The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Aline Brosh McKenna: My name is Aline Brosh McKenna.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
A couple of years ago we sat down with the writer and director of Frozen, Jennifer Lee, because you and I were genuinely obsessed with that movie. And luckily this year we are obsessed with a new movie.
John: It is called Call Me by Your Name.
Aline: It’s not at all like Frozen. Or is it?
John: In some ways maybe it is. Like who is the Hans of this? Who is the Anna? And who is the Elsa?
Aline: Yeah, well there’s no bad guys in this movie. It’s one of the things I love about it.
John: Yeah, it’s very good. So, is obsessed fair to characterize us? Because I’ve seen the movie, I’ve read the book, I’ve answered questions in forums about like what I think certain things mean, or–
Aline: I’ve seen it twice. I’ve read the book. I’ve listened to the audio book. And I read the screenplay. Did you read the screenplay?
John: I didn’t read the screenplay?
Aline: The screenplay is wonderful.
John: So we’re going to talk about all that stuff and we have with us Peter Spears who is a producer on Call Me by Your Name. Peter Spears, welcome to the program.
Peter Spears: Thank you. Glad to be here.
John: Peter Spears, I’ve known you for 20 plus years.
Peter: I love that it’s my name, my whole name together. Peter Spears.
John: Yeah. I’m John August. That’s Aline Brosh McKenna.
Peter: And Cher.
John: Yeah. Peter, I’ve known you for a super long time and I didn’t know you were making this movie until Sundance, I think, that it came out that you had made this movie. I was immediately so excited for you and for this movie because it seems fantastic. What is the backstory of how you first came upon this project?
Peter: Well, about ten years ago, the book came out in 2007 and I had read an advanced copy of it. I forget how I got that copy. Somebody thought I would like it. And did indeed – sort of was blown away by the book and so much of it spoke sort of specifically to me and having been, you know, about that age at that time and being Jewish and gay and all of that was – and a Europhile and just all those sorts of things.
Another producer on this project, Howard Rosenman, had also read it and Howard and I went out to the book agent and threw our hat in the ring to want to make the movie.
Aline: Were a lot of people vying for it?
Peter: Well, yeah, as I said that, too, it’s like I threw our hat in the ring and there weren’t a lot of other hats, truth be told. There was one other hat and it’s an interesting part of the story and I’ll tell you about that. They were already sort of down the road talking with someone else about it. But I think most people didn’t think this was a movie. You know, they loved the book and almost immediately when the book came out it was heralded as sort of an important work of gay literature and compared with Thomas Mann and–
John: And Maurice.
Peter: And Maurice. And…oh, I’m spacing on…A Boy’s Life, Edmund White, I think. And several other people. So that was great. But also from the New York Times Book Review and lots of other reviews, the book also seemed to almost immediately resonate with audiences beyond just a gay audience.
So, we were ultimately successful in prevailing to get the rights for that.
John: I’m going to stop you there. So, let’s go back to you read an early copy. Were you reading a manuscript? Were you reading a galley?
Peter: No, I think it was one of those kind of half-published but sort of not really a full on book version. So it wasn’t that.
Peter: It was a galley I guess. But then – or advanced reader copy?
Aline: But it was bound. I know what it looks like.
John: So you read this book and you say well this is fantastic. At what point did you make the decision like, OK, I’m going to try to pursue the rights on this book?
Peter: Just like immediately. Like immediately. I never had – you knew me for many years as an actor and then I was a writer and had also directed both a short and an independent feature. So, and in those capacities you do produce a bit. But I never sort of said “I’m going to produce a movie and see this from start to finish and do this.” And I just knew that I was going to want to do this.
Aline: Now let me ask you. If I had stopped you and Howard right when you got the rights to the book and said what’s the movie you imagine – so this is ten years ago. Who were you picturing being in it or starring in it? What was your comp? What did you point to people to say, “Yes, it’s a very internal book,” because it’s almost like an extended monologue in a way?
Peter: Well, you know, I think truth be told we almost immediately knew that the movie was going to probably be in the tradition of a Merchant Ivory film, of something like that. I mean–
Aline: But it’s not period. So that’s interesting.
John: But it is period.
Aline: I mean, it is period. But it’s not–
Peter: It’s the 1980s.
Aline: But it’s not corsets.
Peter: Right. That’s true. But I think we’ve come to understand that when you say something is like a Merchant Ivory-style piece, there’s an idea that it’s a beautiful adaptation of a book that has the best of production values and actors and writing. And in the case of Merchant Ivory movies, they always seem to deal with a sort of sexuality, but a buttoned up sexuality. You know, a Henry Jamesian sort of way. Maurice, less so. And, in fact, I don’t know if you’ve seen Maurice recently, but it’s kind of remarkably–
John: It’s really sexy.
Peter: Sexy and current in ways. I kind of remembered it more as being more – a little stuffy. And it’s not at all, which is interesting because I believe Jim Ivory had a much bigger hand in that script, in that screenplay, as opposed to Ruth who did a lot more of the other screenplays that he worked on.
So, with that in mind, almost immediately reached out to Jim Ivory who lives near me in Upstate, New York. And we had gotten to know, became friendly with, Ismail had already passed away. And Jim had already read the book and loved the book.
And so we had gone to Jim and asked if he would come on board as an executive producer, lend his name, and that sort of hallmark to the project as we started to put the pieces together.
Aline: And at this point he was a very young man of 70, correct?
Peter: Yes. Well, truth, right, I think this next month he turns 90.
Aline: Oh, so he was 80?
Peter: He was 80, yeah. And loved the book.
John: Let’s back up here for a sec. So you’ve read the book. Howard Rosenman has also read the book and loved it. And so you say let’s team up, let’s go in and try to get the rights to this book?
