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'We Are Who We Are' Director Luca Guadagnino Knows a Cure for Melancholy

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'We Are Who We Are' Director Luca Guadagnino Knows a Cure for Melancholy 1

THE HOPELESS ROMANTIC Luca Guadagnino near his home in Milan.

Photo: Iris Humm for The Wall Street Journal

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In the 20 Odd Questions series, we interview leaders in film, fashion, music and other creative fields about their favorite pastimes, current obsessions and most indelible memories. Previous installments are here.

FILMMAKERS KNOW the power of a close-up, and Luca Guadagnino has created iconic ones: lovelorn Timothée Chalamet at the end of the 2017 film “Call Me By Your Name” comes to mind, or a blue-eyed Tilda Swinton in a climactic moment in 2015’s “A Bigger Splash.” When the 49-year-old director appears up close himself via a Zoom call from Spain, he seems ebullient and astute, despite lop-sided glasses (“Ahh, I broke them this week!”) and an intense day of activities as the president of the San Sebastián Film Festival jury. “Right now I’m immersed in discovery,” he said. That excitement is hard won for Mr. Guadagnino, who spent spring quarantined in Milan, lost his father in May and saw his relationship dissolve. “My dear, I am helpless—my partner of 11 years left me and I have a crush on him, still.”

Yet there is much to celebrate. His timely HBO miniseries “We Are Who We Are” focuses on two teens questioning their gender orientation, but transcends coming-of-age tropes: All the characters grapple with social and racial pressures within the confines of an American military base in Italy. Next, the Palermo-born director has been tapped to direct “Scarface” from a Coen brothers’ script and will develop “Lord of the Flies” for Warner Bros. These are not “remakes,” insists Mr. Guadagnino, pointing out that both previous takes on “Scarface,” by Howard Hawks and Brian De Palma, “exist in their own legendary space.” Here, Mr. Guadagnino shares his teenage obsessions, favorite hotels and the menu for his last supper.

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The filmmaker with his preferred mask.

Photo: Iris Humm for The Wall Street Journal

When I was a teenager, I used to: hang out alone. I was mostly thinking, daydreaming, watching people, watching movies and reading books.

My first crush ever was: Jeff Bridges in “Starman.” He’s naked and he’s curious and wandering around—that was amazing. It’s a great masterpiece from John Carpenter.

My favorite music at 16 was: Kate Bush. Her songs “Cloudbusting” and “Eat the Music” are fantastic.

My mom was: a fierce woman and very protective of her family, with a kind of overprotectiveness that was good. For example, when I gave a catalog of Robert Mapplethorpe pictures to a classmate turning 18, her mother called my mom screaming that it was pornography, that she was going to throw it in the garbage. My mom said, “Well, that is a great art book, so please send it to us because we want it in our library!”

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Jordan Kristine Seamón (left) and Jack Dylan Grazer in ‘We Are Who We Are,’ a television miniseries directed and co-created by Luca Guadagnino

Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis/HBO

A hotel I would most like to quarantine in is: the Bristol in Paris or Claridge’s in London. I know it’s a rarefied environment and I feel lucky to go but I have built a relationship with people there that I like.

An island I would escape to is: Smögen, off the coast of Sweden.

A beach I like is: None. I hate the heat; I don’t like crowds. I’m not relaxed being out naked in the public air; beaches are not for me.

The most memorable meal I’ve had this year was: probably the one I will have at Mugaritz [just outside] San Sebastián tomorrow but also my meal at Ristorante Reale in Abruzzo. [Chef] Niko Romito celebrated his 20th anniversary there with a menu of 20 dishes. The meal progressed from spaghetti with tomato to his fantastic aubergine.

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A flavor of sorbet that I particularly like is: tangerine. I like the tanginess that is well-balanced by the aroma of the peel, which is not too tangy. It’s refreshing and at the same time a taste of winter.

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Clockwise from top left: Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin; Slavoj Žižek’s ‘Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle’; carrots marinated with kombucha at Mugaritz; Franz Marc’s ‘The Dream’ at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum; the Swedish island of Smögen; Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges in 1984’s ‘Starman.’

A movie I’ve seen at least three times is: any film by Jonathan Demme.

The book I re-read every so often is: “Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle” by Slavoj Žižek. At least most recently.

My last meal on earth would be: bread and milk. Or to be more precise: Michetta, a white crusty bread which workers in Milan eat on breaks. I’d break the michetta into a bowl of hot whole milk and maybe add coffee.

A favorite cocktail is: gin and tonic with Monkey 47 gin. I’m a bit old-fashioned.

My current design obsession is: anything from Eugène Printz [the late French furniture designer]. That’s what I’m in love with. I don’t own any but maybe one day I will. I do have a wonderful square poker table with four chairs by Guglielmo Ulrich.

When the U.S. border reopens, the first city I’ll visit might be: Los Angeles—whenever I go there, I go to Sushi Park. But it’s a toss-up. I’ve only been to New Orleans once, but I love it. Or New York: I walk in Central Park every time I’m there.

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Armie Hammer (left) and Timothee Chalamet in Mr. Gaudagnino’s 2017 ‘Call Me By Your Name.’

Photo: Everett Collectio

European cities I love include: Munich and Stockholm. I’m often in London and Paris for work and for friendships.

The last memorable sunrise I saw was: when we drove all night during the lockdown from Milano to Sicily to shoot a short film called ‘Fiori, Fiori, Fiori!,’ or ‘Flowers, Flowers, Flowers!’ My crew traveled through the emptiness of Italy, and then at 3:00 in the morning I fell asleep. When I woke, we had arrived at the end of Italy before taking the boat to Sicily; life felt suspended. It was a very magical and eerie but life-affirming moment.

A museum I’d like to revisit is: Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. I spent six months in Madrid in 2004 and went there a lot. I was quite alone and a bit sad in that period of my life, and every time I went I felt cured of my melancholy. I wonder if I should go back there now. —Edited from an interview by Donna Bulseco

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