Inside the Making and the Meaning of HBO’s ‘We Are Who We Are’
This post contains spoilers for all eight episodes of the HBO series We Are Who We Are.
We Are Who We Are was many things: a coming-of-age tale, a love story, and an examination of military culture in the very recent past, among others. It was also a story of transitions and shifting identities, set on an Army base trying to approximate an American experience on Italian soil, and with a central character — sometimes called Caitlin, sometimes Harper (and always played, brilliantly, by newcomer Jordan Kristine Seamón) — trying to figure out if they’re trans or not. It was also one of this year’s best shows.
That notion of shifting identity applies as well to the show’s director and co-writer, Luca Guadagnino. The acclaimed filmmaker behind Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria came to this project a television novice. And while in many ways the series felt like a really long version of one of Guadagnino’s films, there were also clearly delineated stories for each episode, from an impromptu wedding between two friends of Caitlin to the finale’s trip to a Blood Orange concert in the city of Bologna for Caitlin and Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) — the latter story ending in a late-night kiss between the previously platonic duo.
Rolling Stone spoke with Guadagnino about the experience of working in television, the matter of Caitlin/Harper’s true identity, the messy relationship between Fraser and his mother Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), some of the series’ most memorable music and cinematography choices, and a lot more.
Jack Dylan Grazer has been acting in movies for a while, but this is Jordan Kristine Seamón’s first screen role. How did you find her?
Everything starts with hiring Carmen Cuba to cast the show. The mandate was to find the people that were not renowned, to get a show that could feel like, from the perspective of the adolescents, completely new — not invented, but from reality. Regarding Caitlin, I was flooded with tapes, self-tape of young actresses, very green actors, actresses and non-actors. I was looking at them diligently. There were some interesting possibilities, and then I saw Jordan’s tape. The sides we gave them to act were from Episode Five, the monologue that Caitlin acts in the school, from David Mamet. The way in which Jordan tackled that was so smart, so immediately drowning yourself, sucking you in, that I couldn’t stop thinking of her. I saw all the tapes, hundreds of people, only to constantly remember Jordan.
Throughout the story, there is a question of whether Caitlin is trans or just exploring — whether they’re really Caitlin or Harper. What do you feel the answer is?
This is a tough question to answer for me. I believe that this is a question that should have as many answers as people who see the show. I just don’t think it’s right of me to somehow corner the interpretation of the show and the character in a reader, in an audience, from my perspective. What I can say is that I’m a believer in the process of identity, the process of self-discovery. It’s in a way, consciously or unconsciously, a constant movement. Adolescence in itself is an age of transformation. I’m interested in a very nondeterministic acceptance of the possibility of transformation, of the multitude of selves that inhabit us, including those that we don’t understand, or that we don’t understand in the other.
There’s a lot of self-discovery going on in a story that is set on a military base, in a culture that is very literally uniform. How important was that contrast?
The first instinct was to use the specificity and the narrowness of that environment as the portion that could give us the sense of the universal. It wasn’t, for me, at least instinctively, the idea of a rigid world against which was the anarchy of youth. It was more about a portion of the world that, with boundaries, I could use it as a whole. The military world, from my understanding of it, is clearly a place of discipline and of rules to be followed, but there are as many personalities and aspects of the human expression as you can find in a nonmilitary world.
The military world is very stereotypically male. In this story, you have Sarah taking over the base, you have Caitlin exploring gender identity, and you have a lot of talk between Fraser and Caitlin about what it does and does not mean to be male. How interested were you in exploring masculinity and gender in this way?
I am totally invested in these topics in general, as a person, in my life. I’m very curious of the weakness of people in a way. I am fascinated by them. I am empathic, I would say, to them. I like to see the weaknesses in others, so that I can think of my own. I believe that those are also ways of discourse. A weakness could be a way in which you try to talk about yourself without knowing you are doing that. And in a way, the greatest of the weaknesses is the incapacity of understanding the other, in his or her or their otherness. I think the show presents itself as a sort of antidote to the impossibility of accepting the other. It’s actually the other way around: It’s really about letting the other enter you.
I saw a lot of social media response to the relationship between Fraser and Sarah, and how healthy it was. Where were you attempting to go with that family unit?
