CREMA, Italy — Barren blue walls seem unusual for a film director known for being an exacting, detail-oriented professional with a deep understanding and appreciation of style, fashion and art and a passion for interior design — but that’s exactly what Luca Guadagnino has.
“I like images, but I am terrified by the amount out there,” explains Guadagnino, sitting comfortably on a lilac sofa strewn with pillows in his spacious living room here. “I like beautiful paintings but when I sit here, I like to look at an empty surface and I can imagine something in a more virginal way, rather than being influenced by another image, in addition to the other thousands that constantly attack us.”
Guadagnino is busy gearing up for his next film to be shot a few blocks away, but he made time to meet at his beautiful apartment in the 17th century Palazzo Patrini Premoli Pozzali in Crema, a historic town about 30 miles east of Milan, where he has been living for the past five years. It is also home to his creative agency and production firm Frenesy, named after a character in Thomas Pynchon’s 1990 novel “Vineland,” which he set up in 2012 to produce fashion films, videos and print advertising for luxury brands ranging from Giorgio Armani and Hermès to Cartier and Donna Karan.
Known for his highly successful 2009 film “I Am Love,” the director’s “A Bigger Splash” bowed in the U.S. on Wednesday. But Guadagnino is already busy on his next project: “Call Me By Your Name,” which he will start filming in Crema in a week, is a love story inspired by the book of the same name by André Aciman, and is set in the Eighties. Guadagnino means to defy the clichés generally associated with that decade. “One of the biggest inspiration is the 1983 movie ‘A nos amours’ by Maurice Pialat and if you watch it, it has nothing of that somewhat stupid idea of big shoulders, big stripes and big hair,” he says.
While admitting he would have loved to become an interior designer, Guadagnino says he’s always wanted to be a film director. “Ever since I can recall, back from when I was five or six years old,” he says.
Born in Palermo, he lived in Ethiopia, studied in Rome and had stints in London and Milan before he opted for this quiet Lombardy town. “At one point I felt I had to live in the city of cinema, but I’ve never loved Rome, I never understood the inner and outer mechanisms, and with the success of ‘I Am Love’ came the realization that I could snap out of that psychological dependency. It’s as if I woke up from a spell,” he recalls.
The lanky director is wearing a checkered green and blue shirt and light brown trousers and sports a full beard. He often passes his hands through his hair as he explains that his passion for interior design was one of the reasons for choosing the exquisite Villa Necchi Campiglio from the Thirties as the set of “I Am Love” — perfect, he said, for the Milanese bourgeoisie he wanted to re-create. “The concept of space and the relation with the character is fundamental.”
The Italian island of Pantelleria is at the heart of “A Bigger Splash,” where the four main characters — played by Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson — interact in a sexually charged thriller. Guadagnino says that he felt the location was the best fit for “four people that fight ferociously against each other,” in a “radical, unreconciled, politically powerful and rough set.”
“I Am Love” also featured Swinton, who in that movie wore Jil Sander, designed by then-creative director Raf Simons. In “A Bigger Splash,” Guadagnino worked once again with Simons when he was creative director of Dior, describing him as “a genius.”
Guadagnino is only too happy to explain the reasoning behind the look of each character as he believes that in movies, a book can be judged by its cover. “Viewers can immediately crack the code of a character by the way they present themselves. It doesn’t mean they have to be dressed well, it’s how they are dressed. If there is a lack of attention [to this element], it reflects a lack of quality in direction,” he muses. “When you present a character, you must allow the spectator to be persuaded, seduced, intrigued.”
Their appearance helps one understand their “psychology, behavior and biographical background. There are guidelines that I give myself, and honestly, I don’t allow anyone to transgress. And the same goes for the sets. I will not pervert the milieu of a location to give an aesthetic idea. I would never do that, just for the pretty shot. I hate that.”