Peter: Yes. And he had known the book agent for a while. As younger people they had kind of come of age during that time. So, we then went back to her, Lynn Nesbit is the book agent, André’s book agent. And had that conversation with her and prevailed ultimately by putting together how we might make the movie and what we might do.
John: So, this how you might make the movie, is this a written thing you’re sending in? Are you getting on the phone with André?
Peter: There was a conversation with André, but mostly it was through the agent. And I think just a – the other person who they were in conversation with who was just someone that I think would have certainly, probably, who knows, make a great movie or whatever, but it’s like you give your resume or something. It’s the idea of how we were pitching. How we wanted to make the movie and what we wanted to do ultimately prevailed.
Aline: Were you saying we’re going to take it to this studio, or this actor? Like what was in your mind the first step once you had the rights?
Peter: Yeah, I don’t think, you know, I mean, at the time back then there were other actors who sort of came to mind. There was a different, you know, we had an idea of a person who we’d already spoken with who, again, I don’t need to talk about whatever, but there was a – in the pitch of that there was the name of a screenwriter who was attached at the time. That screenwriter ultimately got another job after we got the rights and wasn’t able to continue with the project. But we then went out to – and by that point we then had the rights. But we had the rights in a stepped way where you have option periods. So we had however many options that we could pick up. And then when you were done with your options you needed to go back to them and sort of show if you wanted to extend it what have you done. Do we like the energy of what we’ve been doing?
And then there was finally at a certain amount of time there was a moment where you’re now out of options and you have to literally buy the book rights forever, or are you going to just let it go. And so the problem for our project was that it was a movie that certainly had to come together in the development process, so we had a writer-director who we went to and said, “Would you come on board and do this?”
The interesting part of this story is that that writer-director had unbeknownst to us been one of the people who had also originally been looking to do that. So the symbiosis of like, “Oh my gosh, this makes such good sense.” So we hadn’t known that at the time that had been who the other person was.
So we tried to make the movie that way. And that writer-director–
John: How many years ago was that?
Peter: So that would be for the first several years. So, if we’ve been doing this for ten years that was the first few years. And wrote a beautiful version of the script. And, you know, as the vagaries of this happened we were able to – we just ultimately didn’t prevail in trying to get all the pieces together, the Rubik’s Cube of how you do this movie. You know, a talent had to be attached to get a certain amount of money. But we went on location scouting to Italy, knew what our budget was.
But the problem also was that we could only make the movie one time a year. You could only make it in the summer in Italy. So we had for many a time we had the pieces together in sort of this Jenga tower, but then you pull one of the pieces out because an actor all of the sudden says, “Hey, I got a bigger paying job. I have to go do this or whatever.” And with most movies you can push and say, “OK, well we’ll do it in the fall, we’ll do it in the winter.” But our whole house of cards collapsed.
Aline: And did you have that – because when you’re involved with indie movies there’s this strange thing that happens where it’s like the foreign sales people say, “If you have this actor you’ll get this exact dollar amount, but if you have this actor you get this exact dollar amount.”
Peter: It’s crazy the math.
Aline: And you’re like it’s not based on any real thing. It’s based on some numbers and calculus—
Peter: It’s something, an algorithm they’ve got of some sort.
Aline: It changes – it’s so changeable.
Aline: It changes daily. What people don’t quite understand is you think the studio system is star-driven, the independent film business is star-driven.
Aline: It’s just different stars. And so you end up sort of contorting yourself in strange ways because you’re like I guess this 42-year-old guy can play a 17-year-old. We’ll just do a little tweak to the rewrite. And it’s really hard to stick to your guns when they’re saying, “This person will get you an extra million dollars,” or whatever it is, to say, “No, it needs to be made this certain way with this right person.” It’s harder than people think.
Peter: Well, it’s that. So you have the math of the actors involved. And then you have the financiers themselves who are saying things like, “Yes, it’s a beautiful script, but the stakes don’t seem to be high enough. Could the stakes be higher?” This classic sort of like 101 script development from a book, but you know – and of course our answer was the stakes are the stakes of the heart. I don’t know how much higher they could be. And they’re like, “Well, but could there be more jeopardy? Or could the mother be more evil? Can we make the mother more evil? There don’t seem to be any obstacles really for them.” And so we’re sort of like well that’s kind of the point.
So, we just then had to come to the difficult decision often when that money might have been there that maybe these aren’t the right people to go forward.
Aline: Got it. So you had a certain script for a while, and then when did you switch to Jim’s script?
Peter: So, a few years in, about three years of trying to put that version together, we were unsuccessful and needed to make a change of some sort because we had sort of explored all the options that we could, and that’s a heartbreaking moment to have to sort of change directions and have that difficult conversation with your collaborator who is also a good friend and besides just being a professional relationship. But very graciously and was given the blessing to say understood and do what you need to do.
So, about that point – there were a couple other directors that we spoke with and were kind of quasi attached for a little while and for different periods who both went on to go do bigger studio films. So by that point then, five years ago or so, we then said to – had the idea that Jim Ivory and Luca together might come together to kind of co-direct.
Aline: Jim had the maturity. Was now 85. So he’d grown up a bit.
Peter: Yes, exactly. And so said – thought wouldn’t that be interesting. Certainly Luca being a student of so many different important directors whose work inform so many wonderful auteurs, you know, was a student of his and knew him somewhat socially. But the idea was then that Jim and Luca together would do this, sort of a co-directing paradigm if you will.
And Jim was game for that and thought that sounded interesting and great. But Jim said, “You know, if I’m going to do that I really need to work from my own script.” And so Jim sat down then and began to write longhand a version of the script. And Luca would travel to New York and Jim would travel to Italy. And they would collaborate and work in that way that like how – you know, they both what they envision for the script and what they wanted for a movie.
