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Lisa Y. Garibay talks to director Tom Kalin and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman about Savage Grace, their film adaptation of the Oedipal-themed true-crime story.


It‘s been 16 years since Tom Kalin‘s last feature, the Berlin and Sundance award-winning Swoon. The wait might not have been so long had he chosen to make his next film about an easy subject, or if he hadn‘t jumped headfirst into a series of projects embroiled in challenging rights issues. But after several false starts and aborted projects, Kalin arrives in theaters with a new film that, like Swoon, dramatizes a period-based true crime story with a challenging dramatic tone and keen visual intelligence. Adapted from Natalie Robins‘s and Steven M. L. Aronson‘s Savage Grace: The True Story of Fatal Relations in a Rich and Famous American Family, a nonfiction chronicle spanning almost a century of bad behavior on the part of the Baekeland family, Savage Grace is an envelope-pushing melodrama starring Julianne Moore as one of cinema‘s most perverse mothers. In a series of scenes set three generations after chemist Leo ensured the family‘s wealth by inventing plastic, his globetrotting grandson Tony (Eddie Redmayne) and daughter-in-law Barbara (Julianne Moore) act out one hell of a twisted Oedipal complex with many other forms of debauchery thrown into the mix. Despite the genuine love between the mother and son, Tony — who had long shown signs of mental instability — stabbed his mother to death in their London flat when he was 25 years old.

Kalin and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman, whom Filmmaker spoke to separately for this piece, discuss what brought them together and how they worked to get Savage Grace off the ground. The film opens in late May through IFC Films.


Why was Howard the right screenwriter for the adaptation? KALIN: I met Howard in the mid-‘90s, probably ‘96, on the Independent Spirit Awards nominating committee. I was just starting at that time on a script about Robert Mapplethorpe, which I never made, and he was really supportive and really nice about Swoon. Christine Vachon gave me the book [Savage Grace] in 1991 or ‘92 and we had tried to do the movie together right after Swoon. Howard wasn‘t involved in that incarnation; we tried to do it in England and that‘s a whole side story. Then I produced I Shot Andy Warhol with Christine and during that time I developed this Robert Mapplethorpe movie, met Howard, and then after the Robert Mapplethorpe project didn‘t come together and another project that I‘d worked on didn‘t come together — about a rock band called The Monks — I decided I wanted to do Savage Grace again, and Howard had stuck in my mind. I‘d read his script for Joe Gould‘s Secret, which I felt was very strong. Christine knew of him too. Howard was the best candidate in part because he‘d admitted that he was sort of scared of the material. It is scary material!

RODMAN: I knew I was interested in working with Tom if he would have me because I‘d seen Swoon, which I adore. It‘s a strong, stunning work, particularly considering that it was made with no resources whatsoever. It was visually elegant, moving and disturbing in all the ways that one now finds with Savage Grace. Weirdly, what attracted me to the material was that I didn‘t think I could do it. I have done a lot of literary adaptations and I‘ve done a lot of genre work. And I would say people behaving badly is not such a strange thing to write about, but I mostly do it in the registers of melancholy and poignant regret — things which are easily manageable. But this was really raw; the emotions were larger, they couldn‘t be faked and you couldn‘t hide behind a kind of irony or distance with these characters. I knew that if I were going to do this, I would actually have to get inside their heads. I also knew that the trick of this project for Tom was not to depict Barbara as a monster, because that‘s easy to do. And the other one was to the extent that you look at the Baekelands and depict them as these sort of strange Martian beasts, the audience is let off the hook. You think, “That‘s how they behave; I don‘t have any of that in me.”

How did the two of you decide on the story‘s structure? KALIN: I‘d made a binder of photographs from the book of the real characters and sent it to Howard. I was using the pictures more than the book because the book is so sprawling. I said, “If you could tell the story in five days, what would those five days be?” We both came back with a list of what those five days might be and they were almost identical, like the idea of Barbara at the beginning with the baby on the phone or the final scene — there‘s a photograph of Barbara and Tony on a sofa that that last scene was based on. And that‘s where the structure came from, this idea to tell the story in five dates.

