When Luca Guadagnino came on board as the director of “Call Me by Your Name,” he immediately moved the film from the Italian Riviera – where it was set in André Aciman’s novel – to the town of Crema in Lombardy where he lived. “I don’t understand how you create a story if you don’t start from the principal of figuring it out through the landscape – it’s how a movie has to be made,” said Guadagnino in an interview with IndieWire. “We are all who we are because of the way we behave in a given space.”
Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom had never worked with Guadagnino before, but when he visited the region three years prior to production on “Call My by Your Name,” he could instantly see how the landscape and summer light shaped how the director saw the film.
“I’m from South East Asia and where I live is on the equator, so everything is equal the whole year – the night and morning light is awful,” said Mukdeeprom. “But in Italy the quality of light is surprising, because it’s drier, so the color and contrast is so much better and changes in subtle, poetic ways. I fell in love with it.”
Producer Peter Spears said it was beautiful watching Mukdeeprom and Guadagnino walking through the locations and bouncing off each other as they got excited about the light and feel of the film. “Luca was so aware of how the film would feel, where he wanted to shoot and when to shoot it,” said Spears.
For Spears, it had taken 10 years to get to this point, in part because of the narrow, inflexible window of the dry Italian summer weather and light that was as much a character of “Call Me by Your Name” as Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Elio (Timothee Chalamet). And then something happened that almost never did: it rained, and it wouldn’t stop. Spears remembers watching the weather reports, which touted it as a “once-in-century rain.”
The babbling creek they planned to shoot – the script had to be adjusted for a pond – became whitewater rapids, actors had to suck on ice chips so the camera couldn’t see their breath, and of course, there was very little sun. “We had scheduled 30 days of shooting – five weeks, six day weeks – and we ended up shooting 34, of which 28 there were heavy rains,” said Guadagnino. “We were freaking out and we’re reconstructing the light every day.”
The modestly budgeted film offered little flexibility, as did the calendar with both fall and Guadagnino’s prep on his “Suspira” remake around the corner. Luckily for the producer and director, their new cinematographer was used to shooting during the rainy seasons in Thailand.
“I said to the producer, ‘this is bananas,’ I kept saying ‘you have to be kidding, this is not why I came to Italy,’” said Mukdeeprom. “But it became my war.”
Mukdeeprom said he has built years of collective memory of how to adjust to bad weather, but it’s never just one thing. He tries not to make it sound incredibly simple, but he admits it sometimes comes down to knowing exactly where and how high to put a strong – ranging from a 4K up to 18K – Arri fresnel (lensed, directional) light that he’d often shoot through large frames of diffusion.
Spears said part of the fix was being prepared to move fast when there were breaks in the rain. The producer also remarked that he was shocked how often Mukdeeprom, working with minimal or no lights, could transform what to the naked eye seemed like gray, overcast light that, upon examining dailies, become the sun-drenched imagery that audiences have already come to appreciate in “Call Me by Your Name.”
“There are times you don’t have the space or time for a large light, or set up,” said Mukdeeprom who is, by all accounts, a maestro with six meter by six meter frames filled with material ranging from silks, to bounce, to diffusion. “I have learned if I get the contrast right, what colors I can and cannot pull from the image in post. I don’t like working this way, ‘fixing it in post,’ but I’ve learned shooting in Thailand what colors must be present on set when we shoot and which I can find later on.”
Mukdeeprom would often gel his lights to warm the light, but his secret weapon was a close working relationship with his colorist Chaitawat Thrisansri, who he has been working with since he was “just [a] boy learning how to be a colorist.” Instinctively, the two know what is possible with the quality of light captured on gray days with 35mm negative. “I only shoot film, it’s a principal for me, and that helps with color too.”
A great deal of the film’s natural sunlight feel comes from the way Guadagnino played with the interplay of interior and exterior through windows. Similar to Jean Renoir’s “A Day in the Country,” a touchstone film for the director, he used windows and this inside-outside balance to reflect the moods of his characters. “One of the reasons I moved the film to where I lived is because I knew the house and I felt very strongly that place [was] informing me because it was perfect for the characters,” said Guadagnino.
Mukdeeprom credits the Italian architects for having already thought of the interior lighting design of the film and Guadagnino for having picked the perfect room for each scene – having conceived of the emotions and movement in context of the way light poured into the space. It meant that he could more effectively and naturally mimic the feel of the exterior sun, even when there was little actual sun outside.
“The elements are all there which Luca combined with his blocking,” said Mukdeeprom. “I’ve never had a collaboration with a director that was so natural in how the scene unfolds and how I just instinctively react based on what he is doing and what he has created in front of the camera.”
Spears said it was this element of how Mukdeeprom was so in sync with the director that allowed them to be so nimble working between raindrops. “Sayombhu is Buddhist, he’s just the calmest man, and his ability to connect with the material, the surroundings and Luca, it became this quiet in the middle of the storm,” said Spears. “Considering the conditions, it’s surprising there wasn’t more panic and I think that was largely because of him.”
Mukdeeprom and Guadagnino continued their collaboration on “Suspiria,” a remake of one of the most visually bold and colorful horror films of all-time. Mukdeeprom didn’t want to talk about this film due in 2018, except to say the shooting conditions were a bit more favorable.