That came together and was done and finished in somewhat short order. And then we began the process of trying to put that movie together now and going out to new financiers and new talent. And about that time we met Timothy and–
Aline: Can we just back up a second? So, Luca said that he was producing it for a while. He wasn’t going to direct it.
Peter: That’s right.
Aline: And the thing that really touched me was he said, “I wanted to do it,” it turned out at some point that he needed to be the director to get it made. And he said “I wanted to do this for Peter and Howard.”
Peter: Oh, that’s sweet.
Aline: And I thought that was very sweet.
Peter: Yes. Well he had come onboard. We had known Luca socially through his relationship with my husband Brian Swardstrom who is Tilda Swinton’s agent, besides also Timothy’s agent. So we knew Luca. And Luca was interested in – had read the book in its Italian translation. Loved the book. So very early on we had gone to Luca because he has a production company in Italy and said would you come onboard. Would you help us figure out how you make this movie in Italy?
So he came onboard really at first as an adviser, then executive producer, and then was really a producer with us almost – even from those early recces, location scoutings we did in Italy, you know, it was with Luca and through Luca’s company that we did all of that. So, Luca was one of the early parts of this in the DNA of this as well, which is interesting then how – you know, so I think there’s a lot of organic-ness to that.
John: So I think you’re referring to there’s an episode of The Business where Luca talks through the whole backstory on sort of how he came onboard and sort of the ageism that kicks in with people being nervous about James Ivory.
Peter: Well, that’s right. Exactly. So at this moment, at this juncture, after we have this sort of new version of the script and trying to put this together, it’s the difficulty of going back to financiers and people like that and stuff who just didn’t quite – I don’t know if it’s like when directors are brothers or family members or something, co-directors are, people understand it better. But we couldn’t get traction in that way that we had hoped we would from people to make that version of the movie. And so at the same time we – Luca had also been – A Bigger Splash had opened and was done now, or whatever. So kind of concurrently with that, at the same time people were saying, well, we like the project, we don’t know about this co-directing thing, whatever. We would make the movie though if Luca was directing this movie.
Then we had, again, the conversation with Jim and to explain where we were with this. And Jim, got his blessing to say go and make the movie and do that. So that we did, and then timing wise Luca’s schedule also opened in a way that he could do this. And I think, if I’m not mistaken, he was going to do Suspiria first, and then potentially this one, but then Suspiria had to push for reasons unknown to me or unremembered. And he then was able – had this window to do this.
Aline: And who stepped up with the money?
Peter: So we ended up finding the money through very interesting, kind of with the help from a global world effort. Memento, Emilie Georges’ company out of France, and that became then a European coproduction between Italy and France, which allowed us to access a lot of soft monies in Europe and she famously works with – who is the Iranian director, the Persian director who is A Separation and – and she works with a lot of auteur directors where she’s very auteur-driven. And that’s really kind of the theme of her company and her involvement with the movie. So she wanted to be involved with Luca.
John: Was the French money at all behind the extra French that got put into the movie? I mean, the French doesn’t exist in the book, and there’s a lot of French in the movie. Is that related?
Peter: It is related. It is related in ways that we, as part of that coproduction deal, the French – we had French crew members. We had French casting. And Timmy is actually part French. And also just – which worked so well for us because it helped, even though in the book it’s just an Italian-American, the fact that like Timmy had grown up with this idea of a bicultural identity, and going in and out of languages and everything so easily.
Aline: So when did the French come into the script?
Peter: That time that Memento came onboard, I think we just – yes. I mean, there wasn’t much more other than just they’re going to speak French in some places, but there wasn’t like a French storyline or anything like that that happens. It’s just a fact that he is now instead of being an Italian-American family, they’re a French-Italian-American family, which is very organic to–
John: Yeah. It fits really well with the rest of the movie.
Aline: It’s hard to imagine it without it now.
Peter: Yes. Exactly. And I love the way they kind of go in and out – you know, in German, too, these languages, and stuff like that. So they came onboard as well as RT Features from Brazil. And they’ve been involved in a lot of great movies as well. And so these were really producing partners. Financiers and producing partners who were interested – there just weren’t those sorts of – we didn’t get these notes from them. This is the movie they wanted to make. This is the story they wanted to tell. And with Luca at the helm, this is the film they wanted to help be a part of.
And when you get those right partners ultimately after years of struggling with trying to put the round peg in square holes and all the different ways, and you feel so tempted to make those Faustian deals, it just all of a sudden – it just came together.
John: Also, my guess is that with Luca at the helm they could see, even as talent was being assembled, they knew he could get a cast. They knew he could pull in actors of a certain caliber and size. They could envision the movie they were going to get out of him in a way they couldn’t otherwise.
Peter: Yes. That is absolutely true. Especially right on the heels of A Bigger Splash, which had been to such acclaim, and had been a little bit of time since I Am Love, but certainly the memory of I Am Love for the whole film community was so intense. They were able to connect dots in ways that had been difficult before. And especially with a movie that was not readily understandable, even if the book was beloved, so many people still thought I don’t know that I understand how this is a movie. It’s so interior. There’s so much narration. How do we get out of that?
And, in fact, in a draft of the film we still kept always wondering and tinkering with the idea like does there need to be narration.
Peter: Should there be voiceover? It’s so often, I know there’s so many schools of thought about narration and whether it’s good or not, and certainly like when it’s good it’s great like in movies like Notes on a Scandal or something. And I’m sure on this podcast you guys must talk about narration a lot and all that stuff. But I think for Luca ultimately there was the ability in post if you needed to. See what you needed and do it. But once the film was all cut, you know, and Luca very strongly, he just wanted it to be – narration made somehow the story wasn’t in the present and he wanted the immediacy of feeling like it was happening right then.
