For Tom Kalin, Savage Grace is a long time coming. Sixteen years after his directorial debut, Swoon, played a crucial role in the emergence of a “new queer cinema,” Kalin is finally releasing his follow-up. Based on the true-crime novel by Natalie Robins, Grace centres around Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore), a wealthy, gorgeous, borderline sociopath. When we first meet Barbara her life appears rather perfect: She is married to the handsome, successful Brooks (Stephan Dillane), with whom she has a beautiful son, Tony (played by Barney Clark as a child). But time is not kind to this ideal. Her marriage crumbles, her drinking becomes excessive and Tony (now played by Eddie Redmayne) grows into an emotionally unstable and sexually confused young man. Desperate to control the one male she thought would never leave her side, Barbara begins to ambitiously toil in Tony’s sex life, including hopping into bed with him and his lover, and — in a scene that led a few dozen people to walk out of the screening I attended — blowing him.
The film, making its Canadian premiere at Inside Out this month, was supposed to have been made ages ago. Producer Christine Vachon (who worked with Kalin on Swoon, and also produced everything from Poison to Boys Don’t Cry through her company Killer Films) gave Kalin the book in 1991, prompting a series of starts and stops. At one point in the mid-1990s, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s film company was attached to finance it. But the finished product is hard to imagine in any other form. Moore captures the campy glory of Barbara’s pathological personality and Redmayne, whose resemblance to Moore is uncanny, makes for the sexiest victim of incestuous maternal manipulation to ever hit the big screen. And for Kalin, the time delay did not go wasted. Trained as a visual artist and photographer, he pursued a variety of artistic projects, as well as producing films like Go Fish and I Shot Andy Warhol and teaching at Columbia University. I caught up with Kalin at a talk in Grace’s honour during April’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York where he discussed the film and its long, hard journey to the screen.
“People were not banging down the door to tell this story,” he says, laughing. “Even though studios would read the script and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s a total page turner,’ and ‘Julianne’s so incredible,’ they’d be like, ‘How in God’s name are you gonna shoot some of the scenes?’ And what I would say back is just ‘very carefully.’ It’s the only answer you can give.”
Kalin notes the key to the film’s overcoming of these obstacles was his relationship with Vachon and her producing partners Katie Roumel and Pamela Koffler “[They] were just tireless in terms of fighting for the creative point of view of the film and really not sacrificing what’s important,” he said. “It’s because of them I got to make exactly the movie that I wanted. And although it was difficult, shooting the film was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had professionally.”
That declaration is due at least in part to Moore, of whom Kalin has nothing but adoring things to say. “I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing this part other than Julianne,” he says. “She was the only one we approached for the movie.”
Kalin met Moore through Todd Haynes, who he’d known since the late 1980s. They met at a screening of Haynes’ Safe, in which Moore stars. Kalin had her in mind for Barbara ever since. “It’s a different role for her,” he acknowledges. “Julianne’s really kind of known for playing a lot of internal, fragile, damaged ‘housewife’ characters. And this is a very volatile, ferociously narcissistic character who ends up quite destructive. But Julianne can take a character so complicated and difficult and make the audience empathetic to her.” In this case, though, some audiences might not agree. In the film’s three major screenings, first at Cannes last May and then Sundance and Tribeca, people have been quite divided, especially when it comes to the mother-son “bonding.” “The film deals with intense sexual taboo within a family,” Kalin admits. “They’re not particularly graphic but very strong scenes dramatically. And the audience tends to have a very strong reaction.”
At a screening in Tribeca, Kalin watched as a woman rather vocally protested to an usher that the film was “vile pornography.” “I don’t think you can make a movie like Savage Grace and be shocked by audiences responding strongly for or against it,” he says, “and people paying attention to a movie you make is one of the things you really hope for. If people want to have lively discussions, that’s really rewarding.”
Despite a previous filmography of just one title, Kalin is no stranger to directing films that elicit conversation. Swoon, which tells the true-life story of infamous 1920s-era lovers and murderers Leopold and Loeb, certainly shares many qualities with Grace. “They’re both symbiotic stories that involve sexual obsession and murder,” says Kalin. “So everyone’s like, ‘Well, I see what your interests are.’ But Swoon is a different film from Savage Grace because I identified with Leopold and Loeb and saw that film more as me wanting to make a film about two antiheroes that could be seen as countercultural heroes of their time. Savage Grace isn’t that film at all. It’s a portrait film about a family in total crisis.”
Grace also doesn’t come out of the vastly different gay and lesbian culture that gave birth to Swoon. “There was a real celebratory moment in the ’90s about things changing and more people being able to make films,” says Kalin. “There was a total punk rock can-do spirit to what we were doing then. Which is now different. I still make movies out of that same excitement and that same sense of possibility. But the reality around me is just so different in terms of how the movies get made.”
But there are some similarities. “We had Reagan in office, followed by Bush and, gee, there’s a Bush in office again. I think there’s something, for me, kind of interesting about having made a movie in the middle of a Republican administration and the second time around there’s still a Republican in office. I think progress has been made but in other ways there’s still issues with the culture in terms of representation about what we can put on screen.”
Come this summer, when Savage Grace is released across North America, some of those issues might just come up.