Luca Guadagnino has been called a sensualist and a provocateur, but he is also a stealth optimist. His latest project, the HBO series “We Are Who We Are,” ends with a flurry of joy. After questioning their identities and weathering splintered relationships on a U.S. military base in Italy, the show’s 14-year-old protagonists — irritable Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and even-keeled Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), who also goes by Harper — suddenly share a passionate kiss. Arguably less an act of romance than a burst of overwhelming emotion, their embrace grants the characters much-needed security.
Most of Guadagnino’s work straddles the same line between raw honesty and lush elation. His best-known movie, “Call Me by Your Name,” ends in tears, but those tears don’t dull the summery enchantment that preceded them. The final moments of “I Am Love” take place at a funeral, but the mourning is interrupted by a whirlwind of devotion. Even “Suspiria,” Guadagnino’s bleak horror reimagining, results in what could be interpreted as compassion.
Similarly, “We Are Who We Are” chronicles debaucherous teenagers and their families living amid the specter of war. But adolescent self-discovery, however tortuous it may seem at the time, comes with an inherent hope: You have your entire life ahead of you, and this is just the prologue. For Fraser and Caitlin, whose friendship revolves around queer exploration, that means experimenting with sexuality and gender norms and embracing popular art as a way to understand the world. I ingested much of the show with a smile glued to my face.
On a Zoom call, I discussed “We Are Who We Are” with Guadagnino, who was stationed in his native Italy.
One of the first things that struck me was the way Fraser carries himself — his fidgety gestures, his wandering eyes, his long strides. From far away, it can seem like arrogance. But when you shoot him close up, we notice his sensitivities. I’m curious what kind of conversations you and Jack had about Fraser’s mannerisms.
Every time you create a character, you do so with the partnership of your actor or actress, who is making it with you. I met Jack once before shooting. We met in Los Angeles when we were casting the show, and I found already that he was incredibly bright and really someone who could make me develop a passion for because of his intelligence. We had the privilege of having an extended time of preparation in which me, him, makeup artist Fernanda Perez and costume designer Giulia Piersanti and our fantastic hairdresser all gathered to understand the character with Jack. And in this conversation, we started to understand that Jack is a sort of fool in the Shakespearean sense. He’s someone who brings wisdom with his, let’s say, difference with the norm that is around him. And at the same time, he also is Fraser, a young boy who is in a sort of hollowness and desperation for something that is missing so deeply. But he’s not completely in touch with this feeling of hollowness until he deals with it painfully, only to resurface, maybe stronger, maybe more somber.
Those were the topics we were talking [about] with Jack, but you have to know that Jack is a young man of incredible wisdom. To see him understanding human nature and expressing it through the gestures, the micro facial gestures, the intonation of the voice, it’s been astonishing.
There are so many cultural references throughout the show, and I want to ask about a couple of them. First of all, Fraser’s books. We know that he loves Walt Whitman and Ocean Vuong and Audre Lorde, but next to those books on Fraser’s shelf is “Then Again” by Diane Keaton. Did Fraser really read Diane Keaton’s memoir? How did that end up on the book list?
Let’s put it this way: I’m not trying to compare myself to Fraser. I have read a couple of biographies that were kind of the Book of the Month in the reading lists when I was Fraser’s age. And Fraser is open, very open, and he’s very curious, and who knows what he is going to become? He’s definitely going to be someone dealing with art or expression that is artistic and creative. He’s curious, he’s very vivid. He definitely must have been struck by Diane Keaton’s performances in [Francis Ford] Coppola and [Woody] Allen.
You pan over two movie posters on Fraser’s wall: “Blue Velvet” and “Last Tango in Paris.” How did you arrive at those two movies?
Well, I think that Fraser likes a little bit of provocation in his life, and his provocation is always indulging into the narcissism of finding himself. Very intelligent. That’s what I think Fraser is more inclined to hinge toward as a man, as a young man, as a boy. I think Fraser also likes the sense of the forbidden, and I believe that he needs family. Maggie and Sarah [his mothers, played by Alice Braga and Chloë Sevigny], in a way, are allowing him to explore whatever he wants. And in his exploration, he also learns it’s probably these unbiased and completely fruitful possibilities of culture within the family that may be seen as menacing outside the family.
So in a way, he goes toward his curiosity, and his curiosity is very sophisticated. That’s why he loves [Bernardo] Bertolucci’s masterpiece and he loves [David] Lynch’s masterpiece. But at the same time, holding those posters on his wall, it’s like a statement in which he’s saying, “The public discourse to me is a little bit more complex than the public discourse presents itself.” He’s also a collector. He doesn’t have “Blue Velvet” — he has the poster of “Velluto Blu,” which is the Italian picture of the film, deliberately. He must’ve been paying a lot of money for that.
It’s interesting to think about those two movies in contrast to the one that becomes a significant plot point in Episode 5, “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” which is the movie that he and Jonathan see together. Is there any significance to that being the site of what I guess you could call their first date?
First and foremost, it’s an homage to Mike Flanagan. I believe he’s a great director, great artist. I respect him very deeply, and his movie “Doctor Sleep” is a very savvy, smart, postmodern act that I enjoyed a lot. So I wanted to pay homage to him.
The movies that they screen in the theater [on the army base], those have been chosen carefully by what was in theaters in America that week [in 2016, when the show takes place]. Me and my production designer and my set decorator, we had to think about what the military base would have had as its shows in order to meet the general interest of the general public. And clearly “Ouija,” being a commercial movie and being a horror movie, was quite right for the time. And that is the week in which the movie opened in America. He chooses to go there. He doesn’t go to see, I don’t know, there is a movie from Mel Gibson.