Howard, what did you draw upon to get into the world of the Baekelands and write this script? RODMAN: I did tons and tons of research, and not only from the book [Savage Grace], which is voluminous and amazing. Tom also found so many evocative things. He would find spreads from contemporaneous fashion magazines. He gave me the James Stone novel, The Merry Month of May, which is about Paris during the upheaval of May of 1968 and there are characters in it that are very much like the Baekelands. The larger task was coming up with words that Tom would recognize as consistent with his vision. Some of it was technical in figuring out how to take a continuous book that covers a hundred years and chop out seven moments and build them into scenes. Some of it was drawing on what I‘d known from my own life. And then on a more disturbing level I really had to draw on my experiences as a son, a husband and the father of a young man. I had to kind of look at myself more ferociously and go deeper than previous screenplays had called upon me to do. That‘s what makes for good work, but it‘s also what makes it hard. I mean, the scene at the end of the movie was ridiculously hard to write. When it came time to write that scene, I spent maybe two weeks going down to my work room and four hours later coming back up having written nothing just out of sheer terror!

Tom, when you have material like the Baekelands‘s story, does it raise dilemmas about how much to compromise the experimental style you‘ve been cultivating all these years so that the audience isn‘t doubly scared by the story and its presentation? KALIN: “Scary” is probably the wrong word to have even gone off on. I‘m not really scared of Savage Grace because I made the film — I had to have believed in the material and have empathy with the characters to want to tell a story like this. And to me that‘s the most important thing. I‘m drawn to true stories, fact-based narrative movies. I‘m really interested in the process of how [these stories are] related to but different than documentary filmmaking, for instance. In particular I‘m interested in true stories that have a mythological weight. Obviously Savage Grace recalls the myth of Oedipus; it‘s very shocking in that way and gets to one of the most taboo things in our culture. And as a filmmaker, I‘m energized by the idea of exploring the connection between things like class or the role of women at a certain period of time — like in this movie, what it meant to be a woman like Barbara in the ‘40s. And also to explore relationships of families gone terribly wrong and to do it with amazing actors who are creatively fantastic. I think the key — Julianne‘s talked a lot about this — is that there‘s a difference when you‘re telling a story like this between empathy and identification. The movie doesn‘t ask you necessarily to identify in a traditional way with Barbara or Tony or Brooks, meaning I don‘t see them as antiheroes or cult figures that symbolically represent something and we should think they‘re great for what they did. But I also don‘t see them as monsters; they‘re human beings. Human beings do these things with and to each other! And tragedy is one of the fundamental dramatic forms; it‘s as old as the Greeks and older still, just like comedy. So all those [elements] draw me into wanting to tell a story like this. The fact that it‘s a high-wire act, that it‘s a little bit scary is attractive, actually. I think the part of it about how audiences are very divided by the film and some people are quite shocked by it is just par for the course. I would be disingenuous to say, “Oh, gee, I‘m surprised that people find the end of the film tough,” because we found the end of the film tough to shoot! It‘s really emotionally tough material to deal with; I take it quite seriously, actually. As a director you very rarely shoot a scene like that. And that‘s only one scene in the film — the movie‘s much more than the last 25 minutes. To talk about Savage Grace just as a scary movie misses that the movie is lyrical and beautiful; there‘s pleasure and humor and light in the film. It‘s as much about the rise of the characters as it is about the fall of them. So it worries me to just classify the movie as shocking and taboo-breaking or scary, also because Julianne and the other actors give such amazing performances with such depth and such range.


Both of your features are striking visually, and both owe their looks to the visual styles of the eras they are set in. How do you go about conceptualizing these looks and realizing them in today‘s filmmaking world? KALIN: The photos [found in the book] were useful because they showed little windows into these people‘s lives; they hinted at something below the surface. For Howard and I, the photos served one purpose, which was emotional and psychological. But for me as a director, those photographs were only one of the many starting points. There are so many other visual references that accumulate when you make a movie: what the ‘60s look like and how do you convey the ‘60s without being clichéd about it, or thinking about things in the ‘40s. For instance, the camera only moved in the way that the camera would move in the 1940s. My background is as a painter; I was a visual artist before I was a filmmaker, so a lot of talk about how the film was going to look was talking with the amazing Spanish director of photography [Juan Miguel Azpiroz] about the paintings of Rembrandt, which I‘m sure sounds slightly pretentious. [We talked about] single-force lighting and a kind of simplicity and beauty in lighting. Or thought about how to convey five different time periods. I had to go from 1946 to 1972 on a modest budget with a limited amount of time and relatively limited resources. That‘s really an exciting challenge; I think that‘s maybe in some ways my strong suit — how to translate what‘s on the page to what you see visually.

