Interview: Savage Grace director Tom Kalin
Mon, 16 Jun 2008 10:37:42
Bringing Savage Grace to filmic fruition has been a long road for director Tom Kalin, who waited 15 years to helm a full-length feature since his 1992 debut, Swoon. However, Kalin’s directorial absence was not an unproductive grace period—quite the opposite, actually. While developing projects for intrepid independent production company Killer Films, Kalin worked to bring the scandalous Baekeland family story to life on screen, enlisting Julianne Moore to play its tortured lead, Barbara Daly Baekeland, an eccentric socialite who was murdered by her son Tony in London in 1972. Their unconventional mother-son relationship is swathed with tales of co-dependence, a suicide attempt, mental illness, and incestuous overtones which continue to perplex and intrigue the public years after the tragic events transpired.
ARTISTdirect spoke with Kalin, an articulate visionary whose fidelity to crafting unique, fully-formed narratives is evident in conversation. Savage Grace, which screened at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, can be seen in theaters now.
The Baekeland family story is epic. How did you decide what you were going to focus on?
The book [Savage Grace, by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson] is where the whole project started. It’s how I first became aware of the family. The book covers a hundred years, from Leo Henry Baekeland coming over from Belgium, the eccentricities of that family, and all the back story of who Brooks was, especially. He came from such a prominent family, but there was already, by the time he was in the world, a complicated history of relationships of fathers and sons. It seemed like the whole Baekeland family story was a miniseries, not a movie. I think whittling the three down [to Brooks, Barbara, and Tony], it really became clear the arc of the story was primarily the Barbara and Tony story. Those are the two main anchors, although Brooks is a very important character; he’s the third anchor of the story. The book got whittled down and spoke to me more about the arc of Barbara’s life, in part because it’s such an explosive arc. She dies in such a distinct, clear, and final ending. Brooks didn’t actually die, from what I can understand, until about two years ago.
Did you consult with Howard Rodman about the adaptation, or was this something that preexisted?
The project of Savage Grace is a project I initiated myself with [producer] Christine Vachon years ago. There’s a really long history to this project. After I directed the movie Swoon in the early ‘90s, Christine had given me this book to read, partially because we love to read true crime books. This was so head and shoulders above most of those books. I read the book, fell in love with it. We tried to option it, but it was actually optioned by a company called The Really Useful Group, which is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company, insanely. They were just starting a film and television unit. They actually optioned the book for me for three years in the early ‘90s, not intending to make it into a musical. I developed the project with a different writer, actually. I had written things before, but this was a book I thought from the very beginning I wanted to collaborate with a writer. I wanted to work with another person. That didn’t come to fruition. I did other things, I produced I Shot Andy Warhol and another movie called Go Fish. There were two other features I worked on as a director that I didn’t direct, both were rock ‘n’ roll movies. One was about Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, and the other one was a rock band movie about a rock band called The Monks, who are little-known. Then I came back to Savage Grace, so the early history of Savage Grace [dates back to] ’93, ’92. So it was almost eight years of trying to make the movie. It’s like, “Does this stuff work?” So I let the project go, and then after developing two other features, which for financial and rights reasons didn’t happen, came back to Savage Grace. I never lost interest.
Christine and I both knew Howard. I knew him for a little bit of his writing and she knew his writing. I interviewed a few people and then brought him in. Although it’s very much Howard’s script—he’s the only screenwriter—we worked super-closely. There was actually an idea I had in the beginning, which was, if you had to tell the story in five days, what were the most important five days of the story? It didn’t literally come down to days, but some of the acts, some of the sections, like 1946 in the beginning, are literally sunset to sunrise, [like] the night they decide to go to Stork Club and that morning.
Aside from the source material, was there additional research that you did?
