Luca Guadagnino is in raptures.
“Oh wow… fabulous… Wow. That’s amazing. Can I hold it? I’m so happy, this is so beautiful. Oh, love… Fantastico!”
The object of the great Italian director’s ardour is the autumn 2020 FACE feature on his HBO series We Are Who We Are. As the 51-year-old leafs through the issue on a rainy morning in central London, he admits he hadn’t previously seen our multi-page print feature and coos his approval.
After cinematic arthouse triumphs including I Am Love (2009) and Call Me By Your Name (2017), the drama, set on a US military base in Italy, was his first TV project, “a very dear experience because I am very proud of the cast. You celebrated in THE FACE the kids, but there are also the adults. The way in which they organically weaved into one another was so brilliant.”
How did he find working over the long-form of almost eight hours?
“To be honest, usually, for me, the thing that I suffer the most in my work is actual production time,” he says, stretching out on a hotel sofa, shifting to ease the foot he recently broke stepping off a small stage. “Shooting is something that I, honestly, almost cannot stand. It’s a moment of suffering for me. The drive for me is to get as soon as possible to editing! Which is a great moment for me.”
He shot We Are Who We Are in 84 days. He’s been told that is “quite short”, that eight hours of television can take more like 200 days. His new film? A pacey 40-day shoot. More than enough, apparently, to make the most shockingly delicious film of the year.
Bones and All is the cannibal love story we didn’t know we needed. Starring Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell, it’s a beautifully shot and composed road movie and coming-of-age fable set in heartland America in the ’80s. It follows 17-year-old Maren (Russell) as she wrestles with desires of the flesh, in every sense. Chalamet is Lee, the slightly more experienced eater, Mark Rylance the even-more-veteran cannibal, a lonely hobo who literally sniffs out Maren.
We’re meeting three days after the film’s Italian premiere in Milan. Chalamet-nia got so out of hand that the organisers had to close the red carpet in the interests of fan safety. From the director’s perspective, “it was crazy. The mayor of Milano gave us the support of the police, who made us drive through the night, from the city centre to the periphery in order to attend a second screening. And we went running crazily through Milano without doing any stops at the red lights. It was so surreal.
“But the warmth of the welcome to the movie and to Timothée – and Taylor, I must say – has been so thrilling. It’s a great reward after a long time of hard work on a project.”
Such scenes are probably part of the occupational hazards of working with Timothée Chalamet. Given your casting of the actor in Call Me By Your Name, do you feel some responsibility?
What kind of responsibility should I have?
You presented this glorious young actor to the world and gave him the role of a lifetime.
I met this guy, he was 17, we had a lovely lunchtime. And I immediately realised that this guy was a class act. That he was exceptional. So my only duty was to make sure that I didn’t lose this amazing class act. I knew [this] already, but then when I started filming, I saw the actual epiphany of his incredible talent. I felt lucky and honoured. My duty, in working with anybody, but certainly with Timothée, is to make them shine.
I loved Bones and All when I saw it during last month’s London Film Festival. I was repulsed and enamoured and enraptured in equal measure. A difficult thing to do, so, bravo. Why did you want to make a cannibal love story?
I wanted to make a story about these characters. About these kids who are disenfranchised, and who are fighting morally, interiorly about who they are. Trying not to be who they are. And trying to overcome that thing, in order to find a place for love, for the recognition of the other. I wasn’t honestly drawn by the cannibal aspect per se. The cannibal aspect for me is more about: how do you fight the burden you carry of your own nature, and try to overcome that in life?
What makes teenage love and an insatiable hunger for human flesh a good combination for a narrative?
The latter being in a way, the consummation of the passion. And the former being the beauty of a blossoming flower before it becomes a hard tree. You know what I mean?
I think so. To make a romance and to make your cannibals sympathetic, it’s all in the casting. How challenging was the process of finding the right actors for these parts?
I read the script and I immediately realised that Timothée had to be Lee. To the degree that I said to the writer [David Kajganich] who wrote the script [based on Camille DeAngelis’s 2015 novel] and offered me the movie, that I would do the movie only if Timothée was going to play Lee. So Timothée read the script and agreed, so that was a blessing.
After Timothee joined the movie, I started to think who could be Maren. And this great movie Waves, and this wonderful actress Taylor Russell, came to my mind. So I met her on Zoom, and I realised that she was perfect, as I intuitively thought before meeting her. So I offered the role without, of course, any audition.
I knew she was right, [with] these great Bambi eyes, and at the same time, her beautiful, steely will. You could see that this woman is very determined, in a great way. And also in a very humble way, she wants to do the work.
On set, how difficult was it for your actors to do the things they had to do as flesh eaters?
It wasn’t a very relaxed set because we didn’t have much time and we were going from place to place. And they were very much concentrated. But sometimes there was also the wonderfully ridiculous aspect of being covered with rubber and syrup and fruit mash. Sometimes it was quite funny. It was quite like being kids.
