Luca Guadagnino often relies on a distinct period of time to frame his stories — and not just for projects set long in the past. His contemporary films, like “I Am Love,” often take place years before they were shot in order to give the filmmaker “a little perspective” on the people, places, and events he’s capturing.
“I’m committed to a sense of reality. I think that it’s important,” Guadagnino said in an interview. “I believe that reality is everywhere. It’s all around us. It’s above us, below us, left, right, center, everywhere. And more often than we expect, the urgency of reality — [as seen] through the media, for instance — doesn’t hit us the way the media believes [it does].”
For his latest directorial effort and first television series, Guadagnino again put a few years of distance between himself and the setting for “We Are Who We Are,” eight episodes about a group of teenagers living on an Italian army base — in 2016. For a story predominantly about identity, the U.S. presidential campaign and election plays out in the background; one character’s conservative father (played by Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi) orders red MAGA hats for himself and his daughter (Jordan Kristine Seamón); news reports covering Trump rallies and debates blare from televisions between scenes.
But politics take on a more prominent role in the penultimate episode, when the election results arrive just as Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), the base captain, receives an upsetting phone call. Three soldiers she deployed were killed by an IUD in Afghanistan, including a friend from Caitlin’s group. During the emotional, 75-minute episode, the jarring loss felt by so many when Donald Trump won the presidency is paralleled by these teens grappling with such a sudden loss of life, and their malleable identities shift from compounded tragedy.
Through “We Are Who We Are,” Guadagnino examines how such momentous world events, especially as they relate to America, can effect the generation coming of age at that moment. Simultaneously, he shows a group standing in defiance to the world around them, unwilling to sacrifice who they are to fit preconceived notions of who they should be. To depict both, he looked back at 2016 from a number of perspectives.
Personally, Guadagnino wasn’t surprised by the election results — “I took bets on Trump winning” — but he recognized how “unexpected” they were then and how “dangerous” the president’s tenure has become now. Moreover, Italy’s past provided insight into America’s present.
“I may be controversial here,” he said. “[But] when Silvio Berlusconi [made] the decision to run for the prime minister of Italy and he was elected, it wasn’t a normal challenge between right and wrong in the spectrum of Italian politics. It was really a […] perversion of the, let’s say, imagery and sense of ethics of Italy as a whole.”
Yannis Drakoulidis / HBO
Berlusconi, on paper, compares easily to Trump. He was an (actual) billionaire and right-wing politician who became the first person to become Italian prime minister without having held any prior government or administrative offices. (He was even convicted of tax fraud two years after leaving office for good.)
Guadagnino said Berlusconi’s leadership continues to “poison the well of well-being in Italy” years after his removal from office, and now America is in the midst of a similar disaster.
“Italy is small. America is big. Italy is one of the countries of industrial Western society. America is the first country of that — it is the most important country in the world, actually,” Guadagnino said. “So when America embraced someone like Trump, who’s not fit to be in the position he’s in and who enjoys creating a demented polarization that — it’s not just demented, but it’s also very dangerous — it’s poisoning the well of America. It’s not titillating his side. He’s literally poisoning the well of the entirety of America.”
Guadagnino added that he didn’t always agree with President Barack Obama’s “neoliberal politics,” but saw him as “an incredibly powerful, propulsive symbol, and during [his] eight years [in office], he [was also] a great voice of reason and wisdom.”
That’s gone now, and today’s world is worse for it. “The cruel politics of Trump are indulging in an idea of simplification of reality in which there is only wrong and right,” Guadagnino said. “And nuances are what makes life [real]. If I see your image, it’s a scale of grades, grades of shadows. It’s not more than that. There’s not one thing and the other thing. That’s an illustration. Reality cannot be functioning like an illustration.”
Being one thing or the other is antithetical to the teen subjects of “We Are Who We Are.” The two leads, Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), rebel against stereotypes in a way that makes you wish prior generations hadn’t ruined the phrase, “I don’t believe in labels.” These two friends don’t want to be called boyfriend and girlfriend because they’re afraid of commitment; they don’t want to be called anything because they’re still figuring out who they are, what they want, and why any of it matters.
