Sixteen years after his directorial debut, “Swoon,” Tom Kalin‘s follow-up, “Savage Grace,” is being released theatrically today (Friday). Based on the true-crime novel by Natalie Robins, “Grace” tells the story of Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore) and her, to say the least, challenging relationships with her husband Brooks (Stephan Dillane) and her son Tony (Eddie Redmayne). For Kalin, the directorial hiatus was not unproductive. He has produced films including “Go Fish” and “I Shot Andy Warhol, and continues to teach at Columbia University. Kalin participated in a conversation in “Grace”‘s honour during the indieWIRE and Apple’s series of talks during the Tribeca Film Festival, where he discussed the film and its difficult journey to the screen.
“People were not banging down the door to tell this story,” Kalin said. “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 it 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 film’s eventual completition was due in large part to his relationship with its producers, Killer Films‘ Christine Vachon, 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. “Its 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.”
For some audiences, watching the film may not prove as satisfying. In the film’s three major screenings, first at Cannes last May and then Sundance and Tribeca, people have been divided, especially when it comes to sexual relationship that develops between Barbara and her son. “The film deals with intense sexual taboo within a family,” Kalin admits. “There’s so 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 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 said. “And people paying attention to a movie when you make is one of the things you really hope for. If people want to have lively discussions, that’s really rewarding.”
Kalin is not unfamiliar with directing controversial material, despite the sole other example. “Swoon,” which tells the true story of 1920s-era lovers and murderers Leopold and Loeb, shares much with “Grace.” “They’re both symbiotic stories that involve sexual obsession and murder,” Kalin explained. “So everyone’s like ‘well, I see what you’re 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 anti-heroes that could be seen as ‘counter-cultural 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 comes out of a very different time than “Swoon.” “There was a real celebratory moment in the nineties about things changing and more people being able to make films,” Kalin said. “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.” “Grace” might just exemplify that notion as it expands through the coming weeks.