Who’s who

Who’s who

November 18, 2020


Acclaimed film director Luca Guadagnino discusses his first TV series, We Are Who We Are, a coming-of-age story about two American teenagers living on a US military base in Northern Italy.

Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino is best known for his 2017 feature Call Me By Your Name, the multiple Oscar and Bafta nominee that told the story of a relationship between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his professor father’s graduate assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer). His other credits include I Am Love, A Bigger Splash and Suspiria, a 2018 remake of the classic 1977 horror film.

For his first move into television, Guadagnino wrote and directed We Are Who We Are, a coming-of-age story about two American teenagers living on an American military base in Italy with their military and civilian parents.

Luca Guadagnino
(photo: Elena Ringo via CC)

Jack Dylan Grazer stars as shy and introverted 14-year-old Fraser, who moves from New York to a base in Veneto with his mothers, Sarah (Chloë Sevigny) and Maggie (Alice Braga), who are both in the US Army.

Jordan Kristine Seamón plays the seemingly bold and confident Caitlin, who has lived with her family on the base for several years and speaks Italian. Compared to her older brother Danny (Spence Moore II), Caitlin has a closer relationship with their father, Richard (Kid Cudi), and does not communicate well with her mother Jenny (Faith Alabi).

Caitlin is the lynchpin of her group of friends, which includes Britney (Francesca Scorsese), an outspoken, witty, sexually uninhibited girl; the cheerful and good-natured Craig (Corey Knight), a soldier in his 20s; Sam (Ben Taylor), Caitlin’s possessive boyfriend and Craig’s younger brother; Enrico (Sebastiano Pigazzi), a playful 18-year-old from Veneto who has a weak spot for Britney; and Valentina (Beatrice Barichella), an Italian girl.

Distributed by Fremantle, We Are Who We Are comes from The Apartment and Wildside together with Small Forward. Guadagnino created the story and wrote the scripts with Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri, and directed all eight episodes. It debuted in the US on HBO in September and on Sky Italia last month, and now arrives in the UK as a boxset on BBC3 this Sunday.

Here, Guadagnino reveals the origins of the project, how he is influenced by film “masters” and why he likes to improvise on set.

Development on We Are Who We Are began in January 2017, immediately after the success of Call Me By Your Name at the Sundance Film Festival…
The executive producer, Lorenzo Mieli, asked me whether I would be interested in doing a series on gender fluidity set in a typical American suburb. Broadly speaking, I’m not really attracted to what English speakers call ‘topics,’ i.e. sensitive subjects turned into narratives. But I found the idea of staging a US community intriguing. It was something that would spur me to come off the beaten track and explore new paths.

The initial idea was inspired by the life of US actor Amy Adams…
She had told me years ago she was the daughter of a US army soldier and was born and had spent her early life at the Ederle military complex in Vicenza. That memory somehow became a source of inspiration that led me to think, what if instead of depicting the American suburbs, which have become a stereotype of independent cinema, we conjured up a very specific community, like a group of soldiers stationed abroad with their families – a microcosm of military men and women who recreate their own America beyond the borders of their home country, for example in Italy. From this idea, a great partnership began with Francesca Manieri and Paolo Giordano, who had already begun working on a scenario before my involvement.

We Are Who We Are stars Jordan Kristine Seamón as Caitlin and Jack Dylan Grazer as Fraser

During development, Guadagnino wanted to focus on the characters and their behaviour in the way fellow director Maurice Pialat did for his own movies…
He was a director who, in contrast to the more opaque or minor figures of the cinema world, refused to be chained to the paradigms of the ‘reductio ad unum’ and instead celebrated freedom. For We Are Who We Are, I was not only influenced by his film To Our Loves, but also inspired by other wonderful works of his, like Under the Sun of Satan, a film based on the Georges Bernanos novel and which in 1987 earned him a Golden Palme at Cannes but was hissed by the audience, much to his chagrin. I like to think his disillusioned vision of the sacred or his ability to make it emerge in a world of corruption influenced parts of the narrative of this coming-of-age story, in particular the construction of characters like Danny.

Guadagnino describes the series as a film in eight acts…
With extreme patience, after some thorough research into the world of military bases and infinite meticulous work on the details, our gallery of characters vividly took shape – the kids, their families, the military microcosm.

Pialat isn’t the only cinematic “master” that inspired him…
With a view to the ensemble movies of masters like Demme, Altman, Rossellini or Fellini, in which every single character – even the smallest role – is so authentic that they would remain fixed in the collective imagination, we tried to give dignity to everyone without creating a hierarchy or order of importance of the characters.

Spence Moore II also stars in the coming-of-age story

Guadagnino says We Are Who We Are is a human comedy about how expats in a military complex live through their idiosyncrasies, desires and neuroses…
Some may think I painted a utopian microcosm but, in actual fact, I describe a world that reflects what we are today. Why limit ourselves to represent only the median of everything that goes on in the real world? Since I was a child, I’ve always instinctively refused this reading, this interpretation of life. If the series is political, it’s because it somehow opens our gaze on the other and gives a voice, with less sugar-coating than in the mainstream, to a multitude of characters who are quite invisible or underrepresented on the screen. Even two characters like Sarah and Maggie [Chloë Sevigny and Alice Braga], a same-sex married couple, experience some internal dynamics that could come across as unsettling for a certain progressive English-speaking audience.
I can imagine certain aspects of their characters and of their narrative arc could prove hard to understand or accept for some, because it’s difficult to imagine that a character who belongs to the minority LGBTQI community can express at once beauty and deep cynicism.

With this series, Guadagnino says he was able to constantly challenge himself…
I’m not interested in refining a single manner of filmmaking. Instead, I like to think of a film as a product of handicraft, a unique piece that cannot be replicated. For this reason, together with those who work with me, I constantly struggle over the details, over every aspect of the stage design. Sloppiness being my greatest fear, if one day I find I’m no longer interested in details, I’ll stop making films.

Chloe Sevigny as Sarah, one of Fraser’s two mothers

The director has learned to “leave the door open” to improvisation on set, which is why he also insists on having the scriptwriters present during filming…
When you’re there filming even the briefest scene, you can’t help asking yourself a thousand questions. You ask yourself questions as the director, and so do the actors, the prop handler and the set design, make-up and costume departments, and it’s important to capture ideas and keep them going round. In this sense, improvisation is absolutely welcome; we should always remember and accept that reality is always there and will take care of shaping a scene. At first, you never know the direction you’re taking, then your design gradually becomes more defined. And the more you manage to open yourself up to reality and go ahead, the better you understand what you’re doing.

Working in television, he followed the same creative process as with his films…
It’s not as if, because I have a career spanning 20 years, I can just film anything the next day and know exactly what I’m doing. Every time you direct a film, it’s something new, a rebirth. At first everything is out of focus, then gradually the contours start to appear, the shadows and outlines, and then you start seeing a little colour, you start distinguishing the individual shapes and, in the end, you obtain a full vision.

And he likes the show’s title…
It’s us, us together, ‘here and now’… and it was to subscribe as much as possible to this spirit that I betrayed my love for celluloid and returned to digital filming. I liked the idea of capturing, like in a mirror, a present capable of offering a glimmer of improvisation, of goings-on off screen, of childhood, of life.

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