I arrived on the film set of Call Me by Your Name an hour after landing in Milan. I was tired, jet-lagged, and needed an hour to rest, but my driver took me directly to a square in the town of Pandino where the film crew was assembled and preparing for a shoot. At the center of the piazza was a World War I monument, and tucked away in a corner was a tiny café.
This was not the kind of piazza I had pictured when writing Call Me by Your Name years earlier. The town square I imagined was far smaller and stood high on a hill overlooking a windswept Mediterranean. Here in Italy’s landlocked Lombardy region there was no sea whatsoever, nor even a telltale hint of a breeze in the air and, drenched under an intensely blinding noonday sun, the square felt spookily deserted. Right away, I knew that very little in the film would correspond to my novel and, like any author, was wistfully resigned to watching my story morph under someone else’s vision.
Before me stood the two lead actors, Timothée Chalamet (Elio, in the film) and Armie Hammer (Oliver), and the director Luca Guadagnino. All three greeted me warmly before going back to discussing a scene for which everyone was busily setting up. Meanwhile, I was shown around the piazza. The signs in the shop windows bore prices for food and clothing in liras, not euros; one of the billboards sported a very dated Communist Party poster; a boxy, old, gray Fiat stood away from the square, and against the wall of the small café, I spotted an obsolete red Illy coffee sign. The square, I was told, was retrofitted for 1983. “Who could possibly spot the small cursive prices in liras on the shop windows?” I asked Peter Spears, the producer. Guadagnino, like his idol Luchino Visconti, the great Italian film director of The Leopard and Death in Venice fame, is a stickler for these micro-devilish details.
Moments later, the actors hopped on their bicycles and vanished from the piazza, waiting to be summoned as the camera rolled. Then, the word “action,” and suddenly Elio and Oliver ride into the square. They stop, buy cigarettes, and begin to smoke. They stand before the statue, which Oliver mistakenly assumes is a World War II memorial. No, Elio interjects, it commemorates the battle of the Piave, a devastating battle where the Italians sustained huge losses despite their victory.
I’ve arrived at the most difficult and, perhaps, most important scene in my novel. Three minutes later, in a single tracking shot, the climactic moment of the film is done. This was the “avowal” scene: a moment when Elio finds the nerve to tell Oliver, though very obliquely, that, despite what everyone thinks, he “knows very little about things that matter.” Elio and Oliver wrap around opposite sides of the war memorial. “What things that matter?” Oliver asks. “You know what things.” “Why are you telling me this?” asks an intrigued, though still baffled Oliver. “Because I thought you should know.” “Because you thought I should know?” asks Oliver again, beginning to seize Elio’s meaning. “Because I wanted you to know,” Elio repeats, almost speaking the words to himself.
It had taken me two whole days and five pages to capture the diffident dialogue between the two would-be lovers. But Guadagnino had distilled it in just a few minutes. They shot it three to four more times. For me, the message was clear: film cuts and trims with savage brevity, where a shrug or an intercepted glance or a nervous pause between two words can lay bare the heart in ways written prose is far more nuanced and needs more time and space on the page. But the thing is, I couldn’t write silence. I couldn’t measure pauses and breaths and the most elusive yet expressive body language.
Cinema can be an entirely magical medium. What I do as a writer, and what Guadagnino does as a film director, is more than speak two different languages. What I do is chisel a statue down to its finest, most elusive details. What a film director does is make the statue move.
I recall that when discussing his plans for the film, Guadagnino had told me that he would end the film with a shot of young Elio weeping before the camera. My heart sank. This was not at all what I had envisaged for the ending. The last pages of my novel sought to capture the lovers 20 years later as they reconnect and tell each other that, despite the years, they’ve forgotten nothing. Guadagnino told me that he had asked Sufjan Stevens to compose part of the soundtrack. I could not believe that a popular contemporary songwriter was particularly adapted to my story, especially since I had hoped for Haydn. But I kept quiet, thinking that perhaps the role of an author is never to intrude on someone else’s medium.
When I finally saw the film at the Berlin International Film festival, I was stunned. The ending captured the very spirit of the novel I had written in ways that I could never have imagined or anticipated, and as for the music, it resonated with the love of the two young men, so much so that the final scene with Elio and Sufjan’s song stayed with me long, long after I walked out of the movie theater and, as happens so rarely, into the next morning and the evening after that.
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