The book tells you a million things if you pay attention—what she wore, what they had in the house, what was on the walls, even what things looked like. I took what was useful out of that and put it on screen. When it was first published in the '80s it won what’s called an Edgar Award, the Edgar Allen Poe [award for] crime books. In the middle of the book there are these incredible photographs of real characters. If you haven’t seen the book, you should see it; it’s back in print again. First of all, Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, and Eddie Redmayne all look like the people they’re playing. There were moments that were key that seemed imperative to use—one of them was the photograph of Tony in the bathtub, a real photograph of the real Tony at age 11, naked in the tub. You can’t see that he’s naked; his legs are crossed. The camera is right above; it’s on him. At first it’s this adorable, sweet, tender kid in the tub and it’s so charming, and then you think, “Oh my God, his mother must have taken the photograph,” and it’s chilling. No normal 11-year-old kid I’ve ever met poses for his mother in the tub. So the combination of how tender, how amazing the bond was between them in that photograph, but also how it transgressed the age-appropriate boundaries seemed compelling in that photograph. [In the film] we don’t show Barbara photographing Tony, but we try to sort of imagine something around that. The other one was a photograph taken in London in 1971, not too long before the murder happens. It’s Barbara and Tony dressed very much how they’re dressed in the film, looking like a sort of married couple, and only a few short years before they clearly look like mother and son. Tony looks very young, and suddenly, the way he holds his cigarettes, the way he sits, the way he looks—he looks twenty years older than he is.
Barbara treats Tony like a surrogate spouse as her marriage starts to unravel, which is one of the compelling ways you develop their relationship in the film.
I think that’s what’s so interesting about them. If this wasn’t a true story, to make it up would almost be too much. It is a true story, and I didn’t really distort or exaggerate that source material. The kind of extreme boundaries in terms of roles and in terms of love [are] fascinating. Tony’s so confident at 11 or 12 or 13—speaking multiple languages, able to move around in adult company, on the outside seeming very well adjusted. On the other hand, he’s been deprived of what most kids have at that stage, which is more stability. They moved all the time. Already at that age they were traveling to Paris and traveling to Spain and Italy. He had, on the one hand, this great relationship with his mother because she’s so engaged and interested, on the other hand, a crazy relationship—boundary-less. She pushes things too far. People who described knowing them in those years when he was a kid described—depending on their perspectives—a kind of magically tender amazing relationship or way too much. That was one of the lessons I wanted to show in the film. Is it okay or is it not okay? What’s going on between these people?
When Brooks leaves, all kinds of things happen. Even though Tony was more gay than straight, [Brooks] jetting off with Blanca had to have been damaging. That’s the first girlfriend [Tony] brings home. Tony spent years desperate for Brooks to come back in a kind of childish way. The things you hear in the letters actually are true—“Daddy, come home” and “Mommy’s so unhappy without you” —very much what a little kid would say. On the other hand [Tony was] angry and desperate, [thinking], “You’ve dumped this crazy person on me.” When she tries to commit suicide, he says, “Taking care of Barbara became my inheritance.” Similarly, when Tony is a little kid, Brooks sort of resents his own son for his wife being so in love with him, for the classical Oedipal thing that is quote, unquote “normal” in the family, where the father becomes somewhat jealous of the young kid for a quote, unquote “romantic” relationship with the wife. In this case, Barbara is way too romantic and Brooks is way too angry. The seeds just grow and are aided by something that the film doesn’t really preach didactically, which is the fact that Barbara and Tony, and perhaps Brooks, have some form of mental illness.
Barbara vacillates between being, like you said, tender on one end, but absolutely barbaric and horrifying on the other. Julianne spans that spectrum really well. She can be barbaric, but she’s also utterly charming. There’s something so appealing about her.
There was no one else to play Barbara in the film, in every way. Julianne is a gifted actor in a very specific kind of way. She not a particularly intellectual-type actor; she beautifully instinctive. [What] I mean by not being intellectual [is that] she’s one of the smartest people I know. She’s absolutely engaged and smart, but the way that she works is not to try to explain a character or analyze a character, but to try to find the moments of behavior that capture her complexity. You see her attack Brooks in the airport and it’s just embarrassing. She’s out of her mind and full of rage, then she turns around and walks away and in five seconds of screen time you see the difference between the public face and the private face. You see how damaged she is, how heartbroken and devastated she is by what happened and that creates empathy, creates compassion for the audience. That’s what I think was amazing about what she did in the film—she took a character who could have been unsympathetic or shrill or difficult or impossible and gave her layers. It made you care about this really extreme journey. That’s what I think was key about this film. Although the story is very strange, I wanted the emotional journey of the film to be real and not ironic.
Provided what you just said about Julianne not being intellectual in that she exists in the character, was there, as a director, a lot of rehearsal you did with her and Eddie prior to shooting?
