper (Jordan Kristine Seamón) — during the malaise of an endless summer, the series returns Guadagnino to the themes which made “Call Me By Your Name” a hit and launched Timothée Chalamet into stardom. A show about discovering one’s sexual identity, by setting his narrative in 2016, just before the presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Guadagnino also adds a complex political layer onto his familiar style. Beautifully shot, and buoyed by a deep supporting cast composed of Chloë Sevigny, Alice Braga, and Kid Cudi, “We Are Who We Are” not only encapsulates a destabilizing moment in American political history, which feels just as urgent today, it also captures the difficulty teens face separating their respective identity from those of their parents.
Guadagnino gracelessly made himself available to discuss how he defines cinema, the status of unmade projects like “Blood on the Tracks,” and how his series “We Are Who We Are” forgoes the stereotypical definition of what a Trump voter looks like.
What difficulties have there been to remain creative during the pandemic, and if there haven’t been any difficulties, what have you been occupying your creative time with?
The lockdown during the pandemic, and in general this year, have impacted me in a metaphorical way to my personal life, but not my creative life. I like to think that I am a doer, and in that I realized, a few years ago already, that nothing can be put in the middle between me and my creativity.
In “We Are Who We Are,” over the course of eight hours, you’re able to explore these characters more so than you would in a standard film runtime. Even so, this still feels cinematic, so to speak, even as the definitions of cinema are eroding.
Well, I think cinema is a language that tries to show the invisible but doesn’t try to simplify it. I think that cinema is the process through which the language of images, the narrative, and the editorial aspect of it, creates a discovery, or let’s say an opening, where you find something that you were not really expecting to find. It’s really about the epiphanies.
If you think of great cinema like John Ford, the epiphany of America comes across his body of work in an incredibly powerful way. If you think of Hitchcock, the epiphanies of the subconscious constantly come to the surface. That doesn’t stop cinema from also entertaining an audience, but in that entertainment, it is also trying to provoke something within you.
Think of, say, “Jaws” reflecting the anxieties of the seventies incredibly came out of the surface in that Spielberg movie. Or if you think of the ways in which John Singleton‘s “Boyz n the Hood” reflected the early nineties. Those are really important ways for cinema to let us feel ourselves in relation to the things happening around us that we don’t necessarily see, and to learn about ourselves. When cinema tries to just be a form of entertainment, or when the cinema becomes literal, and basically what you see and what you have is drama, that’s something that I don’t define as cinema, and I’m not interested in.
In what ways have working with a younger cast on “We Are Who We Are” changed your outlook on the world or your approach as an artist?
I wouldn’t define the transformative qualities of my actors in me by their age. I am touched, changed, and grateful for all the encounters I am privileged to have had with such a wonderful cast.
And in that cast is Francesca Scorsese, and from my understanding, Martin Scorsese showed up on set. What was that like?
I was very nervous and Marty was very elegant. Scorsese is one of the most elegant men I have met in my life. His tastes and his way of putting himself [sic] is impeccable, and he’s a master — one of the greatest.
Of the adult characters, I found Richard (Kid Cudi) to be extremely complex: He’s a black man with an immigrant wife, but he’s a Trump voter. It feels like he should be the furthest thing from a Trump voter. What was the thinking behind making him a Trumper?
Well, I believe that America is a vast country, and to create an idea of a polarization within the society, in which someone cannot vote Trump because of their appearance, I believe that’s a complete misfire, and a myopic way of interpreting reality. It is true though, in fact, that some voters from the black community were Trump voters, and that comes from probably many different levels of imagery, belonging, and disappointment. To take for granted the essence of prejudice, which reminds me of the great movie by Jonathan Demme, “Philadelphia,” it is to put people on a shelf based on what we assume we know about them: whether it’s their appearance or their identities. That is a sense of prejudice, too.
Music is such an integral part of every film you’ve done so have ever considered making a musical?
Many times, there was a moment in which I discussed, for a long time, with the creator Steven Sater, the possibility of bringing to screen the great musical “Spring Awakening.” I love musicals. I think them, war movies, and horror movies are my three favorite genres. I need to do a musical.
Two projects you’ve discussed in the past are “Lord of the Flies” and “Blood on the Tracks,” based on the Bob Dylan album. What stage of development are those in?
Patrick Ness is adapting “Lord of the Flies,” and the process has been wonderful. Richard LaGravenese wrote an incredibly beautiful script for “Blood on the Tracks;” but due to production complications, we are now in a situation in which we’ll see if this is going to happen. But Richard is a genius and the script is amazing.
In a recent interview, Jack Dylan Grazer — who plays Fraser Wilson — said you’re terrible at goodbyes. You’ve teased returning to the characters from “Call Me By Your Name,” and I’m wondering if you returning to them is connected with your trouble with goodbyes.
Well, I think that there is a possibility in deepening a sort of method. I like the meta aspect that there is a life in cinema that is a parallel life to life. That is something that I really love. If you think of James Ellroy‘s body of work, many times he has characters that resurface throughout his books, even if they’re not directly linked to one another. It’s a fascination I have for this idea of the metta. Honestly, I also think, “Why not?” If I can, and if someone is interesting, whether it’s a person or it’s a character, why not see them again?
“We Are Who We Are” is currently airing on HBO and HBO Max.