Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 24, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work and craft. This week, musician Sufjan Stevens talks about writing two songs for Call Me By Your Name, which director Luca Guadagnino adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name. The story follows a teenage boy (Timothée Chalamet) spending the summer in northern Italy, where he begins a relationship with a doctoral student (Armie Hammer) staying with his family. It’s a beautiful, rapturous film that’s both exhilarating in its portrayal of life-altering first love and heartwrenching in its reality of that romance. Stevens’ songs — original works “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon,” along with a remixed version of Age of Adz opener “Futile Devices” — reflect all of those moods, elevating already-spectacular scenes with thoughtful lyrics and lush arrangements. Here, Stevens talks about what makes Call Me By Your Name so special and how he tried to think of the film as little as possible when writing his two songs for it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you read the book or the script first?
SUFJAN STEVENS: The book. Luca called me sort of out of the blue and asked me to be involved in this project and then he sent me the book, I read the book and I loved it, and then he sent me the script, and then he told me he was intent on using the song “Futile Devices” somehow in the film and then he asked me to also come up with some new material for it. So I wrote the two new songs based on the book.
This is your first time soundtracking a film. Had you been approached about this before? Had this been something you thought about doing?
Yeah, people have asked me and I’ve always declined. I think I’m capable of doing it, but it’s not something that interests me so much because I actually often take issue with film soundtracks. I feel like the music often feels almost manipulative in a way. There’s an exception with Luca because when you watch his films, he uses music so explicitly and so abundantly, but it never feels gratuitous. I don’t know how he gets away with it. He’s one of those rare directors who uses music that feels vital and it feels essential and you often cannot imagine the film without the soundtrack.
You said you feel like many film soundtracks are manipulative. How do you balance evoking a certain feeling with the music without being manipulative, though?
It’s really tough. It’s a difficult task. I think I approached it without even thinking about how it would be used in the film. I approached it as an independent work, in a way, so that the song could speak for itself and have a fullness and a realness and a completeness without the film. And I hadn’t seen anything. I hadn’t seen any of the film at all when I wrote it. I wrote it really quickly. I wrote both of the songs in a day.
Let’s go back to when you first read the book and you decided you wanted to do this. What about Call Me By Your Name drew you in, what was special about it?
I think I was really moved by the relationship between Elio and Oliver because it almost didn’t have any conflict at all. All of the tension was interior — it was in the mind and body of Elio — but the narrative just felt very pure and very uncomplicated, and it felt very deep too. It was a real, beautiful, sublime romance. It’s summertime, it’s Italy, there’s food and wine and the lushness of the landscape and everything felt really almost like a beautiful, romantic, dream. I wouldn’t have done this if it wasn’t a Luca Guadagnino film. I really trusted him and had such great respect for his work.
So much of the movie is about first love and the excitement of that and young romance in itself. Did you bring your own experiences to the surface to write these songs?
Oh yeah. Those experiences never leave us. I was just conjuring my own experiences of summer camp and love and attraction. I’m always fascinated with the sublime nature of love in every kind of manifestation. Whether it’s divine attraction, the love of God, or the human attraction, the love of the body, like Eros, or there’s the love of humankind, like brotherly and sisterly love. It comes in all these forms. I really find that this movie has a way of encapsulating all of those manifestations in a really interesting way. The attraction between them, it’s sexual, but there’s also companionship and camaraderie and respect and there’s intelligence there and there’s scholarship there. Their attraction, it encompasses all of that. It’s so beautiful. That’s something that always moved me, whether it’s like, the sort of divine infatuation when you go to a cathedral or when you’re looking at a work of art or when you’re in the presence of beauty in the form of a person. These things, they all trigger many different things within us. It’s really cool.
Did Luca give you specific assignments, like what kind of scenes he wanted you to write songs for? I’m thinking specifically of “Visions of Gideon” closing the film.
No, he gave me complete and utter creative control over the construction of the song. And I think he really trusts people, and I think he really felt, just based on my repertoire, he felt that I had the ability to sort of come up with something that would work. I had nothing to say about how they were used.
What was your first reaction to seeing the closing scene? What about it do you think works?
I think it works because Timothée Chalamet is incredible. He’s so immersed in that role. I think that’s why it works. I don’t even know if he needs the song. [Laughs] I was really moved. It’s such an incredible scene.
Luca came to you with “Futile Devices” and said he wanted to use it in the movie. Did he explain why that song out of your huge catalog was the one he chose to highlight?
I think he felt that the songs in the film were sort of related in that they were based on this sort of brotherly love. And he didn’t ask me to remix [“Futile Devices”], I chose to do it — I felt like the three songs should have a similar musical environment. I think it’s just serendipitous, because I wrote that song years and years and years ago and it’s serendipitous that it related so closely to the nature of the film.
What’s next for you?
What am I working on now? That’s a good question. [Laughs and pauses] I have to do another ballet with Justin Peck at the New York City ballet, that might be the next thing we do, but I’m also just really trying to write again. But I think it’s going to be a long time before I have another record. I just don’t feel any pressure right now to make a new record yet. I need to take some time and finish a lot of these side projects and hobby projects.
Do you think that your next album is going to be another personal one like 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, or something more experimental?
I’m open to what the universe tells me. [Laughs]