Luca Guadagnino on Capturing the Kinetic Energy of ‘We Are Who We Are’ and How Our Changing Times Inspired Its Vision

Luca Guadagnino is a director of pure sensations, some intense and others as contemplative as a hazy dream. He is known the world over for an elegant, stark cinema that can range from the operatic in “I Am Love” to the melancholic like “Call Me by Your Name,” or the gothic intensities of his “Suspiria” remake. For HBO Guadagnino co-wrote and directed “We Are Who We Are,” a poetic breath of youthful ecstasy set in 2016 Italy. Devoid of predictable or even strict plotting, the series follows two youths, the manic Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and quiet Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), as they explore friendship and identity in the confined world of a U.S. military base in Chioggia. 

Guadagnino’s vision in “We Are Who We Are” is almost entirely based on the sensuality of environments. To be young in this Gen Z moment under the Italian sun, while feeling the first waves of sexual experience, is its driving storyline. Even as Guadagnino finely draws characters like Fraser’s military mother, Sarah (Chloë Sevigny) and her wife Maggie (Alice Braga), the Italian auteur is most effective in evoking time and place. Dysfunctional relationships and powerful feelings commingle with the dawning of the Trump era, and the children just want to be free from it all. The journey crescendos in a meditative season finale set in one night on the run to an evocative nightclub, empty train stations and an ethereal dawn viewed from an ancient tower. 

Guadagnino spoke with Entertainment Voice about how he combined these ideas and elements to make “We Are Who We Are.”

You’re highly renowned for your cinematic work but this is an opportunity for you to expand into this whole TV renaissance we are currently in. What drew you specifically to tell this story?

I started the conversations on making a show with Lorenzo Mieli, who produced it, and who has produced many great TV shows. He came to me and wanted to check my interest in going deep into a story that could be paraphrasing the movie “Boys Don’t Cry,” which was about gender identity and the drama of it, and dealing with it, particularly in suburbia. That first conversation with Lorenzo made me realize that more than exploring the dark twists and turns of the process of self-expression, like finding your gender or fighting the bigotry around you, I was interested in trying to understand the behavior of people entangled in each other’s arms and at the same time in the present. So I was more interested in behavior than in a topic. So in that conversation, and in the following ones with writers Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri, I told them that what was important was the idea of behavior and the world in which we wanted to set this story. I had this idea of a military world because I had always felt that to control the environments of your stories, even if they may seem narrow or very specific, it’s in a way a possibility for controlling the narrative and creating something universal. So that’s how things evolved from one conversation to another. That’s how we ended up having what you saw.

You also specifically cite the 2016 election in the narrative. We see Trump’s campaign speeches broadcast on the base, specifically his anti-Islam rants. 

I shot “Call Me by Your Name” and “Suspiria” in 2016, so you may appreciate that it’s a very important year for me. I guess my instinct went there because of that. In general it’s also to have a little, let’s say, distance for a story that is contemporary and so it’s very potent. You can contextualize that material with knowledge. So part of it was I wanted to shoot something set in the year I made those films, but it was also the year of the elections. It was the year the actual unraveling of this very severe division in American society began to explode. That’s how I see it retrospectively. But I would like the audience to make up their minds. But it’s true that the symbol that Obama was, and is, was shattered by this brutal awakening that was the Trump election, which hopefully can be changed. But it’s important to say I also don’t judge my characters in general. Trump to me obviously symbolizes a plutocrat and showman and a failure who narcissistically wants to be loved and adored. But I don’t want to get into being preachy. I don’t judge which of my characters might support him or not. We have characters that are from every field, from everywhere.

When it comes to putting faces to those characters, to making them organic, what is your casting process and how did you gravitate toward the roles we eventually see in the series?