And then he always had this sense that the music would be a sort of narration. And, in fact, when he reaches out to Sufjan Stevens to contribute, A, can we use Futile Devices which was his introduction to Sufjan’s music, and would you write a new song for us. And Sufjan had never wanted to be a part of movies and had been asked many times to be in movies. And Luca and he chatted about the script and the book and Sufjan read all that and Sufjan then said, “Yes, I’ll write you a song.” And in fact sent two songs and both ended up being used.
So, I think once that music was laid in and was there, it acts as a sort of narration. It is a sort of–
Aline: Well I’m curious. This is my main kind of craft question about it. I feel a first-personness in the movie. I feel a first person in the movie that’s different from the first person of the book.
John: I agree.
Aline: And the book is this very sexually outspoken, frank kid whose desires are palpable to him from pretty much the first second. And so you’re with him in kind of a different way. And I feel like with the movie he’s a lot more opaque, right? You’re not inside his mind in exactly the same way, because he doesn’t have a confidante. He doesn’t have—
Peter: Right, he’s not writing in a journal every day.
Aline: But I felt a very strong other first person experience, even though it was different from the book if that makes sense. I felt a very palpable sense that someone had lived these experiences and so that was what drove me to read the book because the movie felt so first person and then when you read the book there is another strong sense of first person, but they’re slightly different kids in a way. And I’m curious where is that located? Is it partly in the specificity of the movie or in Timothy’s performance? And then that’s also why I read the screenplay. And obviously the kid in the movie is more like the kid in the screenplay. But even in the screenplay there’s a little bit more of a sense of the character from the book.
They’re all a little bit different in a way.
Peter: Right. Well, I think you have to factor in the variable of the artist responsible at each of those moments. You know, in the book it’s just André. And in so many ways, if you know André there’s lots of, you know, so much of André is Elio. So much of André is Oliver. So much of André is the father. But it’s always going – it’s just André.
And so – and I guess what we bring to it ourselves as the reader, right? That’s the other part of that equation. But then when we see the movie now you’ve got the mercurial sort of alchemy of what the actor and director bring to it. You know, for a moment, just like we met Timothy about four years ago, almost immediately about the time that Luca and Jim started working together, and knew immediately – we met no one else. Like that was it. It was him. He’d really done not much of anything. But he was so Elio. You know, my husband had met him – he represents Damien Lewis and he went to visit Homeland on the set where Timmy was working. And he called me from the set and said, “I think I met Elio today.”
So, he’s going to bring that to the equation. And then combined with his director, with what Luca. And the two of them working in tandem just created this movie Elio which is like – you know, you just couldn’t – so you see the screenplay, so you get the idea of the screenplay and what’s there in the screenplay, and you still don’t see it yet until all of a sudden you’re seeing the movie and now you’ve got the movie Elio. And that’s sort of the amazingness of, well, you guys know, of the collaborative nature of moviemaking of just how much more is going to be created by the right combination of the artists coming together I think.
John: We always talk about externalizing internal things. So we’ve talked about adaptations a lot and Aline and both have written a lot of adaptations. And in a book characters can do anything. You can get inside a character’s head. In looking back to Call Me by Your Name, in the book we are in Elio’s point of view, but it’s an older Elio. So he’s thinking back to this time. He’s thinking back to what it was like to be in this sort of fever dream where he was in lust with this guy but wasn’t sure whether to approach him or not to approach him. And he was sort of like hanging in this beautiful agony.
And that works so well in the book because we’re sort of used to books being told in the past. And it sounds like Luca wanted the story to only exist in the present. So this was not a nostalgic look back to an earlier time. This is what it was like to be really in that moment and for him not to know what was going to happen next.
Aline: But I don’t want to skip over Jim in between the book and Luca because when I read that screenplay that is a master storyteller who understands concision. And when you read the book there’s like I don’t know how you resist the little girl. That is catnip for 99% of writers because she’s such a convenient device for the sadness, the longing, the sick little girl. She’s just dangling out there to be used. And I thought that that adaptation is – that screenplay is one of the masterpieces of going into the overstuffed closet that all books are, no matter how slender they are.
Peter: Editing. Editing. Editing.
Aline: You know, there’s that whole section, the dinner in Rome. It’s a huge section of the book. Because the movie is a pas de deux, right, the movie is the two of them really. And I think if you had included all of those other perspectives you would have lost–
Aline: That specialness of these two individuals. And it would have gotten diluted.
Peter: Well keep in mind the script is written not just by a screenwriter, which is not to minimize–
Aline: In conversation with Luca.
Peter: But my point being, even that screenwriter is a director. So, you know, and a world renowned famous director. So they know already – they’re already thinking. Obviously in conversation together–
Aline: He’s ten steps ahead. And that’s why if anybody – is the screenplay available online somewhere?
Peter: I think it is to the WGA.
Aline: Can you please post it?
John: It’s not as available as it should be. So after this we’re going to try to get it.
Aline: Please. Because it’s only about 88 pages or something like that. And it is exactly – I think it’s such a great, great screenplay for aspiring screenwriters to read because it is a document for production. It is a movie in a screenplay format. It is not riddled with “look at my writing, look at this moment.”
Peter: No. It’s a blueprint of how are we going to put this movie together. And it is taking everything that the master James Ivory has learned in 80+ years. And knowing at the time he was writing, thinking he would also be directing and ultimately editing and stuff. So he already, like you said is ten steps ahead or whatever. In conversation with this other amazing director who is sort of famous for all the sorts of – the visceralness of life’s experience, you know. So the attention to the tiniest moments of things.
Aline: I mean, everyone needs to stop and go watch Luca’s movies, because they’re – I mean, they’re beyond exquisite. They’re just exquisite.
John: Let’s talk about some of the things that got left out, but also some things that are in the movie that are not part of the book which surprised me as well. So, Aline just referred to there is a sick girl who lives next door who is going to die—
Peter: In the book.