I’m a little bit boring of a person when it comes to understanding this kind of stuff. Truthfully, Fraser is the son of a woman, Sarah — and another woman, Maggie — who has not been granted the possibility of knowing who his father is, by a woman who mirrors his way of being. Sarah and Fraser have, in a way, the same sort of provocativeness, or aloofness, as people. So when you have two people that mirror each other, who are so deeply connected in such a visceral, archetypal way, and at the same time, you have not been granted the possibility of knowing fully who you are, because you cannot know who generated you on the other side, you will have problems, you will have complications in your relationship with your mother. It is not necessarily dysfunctional or bizarre, it’s just that the premises are those. In general, a relationship with a mother is not a relationship that can be carved out for a commercial for cookies. It’s more complicated than that. The parameters of healthiness or non-healthiness in a relationship, it’s completely senseless, when it comes to how we live our relationships in reality. Life is messy, relationships are messy. Everything is complicated, it’s not simplified. Could be beautiful, could be poetic, to live a life with another person, but it’s also going to be messy.
I love the use of music throughout the series. There are two pieces that come up again and again: “Time Will Tell” by Devonté Hynes of Blood Orange, and “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” by John Adams. How did those wind up playing such crucial roles in the story?
The first sonic image of the show I had in my mind and my ear, the beautiful pulsing beginning of John Adams’ I Was Looking at the Ceiling And Then I Saw the Sky. [Hums a passage of it.] The day in which I shot the sequence and I could put the music against it, it was so riveting for me. It took two years. It was like being with someone for two years and finally, that person looks at you and says, “Yeah, I want to be with you.” It was a moment of great conjunction with that desire I had. John Adams is part of my quest for the usage of music in film. I had a brief exchange of emails with John, and he was happy with me going back to this great piece of music from his first and only musical, because I Was Looking at the Ceiling was panned and slashed when it came out. It was looked at as a disaster, when in fact it is is a beautiful piece of music.
“Short Ride in a Fast Machine” is a piece of music I’ve been trying to use since 2008, and I never found a matching imagery that is so important and so urgent. The kids, in a way, gave me the sense of that pulse, that could match that important music by John Adams. That happened throughout the editing. I said to my editor, Marco Costa, “Let’s put this in Episode Four, where the kids spray each other with the paint,” and the contrast was beautiful. And finally, when we had to bring Fraser to reconnect with Caitlin, and what he wanted from her, the urgency was again high. And that’s why we put it back.
“Time Will Tell” comes from the idea of Blood Orange being this legendary figure for Fraser, and him wanting to share this experience of Blood Orange with Caitlin. The song itself is composed of two songs from two albums. I like the idea of one song that unifies two as a metaphor of Fraser and Caitlin. And I like very much what is in the song. The lines in the song are beautiful: “Come into my bedroom, come into my bedroom, come into my bedroom,” this repetition is almost like a prayer. What prayer is the song about? It’s about wanting a connection with somebody and begging for it. I believe that if you ask enough times, you should say yes. This plea of come into my bedroom is met with a big yes in the show. I found it perfect for it.
Let’s talk about that big yes, and the kiss they have in the final scene. Was this always intended to be a romance?
That was the arc we wanted. But if you go back to the show, you can track the unconscious movements of Fraser and Caitlin toward one another, even if they are saying the opposite of what they mean. In Episode Four, he tells her that Sole kissed him, and she chastises him, saying not to do it again. Who tells you that? It’s almost as if Fraser has confessed to cheating on her. Sometimes you will see a glimpse of a gaze of one to the other. They always make intellectual stipulation on the meaning of a relationship, or on the meaning of not being with anybody, basically because they’re talking about being together all the time. So it grows until it becomes unstoppable.
Did telling this story over eight-plus hours for television change anything about your usual approach to storytelling?
I don’t think much, in a way. As an example, Episode Seven, the first cut was an hour and 35 minutes, and this is an hour and 15 now, which is longer than usual. But it was 40 pages of script. Probably, in different hands, we would have had a much shorter show. I always try to put behavior in front of the camera, so that is a possibility for investigation of character development in its fullness. I don’t think I changed much. I think it’s a great opportunity to work with HBO. It’s a great place to be. I don’t take it lightly that your work can be out in these careful hands and be protected in this way, and made somehow relevant to the perspective of a great place like that. It’s a testament of their support to filmmakers that they allowed it to be what it is.
Have you given any thought to what the two-hour version of this story would have been, and what would you have had to say goodbye to? Could you have told this story at the length of your films?
I would say no, because we conceived it as this. I think there could be a beautiful movie on Caitlin and Fraser that is a two-hour movie. I said “beautiful.” I withdraw “beautiful.” There could be a movie about Caitlin and Fraser doing something. In this case, we got to explore a lot of their lives.
