How Luca Guadagnino Did It His Way on the Road to Hollywood

When “Bones and All” picked up two prizes at the Venice Film Festival — Luca Guadagnino for best director and Taylor Russell for best young actor – there was a sense that the Lido laurel had been a long time coming for the Italian director.

Guadagnino had walked the awards ceremony red carpet with his mom, Alia, after flying back to Venice from Telluride, Colorado, where the tender cannibal romancer had also been rapturously received.

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After being handed the Silver Lion, he warmly thanked Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera. “I wouldn’t be here this evening if it wasn’t for Alberto Barbera who decided to invite that crazy film I made 20 years ago, ‘The Protagonists,’” Guadagnino said. “Filmmaking is my life. I’ve been doing it since I was eight with my Super 8 shorts.”

Guadagnino’s career trajectory has been a long road full of twists and turns. And it’s now finally taking him to Hollywood.

Born in Palermo, Sicily, to an Algerian mother and a Sicilian father, Guadagnino grew up in Ethiopia and in the Sicilian capital before moving to Rome where his filmmaking training consisted of what he calls “the Rainer Fassbinder film school: watching three movies a day and devouring books about film.”

Barbera notes: “He always lived on the margins of Italian cinema, following his own path very coherently, just doing what he found stimulating.”

Guadagnino was for many years an outsider in the Italian industry, either detested or ignored within Italy’s insular film milieu of the time — and the feeling was mutual.

“The films I was making were not necessarily interesting to the people that were part of the industry in Italy, and rightly so, because the way the Italian movie industry has operated over the past 30 years is totally different from what I was interested in doing,” Guadagnino tells Variety.

There was just one exception: the late great Bernardo Bertolucci, with whom Guadagnino struck up a close friendship.

In 1999, Guadagnino’s “The Protagonists,” a faux experimental doc in which Tilda Swinton and some pals try to reconstruct the motiveless murder of a London waiter, “got a very cold reception,” Barbera recalls.

Guadagnino had become obsessed with Swinton after seeing her in Derek Jarman’s “Caravaggio” and cornered her at a Jarman retrospective in Rome, striking up a friendship that blossomed into a creative partnership.

Swinton eventually went on to play a restrained society dame who gradually bursts out of her loveless Milanese marriage in 2009’s “I Am Love” — again, a film that got more love internationally than in Italy. “Luca and I have a very compatible vision,” says Swinton, who is one of the film’s producers. “We both like the idea of a pure cinema born out of a classical history of cinema; but truly modern.”

“A Bigger Splash,” Guadagnino’s 2015 sunshine, sex, food and rock-n-roll-filled remake of French thriller “La piscine,” starred Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, but was booed by a clutch of Italians at the Venice press screening, due to what was perceived as its offensive portrayal of a Sicilian cop.

In 2017, “Call Me By Your Name” bowed from Sundance making a splash that reverberated with Italian critics and audiences after it scored Oscar nominations for best picture, actor, adapted screenplay and song. At last, with “Call Me” came Guadagnino’s first hit in Italy.

However, just a year later, the director’s elegant remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic “Suspiria” “wasn’t fully understood” at Venice in 2018, says Barbera, who notes: “It can’t be said that it was a great success.”

Now, “Bones and All,” which stars Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell as Lee and Maren — teenage misfits with a genetically ingrained compulsion to eat human flesh and find each other as they drift across the Reagan-era American Midwest living on the edge of poverty — has finally dispelled any remnants of parochial Italian hostility.

“Even the [Italian] critics who hated his previous films had to relent and bow to the potency and creative innovation of this film,” says Barbera. Last week, the crowds were so frenzied in Milan, where “Bones” had its Italian launch, that a red carpet with Chalamet and Russell had to be shut down.

Bertolucci, who was the first outsider to whom Guadagnino showed a rough cut of “Call Me By Your Name” wasn’t only a champion of Guadagnino’s work, they also shared a vision.