John: Oliver befriends her and that becomes a recurring thing. It’s not a huge part of it, but it sort of rhymes throughout the rest of the book. And it pays off at the end. Gone from the movie. Does not exist in the movie at all. There’s also an author who has a book who comes to this little small town to visit and then later on we meet up with him in Rome.
So in the movie version of the story the two guys go to another Italian town.
John: Bergamo. And they do some hiking and stuff like that. In the book version they go to Rome. And they go to this big book party and it’s a huge chunk of the last third of the book is this book party and it’s all about Elio having a vision for sort of what his life is going to be and sort of the excitement of cosmopolitan. And it’s fantastic. It would not have worked in the movie at all because suddenly this other character who you don’t really care about becomes an important third part. There’s all these new women involved.
Aline: It loses the intimacy.
Peter: So, I can speak specifically to – obviously we changed the location of the movie from the book is to Northern Italy. So going into Rome became–
Aline: Not an option.
Peter: Not an option. And also just a production nightmare for as little a movie we were making. So they’re going to Bergamo. But that scene with that guy talking around that table is something a book does really well. But it is so not cinematic. It just isn’t to have this character arrive at this point and to take up that much time or whatever. And though – and you’re absolutely right in saying well what is indicative in the book is that experience of how much they love each other and how deep their feelings are for each other.
So, Luca decides well what is a way visually I can show that. So Luca’s idea was, it’s referenced earlier in the movie, oh that spring that they’re in, the source of which is up in the mountains up there. So he’s like I want to take you to the source of that spring and show you this water fall, this massive waterfall.
Aline: But now you’re in a brilliant metaphor ultimately.
Peter: And now this waterfall, when they stop and look, this is the depth of my feeling for you. This is how much I feel for you. So that’s just visual. That’s visual storytelling versus–
Aline: But you know, so few people would have been like, well, Millie Robert Brown, or what’s her name, Millie Bobby Brown is going to play the little girl. Can she do an Italian accent? And Anthony Hopkins will play the author. And there would just be such a tendency to stuff it.
Peter: I just also think the little girl who is sick and dying again adds this level of – you know, he didn’t want to tell that story. I mean, I think the idea is to remove those sorts of moments. You know, someone just interestingly told me they had seen it a second time and how much – as much as they loved it the first time they really loved it even more the second time, because the first time they felt this sort of sense of – almost of dread or suspense in their stomach the whole time. Just waiting for when is this bad thing going to happen that we’re sort of used to in these sorts of queer romances.
And so he has the bloody nose moment, or the bruise moment, or when they’re dancing in public. And they were – and those moments don’t come. It doesn’t happen. So, I think, too, the sense that like there’s the little girl who is sick and dying or something, too, I think there was just like let’s just be for once in a romance between these two characters.
Aline: I have two questions based on that. One is, and I’ve been dying to ask somebody this, and I think I know the answer, but when the dad is saying I had things like that–
John: Does mom know?
Aline: Well, does mom know I kind of get?
John: I want to ask you about–
Aline: Does mom know. I felt like he’s saying she may not know the specifics, but she kind of does know. And then later in the movie it’s clear that she does. And also, anyway, my point being is dad’s saying “I almost was with men,” or “I almost had a great love and I didn’t have the nerve to go for it.” Or is it either, or is it both, or is it up to the viewer? What’s he saying?
Peter: Well, it’s always up to the viewer, right? So that’s the answer to that. I can only tell you what I think and then we can debate it here.
Aline: Yeah. Tell me what you think.
Peter: And I just had this conversation with David Ansen a few days ago about this very thing. And he enlightened me in a way that having seen it now as many times as I’ve seen it, and read it a billion times, and everything, he had a new take on it which might be what you’re thinking, I’m sensing John.
So I think he’s saying, to me I think he’s saying “I almost had specifically the kind of relationship you almost had. I didn’t do it.” And I don’t think it’s like, it doesn’t become an indictment of his marriage or his wife.
Aline: Meaning with a man. Meaning with an older man. Or just a man.
Peter: With a man. Yeah. And so I think that, yes—
Aline: I think the book thinks that. The book kind of says that. That it was a man.
Peter: Right. So I think the idea is that yes, but some people say well does that mean his marriage is a sham or whatever. It’s like, no, I think there’s much more of a fluidity to sexuality to use a term that’s used a lot.
David Ansen went on to ask did I think that the end of that scene was that comment about, “Does mom know?” meaning does mom know about me Elio is asking, when in fact David felt it meant Elio is asking does mom know about you. And so he’s saying, “No, I don’t think so.” And in all the years it never occurred to me that that might also be what’s happening.
John: That was exactly my question for you. So, there’s the question does mom know. And in the book it’s really clear that Elio is asking about himself. In the movie it makes more sense for the question to be about the dad. I want to talk about the mom.
Peter: We see so much more of the mom.
John: We see so much more of the mom. She’s so much more of a character. Also the girlfriend is a much better character, a bigger character.
Peter: Yeah. André is so happy about the way the movie depicts women in a more fleshed out way and finds them more sort of present. And so, yes, Amira who plays the mother, I mean, it’s a really unheralded–
Aline: Yeah. OK. So let’s finish talking about this part. Because I almost thought in a way because he’s a professor, he’s talking about these sculptures and they’re sort of like this Hellenistic thing happening, I kind of felt like he was saying I almost had a relationship like the Greek ideal of men who – there’s something about the classical sculpture of it in a way that he was talking about this sort of like elevated connection that you can have with someone who is in some fundamental way the same as you.
