Apr 25, 2008

TFF Interview: Tom Kalin, Savage Grace

Tom Kalin's Swoon (1992) was one of the first salvos of the New Queer Cinema in the early 90's. Long in development, his second feature, Savage Grace, has its New York Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. Cinema Echo Chamber spoke to him in lieu of the New York based Kalin's cinematic homecoming:

CEC: What initially drew you to Howard Rodman's screenplay?

Kalin: I chose Howard to write the script based on his past work and the fact that he was both excited and terrified of tackling this difficult material -- that tension keeps you on your toes. Our starting point was a question I posed: if you could tell this story in five days, what would they be? I collected a binder of photographs of the real characters and these photos -- little stolen moments of behavior or a shared look between Barbara and Tony -- became the basis for many scenes in the film. Eddie's and Julianne's appearance in the London sequence is adapted directly from a 1971 photo. Or the scene when young Tony takes a bath is based on trying to imagine what might have led up to the amazing picture of the real Tony at 11, lounging in the tub and looking provocatively at the camera (surely held by his mother). These photos hinted at the real drama lurking just below the surface.

CEC: Swoon is also a true crime story of sorts - the narrative springs from the 1924 Leopold and Loeb case. Is this a motif you've consciously decided to revisit and do you plan on continuing to make films in this genre?

Kalin: I'm interested in the tension between fact and fiction and wanted to explore non fiction material in a feature narrative with both films. Of course they share themes like the role of class & money in American society and depict characters in highly symbiotic relationships. Both films collide elegance and violence. But my interests are wide ranging and I don't plan to carve out a narrow niche or genre in my work. The project I am developing now is a romance, fictional characters set against a factual backdrop.

CEC: How was shooting in Spain? Did you find it more difficult, did it infuse the material with something you hadn't expected or initially envisioned?

Kalin: Shooting in Spain was both brutally difficult in some ways and creatively a dream. I had amazing collaborations with my brilliant crew, especially Juanmi Azpiroz (DP), Victor Molero (Production Design) and Gabriela Salaverri (Costumes). Shooting the film entirely on location in Barcelona gave incredible visual texture and density. Actors thrive with the sights, sounds and textures of a real places. Our Mallorca location was said to be haunted by a ghost, Blanca. Can't imagine that in the States.

CEC: When you have as savvy and skilled an actress as Julianne Moore, how much "directing" does one do?

Kalin: "Directing" actors is a complicated and unique dance with each person you work with. The role of the director is to orchestrate the audiences' attention, not give actors line readings. Costume, camera and design are all key vehicles to help express and define character. Julianne is a brilliantly instinctive actor. Some times the best thing you can do is give an actor the space and freedom to take risks. Julianne is amazing at finding the smallest, most precise moments of behavior and physicality that brings the scene fully to life. Casting the ensemble well in a movie is the best revenge, because if (as the cliche says) acting is reacting, the film benefits enormously from great chemistry.

CEC: How do you know when you are ready to shoot a scene?

Kalin: When the AD gets that look on his face. And when me and my collaborators have done our "homework" and found the way into a scene that makes it feel alive and specific.

CEC: Do you continue to make films for the same reasons which initially drew you to the medium?

Kalin: Yes which is always about the collaboration with strong, opinionated artists. The process of bumping up against others makes everyone better. Connecting with and challenging an audience is a great and exciting gift. I feel lucky to get to do this for a living.

CEC: Being a New York based filmmaker, do you have any special expectations or reservation for your Tribeca screening, which amounts to a NY Premiere?

Kalin: The last year has been an amazing ride starting at Cannes and traveling to well over a dozen international film festivals. I can't wait to share the movie with the home crowd. No reservations, just excitement.