Food has been a lifelong obsession for Sicilian director Luca Guadagnino, both on-screen and off. As a teenager, he seriously considered entering a professional cooking school before deciding that working within the confines of a kitchen would be too much of a sacrifice for him.
"I said to myself, I will love food and I will cook for my dears, but I will not become a chef," said Mr. Guadagnino, who acknowledged the irony of his becoming an independent filmmaker, an equally challenging career. But he never stopped his culinary training, nor cultivating relationships with high-end chefs—an advantage when he was shooting his latest film, the family drama "Io Sono L'Amore" ("I Am Love").
The film, which opens in select cities June 18, stars Tilda Swinton, Mr. Guadagnino's frequent collaborator and a friend of nearly 20 years. She plays Emma Recchi, a Russian-born trophy wife of an Italian textile magnate. Lonely and shielded from life, Emma falls in love with her son's friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef, after tasting a particularly rapturous dish of prawns he has prepared (Ms. Swinton has called the sequence "prawn- ography"). To help create Emma's life-altering dish, Mr. Guadagnino called upon the chef Carlo Cracco—whose Cracco Peck restaurant in Milan, Italy, has earned two Michelin stars—to help prepare the foods to be filmed, as well as to train Mr. Gabbriellini.
"I am friends with many great chefs all over the world," said Mr. Guadagnino during a recent interview in the New York offices of his film's distribution company, Magnolia Pictures. "It may be very presumptuous and arrogant to say, but I know food very well. And because I trained myself, I know how to speak to chefs. They rarely get to meet people who really are at their restaurant purely for the food, instead of just showing off or working the power dynamic of the situation, so they start to talk to me. And we become friends."
Given Mr. Cracco's involvement, close-ups of savory dishes were prepared fresh for the film, without any additives. "We didn't have any of those people who spray things to enhance the color of the food; come on," Mr. Guadagnino said, with a slightly incredulous look.
"I like when food is shown in a movie as a way to express a milieu or a behavior; for example, I think the strudel sequence in Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds' is one of the most beautiful food shots in the history of cinema," Mr. Guadagnino added. "I am not very drawn to shooting food for the sake of food; that's a very '90s and 2000s fashion. 'Big Night.' 'Julie & Julia.' Ugh, it's fakey. Though I think Meryl Streep cooking is fantastic."
Born in Palermo, Italy, in 1971, Mr. Guadagnino—the son of an Algerian mother and a Sicilian father—spent much of his childhood in Ethiopia. He describes himself as a "very lonely young boy" back in Africa, a continent that affected him as a writer and director. Because he lived in the country during the final years of emperor Haile Selassie, who was deposed in a military coup in 1974 and died soon after, he feels a strong attraction to films with a "bigger than life" scope. Fittingly, the first film he saw in Ethiopia was a rerelease of David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" at age 3.
Living in Africa, Mr. Guadagnino said, "gave me a great confidence in the unknown, and taught me about light; as a filmmaker, I am very much struck by light or the lack of light, and all these are qualities of Africa," he said. "Sensuality is also a great quality of Africa. Bodies, bodies, bodies. I was free to meet people of every race and not make a big deal out of it. And I was free to encounter the mysteries of life and nature and the dangers of it."
As a young adult, Mr. Guadagnino attended La Sapienza in Rome, where he studied film and wrote his thesis on the films of Jonathan Demme. After directing the 1997 short film "Qui," he made his feature directorial debut with 1999's "The Protagonists," an experimental thriller. The film starred Tilda Swinton, whom he met in 1994 after trying to cast her in an adaptation of William S. Burroughs's "Penny Arcade Peep Show." The Burroughs film never got made, but the two became fast friends. Ms. Swinton subsequenly starred in Mr. Guadagnino's 2002 short film, "The Love Factory," and now the Milan-set "I Am Love," on which both served as producers.
Ms. Swinton says that from the moment she met Mr. Guadagnino, she knew she was dealing with an artist who knew exactly what he wanted, adding, "he's a very undauntable person." On "I Am Love," she said she and Mr. Guadagnino shot and edited their film to a soundtrack of John Adams's work, before securing any rights to the composer's music. Luckily, the high-stakes gamble paid off and Mr. Adams gave his approval.
Mr. Guadagnino finds himself wanting to be a "Hollywood insider." Unlike many independent filmmakers, he says he loves the people of Hollywood, even the studio executives, because he appreciates anyone who demonstrates a solid commitment to movie-making. What he doesn't appreciate is all of the marketing involved with promoting a film. "I want to disappear. That's my real difficulty. Just nonexist and just do movies," he said. "I live to deliver my work and that's it. But I believe that the job of a director is also to speak for the movies."
His next projects include nurturing a short film, "Diarchy," he produced for the 23-year-old director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, and producing a remake of Dario Argento's horror film "Suspiria" with David Gordon Green, whom he met on a film festival jury. "He makes me laugh," he said of the director of "Pineapple Express." He is also especially eager to work with the "divine" Matt Damon. Ms. Swinton, who introduced the two at the Toronto Film Festival last year, said that Mr. Damon rendered her normally talkative friend star-struck and silent.
"I want to really surprise myself with what I do next. I want to make something very seriously, so I think you will never see another rich family movie from me," Mr. Guadagnino said. "I don't want to indulge. I think when you indulge the director that's the moment in which you have to ring the bell of danger."
Ms. Kung writes about arts and entertainment for the Journal and co-produces the Speakeasy blog.
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