“Luca is somewhat similar to me in that he often uses cinema rather than reality as the point of departure for his inspiration,” the Oscar-winning “The Last Emperor” director, who died in 2018, told Variety after “Call Me” became an Oscars contender. Both directors also share a drive to make movies that transcend national confines, specifically within the Hollywood studio system.

Luca Guadagnino with mentor Bernardo Bertolucci (“Last Tango in Paris,” “The Last Emperor”)
Luca Guadagnino with mentor Bernardo Bertolucci (“Last Tango in Paris,” “The Last Emperor”)

But while Bertolucci, the son of a famous poet known to the top artists of his day, was born with a silver spoon and had easy access to the movie world, Luca had to do everything on his own. “He got to where he is just with his intelligence, his intuition and his courage — with his ability to throw himself wholeheartedly into projects that seemed impossible,” Barbera underlines.

For “Bones and All,” Guadagnino’s first American film, the well-versed auteur didn’t consciously have that many film references, apart from his love of Nicholas Ray’s lyrical noir “They Live by Night,” about young lovers on the run. The references for this cannibal movie were more William Eggleston photographs of fading billboards, storefronts, cracked highways, “or the naif landscapes that you can see in some flea markets in America,” says Guadagnino.

But he did share some cinematic cues with Chalamet and Russell. Guadagnino asked the young actors to watch Agnes Varda’s classic “Vagabond,” about a young female drifter; Chantal Akerman’s character study “Jeanne Dielman”; and Robert Bresson’s jailbreak film “A Man Escapes”: “All movies where you can see doom present on the screen and in some way enveloping the characters,” says Guadagnino.

The filmmaker also notes that prior to setting off for Cincinnati to shoot “Bones,” he’d been coming to the U.S. regularly for “half my life.” “And before coming to America, I soaked myself in American imagery and culture for a long time, unconsciously at the beginning and then more and more consciously.”

Though “Bones and All,” which reunites Guadagnino and Chalamet after “Call Me,” is set in the U.S., the financing came entirely from Italy.

After Guadagnino got Chalamet on board he turned to his frequent producer Francesco Melzi d’Eril and said: “I’ve got this film with ‘Timmy.’ It’s not an easy one, even though we have him,” the producer recounts. Within a few weeks, they managed to assemble a group of Italian investors, led by producer Lorenzo Mieli’s Fremantle-backed shingle The Apartment.

“We were this bunch of Italians going to play in the big leagues in Hollywood with this film entirely financed in Italy,” says Melzi.

Melzi also notes that in Italy, “Everybody has always gotten on Luca’s case for making English-language films about the bourgeoisie, about people living in the lap of luxury,” which is the case with “I Am Love,” “A Bigger Splash” and “Call Me By Your Name.”

“But this time, he stunned everyone with a film set deep in underprivileged America about these total outsiders and their humanity,” he says. “Luca completely changed the paradigm of what they considered to be his cinema.”

Mieli, who previously produced Guadagnino’s HBO TV series “We Are Who We Are,” which explores teen gender identity and sexual fluidity on an American army base in Italy, underlines that “Luca has a cultural cosmopolitanism that enables him to not be an outsider in describing middle America in the ’80s — something that perhaps even many American directors would not have been able to capture so well.”

The prominent Italian producer sees “Bones and All” as both a culmination of Guadagnino’s career so far and the beginning of a new chapter. “Bones” will be followed by a studio movie, MGM’s “Challengers,” a love triangle comedy set in the tennis world. The film stars Zendaya, and is produced by “Spider-Man: No Way Home” producer Amy Pascal, a Hollywood veteran, who is a big fan of the director.

“After I saw Ralph Fiennes dance in ‘A Bigger Splash’ to that [Rolling Stones] song I was pretty hooked on him,” recalls Pascal, referring to the showstopper scene in “Splash” where Fiennes, who plays a hedonistic music producer, gets down wildly to “Emotional Rescue.”

“What I love so much about Luca is that he sees character and eroticism and humanity all as one thing,” Pascal points out.

Besides making Hollywood movies, “Luca’s going to continue working in world cinema,” she says. “But he’s going to be a household name in American cinema soon enough.”

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