For schedule reasons, no; we had very limited access to the actors. In some cases, like with Julianne, [we had] years of different kinds of conversations with her and sending her source material to read. What I mean about her not being intellectual—she’s not really a researcher. When she’s playing a real person she’s playing based on instinct. Like, if I was playing a mountain climber I might go look at the equipment for five minutes, but I’m certainly not going to mountain climb. There was a little bit of rehearsal prior to the time of shooting, literally days of table talking and stuff like that. When the actors came we would do it for blocking and staging rehearsal to figure out where people would move and what they would do. Different actors work in different ways. Eddie Redmayne and Stephen Dillane are both English, and—I’m generalizing slightly—they both like to explore more through a rehearsal. Julianne wants to figure out the blocking in rehearsal and get a sense of what you do in a scene, and during shooting really explore different interpretations of those moments. She wants to be given the freedom to begin and find the shading. Eddie and Julianne had read together in the very, very beginning when I cast Eddie during the audition process. I auditioned a bunch of people separately and then brought the few contenders to Julianne for final readings with her to see how they matched.
I wasn’t familiar with Eddie prior to seeing Savage Grace. What were you looking for when you were casting Tony?
Somebody who could convince you that he was this brooding 18 or 19-year-old boy who was very privileged but also dressed in khakis and plain white shirts. Even in khakis and white shirts you could tell was a boy who had been raised in a privileged world, who could also make the transformation from that tender, sweet, innocent boy to the person we meet in London, who is carrying a horrible weight on his shoulders and is maybe beginning to show the first signs of what would later be diagnosed as schizophrenia. Meaning, he wasn’t crazy-seeming in that stage, but there was something really damaged. Eddie was able to show the whole arc of all the tenderness all the way to the heaviness at the end of the film. He effortlessly conveyed—and maybe this is a stereotype of English actors—instantly conveyed [through] the way he sat in a chair, his class. He has this incredible voluptuous quality. That face—there’s something very much of the '60s and '70s. It’s a very period face for some reason to me, the lushness and androgynous quality to his face. He looks like Julianne, obviously—an incredible amount. So much that the end of the film has more power than it would’ve because you really believe you are seeing mother and son.
The nuances of his performance, from the way he holds his cigarette to the confident swagger he inherits from his mother, are truly phenomenal.
He did an Edward Albee play called The Goat which I never saw but he won a prize for, like the Evening Standard Award. He'd done a certain amount of theater before, and since then has done a bunch of smaller roles in bigger films and a few bigger roles in small films.
“Sex is just another form of behavior between human beings. It's one of the ways we communicate with each other. The intention is never gratuitous in the film.”
Something else that is getting a lot of attention, primarily because of its, quote, "shock value," are the film's sex scenes. Barring what the sex is on its own, these scenes help track the evolution of the mother/son relationship. How did you handle them with the actors, both in shooting and in concept?
I wish I could say that it's only in America that the sex scenes get so much discussion because we're a country founded by Puritans. But that's not actually entirely true. In general, the reaction in Europe is maybe less, quote, "shock." It's also completely understandable because it's strong material. All I can say is it just seems absolutely necessary for the storytelling of this particular story and this particular film to show all the sex scenes I show, primarily because sex is just another form of behavior between human beings. It's one of the ways we communicate with each other. The intention is never gratuitous in the film. It's really to show the difference between the beginning of the scene and the end of the scene, where there is a sex scene just like any other scene in the film—you're supposed to show a change, a turning point in the characters' relationships with each other. Sometimes those scenes are lighter, [like] the flirtation on the beach with Tony and his friends, or Tony and his first time with Blanca. They're tender, they're sweet, they're light, and they show a change in the moment for that character. Or the slightly dark but not completely dark first hint of violence of Barbara and Brooks having sex in the hotel room, where you realize, oh my God, this is actually kind of a game in a weird way in their marriage. This is the make-up sex after she makes him crazily angry. This might be part of what their relationship is about; he might like this. Or, obviously, the end scenes in London, which get the most discussion. Every moment in the scene seemed key. What I thought was so remarkable as a director was that the actors were so truthful and so compassionate, even in those moments in the film, and were always contributing something to characterization, always contributing something to the arc of the story.
