Bright Lights Film Journal

Designing Desire: Production Designer Samuel Deshors Talks about <em>Call Me by Your Name</em>

Call Me by Your Name was nominated for four Academy Awards this year, including Best Picture, Best Lead Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Song. In this interview, production designer Samuel Deshors talks to our writer Sam Ankenbauer about his work on Luca Guadagnino’s acclaimed film.

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While Call Me by Your Name feels almost aggressively unworried, it is also fascinated by the world at large – with nature, music, statues, reading, polyglotism, food, clothes. It’s a starved movie, hungry for all feelings, all arts.

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The final film in Luca Guadagnino’s loose Desire trilogy (after I Am Love, 2010, and A Bigger Splash, 2015), Call Me by Your Name is a picture sensual in the extreme. A coming-of-age story set in Northern Italy in 1983, the film’s rich environment draws you in: the foliage is wine bottle green, sweat shimmers, insects dance. It’s a work obsessed with closeness, both proximity of intent and physical space, of characters throwing themselves on top of and against one another, tangling up their bodies. Family, friends, lovers – all comfortable, at home.

While Call Me by Your Name feels almost aggressively unworried, it is also fascinated by the world at large – with nature, music, statues, reading, polyglotism, food, clothes. It’s a starved movie, hungry for all feelings, all arts. Under Luca, writer James Ivory, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, and production designer Samuel Deshors, this feels, above all, natural. In this discussion, Deshors discusses Call Me by Your Name’s world and its construction. This interview was conducted in French and has been translated into English by myself and Gaetane Niel.

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SAM ANKENBAUER: Luca’s team seems like a tight-knit group. How did you meet him? You worked with Matthias Schoenaerts on Disorder the same year Luca did A Bigger Splash, right?

SAMUEL DESHORS: Indeed, that’s one of Luca’s many talents – he manages to mix people from very different origins and horizons. On set, several languages are spoken. There’s his loyal crew and some new ones, all of them working smoothly together. Yes, I worked with Matthias Schoenaerts right after he shot Luca’s A Bigger Splash, but Matthias was not my link to Luca at all. I actually worked with Luca for the first time in 2012 for a short film for Cartier (Destinée). It was a few days of shooting in Paris. He had noticed my work with Christophe Honoré (Les chansons d’amour, Making Plans for Lena, Man at Bath, and Beloved) and took the opportunity to work with me on this small Parisian project.

Luca once said in an interview, “Space is everything.” Does that resonate with you? Did you feel that was true while in pre-production?

As a production designer, of course that resonates with me. The location and the sets are extremely important parts of Luca’s vision. He likes to create universes, bubbles in which the actors (and the team) are immersed. I’d go so far as to say he is unable to work properly without being immersed in this bubble. The setting is a way for Luca to express himself, a way to convey his ideas and emotions – it’s not simply a nice background. Of course, when Luca says “space is everything,” we must not assume that the space and setting make the whole movie, but rather the atmosphere is essential, the film’s beginning.

Call Me by Your Name is so rich in its idle, youthful, summery feel – it feels like summer, so green and humid. How do you make a film feel like summer?

You know, we shot the movie in spring, and we were often filming during the pouring rain! Fortunately, we had a few beautiful, sunny days. That’s the advantage to filming so many scenes in one place (like the Perlman villa); it’s possible to move quickly inside and outside, to deal with the weather. We shot Call Me by Your Name on film, which rendered some beautiful and special colors. (This is also due to the magic light of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, as he is himself highly sensitive to nature and knows how to film it right.) The actors really made that languorous, slumbering summer feel possible.

How does one accentuate the film’s theme of desire with design?

We didn’t want to give the film any special erotic atmosphere necessarily, but, rather, create places where the characters’ sensuality could be fully expressed. For instance, the villa’s pool, a place where the characters disrobe and denude themselves – this was continued in a number of the villa’s rooms. In fact, that’s the case for many other settings in the movie, like the streets or the countryside. The idea was to create this bubble, to slow down time. Once the torpor of an Italian summer was set up, the brilliance and violence of a first love could be expressed.

Were you familiar with Italy or the Lombardy countryside before filming?

No, I’d only been to Italy twice before, a long time ago, and not in Lombardy. But I had the chance to discover Crema before filming, while scouting locations with Luca. The winter before shooting, he showed me around the villa. I had time to soak in the place. Of course, the Italian countryside, the villages of Lombardy, the house’s style – it’s all really made for films.

The book was set in 1987 while the film takes place in 1983. Did this affect your design choices? How does one recreate Italy in 1983?

Yes, this small change between the book and the film was, from the beginning, Luca’s idea. The change was made so there was innocence and total freedom in making the movie. Right after 1983, AIDS dramatically changed everything.

We did a lot of visual research: historical photographs of the streets, the villages, family photographs. Even if the streets and villages do not appear to change for years, small details remind one of each particular epoch. The road markings do not have the same color, traffic signs are not the same… inside the villa, it was simpler to manage the look and time. The villa had a feeling of many different moments in time – and had nothing of the present to change. We wanted a strong feeling between the weight of the past and the modernity of daily objects, packaging, food, etc. And Luca’s extremely precise in the accuracy of the details.