Aline: And I think that’s what’s really very much in the book which is they’re the same person. There’s this intimacy and sameness that you can get from a same sex relationship that is different and he’s saying it’s almost like that platonic ideal of that–
Peter: Well, which is where we get the title of the book from. It’s such a sameness that like Call Me by Your Name—
Aline: Right. They’re fusing.
Peter: They’re fusing. Right.
Aline: But I read it, as a straight girl I read it as a love so wonderful, you had something great and I could have had that I didn’t. I think the fact that you can also read it the other way—
Peter: I think it’s super important though, you’re absolutely right, but I think it’s super important to know that in no way is the father saying that what he has with his wife is less than. I think it’s also. I think it’s great. I think their relationship is amazing. I think the mother probably – frankly, the mother when you look at the David Ansen/John August way of looking at it, like that comment does mom know and he says, “I don’t know.” I think the answer to that is he’s probably just like – they’ve just talked about it a lot. It’s a lot that they’ve talked about and in lots of ways I think he’s giving both of them a bit of a break to not sort of say mom knows all this too and you’ve got to process all that know. I think that the answer probably is – I mean, especially the way Amira plays it. The mother knows it. The mother gets it. She’s been married to this guy. She knows the life that they have.
Aline: And she says why don’t they go on vacation together.
Peter: I mean, yes, some people thought like well she has no idea the extent to what they might be doing on vacation, but maybe she does.
Aline: And that brings me to the other question. Something that I just want to talk about because I think it’s so important. So, I was talking to some people about it, some younger people who felt that the movie contains a certain amount of privilege. And I thought they meant because they’re rich people, and they’re fabulous, and they’re whatever. But what they were talking about was the fact that this child happens to have accepting parents and gee isn’t that a fantasy that in 1983 you would have these parents that are so accepting.
And I have to say it makes my blood boil that, you know, he’s not rich. He doesn’t have these parents because he’s rich or because he’s privileged, but because he’s lucky. And the fact that if you depict any sort “minority community” that they have to suffer and that there has to be a price enacted. And the boldness from a narrative standpoint of this movie is that no one opposes them but themselves. And that is, to me, the political act of that movie is to say our love stories matter because of what they say about my relationship with another person and not because I have to confront these obstacles that you are requiring me to have because I speak to this group. And I feel like it’s very unfair to expect movies like this to always have the tragedy and the obstacles and people dying and being ripped apart and evil parents.
And John and I have talked about this before. I want those fairy tales for people who live other kinds of lives. And I don’t think the movie plays it for fantasy. He just has kind parents. Some gay people have kind parents, and it’s not because they’re rich. They could be poor. He just has an understanding set of parents. And I feel like there is an arrogance in saying that that community needs to have these kind of clichéd obstacles in front of it.
Peter: Right. Well, it’s all we’ve had. I mean, it’s the only kind of movies that have broken through really. You know, I mean, Brokeback Mountain. Even Moonlight to some degree, right?
Peter: Philadelphia. These are the movies. And this is what we were schooled.
Aline: And they’re wonderful. And that’s great.
Peter: And they’re wonderful. So how lovely now maybe to be at this new threshold where this story can also be told. And this year, golly, this year was sort of a golden year for “queer cinema,” but like there was lots of great movies from Beats per Minute and God’s Own Country. And so like one movie now doesn’t have to carry this load of everything.
Aline: But please don’t tell people what stories they are allowed to tell.
Peter: Well, yes. We all must tell – there’s room for us all to tell our stories. And we all should tell our stories. And the truth of the matter is, getting back to the book, and getting back to André and stuff like that, like people may think this is a fantasy or whatever, but like I said from the very beginning, these characters are drawn in many ways from a real life experience. André writes a lot about his father. And in his newest book his father is very present in the new book also. And as well as in his nonfiction writing. You know, he famously wrote a book Out of Egypt about being Jewish refugees expelled from Alexandria, Egypt when he was a young man.
And so you get a sense the more you know André and the more you read his work and whatever, these people aren’t completely borne out of thin air. I think he had parents that were very much like this. And I think he is a parent who is very much like this.
So, it’s not completely fiction.
John: We talked about sort of platonic ideal and the degree to which the movie is looking at this idea of two people can be sort of the same thing, that actually sort of gets back to the issue of there’s no villain in the story. It’s actually kind of a classic protagonist/antagonist thing. Elio changes because Oliver shows up. And Oliver changes because Elio is there. And sort of going back and forth on this dance.
And I can imagine during the whole development process and trying to set stuff up people kept looking for the villain, the one who would come in. Because we’re so used to that antagonist being the bad guy. And when I first started watching the movie I was surprised at what a jerk Oliver was, because I had a really hard time understanding what his motivations were.
Peter: And you hadn’t read the book yet?
John: I hadn’t read the book yet. And then as the movie goes along it reveals itself. You see like, oh, I can understand why he’s being the jerk he’s being. It’s a self-protection mechanism that’s there. Defense things. And I was about to understand Elio’s point of view, because we’re sort of grounded with him pretty much the whole thing. Are there any scenes in which Elio is not part of the scene? I think it’s almost entirely his POV.
Aline: Well, there’s the scene where the mom comes in and looks at the ravioli and she talks to Mafalda.
Peter: And he’s gone upstairs with a peach.
Aline: It’s not a lot.
John: So basically we’re almost locked on POV for him. So he’s classically our protagonist. But you really do see him change over the course of it. And even without a voiceover you can see the internal machinations happening.
Aline: But there isn’t zero, right, because Oliver is like let’s stop now before we do something that we’re ashamed of. They’re not in a fantasy land, and especially in the book. I mean, they’re not in a fantasy land where it’s like—
Peter: No, he’s careful when he wants to kiss. He says if I could kiss you I would when they’re in the alleyway of the street and stuff.
