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January 16, 2008

A Savage Comeback

Reeler Interview: Filmmaker Tom Kalin on true crime, Savage Grace and his long-awaited return to Sundance

The Savage-s: Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne in Savage Grace, screening at this year's Sundance Film Festival (Photos: IFC Films)

It might have taken 16 years, but it isn't as though director Tom Kalin wasn't busy between Sundance Film Festival appearances. After the debut of his 1992 true-crime stunner Swoon, Kalin produced a pair of other Park City benchmarks (Go Fish and I Shot Andy Warhol) before joining the faculty of Columbia University's School of the Arts. His latest feature, Savage Grace, stars Julianne Moore as Barbara Daly Baekeland, "an Irish Catholic girl from the wrong side of the tracks" (in Kalin's words) who meets and marries the heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune after World War II and whose, well, intimate relationship with her son Antony precipitated one of the most sensational murder cases of its time.

"The story follows sort of the giddy rise and tragic fall of her life," Kalin told the Reeler in an interview before journeying to Sundance. "It's a tragedy -- a story about the ambition of this woman to sort of break into the charmed circle, her successes socially but also her personal failures." A curious, compelling blend of potboiler and chamber drama, Grace features finely modulated work from both Moore and, as Tony, Eddie Redmayne, smoldering under his mother's pressure to conform and his own ambiguous sexual identity. The Reeler spoke further with Kalin about discovering the Baekelands, commandeering the Columbia Mafia and returning to the scene of the crime in Park City.

THE REELER: There are a lot of angles to this story -- melodrama, class striving, tabloid news and more. What specifically compelled you to pursue Savage Grace?

TOM KALIN: The most obvious thing is kind of the shocking tabloid quality to the material. I've had a long, unhealthy relationship with reading true-crime books for many years. There's something much more substantial to it -- obviously there are echoes of Greek tragedy, and in addition to liking cheap true crime books, I love things like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. The book Savage Grace, which preceded the movie, may not be In Cold Blood, but it certainly is a beautiful piece of journalism that had both of those layers: the sensational aspect and also a deeper mythic aspect. In the end, I find them very flawed, troubling characters who are really compelling. The emotional journey of the characters is what making movies, to me, is always about.

R: You've combined this kind of sensationalized mythology with nuanced character studies in the past as well. How did you approach that balance with Savage Grace?

TK: In terms of practical stuff, I had an amazing collaboration with the screenwriter, Howard Rodman. We started with a sprawling book that covered over 100 years, and I had a process that started with the question, "If we had to tell the [story] in just five days, what would those five days be?" We parted ways and came back with almost exactly the same moments in the movie. We had to get from 1946 to 1972, but in a minimalist way -- focusing on the key turning points and the difference between one point and the next.

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I was aided hugely by the photographs in the book; Julianne looks unbelievably like the real Barbara, and Eddie looks unbelievably like the real Tony. There was a picture of Barbara and Tony taken in 1971 sharing a sofa. It's how I designed the look end of the movie -- what she wears, how they're sitting. There's something in that picture that's a very lovely domesticated portrait of two people sharing a sofa, but there's something chilling in the photograph, too, because you realize, "Oh my God; they're not husband and wife. They're mother and son." So then it's really about the emotional and psychological aspects: taking something that's considered so taboo -- incest and the sexual excesses shown in the movie -- but trying to humanize them, and trying to bring empathy to the story. These are potentially unsympathetic characters that I don't want to judge.

R: It's especially new terrain for Julianne Moore. How did you work along with her and Eddie to "humanize" the Baekelands?

TK: If you look at The Hours or Far From Heaven, Juli's playing wives who are kind of carrying the weight of this repressed period of time they're living in. I always sensed that she had the potential to do something violently explosive and really dramatic, and I think she was excited to explore new territory. Yet I didn't want to get into pat psychoanalyzing about the characters. I think there's always a certain mystery when people do very transgressive things, about the why of it. So we focus on the smaller moments of behavior. Juli's a very instinctive actor; it's not about verbal analysis. It's about creating the mood and the situation and going with it. Even the way that Tony and Barbara have sex in the end says so much about the characters. Of course the audience is shocked, but I'm always wanting to pay attention to the emotional and psychological journey.

R: You're entering your second decade of teaching at Columbia's School of the Arts, from which Sundance has taken a lot of recent programming. What is going on there that you think so attracts this festival?

Tom Kalin with actor Hugh Dancy on the set of Savage Grace

TK: For me it's no surprise. The students swept the Student Academy Awards for years; now Columbia has an international reputation as a very strong narrative school that's story-driven, and it has a great international student body. We're not the school with all the bells and whistles and equipment compared to others, but there's a great sense of community and great, prolific faculty that works here -- James Schamus, Michael Hausman, Eric Mendelsohn among them -- who are really vitally working filmmakers. There's an open atmosphere that fosters that kind of collaboration. That's the core of filmmaking -- it's a collaborative medium. I learn a ton from being around them; they haven't been tortured yet the way they will be, so I learn a lot from their points of view.

R: How did that environment factor into the development of Savage Grace?

TK: It's funny: None of them have seen the completed film yet, but I taught it while I was developing it. I talked about how you make a director's notebook, how I visualized, what the staging process was like, what rehearsal was like. Now that I've shot the film, I've shown clips in class and asked, "What was my shot list? How was I planning to shoot this? How did I actually shoot this?" I use all the work I do to look at what I achieved, what my disappointments were, what the reality was.

R: I've written previously about the semi-reunion you'll be a part of this year at Sundance. What are you looking forward to -- in both a personal and professional sense?

TK: I love that it's timed this way; it's always a great gathering of the tribes. I feel particularly blessed to have premiered at Cannes and screened at a dozen or more festivals before Sundance; all the filmmaker nerves are gone. I'm not jittery; I'm not nervous. I've had the gamut of reactions to this movie. I feel completely proud. It does feel like coming back home; it's one of the first festivals I ever went to, and I kept going to in different incarnations. I haven't been in quite a while now, and even then there was a huge change in the style of those movies -- the commercialization and even the scale of the festival. I'm curious to see it.



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