What kind of conversations did you have about how far to go with the eating and the gore and the viscera and the blood?
We wanted to strive to make sure that we weren’t falling into the trappings of the rubber, the prosthetics, the silicone… I was adamant that we should really encompass the actual moment of eating as realistically as possible, because I wanted them to feel like [normal] behaviour more than a shock moment.
And the actors were so sublime the way they behaved in the [eating] scenes… It’s not about that. It’s about the urge they feel – and then, what is left of the people that are eaten. So we realised that we only had to have a glimpse of the actual acts, and our attention should be focusing more on the mementos of the people that were in that moment devoured. So we had two pictures on the mantelpiece of the life lived by this lady.
(Plot-spoiler. And lunch-spoiler) “This lady” is eaten by Rylance’s character. We see him crouched over her in his big white underpants, undressed for dinner. How did you frame that?
Ha ha ha! I was talking with Mark, and we were in agreement that Sully was a very tidy and clean person. And he couldn’t stand to be untidy and dirtied by the actual messiness of his eating. We also said that he would never be naked in front of Maren, because that would mean he would feel he was trespassing with someone who he’s very interested in.
So what would be the more decent way to go forward? We tried an apron and it was totally ridiculous. He’s so dignified, the character, that he had to find a way of dignity, even though it was a moment of bestiality. So we came up with the idea of the underwear. And his body language! It was so bold in that moment, amazing. Mark told me it was about looking animalistic.
Given their youth, Taylor and Timothée would only know about the ’80s from history books. How did you ask them to contextualise themselves in that period?
When you do a period movie and you deal with such intelligent actors, they get help from production design, from the prop master, from costume design and hair and make-up – a lot. I told them to focus on solitude and loneliness and abandonment. Mostly. I gave them some films: Vagabond by Agnès Varda, Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman.
Did you give them any music?
No. We had the privilege of having Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composing the themes, the beautiful, longingly desolate guitar romantic themes, before we shot. So I gave that to them.
Sufjan is a sublime artist, and he is a poet. I thought the way in which he described longing and separation and the visionary feeling of empowerment through love, and his beautiful, unsentimental canon, was right for this movie.
When I got the songs – it was in week one or two of shooting – and I was listening to them for the first time, I will never forget the exhilaration and the shock I felt listening to these songs. I knew those were masterpieces. I knew.
Is Call Me By Your Name tarnished for you in any way by what has subsequently emerged about Armie Hammer’s private behaviour?
I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. And I do not understand how we could decide how someone behaves by salacious Twitter [reports] and these things. I just don’t know what you’re talking about, with all due respect.
Five years have passed since you worked with Timothée on that film. He’s been quite judicious in what he’s done since. How do you think he’s changed as a character and a man in those years?
He was 17 when I met him, he was 20 when I directed him in the first place. Now he’s 26. 10 years passed by and he’s a man. It makes sense that he changed because he matured. At the same time, I can see the gratitude and the humbleness and the fun he’s [having] by being in this life he has. For me, he’s doing the great steps, the great choices of choosing to work with very good directors. Which is a good sign. He’s great.
You’ve just finished shooting your next film, Challengers. It’s a love triangle with Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and West Side Story stand-out Mike Faist, set in the world of competitive tennis. Apart from those facts, what can you tell me about it?
I can tell you that it is the most kinetic movie I have made. And I can tell you that it’s going to be like going to a rave party. Set in America. The actors became excellent tennis players – they are impressively great as such on screen. We have a great soundtrack that Trent and Atticus are creating. Once we finish I can let you listen to a piece.
Grazie! As you’re a passionate chef, can I also ask you for a recipe? Specifically: if Maren and Lee came round for dinner, what would you cook that would satisfy them, and also stop them from eating you?
Kids food! Fish fingers and chips? Perfect! They like that. [In the film] they go to a diner and they ask for Lucky Charms. I think they would not eat me anyways. Because they play God and they think they can judge who needs to be killed, I think they would see that I’m a nice person, so they will not kill me.
OK. I was hoping you were going to give me a marvellous pasta recipe that I could cook at home.
I can give it to you if you give me your email. I’m literally going to send you some recipes if you want.
I do! Finally: what do you want people to take away from the experience of seeing Bones and All?
I want them to fall for these characters and I want them to be moved by them. I want them to go out and say to their friends: do not think of this movie as a cannibal movie but think of this movie as a touching love story. Go and see it. Now, I have to play for you this tune…
Cut to: director cracking open laptop for sneak preview of Challengers soundtrack, playing interviewer a banging Itala-house track by Ross’n’Reznor. Interviewer’s appetite duly whetted for the film, in cinemas next September.
Bones and All is in cinemas from Wednesday 23rd November. Top tip: don’t have a hot dog.