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On Location: Luca Guadagnino on Filming 'We Are Who We Are' in a Seaside Italian Village

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 10/13/2020 Megan Spurrell
a person sitting on a sandy beach © Courtesy HBO Max

If his last film Call Me By Your Name wasn't enough of an indication, Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino has a knack for enthralling coming-of-age stories, with dreamy slices of Italy as his backdrop of choice. We're talking Italy beyond the Florences, the Milans, the Romes—these are the fishing villages and lemon tree-covered countryside that Americans cross the Atlantic hoping to discover. 

In his latest project, We Are Who We Are, a HBO series that premiered last month, Guadagnino and his team do it again. This time, the story—which follows two American 14-year-olds, Caitlin and Fraser—is set on an American military base in the seaside town of Chioggia, near Venice. The eight-episode drama follows the characters as they navigate first loves, identity, and ever-evolving friendships, in a country not their own. And though Italy's charming corners are on full display, the show finds beauty in the mundanity of the base at every turn. 

We sat down with Guadagnino to hear more about creating this world, his go-to local restaurant while on set, and the one filming location he hopes travelers will visit. 

Why did you choose to set the show on an army base?

It was an instinct. When I started to think about this story with Francesca Manieri and Paolo Giordano, the writers, we wanted an environment that was fruitful for the conflicts, or let's say the interactions, of these people. I had this idea of a small contained world that at the same time is a sort of universal paradigm for the American identity. A military base is a place where there’s discipline and order that you need to follow, [but] it's pulsating with life and contradictions. That was interesting for the show. I also like the texture of a military base, its commissary, its theaters, the libraries, the streets, the signs, the housing, the vehicles.

For a lot of teenagers, big moments happen in seemingly mundane places. How did you choose those settings in the show?

We did a lot of research. It was almost anthropological. Paolo, Francesca, they've been spending so much time on a real military bases, speaking with people, families, children. We went really deep and we understood how each and every [person] on the base dealt with living in the base. We knew the commissary was important, we understood that social life gathers in places like a park, a fast food restaurant, or a movie theater. All that made us analyze the characters to organize the map of their hearts in this space.

a man standing in front of a brick building: Actor Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Fraser, on set in Chioggia. © Courtesy HBO Max Actor Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Fraser, on set in Chioggia.

Of these spaces that you created on-base, was there one you were particularly fond of?

In every library that I visited on a military base, there is a playroom for the kids. So we created this playroom with all the toys, all the books, all the chairs for kids. And then the production designer had this idea of creating a drawing, so we drew a lion—the symbol of Venezia. We put the name of the lion on top, and it was “Ferdie.” That was an homage to my partner Ferdinando, but unfortunately, we are not together any more. So there is a bittersweet essence for me there.

And you kept the lion in.

Oh, yes, I’m a gentleman.

How did you land on Chioggia?

We had to find a place to create the base. I saw a lot of places throughout Italy. But when I saw Chioggia, I liked it. Chioggia had this beautiful light, these beautiful skies, there was something about them. It’s also quite a specific place—there’s the laguna, you have this little mini Venezia with the bridges and the water. It’s very rundown, very simple, very blue collar which I love. I like the simplicity of life, and the tranquility and calm of the water that might have something lurking beneath the surface, like our characters.

a building next to a body of water: Guadagnino describes the seaside town of Chioggia as a “mini Venezia.” © Courtesy HBO Max Guadagnino describes the seaside town of Chioggia as a “mini Venezia.”

Between filming, how did you spend your down time? Any favorite spots you discovered?

There was a very lovely restaurant in a very lovely village where we were going all the time: La Torre in Monselice. They were great, a couple of husbands and wives cooking very simple Italian family food. They had great grilled vegetables, grilled meat. We spent a lot of time there during the fall between September and December, so we had a lot of great fall ingredients like mushrooms, like truffles, and that was really lovely and special and familiar. Then there is another one called C’era, a very good restaurant near Venezia.

Chioggia itself is a lovely diversion from Venezia. There is a lot of beautiful nature there. If you want to go with a ferry [from Venice], you can. May and September are great seasons.

At the end of the final episode, two of the characters go to Bologna and there's a place they refer to as “the most beautiful place in the world.” How did it earn that name?

It's a church called San Luca. It's at the top of a hill, and Bologna is [below]. You go by walking through this beautiful arched path that is very, very, very steep. At the end of this walk, you're at the top of this hill, and you see everything from above. Historically that is the position of the holy, and the pilgrims would finally reach the holiness there. I hope people watching the show will try to do the walk that Fraser and Cailtin do.

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