Sufjan Stevens on His Offbeat Approach to Writing ‘Call Me by Your Name’ Songs: ‘Keep It Vague’



Andrea Morrison

This story on Sufjan Stevens first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
When Sufjan Stevens starts talking about how he’s excited to come to Los Angeles for the Oscars but he needs to go buy a tuxedo, your first thought might well be, Really? This is the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter and cult favorite who has veered from a planned set of 50 albums devoted to every state in the U.S. (since abandoned) to a five-CD set of Christmas music (delightful) to electronica, low-fi folk and symphonic works (always intriguing).
So he hardly seems the type to a) wear a tuxedo or b) care much about a big, glitzy event like the Oscars.
But Stevens seems legitimately delighted with his Best Original Song nomination for “Mystery of Love” from “Call Me by Your Name,” and with good reason. The song is a spare, beautiful and thoroughly mysterious ballad that fits perfectly with director Luca Guadagnino’s rapturous romance, as does a second song that he wrote for the movie, “Visions of Gideon,” and a version of his “Futile Devices” that Guadagnino also uses in the film.
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“I think the reason it worked so well is that we both had an equal sense of admiration and trust with each other,” said Stevens, who had declined opportunities to write music for films in the past. “We allowed each other to work independently and autonomously, and we trusted that it would work out.”
Stevens wrote his two songs after reading the script by James Ivory and the book by André Aciman, but he had no idea how Guadagnino would use the songs in the film. “I wanted them to feel aesthetically and emotionally like independent works that could live on their own if they had to,” he said. “I didn’t want to correlate to the narrative too much — I wanted to keep it vague and universal, and I felt that I needed to convey a sense of transcendence and beauty in conjunction with a sense of loss.”
“Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon” both share a kinship with Stevens’ last album, “Carrie & Lowell,” a sparse but heartbreakingly beautiful meditation on the death of his mother. Those songs were rooted in personal experience, but the songwriter said that it didn’t change the process much to write songs that would work in a fictional movie setting.
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“It’s always very personal for me,” he said. “I tend to develop an approach that allows me to make myself complicit in the story of the song. I need to feel like I’ve done due diligence, so to speak, which is a matter of being really open and nonjudgmental and curious.”
Stevens said he had told himself to expect the worst before he saw the film for the first time. “I had set myself up for incredible disappointment,” he said, “because with music in film, it’s so easy to get it wrong. But it was pretty amazing.
“It’s a credit to Luca and his mastery of filmmaking craft that he was able to take these intense emotional musical moments and put them in the foreground in a way that feels real and fits with the emotional scheme of the film.”

The stars turned out in force for this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival. 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap at the Palm Springs International Film Festival

Producer J. Miles Dale, actors Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins, director Guillermo del Toro, actor Octavia Spencer and composer Alexandre Desplat, “The Shape of Water” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actors Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actor Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”  
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actress Salma Hayek, “Beatriz at Dinner” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actress Gal Gadot, “Wonder Woman” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actor Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actress Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actress Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Co-writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, “The Big Sick” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actress Holly Hunter, “The Big Sick” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actress Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”  
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actor Sebastian Stan, “I, Tonya” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actor Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actress and songwriter Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound,” and songwriter Common, “Marshall” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actress and songwriter Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Songwriter Common, “Marshall” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actress Jessica Chastain and writer-director Aaron Sorkin, “Molly’s Game” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actress Jessica Chastain, “Molly’s Game” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actor Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Director Sean Baker, “The Florida Project” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actor Peter Fonda, “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Actor Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour” and actress Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water” 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

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OscarWrap Magazine: Sally Hawkins, Timothée Chalamet, Mary J. Blige, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney and more also posed for TheWrap at the desert fest

The stars turned out in force for this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival. 
Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap at the Palm Springs International Film Festival

Steve Pond, awards editor at TheWrap, is also author of the L.A. Times bestseller The Big Show. He has been covering entertainment for more than two decades, and is the industry’s most knowledgeable Academy Awards prognosticator.

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