I can’t imagine, for instance, the movie version containing any of the episode where their friend Craig gets married and they party at that house all night. There’s no real plot in that episode; we’re just eavesdropping on behavior, and it works because you have so much time.
I think so. That’s a great way to be encouraged through television, to understand time. That’s what I love about this medium right now.
Having done this, is TV something you’re exploring more of?
Sure. The answer is “sure.” I mean, you are the very big expert here. Should I continue?
Based on this, I would say yes.
Great. That’s a great encouragement.
Let’s talk about some of the more memorable imagery from this show. The fourth episode opens with this montage of the kids playing paintball and having a food fight, and it made me think of “The Last Supper.”
While I was shooting the paintball, I thought of Paolo Pasolini’s La Ricotta, which is a great short film, in which he describes these extras in a movie set that are looking for food in the break. The film set is about the life of Jesus Christ or something like that. And the way Pasolini created those tableaux was in my mind when I did that. And on the food scene, I used the elements. I asked the prop master to prepare the pasta in the fashion in which kids should have done it: overcooked, messy, in a pan and not on the plates. And I handed it to Jack and told the kids to eat with their hands. I put the camera on a little hole that was on this big round chair where everybody was packed, and I said, “Action,” and I witnessed what was happening, and it was fantastic.
In the finale, the bartender, Futura, asks if Harper is trans, and they kiss, and then the camera rotates on its axis 180 degrees so we’re seeing the club upside down as Harper walks out. Why did you do that?
I like a French word, bouleversé, which means “upside down,” literally. I feel in that moment, Caitlin, or Harper, is bouleversé, truthfully. They are facing, possibly, in the most wrenching way, that they may not be what they wanted to be. That their desire is not their desire. That there is a level of intellectualism, or curiosity, that is met with a level of instinct there. I think it is such an important, cataclysmic moment with Caitlin, that we cannot afford not to follow her way through the crowd. And the only way was to rotate the camera.
There’s a shot in the finale where they’re listening to music together on the train to Bologna, and the way their heads and the earbuds are positioned, it’s creating the shape of the heart. How did that happen?
It’s a mixture of things. I always wanted to know that there was a moment in Episode Eight, that there was a recomposition after the dramatic fall-apart of Episode Seven. And then it appears in reality. Jean Renoir was saying, “Leave the door open to the reality of the set, and you’ll have surprises.” The contact I asked them to have created a heart, and we said, “Ah-ha!”
When Caitlin/Harper is walking back to the train station after leaving the club, there’s that long, continuous shot of the wall with all the graffiti on it. Why did you want that to be a part of that moment?
I know Bologna pretty well, and Bologna is an antagonist, alternative city. Of the cities of Italy, it is one of the most conservative on the one hand with a lot of old culture. But at the same time, being a city of universities, it’s filled with young people throughout these decades. In Bologna, many things happen. The counterculture of the first LGBT movements in Italy happened in Bologna, and and there is a lot of street life, street artists, punks living in the streets with their dogs — that’s Bologna. So there was something about the place that I want to encompass, this place that is about youth and antagonizing youth. That traveling shot, I knew the place, and went to see the place when I was scouting in the summer. I saw the beauty of this long, long mural, and I decided to have this long shot since I remade my scouting there.
How much interaction did you ultimately need to have with the U.S. military to make this army base? Did you have to get approval from them, or did you do it on your own?
We were supposed to have the DOD support and to shoot in a real military base, until the month of April 2019, when they said no, because finally they realized that the content of the show was not good for them. So there was no way, and we were basically pushed out from the base, and not given any more support. But we hired a great team of military, and we built a base from scratch. I’m very proud, because I got many letters of people in the Army, telling me how much the youth and the life in the base reflected their lives. This makes me very happy. One thing I couldn’t stand was to be inaccurate, or to be cliché.
Why did you choose to set this in 2016, with the election as the backdrop?
We wanted to make a show that was contemporary, but contemporary doesn’t mean to be out of touch. So we needed to be giving context to the contemporarity. When you do something in the same time in which you are shooting, you will be out of touch, because you will not be able to catch up with reality. I hate when you have the sense of artificiality in the contemporary. So we decided to go back four years to give ourselves a sense of time, and a control over that time. At the same time, it was a temptation too strong to be able to talk about the lives of people in a before and after. Before, a nation was reconciled; after, a nation was torn apart. Before, it was all about what was supposed to be impossible being possible, and afterwards was about the brutal reality. I like that kind of before and after. I also think that the love of Caitlin and Fraser is, in a way, the greatest antidote to the cruelty of the current state of politics in America, starting from your, let’s say, difficult president.