Yes. He doesn’t go to see that. He goes to see “Ouija” because I think he likes horror films for their subversiveness, probably. He wants to be entertained. He’s intelligent enough to love the horror movies as a sort of liberating experience, but then he meets Jonathan and the experience becomes even more complex for him.
I was surprised that Jonathan didn’t come back in the last episode for one final conversation with Fraser. In fact, we never really find out exactly what Jonathan thought of Fraser or what their relationship truly meant.
I believe that Fraser, in a way, is the person who is behaving in the most mature way in that relationship. I like the idea that Fraser is the one who has to be responsible for both, but that is a sort of painful process for him. It opens for him all sorts of pain that comes from this mirage of a relationship with an older man that, in a way, mirrors his need of a father. I guess that Fraser’s reaction to Jonathan and confusion of his relationship with Jonathan is something that deals with his, in a way, confusion as a boy, as an adolescent, that he’s missing his father figure that has been deliberately subtracted for him. So we just can read a few pages of Freud to learn that the father-son relationship also unconsciously triggers very complex identity questions. I think that Fraser is the most responsible of the two between him and Jonathan.
Because Jonathan was not well-tuned to what Fraser was looking for in him? Or to what Fraser needed from an older man who should have been more careful of his well-being?
I am not someone who should judge these characters by making a show, but I would expect that a person like Jonathan that I know in reality [would make] the right decision to truck his young friend toward the direction of understanding what is possible and what is not possible. There is life, but in filmmaking, we need to ask ourselves all the very disturbing potential questions that are arising in a given circumstance, despite the social media mob.
A theme that becomes more apparent in the back half of the season is teenagers growing up close to war and the specter of violence. Their revelry and debauchery often seem like a contrast to the harsh reality of where they live, especially once Craig goes off to Afghanistan. What did you set out to say about modern kids experiencing adolescence with war constantly hovering in the background?
On the one hand, that’s something that we have to deal with every day of our life. I remember I was 20 or 19 when George Bush Sr. struck against Iraq to defend Kuwait. I was Fraser during the Cold War. We had a constant, constant feeling of dread coming from the tension between the USSR and the U.S. Then there was the first Iraq War, and people like Jonathan Demme explained to us what this sense of invisible forces attacking in the night meant with this X-ray image in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
What I’m trying to say is that we are infused in the, let’s say, sense of violence that is coming from the politics of attack and war, but even more so, people are living in a military base and being part of the military world. So for me, you have this show that now is a middle point in America where we follow the path of the heart, the path of the body, the idyllic mindlessness of summer, and yet fall and winter are to come.
What did Caitlin and Fraser’s kiss at the end symbolize to you?
Well, I think that’s something that deals with the honesty that they feel for each other [and] for oneself. It’s the honesty of not binding themselves to a preordained role that they feel the pressure of applying because of cultural, social, emotional pressure. The real pressure they are ready to accept is the pressure of the meeting with the other, and to mirror each other in the gaze of the other. And this “other” is one another. Is this somehow disappointing for the idea of gender fluidity? I don’t know. Still, it’s very honest regarding them.
The opening shot of the show is a tight close-up of Fraser. He seems alone in that first glimpse. He looks very restless and agitated. And then the final shot is full of joy. It’s him and Caitlin together, kissing and smiling and running around. Do you think that Fraser has found a sense of himself by the season’s end?
I guess. The beginning of the show is him followed by the image of the sign “Lost and Found.” I guess he has found, finally, himself in Bologna and in Caitlin.
Eagle-eyed viewers spotted Timothée Chalamet in the background of a scene, and I understand that Armie Hammer is in the background of another one. How did those two appearances come about?
Well, there is more than that. There are many friends who showed up, and I have them as well as Timmy and Armie. Every time a nice, lovely, close friend showed up on set to visit me, I asked them to put something on and to be in front of the camera for those 15 minutes.
Who else should we look out for?
The great Jasmine Trinca. Wonderful actress. And then there are more private people that are friends that are not as famous as Jasmine, Timmy and Armie. And I am also in the show for, like, five frames in the last episode.
You cast Francesca Scorsese as one of Fraser and Caitlin’s friends. What was it like when Martin Scorsese visited the set?
Martin Scorsese came on set because he is a great father, and also his wife, Helen, came, and it’s been lovely to have them. Maybe I went a bit mad for the first hour, but he has been gracious and lovely. He was also working a lot on his own stuff, so I was relaxed almost immediately.
The show is crawling with impeccable music cues, and the final song that we hear is Prince’s “The Love We Make.” How did you settle on that choice?
You [also] hear that song at the beginning when Fraser is on the beach and he sees Caitlin coming and then Britney asks him to walk in order for him to show how he walks. He’s listening to that song then. In a way, he’s already blessed by his passion for Caitlin then.
Is there a music cue throughout the season that you’re particularly fond of? Or one that was especially hard to get?
I will say nothing has been hard to get. The artists that we asked to give us the music were fantastic and lovely, and they all supported the show. I love all the music, but I love particularly that we used Kip Hanrahan in the show. He’s a great musician from Chicago. He’s one of the greatest musicians I know, and his music is so beautiful and profound. So I’m happy that we have, I think, three pieces from him in the show.
You’ve mentioned the possibility of future seasons being set on an American base in a different country. Does that mean we would potentially see the same characters elsewhere? Or would you do a fresh story?
You should ask HBO. It’s an HBO question. It’s not for me to answer.
But do you already have a vision of where Fraser and Caitlin would go from here if you were to pick up with them?
I think Fraser may be going through a little moment of sobriety. I don’t know, we’ll see. And Caitlin, we’ll try to bridge her, let’s say, sense of displacement from herself to outside of herself.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.