I don't really believe in rehearsing, per se, because I think physically something happens. There's that kind of tension and electricity in the room before you shoot those things. Shooting the very first take is useful, not that that first take always happens. They're actors, they're doing a job. It's not like they're falling in love. There's something that gets said about scenes which have sex or violence in them, which is that they can often be amateur and light. That was often true in the scenes with Tony and Blanca—we all giggled. Even the scene between Julianne and Stephen in the hotel room was lighthearted, was funny. Like, "Oh my God, what is this?" That wasn't true of London. The atmosphere of shooting in London was very intense because it called for it. It was difficult what had happened between these two human beings, and [seeing] the actors go through all of that. The great part about it was that the dialogue I had quote, unquote "rehearsed." The scene that leads up to the sex scene on the sofa I had rehearsed a ton because I had auditioned that scene as one of the three main scenes that I asked Tony to read. It was a very hard scene to audition, but it seemed imperative to be able to see what someone would do with it. It started with the very first callback between Julianne and Eddie. Obviously when we auditioned the scene the actors didn't act anything out. But you can get [through] the dialogue the transformation, [from] the chit chat they're having at the beginning of the conversation—"Where were you?"; "What's going on?"; "Where's the dog collar?"—leading up to having sex between the two of them. It shows the power dynamic between Barbara and Tony.
To switch gears for a minute, you mentioned working with Christine Vachon, having her give you the book. Can you talk about your working relationship with her as a producer?
She's amazing. I came to New York City; I met Todd Haynes, actually, through an activist organization called ACT UP. He had also made a film called Superstar about Karen Carpenter. Shortly after that time I met Christine. Christine and Todd did Poison, and alongside while she was finishing Poison I was fundraising to make a film called Swoon, which I went to Christine [with], mainly to get advice about structuring the movie. She said, "No, I want to produce the movie," so we became involved. I wasn't even sure I was making a feature yet. I had come from a background of shorts and it was a very different moment in the early '90s. You could possibly have made a 40-minute film; there was that kind of world then. We then did what was sort of unusual; we began a production company together. The company that became Killer [Films] I was a part of in the early days. I did a film called Go Fish; I was a producer with her. Also, I Shot Andy Warhol we produced together. I almost did Kids but didn't with Larry Clark. Toward the end of that phase I decided that I enjoyed producing but I also wanted to develop movies as a director. I told you the story about developing Savage Grace and the two other features, [including] the Patti Smith/Robert Mapplethorpe [film] and the Monks movie, and that was all with Christine, so I've always worked closely alongside her.
I think our priorities are very similar in terms of movies being inspired or risk taking and that have a point-of-view, and made with the most amount of vision impact. I joke about it, but Christine and I really read a lot of projects during that period of time. Often the stuff was not as well-written as something like Savage Grace was, the book. There's a big genre that's not so well-written. We were amazed by real stories about what people do to each other, not only because of the whole, "Oh, that's shocking and salacious" [aspect]. True stories really reverberated. The detail in them and stories of almost mythological weight where it takes on more than the sum of its parts.
You've also been very choosy about your projects, though you've been involved in directing, producing, and writing [in different capacities]. Is there anything coming up for you?
There is. I’m developing two things—one of them is a novel which I don’t have the rights to, so I’m not officially developing it; I’m going after a novel. Another one is an original script that I’m writing; I’m just starting it now. I’ve been doing that for the first four or five months of this year; [it’s] my project this summer to work on. It’s set in the 1930s. I’m open to other things. I’m probably not only going to do, in my career, just directing. I’m choosy, but I think I’m drawn to strong material that’s actor-driven and that has a good story. It all depends on the script. The funny thing about Savage Grace and Swoon is they’re both symbiotic, [about] very intense relationships between two people. The Patti Smith/Robert Mapplethorpe and the Monks movie were both totally different, especially the Monks movie, which was a goofy coming-of-age movie that had no violence in it whatsoever. My interest and my range is bigger than the movies I’ve made. As a director, I never decided I was going to wait 15 years between my first feature [and Savage Grace]. I’ve been busy in the meantime; I’ve directed a bunch of narrative short films, I’ve produced, I’ve written stuff. I’m eager to direct something again and hope to be doing it in the next year or two.