Aline: So that was another thing I want to ask you, because another thing that people have said to me about the movie is like, “Well, he’s 17. Can he really consent? He’s so young.” He does look very young. It’s not like you went the other – you didn’t cast an Elio who looked older and an Oliver who looked younger. He very much looks 17 and Armie very much looks older than him.
When that comes up, what I would say is one of the reasons I love this movie is that there are so few movies about how horny you are when you’re a teenager. I can’t stand how chaste teen movies are. I mean, he’s so sexually and romantically obsessed, but there’s no time in your life when you take crazy risks because you’re so horny. And I find that movies about teen sexually are so unrealistically like people are just kissing and – you know, you’ve done crazy things in library parking lots because you – and so I love that about it.
But there are definitely people who are saying he’s awfully young. The guy is older. Especially in the climate that we’re in. How have you–?
Peter: I mean, I think the movie is the answer to that. I think Anthony Lane said it best in his review of the book which was just like how wonderful in this challenging time we are to see a movie that celebrates the joy of consensual love. And the whole movie is about – I mean, there’s 17,000 moments where each person is checking in with the other person to make sure they’re OK and fine. And the parents are consenting. I mean, literally all this conversation we’re having about everything else is important, important, important conversation to be having, but also good to remember the joy of our love and some fun in something like that.
Aline: There is a moment in the book that I was surprised by where he – the first time after they sleep together he’s very ashamed and almost repulsed by him.
Peter: Well that happens in the movie, too. When he gets up at the thing and he gets up–
Aline: It’s a little light. It’s light. It’s a little bit less—
Peter: Yeah, but he says are we just not going to talk about this anymore. They go out in the thing and he’s like are we going to do this thing now where this is awkward. He’s like, “No, no, I’m fine, I’m fine.” But, yes, there’s the thing in the book is the ghost of the grandfather sitting in the room and sort of watching this moment and everything. So, yes, I think there’s a little more shame, internalized shame in the book that Elio might struggle with than you find in the movie.
Aline: But to me it was like when you’re a teenager and you first start to express yourself that way, you know, the animalness of it is weird. It doesn’t matter what kind of sex you’re having. It’s like, “Oh my god, I took my clothes off and I did these things. How am I capable of that?” I don’t think it was necessarily – I didn’t take it in the book as necessarily related to the gayness of it.
Peter: Yeah, I think everyone talks obviously about the peach scene and it’s sort of famous or whatever you know now. And it was anyway in the book, too. And you’ve probably all heard Luca talk about, you know, making sure it actually worked. And Timmy did as well. And that is even possible. And everyone is excited. It’s probably happening all over the world right now that everybody is like, “Hey, that actually does work.”
Aline: Peaches are being – are not giving their consent.
Peter: Right. Exactly. So, I think for me and even sort of more, every time I see the movie, a scene that sort of rings even more sensual and remarkable in that “Oh my gosh the things – like you said, the things we have done in our lives,” is the scene where he has the swimsuit over his head. And it’s just–
John: It’s so potentially embarrassing, yet in the staging and in the performance it feels completely authentic.
Aline: Yeah, but we’re animals. When you’re sexually obsessed with someone—
John: So you’re cringing for him, and yet you totally understand his–
Aline: You’re going to smell their—
Peter: The essence of them, right?
Aline: It’s so relatable.
Peter: And you don’t even realize you’re doing it and all of a sudden the noise startles you of somebody coming in. And you’re like, oh my god, how did that moment just happen. And then it just kind of keeps progressing.
Aline: Well, I wanted to say the thing that I found so moving and that locked me into the movie in the beginning is how challenging it is that – so my best friend growing up was a gay man. And I remember how hard it was a teenager to just try and figure out if a boy liked me. And do you like me at all? Are you thinking about this with me at all? How challenging it is.
But to have the overlay of that be not just like do you like me, but like are you open to this. That’s the thing that I found so moving was that there’s just a further step you have to decode, which is like not just “Are you interested in me, but is—“
Peter: So, look, I absolutely agree with you. I think I love that the movie has been embraced and I love the universality of the fact that people are realizing love is love. And first love is this sort of thing that we all share. And that’s been fantastic. But I am also very proud of the fact of the specificity of the queer love aspect of this. And I do believe that this is in lots of ways a love letter to and for my/our brothers and sisters for whom the closet stole – for the magic of first love and the beauty of first love.
Because we did not – because it’s all those things you said. And we did not have this. And we’ll never have it. And we’ve had – I mean, we’ve had our own firsts. We’ve fallen in love for the first time, but it wasn’t like the way it seems to be for the rest of the world.
Aline: Yes. And my friend who I grew up with, that’s what he was robbed – he was robbed of that. And the fact that it took place in ’83 when he and I were that age, it was such a moving idea of what he could have had that was taken away from him. And the fact that they’re able to say I am like you in so many important ways, in the ways that you do when you’re falling in love that first way. Look at all the ways in which we are similar. And you find that first profound connection to someone. It’s so amazing to have that out there.
Peter: And so many straight people have come to me and said, “I’m progressive. My politics are right and everything. I did – I still did not understand that the way my gay friends’ relationship, and love, and connection and first love was was the exact same as mine. I believed in their rights. I believed in the fact that everyone is equal and everyone should have the same rights, but I still thought it was other. And I can see now that – this movie showed me that it’s not other. I got it in a way I just never understood it before.”
Aline: Yeah. And to me it’s not only – I feel like I’d already gotten that, but the movingness of how much courage it takes to say to someone, “Are we the same,” you know, “Is this the kind of love that you also want?” It takes so much courage when you’re a kid to do that. And that’s what I think is so moving about their connection with each other makes them brave enough to go past these things. And it just takes a lot of courage to love somebody and to say the things they want to say. And the fact that it took place in an era where so many people didn’t get to have that experience to me made it extra moving.