Howard, what is it about the way Tom works as a director that is different from some other directors you‘ve worked with? RODMAN: Often you‘re working for somebody who doesn‘t know what he wants, but does know what he doesn‘t want when he sees it. With Tom, the process couldn‘t be more different. He really, really knows what he wants, and when you give it to him, he‘s happy and moves on to the next thing. I don‘t think I‘ve ever worked with a director who is more specific and more articulate about what he wants. And this was not just my experience; all of us in Barcelona the summer before last felt so exhilarated to be working for somebody where it‘s not like their mind is a mess and you‘re trying to clarify it.

Over the past few years, Julianne has talked about the difficulty of getting the film financed. Can you talk about what made it all finally come together? KALIN: Julianne‘s what made it come together in terms of the financing. She‘s an international star and her loyalty and commitment is what got people to get behind it. It was a movie that was just easier to finance in Europe than it was in America, so most of the money is Spanish and French, with a small amount of American money. The dollar goes a long way and there‘s a different way of shooting a movie there. The whole movie‘s shot in and around Barcelona; it‘s a great place to shoot a movie and we got incredible production value and shot in these amazing, real locations that were hundreds of years old. We shot 30 days over five weeks, which is a normal low-budget shoot. Julianne‘s the only American on the cast, and the entire crew from top to bottom — the production designer to the director of photography, costume designer, all the way down to the PAs — was Spanish. Looking back, it was one of the best production experiences I ever had. There was a kind of history and sense of place that came out of shooting in Spain that would‘ve been really hard to achieve here. And then also it was just very liberating as a director to be in a different place and a culture; it brought a lot of energy. It was a good thing for the film, actually.

Tom, as an American trying to teach and work in this country, are there any thoughts you have about trying to tell interesting stories through your work, but having it be so difficult getting those movies made and seen in America? KALIN: I think you have to figure out how to sell movies now more than ever. I probably will work again in Europe because of the subject matter or wanting to work with casts from different countries and being able to find support in that way. You go to where the financing is. A lot of movies get made, but not as many movies get distributed. The market is so incredibly glutted with films. In some weird way, it‘s easier to make a movie than it used to be, but the hard part is making a movie that connects with an audience or that can find a place in the marketplace. I think it‘s become a more complex world out there. Look at Woody Allen. He‘s been making movies for decades and he just did a movie in Spain — in part, I think, because of the Spanish financing opportunities.

Since you both are university professors, what kind of advice about the aesthetics and the business of filmmaking do you try to pass on to your students? KALIN: I think that my real focus with my students is urging them to tell the [stories] that are as true, vital and exciting to them as possible and to do it with as much conviction as they possibly can. And that the marketplace — yeah, there are things to know about it, but if anybody could bottle what it takes, they would‘ve done it years ago. You‘re teaching [students] the craft aspects, which are considerable — directing is a really complicated thing to do! You have to understand many, many component parts: how to stage actors, how to work with a camera, how to think visually, how to juggle many personalities, how to lead a sound editor, all those things that directing‘s about. That‘s what I mainly teach. But then there‘s something [else] I don‘t think you can really teach, but you do encourage them to draw out their passions and their inspirations and to make the most engaged, risk-taking or truthful work that they can make.

RODMAN: I tell my students that you can‘t write a screenplay unless you believe you‘re writing a movie. Also, if you work really well with the director or the producer or whomever it is you‘re working for, you will be far more involved as a screenwriter than any little piece of language in your contract. Another thing that beginning writers often don‘t know is that you can win the battle and lose the war if you fight for every word. You put yourself in a position where you‘re defending the script at the expense of the film. So many of the lovely things in Savage Grace happened because, “Whoops! Lost that location!” “Whoops, we can‘t go to Paris!” “Do you remember the characters James and Gloria Jones? Well, they have to be Spanish actors, so they‘re not James and Gloria Jones!” So many of the things in the film were the product of our limitations. From a craft point of view, I think that if you‘re teaching film or screenwriting, there really is nothing more useful to your students than to actually be doing it and bumping your head into those stone walls.

Tom, do you think that getting Savage Grace made is going to make it any easier for your next feature-length project to come to fruition? KALIN: I think it will be. It‘s exciting to bring a movie back out and talk to people who support and are excited about what I do. I‘m looking forward to doing something that‘s a very different flavor, actually; I want to do something lighter.


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