I have heard that Luca knew the house – Villa Albergoni – and had previously wanted to purchase it. Is that true? How did you make the house a reflection of the Perlmans?

Yes, it’s true, Luca had known this home for years and has thought about buying it and moving in. In the end, he shot a movie inside – another way to possess it. We were looking for a family home, we wanted to feel that the house stayed in the family for generations. The weight of the past was already there, and we just emphasized it. We placed paintings, books, instruments in all the rooms, for this family of intellectuals and artists. The work was done in two steps. First, Muriel Chinal, a set decorator that I took with me, was in charge of the whole preparation. We brought a lot of furnishings, objects, and decor – the most precious of which came from antiquarians. Some of the more common furniture we took from other Italian houses or rented. Once all these elements were gathered, we worked with Violante Visconti di Modrone in the house to compose the setting.

Both the pool and the apricot trees were brought into the property for the film, correct? Could you tell me about that process?

Yes, absolutely true. We had a big intervention outside, arranging the garden. The house was uninhabited for many years. The garden was fallow and many things were dead. We brought many plants – Virginia creepers, rose trees, etc. All the fruit trees. The stairs outside had to be totally redone. The peach trees had very little fruit in the spring, and we couldn’t find an apricot tree that was the right size, so for the apricot tree scenes, we hung some apricots from the leaves of a peach tree! The apricot tree has leaves that are very different from a peach tree, but only a few careful botanists would see the ruse – and I haven’t received any complaints yet.

The fountain/trough in which Elio and Oliver bathe was entirely built – it’s a concrete structure finished with recovered stone. We selected some granite trays, some very big flat stones, some bricks and carved stone with a materials specialist. It was a big site, our biggest intervention in the natural world.

Bodies of water are never far away in Call Me by Your Name. I’d like to know more about each location, how you found it, how it was to film there.

Yes, water was ever-present when making the film. We had to take many expeditions out around Crema to find the most visually interesting locations, but also, they had to be convenient, from a technical standpoint. The lake is actually a river, but a very calm one. The cold tributary was a small water reservoir – not deep. I don’t even remember where it was.

The scene of the sunken statue being lifted from Lake Garda is so stunning. Could you tell me about that location, the ruins, the statue?

These are some ruins of a Roman villa from antiquity that is located at the very end of the Sirmione peninsula. The ruins are gigantic, as big as a temple. The place is sublime, with an incredible view of Lake Garda. Regarding the statue, it’s a total invention of ours, completely sculpted, molded, and painted. We were inspired by different statues lifted up from the water of the Adriatic Sea or from the Mediterranean.

Speaking of statues, the World War I memorial commemorating the Battle of the Piave River – is that a real memorial? How did you happen upon it?

It’s a real memorial. We searched around, looked at many other monuments, but this one was selected for a few different reasons. Others were more spectacular but a bit too bombastic, too much like a stereotypical cinema setting. This memorial was pretty simple yet visually original – also the main square that surrounds it was fascinating. During the shooting, the scene was longer, with Oliver and Elio climbing on the monument while continuing their dialogue. Instead, we have the scene done in one take, and later, during their getaway, you get a quick flash of their climbing, if I remember correctly.

I’d like to know more about the bicycles and the cars in the film. I love how distinct the bikes of Elio, Oliver, and Marzia were, as well as all the background vehicles. What was the process for finding just the right transport?

To find cool bikes in Italy is not all that hard – they’re everywhere. The bikes were picked just like the costumes – we proposed ideas according to what seemed to suit the characters best. For the cars, it was a bit more complicated. To find enough of them to animate all the scenes in the streets without having to always use the same few cars was difficult. A team was in charge of retrieving all the cars in the region that could work together, in terms of style and timeframe, from the smaller Fiats to the bus.

Elio and Oliver’s trip together has so much packed into such a short amount of time. The Serio Falls, the hotel room, the streets of Bergamo … could you tell me about it all? Those few moments on the empty streets are so visually exciting.

The languor at the beginning, this extended moment in time infinitely speeds up toward the end. These characters are trying to see the maximum number of things within the time they had left, to discover it all together, alone in the world. It’s interesting too, how Elio discovers more of this country he lives in but through Oliver’s eyes. What can I say about these places? You know, the mountain landscapes were amazing – I am slightly frustrated that we don’t see more of them in the movie! The streets of Bergamo are pure Bergamo, and the hostel room was really in a hostel in Bergamo! Empty spaces, be they countryside roads, the streets of Crema or Bergamo, they all contribute to that bubble I was talking about. When I say that the setting is a way for Luca to express himself, these empty spaces that Elio and Oliver visit and live in are a perfect example of this.

What’s something you’re especially proud of in Call Me by Your Name?

More than proud, I am happy to see the result of this adventure. It was not always easy with such reduced time and small budget. But every one of us gave it our best, and the result is there. What makes me the happiest is the reception of the movie. It’s often a delicate process to adapt a book that people loved. There’s always a risk to misrepresent or counteract the readers’ interpretations. It’s nice to have an audience relive a story that is familiar to them through Luca’s gaze.

Thank you.

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Note: All images (c) Sony Pictures. The DVD release is scheduled for March 13, 2018.