Guadagnino also credits costume designer Giulia Piersanti for her work in “A Bigger Splash.” A knitwear designer, her curriculum includes stints at Balenciaga, Dior Homme, Fendi, Missoni and Lanvin. “She comes from fashion. She has a sense of silhouette, an incredible taste, knows the construction of garments and is extraordinarily precise. She knows the history of fashion and costume, and the history of how we dress and she knows how to interpret the present. It’s fundamental. And she moves between life and dream,” Guadagnino says. “It’s a testament to her quality that the costumes of ‘A Bigger Splash’ are so eclectic.”
The director also ticks off Dior worldwide communications director Olivier Bialobos and Simons’ right hand man at Dior Pieter Mulier, as well as the French brand, for the collaborative effort in putting together the film’s looks.
In “A Bigger Splash,” Swinton plays rock star Marianne Lane, who is recovering from throat surgery and is “going through a moment of change,” shifting toward the image of her mother, an actress from the Fifties and Sixties. While the film was inspired by the 1969 movie “La Piscine” directed by Jacques Deray, Guadagnino says Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 movie “Viaggio in Italia [Journey to Italy]” was also “one of the strongest reference points.”
“We watched the images of Ingrid Bergman when she was in Italy with Rossellini, the idea of a diva at rest were very useful for us,” he says.
Dior’s long skirt with a long-sleeved checkered top worn by Swinton in the final scene in the rain was inspired by a Bergman look in the earlier movie, says the director. He is quick to point out that the “twists and cuts of the fabrics” in the designs Marianne wears are “very modern.”
Other standout elements are the pied-de-poule pattern, which reflects the “strong Dior code,” the fluidity of the designs and the mirrored sunglasses Swinton wears. “It’s not only about style, it’s a question of cinematographic language as the glasses reflect for the viewer what she sees,” explains Guadagnino.
Fiennes plays music producer Harry Hawkes — a former paramour of Marianne’s. “We unquestionably had to convey the idea of Harry being a real person, a man like that would have a very precise taste and style,” Guadagnino says. To this end, the character wears Charvet shirts — except for a single Christophe Lemaire one when Harry dances to the tune of The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” Sartoria Bardelli Milano was also tapped, contributing to Harry’s “cosmopolitan” character of a man who would “always pay attention to style whether at a coca party or at a recording.”
Johnson, playing Penelope Lannier and Harry’s newly found daughter, has a Lolita charm and represents the “’It’ girl of today, with that American flair, [embodying] the post-punk idea of someone who doesn’t care where she is,” Guadagnino says. She alternates bikini tops and shorts, boots and leather jackets and a yellow dress by Jeremy Scott.
Schoenaerts in his role as filmmaker Paul De Smedt and Marianne’s boyfriend is a “no-frills” man, wearing practical pieces from Aspesi and Slowear. “But we don’t want these characters to shout out brands, the clothes have to be organic,” insists Guadagnino.
In September, the director will start filming the remake of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” once again starring Swinton, and also coproduced by Silvia Venturini Fendi, an associate producer of “I Am Love” and another Guadagnino film, “Antonia.”
Remarking on the different genres, Guadagnino concedes he “likes to skip from one to the other as long as the themes are the same and as I continue to do films, I realize that one of the themes that instinctively I seek is that of the dynamics of power or the relationship where the power is no longer there, and you can explore this in any narrative, genre, setting, or characters.”
The relationship with Venturini Fendi dates back to 2005, when the designer asked Guadagnino to film a video to present the brand’s men’s spring-summer 2006 collection. “I love Silvia, she is an exceptional person and that first movie for fashion evolved in my first production firm called First Sun,” he says.
He clearly differentiates the experience of fashion films, though. “In cinema [one has to ] look for the truth, exploring the hidden aspects of a person. In fashion, it’s important to create images of desire. There is less independence as it is important to communicate and listen, to understand the DNA of the brand and create a strong and contemporary image. Fashion has the virtuous ability to imagine the future or to create it,” Guadagnino says.