Fraser is an outrageous personality; he can pivot from slapping his mother for not slicing his sandwich meat the right way to climbing into her lap and vulnerably clinging on. He’s also trying to sort his feelings for an older soldier on the base, while Caitlin is questioning her gender. She shaves her head, tapes down her breasts, and draws stubble on her face to flirt with girls as Harper. Meanwhile, the duo’s intensifying friendship is constantly questioned. Are they together, or not?
Moving on without an answer is OK by them, but not for the world, and Guadagnino paints that contrast beautifully. They’re happy to grow, evolve, and bend their own rules, but everyone’s desire to put them in an easy-to-understand box forces Fraser and Caitlin into their own little world. Their relationship is theirs, and theirs alone.
“Like today, I had a very heated argument with my mom — very [heated],” he said. “What is it? What’s this argument, the end of the relationship? It’s a process. It’s part of [the relationship]. Maybe tonight we are going to have a pizza together. That’s how life is. It’s a flow of things. And the idea that you are to stuck to one way of being or to one word you say, it’s quite primordial and elemental. We need to move on from simplifications and embrace complications, because complications are beautiful.”
Yannis Drakoulidis / HBO
Guadagnino hopes to explore more of his characters’ complications in “We Are Who We Are” Season 2.
“Me and my beautiful writers, we already wrote a Bible for the second season,” he said, referencing co-creators Sean Conway, Paolo Giordano, and Francesca Manieri. “But we have to see. We did it because we were locked down [during the pandemic], and we didn’t want to waste our time. In lockdown, making Zoom calls, we thought about the characters and we came up with something [for Season 2]. We’ll see. I’m very curious to know how this is received. You can see that this is a very dear project to me. I feel it as something very close to me, and I’m very happy that I’ve done it. So if HBO and Sky would be game for making the great cast return to their great characters, I will be there.”
Guadagnino will have to address a number of projects on his busy docket already. He’s signed on to direct a narrative feature adaptation of Matt Tyrnauer’s 2017 documentary “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” a new iteration of “Scarface” written by the Coen brothers, and a “Lord of the Flies” adaptation. He also remains invested in making a sequel to “Call Me By Your Name,” and any or all of these may preempt production on a potential “We Are Who We Are” Season 2. (HBO has not renewed the series as of publication.)
“I know that everything that I had in my pipeline until today, I managed to make, and I hope and I think that I would manage to make everything that people know that I’m going to do, because those projects are all fantastic,” Guadagnino said. “I’m really devoted to each and every one of them. I work hard, and I like to work a lot… so we’ll see what’s going to happen first. But all the things that are mentioned that I may be doing are going to all be done.”
As for his current project, “We Are Who We Are” may be set in 2016, but it’s airing amid the next presidential election. On the one hand, that’s fine. Guadagnino knows the effects of the last administration won’t end when a new one is introduced.
“Even if [Trump] doesn’t win again — and I fear he’s going to win again — the consequences of Trump will be solved and lived through for many, many years to come,” he said.
But debuting in the lead-up to 2020’s election also carries the implication that Guadagnino is making a statement about the present and what’s going to happen November 3.
“You are making me realize that maybe this choice could sound cynical — that we wanted to have the election of 2016 to play during the elections of 2020,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is that I hadn’t thought about that. And now that you are saying that to me, I feel like, wow, sure. Of course, yeah. I think it’s going to be interesting, this mirroring, but it has not been made in calculated ways. Quite interesting, to say. Very, very much.”
A disparity of interpretations might be the best result. Some viewers may find it too hard to revisit the 2016 election right now. Others may be all the more curious to examine its ramifications. After all, reality is shaped by those living through it. Everyone will experience this story a bit differently because we’re all a bit different. We are who we are, and no one has the right to tell us otherwise.
“We Are Who We Are” premieres its Season 1 finale Monday, November 2 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.