‘It’s about empathy,’ says the director of ‘Call Me by Your Name’

Armie Hammer (left) and Timothée Chalamet in Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name.”
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom/Sony Pictures Classics
Armie Hammer (left) and Timothée Chalamet in Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name.”

TORONTO — Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s lush and lyrical “Call Me by Your Name” is about first love, but it’s also about culture, family, and beauty in all its forms. Lauded on the festival circuit and opening in Boston on Friday, the film may be a salve to audiences in a climate where rancor has become the norm.

It’s a work that embraces the filmmaker’s personal philosophy.

“The transmission of culture, the transmission of knowledge, I believe, is the heart of this film,” Guadagnino said in an interview at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s about family; a place where oppression can be played out but also a place for a vision of a better society . . . I try [for that] in my own life.


“The film is about empathy. If we would all be able to call ourselves by each others’ names, there would be no wars,” he says. “Imagine Donald Trump saying to a shoeless Mexican man who’s trying to cross the border, ‘Call me by your name.’ Imagine how he’d learn about life.”

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Set in Northern Italy in the summer of 1983, “Call Me by Your Name” opens with Oliver (Armie Hammer), a doctoral student, arriving to intern at the 17th-century villa of professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), an expert in Greco-Roman culture. Perlman summers and spends holidays at the villa with his wife, Annella (Amira Casar), and their precocious 17-year-old son, Elio (breakout star Timothée Chalamet). Amid sensory delights such as trees bursting with fruit and lavish meals served al fresco, Elio and Oliver swim, bicycle, discuss music and literature, and, finally, allow their discreet flirtation to blossom into passionate intimacy.

Guadagnino first read André Aciman’s novel of the same title back in 2008, when he was making “I Am Love” with his frequent collaborator Tilda Swinton (she also starred in his “A Bigger Splash” in 2015). At the time, another director was attached to “Call Me by Your Name”; since Guadagnino helped scout locations in Italy, where he lives, he was given an executive producer title. Eventually, the first deal fell apart but Guadagnino remained involved.

“One day, I was with [the film’s screenwriter] James [Ivory], who I’ve known for many years. He was part of the project and we said, ‘Let’s think of how we would do it.’ So he and I wrote the script [on our own],” Guadagnino said. “Then we tried to make it with James directing, but it was difficult to put together. The market is a strange beast. Eventually, I became the director and it became a small, small, small thing with a little amount of money.”

Guadagnino shifted the setting away from Sicily, where he’d filmed “A Bigger Splash” and where Ivory had intended to shoot. “I don’t like the sea. I don’t like the heat,” Guadagnino explained. “I like winter and the north.”


“Call Me by Your Name” also became an homage to the director’s passion for cinema — all cinema. His reimagining of Italian horror master Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic, “Suspiria,” starring Swinton, Dakota Johnson, and Chloë Grace Moretz, will be released in 2018.

“Every movie is personal,” Guadagnino said, citing French director Maurice Pialat’s “À Nos Amours” and the films of Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci as particular influences. “I was drawn to the possibility of telling this story through the lens of directors I love: Bertolucci, Renoir, Rohmer. . . . I think I understood myself through these films, even before I had any understanding of my sexual identity. I understood my position [as a gay man] in the world watching these kinds of films.”

As “Call Me by Your Name” hit many bumps along the long road to production, Guadagnino says the casting of Hammer and Chalamet, who both give career-defining performances, cemented his vision for the film. “Timothée was really perfect; I wanted to work with him all along. Armie was my idea; I gave him the script and he said yes, which was great for me,” said Guadagnino. “I am inspired by him; by the magic of Armie Hammer.”

“I’m flattered and embarrassed,” Hammer responded by phone, just hours after he and Chalamet had been named Golden Globe nominees. “We had the wonderful and distinct pleasure of all being sequestered in a little Italian village — Luca calls [Crema, Lombardy] home but it was a whole other universe for Timmy and I, specifically. We were all inspired by each other and in love with each other. We’d spend days on set together and at night we’d have meals, we’d watch films and share ideas, philosophies . . . with no distractions, no outside influences.”

Hammer says he considered himself a cinephile until he met Guadagnino. “The breadth of his knowledge of cinema and his recall is insane. He’s able to pull up specific scenes from his brain and tell you why they’re important for cinema and their impact on him.”


So would he revisit Oliver if Guadagnino makes the “Call Me by Your Name” sequel that he says he hopes to make?

“I would make coffee on a Luca Guadagnino set,” Hammer said. “Honestly, if he’s doing anything and he offers it to me, I wouldn’t even read the script. I would just say yes.”

Loren King can be reached at