Well, you must know something, when I start thinking about my casting with my casting director, in this case Cameron Cuba, and with my producers, my collaborators, with my loved ones, I feel always in a way like someone who is adrift in the middle of the ocean and who will basically think and feel lost at not finding terra firma. But then suddenly terra firma shows up, in the body, in the face and the voice of an actor. One moment of terra firma is when you see on a self-tape Jordan Seamón and you think, “oh my god, I never thought that I would be able to find Caitlin,” but Caitlin is there. Jack Grazer I had always loved since I had seen him in “Beautiful Boy” and “Shazam,” and we met him and I felt, yes, this is Jack. Then, one day, you might be thinking of your Sarah and you have a very strong memory of an actress that you love, like Chloë, and you check if she’s available and yes, she’s interested, so you talk to her. You need to have all your pores open to absorb everything that can help you in giving embodiment to these characters to go into the next phase. I’m lucky because I have been blessed by this incredible cast. This is really an incredible cast. At the same time these people are giving to the show everything they can. They are so thoughtful and deep.

Jordan and Jack do have this wonderful chemistry because they’re not some typical TV teenage couple. Their bond seems to go deeper than just exploring sexual identity or sex in general.

They are attracted to one another in the way friends are attracted to one another and kindred spirits are attracted to one another. This leads them to want to spend time together. Fraser, for example, is not mysterious about how he is, he’s very direct. Caitlin is kind of candid in her way. From the way she splits with her boyfriend from how she tells her best friend that she prefers to spend time with Fraser. This is how they defeat the world together. Their friendship helps them be more bold in affirming their oddness. 

When I spoke with Chloë she described you as a spontaneous director who shows up without storyboards and structured scenes on set, very in the moment. Is this your general technique in all your work or was there something about this particular story that lent itself to that approach?

I feel shy because I feel naked in front of you talking about how I shoot my movies. The truth is I learned quite soon that I am not the kind of person who is very helped by having storyboards. There are filmmakers for whom I have great admiration for who storyboard everything they do. I find the process very frustrating and quite limiting. I have a shot list in my mind, sure, and I can discuss a shot list with my DP. But I don’t care because the most important thing is to find the movement within the frame with your actors and the characters’ expressions so you can be fully and honestly sure you’re telling the story in the spirit of the character. Then, you have to find the only place for the camera that is right. So my approach is highly visual, deeply cinematic in the sense that it is through the process of making the movie with a camera but I believe that the movement within the frame is as important as the framing. I think the art of what you can put in front of your camera, and how people move in front of it, is incredible. I was recently rewatching a sequence from “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” It’s the moment where Major Celliers, played by David Bowie, kisses the captain of the Japanese camp where he’s captured. If you see the sequence you see how director Nagisa Ōshima has put all his actors in the frame and it’s so meticulous. That’s so difficult. Anybody can make a camera swirl, everyone can do that. When I hear people say, “Oh, he shoots very well,” because the camera is maybe constantly moving or whatever, my heart shrinks a little bit.

There’s been a lot of chatter concerning possible sequels to your work. Will there be a second season of “We Are Who We Are” and are there still plans for a sequel to “Call Me by Your Name”?

Well, I’ll tell you something, “Suspiria” was originally titled “Suspiria: Part 1” in the script and in the slate. That’s true. 

That would be so fun if there was a part two for “Suspiria.”

How? How? My dear, that movie made absolutely nothing. It was a disaster. I know that people are liking it more and more now. I loved making that movie. It’s very dear to me. But writer David Kajganich and I had really conceived it as the first half of a bigger story.

I sensed that. I even wrote a whole essay referencing Antonio Gramsci in its themes.

I want to read this! I am a geek and I love journalists because I was one. But sequels are an attitude of the soul. You want to do things because you want to spend time with people that you love, the actors you love, the writers you love. On this show we’ll see and on “Call Me by Your Name” there will be more stories we can tell about Elio and Oliver. But with “Suspiria” I can tell you that in part two the storyline was layered in five different time zones and spaces. One of these was Helena Markos being a charlatan woman in the year 1200 in Scotland and how she got the secret of longevity. 

Hopefully all parts will align to make a “Suspiria” sequel come true.

I don’t know, I don’t know.

We Are Who We Are” season finale airs Nov. 2 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.