Obviously you’re in a very student-dominated space, so we were going to start by asking about your series ‘We Are Who We Are’. How did you go about inhabiting those teenage lives?
I don’t think I have to find a way to inhabit someone’s identity. As a filmmaker, I think what I do is focus on always starting from the perspective of the behaviour of any given characters that we want to describe the life of. The show is about a group of teens, but also a group of adults. So we applied ourselves to always be in the shoes of each and every character; which could be the sixteen-year-old Fraser or it could be his stepmother. I think the final resort for me is to be able to find wonderment in myself. To be able to look at my actors and to help them to get everything they can into the camera and make sure that the movie can play as a TV show about these characters as much as a documentary about them [the actors playing the characters].
And how might those choices differ in a longer, television format as opposed to a movie?
Long form or shorter cinematic form, for me, it’s irrelevant. In general, I don’t want to think that way. That’s why I’ve refused, many times, to do what they often ask of filmmakers, when they ask them to join a TV project, which is to do the pilot episode. You go and film the first episode and you get given a set of rules, which could be a texture of the image, the rhythm of the movie, or the style. But I don’t believe in that, so I never accepted. I can do something if I believe in it, and I would [like to] own everything I do.
‘Call Me By Your Name’ was shot on 35mm film. Do you find the more traditional method of shooting adds an extra layer to filmmaking compared to digital?
[For ‘We Are Who We Are’] I shot on digital because the subtitle of the show was ‘Right Here, Right Now’ so I intellectualised, in a very cheap way, the idea of nowness by shooting in digital. Which was a great experience; I did it for the show. But to me, cinema is camera and it’s not video camera, it’s film. It’s mechanical and not digital, it’s not data … I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because I’m old-fashioned.
‘We Are Who We Are’, and indeed all of the stories you tell, seem to be, at the root, love stories. What does love mean to you? How does that manifest in your work?
That is a huge question. That is like asking someone what water means to them. It’s a very difficult question to answer, particularly because, being a vain person, I don’t want to give an answer that would showcase my intellectual frailties and banalities. I can tell you that when you tell the story of someone’s desire for someone else, you tell the story of how you see the other, and how you meet the gaze of the other. I think that is very cinematic. I’m interested in that.
Thinking about vanity in art, I watched Tar last night, with Cate Blanchett, and there’s a quote I found fascinating: “you gotta sublimate yourself, your ego, and yes, your identity. You must in fact stand in front of the public and god and obliterate yourself.” How much does this quote resonate with you as a filmmaker and artist?
I have extreme reservation, and a sense of modesty, about thinking theoretically about myself, my work or my role as a creative person. I’ve never indulged in reflecting on that, to be honest. I think for me, it’s about owning what I do, knowing what I do by heart and also being open to meeting with ‘the other’; as in people I work with, the talents I have the privilege to film, or the audience’s that I have the opportunity to meet.
Thinking about propaganda films, you mentioned in an interview how you were inspired by Pasolini. It is my understanding that some of his work can be seen as semi-propaganda in the sense that it’s anti-political, so how do you translate that kind of material?
I don’t think that Pier Paolo Pasolini was a propaganda-driven poet at all. Zero. I mean, I think if there is someone who was really alien from the idea of propaganda, it’s him. I think Pasolini has always been an underdog and has always been played as an individual taking risks that he died for. He showcased a very unorthodox and completely individual sense of things in poetry, literature, cinema, and also as a columnist on the Corriere della Sera, in open editorials that he was writing there. So I have to refute the concept that Pasolini was a propaganda-driven artist and author and poet. I didn’t look at his work as some kind of outcome of an idea of propaganda at all … I think people should look at him with their own eyes.
Your approach to film is very philosophical and sensitive, yet you also create these very extreme films; you mentioned in an interview that one of the first films you watched as a child was a horror film. After such success with your films like ‘Call Me By Your Name’ and ‘Bones and All’ ’, we were wondering if there’s a topic or taboo you wouldn’t put in a film.
I would never do a movie that sounds sadistic to me. And many movies are sadistic, to be honest. That would be the threshold. Another threshold could be a movie that is an ideological tool to sell a point of view. I will never do a propaganda movie. I admire the Alfred Hitchcock propaganda films that he made during World War Two, they were amazing. But I don’t know if I would have done it.
To answer the second part of your question, I don’t think ‘Call Me By Your Name’, for instance, is about any kind of taboo. And definitely, I don’t think that CMBYN is specifically about a taboo or is about homosexuality, I think CMBYN is about how we can showcase a moment of truth towards our desires, and how in the long run, we hide and we lie toward our own desires. I think that’s what it’s about to me.