Director Tom Kalin talks about his latest film ‘Savage Grace’, starring Julianne Moore.
After a 15-year hiatus from feature filmmaking, Swoon’s Tom Kalin returns to helm the erotically charged, yet deeply disturbing ‘Savage Grace’. Based on a true story, Kalin brings the scandalous Baekeland family tale to the big screen, enlisting Julianne Moore as the lead – Barbara Daly Baekeland. Following a 30-year period we watch the decline of the eccentric socialite who was murdered by her son Tony in London in 1972. Here, Kalin talks about the challenges of bringing this unconventional relationship of suicide, co-dependence, mental illness and incest to the big screen.
Q: Your last feature film ‘Swoon’ was out over 15-years ago. What have you been doing between features?
I’ve had such an eclectic career. I’ve produced two films, I co-wrote a Cindy Sherman movie called the ‘Office Killer’ and I made a large body of shorts – some narrative based, some experimental. It was never a conscious choice to avoid making another feature film. I developed several movies as a screenwriter to direct that didn’t happen for various reasons. One of them was a Patti Smith biopic; another was a biopic of a lesser-known band called The Monks. The Patti Smith film didn’t happen, in part because Patti herself was ambivalent to having her life on the big screen. It covered the period from 1967-79 and I think she was nervous about exposing what was required of her.
Q: How did you approach developing the project?
I read the book. I was completely riveted by it. It was out in the mid ‘80s and, actually, very quickly after ‘Swoon’ I tried to option it but didn’t have the money. Then, about fours ago, I came back to it – it never really left my imagination. I always knew with this project I didn’t want to write it because I had read the book and was so immersed in the material. So I started by saying, “if you could tell this story in just five days what would they be”. So I interviewed a group of screenwriters, decided on Howard Rodman, who was sort of a friend but became much more of one in the process. I made a binder of photographs from the book and told him my 5-day premise. We separated and eventually came back together and in almost without exception we came back with the same five images.
Q: So would you consider this a complete biopic or a crime story?
It’s a non-traditional biopic in the manner I’ve presented it but in order for it to register as a biopic I think you need to approach knowing about these characters. Interestingly, despite their relative wealth, this is relatively unknown story. The book has been long out of print and one of the great satisfactions of this project is that the book is now back in print. But I think overall it’s more of a crime film; if I had to describe it I’d say it’s a fact based crime movie that feature symbiotic relationships between two character, that engage in an awful dance together that leads to terrible consequences. So there are similarities between ‘Swoon’ and ‘Savage Grace’ but there are also differences based on who the characters are.
Q: With ‘Savage Grace’ you’re dealing with the darker side of humanity. How easy/difficult is it to fund such a project?
We’re in a place now where to get a “dark film” financed, almost without exception you need to have a named cast. So, for example, without Julianne Moore this film would not have happened. It’s a difficult moment to make challenging material. You have to go where the money is. We tried to make it in the States but in the end it just never materialised. The majority of the money came from France and Spain. The Spanish government subsidised a big part of the film because we shot the entire film in Spain. In fact Julianne is the only American actress in the film. The entire cast and crew were Spanish and British.
We considered a variety of places to shoot. For instance, Ireland for a long time had great subsidies for filming until Mel Gibson came in and exploited it (laughs). We almost shot on the Isle of Man. Weirdly, we couldn’t find a London interior there, we needed to go to Barcelona to find London – where’s the logic there!
Actually, I find it interesting to considering people like P.T Anderson (There Will Be Blood) and Todd Haynes (I’m not there), who are both extremely talented and respected, still find it difficult to fund their projects – even with the casts they have signed up. I think it’s particularly the case of films without catharsis at the end. I was asked many times could I make the ending lighter but what was I to do – he killed her, that’s essential to the story!
Q: How was the film received in the States?
I think the film has been a litmus test for how people feel about really uncomfortable representations of sexuality. So, the American to European reactions were extremely different. America is completely surrounded by puritans; we live in a very schizophrenic sexual culture. Take Britney Spears as an icon of pop culture – she is highly sexualised in her representations but at the same time, we are extremely phobic about our expression of sexuality.
In the States I had people come up to me, right into my face saying “how dare you make this film – I’m completely disgusted”, which of course isn’t my intention at all. It’s a film to challenge you but it’s not there just to have a shock factor. Contrary to that reaction, when I was in places like Stockholm, the film wasn’t seen as a dirty little film about sex, but as a film about human relationships and the tragedy that surrounds them.
Q: Watching Julianne Moore in the film, I couldn’t help but feel this was very much part of a canon of films she’s previously worked on: Far from Heaven, The Hours et al. Where you aware of that when casting her?
People lump this in with those films but I don’t necessarily agree with the comparison. In those films, Julianne played highly internal damaged characters; Barbara, on the other hand, is a ferocious, angry, narcissistic woman. I’d actually liken it to her one of her very early performances in the ‘The Hand that Rocks the Cradle’. She plays this fiery redhead and I said to Julianne – that part has something to do with the way I still see you.
I think the thing it has in common with other films is her being virtuoso in terms of period work. How she find a way in period films to conjure the sense of the world around her. So when you see her in the ‘40s, ‘50s, or 60s, she really captures the manner of the period – and with very little budget.
Q: How did she react to the film?
That was nerve-wracking! Julianne doesn’t watch her work during filming so she had only seen two scenes where we needed to do dialogue replacement. The first time she saw it was with the audience at Cannes – I was scared out of my wits. After the credits it was almost like an out-of-body experience. There was a standing ovation, a light comes on to you- its all extremely strange. After we went upstairs; she took my hand. She was, completely posed – unnervingly posed – and just said, “you’re very dark” and laughed. It was of course a complete compliment.
Q: So will we have to wait another 15 year’s for Tom Kalin’s follow-up feature?
(Laughs) Not this time! I’m in pre-production of my next project; the script is about a third of the way there. It will have a fictional foreground with a factual background, by which I mean the characters are fictional but the setting is factual. It’s another period piece but this time an unrequited love story. It’s set in the ‘30s and centres of a film censor and an actress.
The actress does not know he’s the film censor because it’s his job to censor her work. It’s set against the backdrop of the institution of the production code, which happened in the States in 1934. Prior to 1934, what you saw in films was very bold – single women having sex, abortions – all kinds of things, which are considered contemporary. Then very swiftly, because of the Catholic Church mainly, the culture changed and many actresses’ careers were destroyed because their roles were considered too risqué.
Savage Grace is in Irish cinemas from Friday.