Peter: Yeah. And you know what’s on the horizon, too. I mean, you know what’s about to come. And a friend of mine, Ira Sachs, a filmmaker, said, “I just kept thinking through the whole movie that, oh my god, these guys have no idea what’s about to come.” Meaning obviously the AIDS epidemic and stuff like that.
So, you know, that there’s just a lot – the deck is really stacked against them in so many ways. And for this one idyllic Greek – the Greek idea of ideal moment, they experience this thing. That when you read the book you realize will haunt them, be a part of them for the rest of their lives. Even despite the paths of both, you know, because in the book we might say the end of the book jumps forward many years.
Aline: Yes. Several, several times.
Peter: Several times. And their paths cross again a few times. And you see how this summer informed for both of them many more years of their life going forward and stuff. So, and again, that’s what a book can do so well as well.
John: So let’s wrap this up by time traveling back ten years to you’ve just read this book and you have this like well I’m going to get the rights to this book. I’m going to make this into a movie. The movie you had in your head at that point, in what ways does it resemble the movie you have and in what ways is it different? Did you think you were probably stopping at the place where the movie stopped? What was the shape of that movie and how does it resemble this movie, or how is it different?
Peter: Well, the movie is much more cinematic, much more visual than I thought. All I had was the book then and I’m not a director of the caliber of Luca and Jim, people who would have known that a book is a book but a movie is something very different. So I think it was much more literary, the idea in my head.
But also because I had made a promise to André that in giving us the rights to the book that he’d be proud of that. And I felt that responsibility. And the responsibility to people who already loved – I mean, so many more people love it now. And for the first time it just was on the New York Times Bestseller List, the paperback version. André’s first time ever, even though the book has been out for ten years.
So, you know, but there still was a sense that people loved the book. And so I had this sort of pressure to kind of deliver that. But in my mind I thought maybe the way you delivered it was by being so very true to the book and be much more literary in that way. So the fact that it isn’t ultimately, that it found its own right way and its own path in a way, but also that André loves and that people love and people still feel is of spirit of the book, but in its own way as its own thing.
You know, David Ansen was just also saying, he’s like, “Gosh, so often, always almost it just feels like adaptations are less than and not something more than.”
Aline: Right. But I think that question, what that points to is like a great producer doesn’t need to know sort of what visually it’s going to look like, or what every exact moment is. What a great producer is is the loamy soil and the support for a filmmaker to put their vision, to grow their vision in. And I think that a lot of producers are anxious or insecure and they want to – they have opinions about things which they don’t need to.
You had the spirit of the story and what was important about the story. And you fought to protect that. And in the end of the day that’s really what matters. Not you picking the DP. You know, it’s this understanding this is what matters in this book and this is what I will fight to the death to change, and if it’s not Rome it’s another small city. And if they’re speaking French, that’s OK.
It’s understanding what are the OK things to change and what are the things that are stalwart, “No, mom is not going to be a villain. No, dad is not going to” – you know, those are never going to change.
John: Those are the essential DNA of the story.
Aline: That’s what a good producer does.
Peter: Well, thank you for saying that. I think that that’s probably very right. I think, you know, you look at a movie like Dunkirk which is great and wonderful but a very different kind of movie and I can only imagine what those producers had to deal with with that. And the director in making a movie like that. But, you know, by comparison Call Me by Your Name is like, you know, it can be just as difficult to make a little soufflé. And to balance all that and to do all that. And to also get out of the way of the chef who is doing that.
And I think since the time the book came out, almost there’s been something blessed about the spirit of the book, of the story, of Elio and Oliver’s connection. And everybody who read the book, who read the script, who came to the movie from around the world. Like our producers were a global team of people and our DP was Thai and the actors from all these countries. All came because they were moved by the story. And everyone really brought their best and then some to the collaborative nature of making this movie.
John: Great. Peter Spears, congratulations on Call Me by Your Name. Thank you very much for coming in and talking to us about it and answering our questions.
Peter: Thanks guys. This was super fun. I’ll make another movie so I can come back and talk to you guys.
Aline: Oh, I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled.
John: Awesome. Thanks.
Aline: That’s a good reason.
John: Hey, this is John. So, last week we had a preview for Launch, my new series about making a book. As you’re listening to this, Episode 3 should be out. In it we talk about the edit process, the cover, the audiobook. If you’re a grammar nerd or a font nerd you’ll especially enjoy this one.
So, next week my book Arlo Finch comes out, which is crazy. It’s available anywhere books are sold in North America. So if you’d like to check it out, if you’d like to buy it, that would be awesome.
If you’d like to meet me, I will be out on tour as well. You can find out where I’ll be by going to johnaugust.com/arlofinch. I’ll have special guests in a lot of cities. It should be really fun. I look forward to seeing you.
This show, Scriptnotes, is produced by Megan McDonnell and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Hunter Christensen. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place to send questions like the ones we answer on the show, or questions about Launch, or the book. There will be a special episode of Launch where we’ll just do Q&A. So, send in those questions.
If you want to reach us on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust. Aline is @alinebmckenna. And Peter Spears is @pjspears.
We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. On Apple Podcasts, look for Scriptnotes, or look for Launch. Click to subscribe. And also leave us a review. That helps a lot. Especially a brand new show like Launch.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can find transcripts. We get them up about four days after the episode airs.
And you can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net or the first 300 episodes on the Scriptnotes USB drive at johnaugust.com/store. Thanks.
- Thanks to Peter Spears for joining us!
- Read the Call Me by Your Name script, watch the movie and read the book.
- Subscribe to Launch at http://wondery.fm/launch or wherever you listen to podcasts.
- You can preorder Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire and read an excerpt here. Also, John’s book tour dates are available, if you want to say hi!
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Aline Brosh McKenna on Twitter
- Peter Spears on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Hunter Christensen (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.