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Death Becomes Him

Death Becomes Him


Director Tom Kalin returns to the Sundance Film Festival -- which in '92 embraced his first feature, Swoon -- with Savage Grace, a movie about another, very different gay killer.

When Tom Kalin's Swoon premiered at Sundance in 1992, it was part of a collection of daring films that heralded the birth of New Queer Cinema. Gay movies have gotten steadily more mainstream since then, but Kalin has largely stayed out of the fray, choosing instead to make short films and teach film at Columbia University. This year he returns to Park City with Savage Grace, a film chronicling the scandalous true story of socialite Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore), whose incestuous affair with her gay son Tony (Eddie Redmayne) ended in murder.

Sundance helped launch New Queer Cinema in 1992, and this year many of the movement's filmmakers are returning. You've got your first film since Swoon, Gregg Araki is back with a restored print of The Living End, even Derek Jarman, who was there with Edward II, is represented via Isaac Julien's Jarman documentary. What's going on? Is it just kismet, or is this a queer renaissance?

Who knows? You know, we premiered at Cannes at May and I've done a fair amount of press where people been asking, "What happened to New Queer Cinema? Does it exist? What did it mean?" I don't know. I think what's interesting is, What is queer cinema now? Does it have to be a queer movie? Does the director have to be gay or lesbian for the movie to be queer? Is it about the content of the film or the audience perception?

I think different people's work involves it in different ways, like Isaac's work or Gregg's or Todd Haynes's. Some of their work has been gay-themed, and some of it hasn't been. My two features as director have had gay content, but there's a whole body of work I've done, including shorts, where some of it's been gay and some of it hasn't been. I don't know if it's serendipity or if things have come around full circle. Or maybe we're older and wiser and we're ready for a reunion. [Laughs]

Tell me a little bit around the real-life story that inspired this film. What was it that attracted you to it?

There's a nonfiction book that came out in the '80s called Savage Grace, which is actually going to be rereleased later in the year to tie into the movie. It's written by Steven Aronson and Natalie Robins, and it's this amazing book -- primarily an oral history, so it's a series of interviews from people who knew the characters -- and there are excerpts of things like letters from Barbara to Tony. In condensing the movie, you always take liberties. You condense characters, you compress time frames, you deal with issues of chronology. Still, this story is the same kind of thing I remember from the book, that sort of shocking thing you read by the swimming pool and you're just like, "Oh, my God, I can't believe it!" But in a deeper way, what makes this great tragedy is that this impact between a mother and a son is an ancient theme. That's what attracted me to it: It combines something that was sensational and shocking with something that had much deeper emotions to it.

What sort of emotions?

It's really a portrait of a family that has so much privilege that they're not responsible in the same ways -- particularly at that period of time, before everyone talked about a culture of sexual abuse or were even aware of such a thing. I think that's the real tragedy of Barbara and Tony -- they kind of went out on this limb in broad daylight, but because of the social circle they were in, there weren't real repercussions. There's a scene where Tony talks about how one of the things of having money is that it allows you not to live out the consequences of your mistakes. It's true, in a way. Having privilege allowed them to live easy lives, but it also allowed them to indulge in the self-destructive, emotionally unbalanced dynamics between them.

I understand that the photos in the book also informed your film in a particular way?

They were a big influence in the look, the character, but also the psychology. There's this amazing picture of Tony in the bathtub at age 11 or 12, clearly taken by Barbara, totally naked, completely comfortable being photographed. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't have liked being photographed naked at 11 years old by my mother! All those photographs hint at something that's going on underneath the surface.

How did the story come to you?

I think [producer] Christine Vachon and I have had a kind of unhealthy fascination with true-crime books for years. I've known Christine now for about 20 years, and when were first getting to know each other, one of the ways we would become friends is we would exchange these shocking paperbacks that always had photos in the middle of them. It was like, "Oh, my God, can you believe that crime? It's horrible!" [Laughs] This one she gave me around 1991 and said, "I think you're really suited to this." The writing of the book is of a different caliber--it's not known as a true-crime book, it's a piece of journalism. I was also influenced hugely by books like In Cold Blood and the idea of Capote's approach to combining the best of fictional storytelling with the kind of vibration you get from something that really happened.

How does sexuality enter into it?

I'm particularly interested in the role of sexual identity in historical period. In this case, it's just past Stonewall when the murder happens. It's interesting, because everyone thinks that Tony is gay, although nominally bisexual at least for a while. He sleeps with Barbara and he's attracted to her in some ways, even though he's more gay than straight. What I think really works in the film, though, is, Is he the killer? Or does Barbara use her son as a tool to commit suicide? Yes, Tony uses a knife and kills her, but she's provoked him and emotionally manipulated him because she's such a narcissistic character. I don't know if you can call that relationship fully consensual. He's damaged.

I don't think Barbara intentionally did this -- I don't think she said, "I'm going to sleep with my son until he kills me." But I think that was part of the equation, part of the dance between the two of them. It's interesting, because a friend of mine saw the film who's been an AIDS activist for many years, he was in ACT UP in the '80s, and he said, "It's really a story about the setting free of the son. You can see this film about the son killing the mother, but it's also about this terrible thing happening between two people that releases Tony." And although what happens to him is not optimistic, there's something to that. There's two people in this fatal dance together, and the only way out is to go all the way until Barbara gets what she wanted -- which is to escape this world and die -- and Tony's free of the burden of his mother.

Have you been working on other features in between Swoon and Savage Grace or even now?

Actually, right now I'm working on a romantic story -- there's no murder, there's no perverted sexuality in it! [Laughing] In the interim between Swoon and Savage Grace, I tried to do a biography about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe that, for complicated reasons, didn't come together. I'm definitely interested in the idea of nonfiction-based films and trying to bring something fresh to that genre.

What kind of reaction have you gotten to Savage Grace so far?

It's been an interesting ride, this movie. After the scene of incest between Barbara and Tony, the audience tends to be absolutely silent when the credits first come up, and at first I was like, "Oh, my God, I've failed completely!" But then at Cannes, the audience leapt to its feet and we got a standing ovation, and you realize, "It's just a tough movie." I knew it would be a tough movie; I knew it would be hard to shoot that incest scene. That's the difference between Swoon and Savage Grace. I'm an older person now, and doing that sort of thing is emotionally difficult in terms of what you're asking the actors to do. When we were shooting the murder scene, some of what is horrific on screen wasn't really that awful, but shooting the incest scene was awful.

Both of your feature films are about gay killers -- not necessarily the most PC theme.

You know, Swoon in some complicated way comes out of AIDS. That rage, that despair -- the movie is definitely not an allegory about AIDS in any way, but it's a movie of that particular time. It's about my own relationship with AIDS activism and people with HIV and AIDS in my life who died and how bewildering that was at my age. This film isn't as connected to a certain time in my life in that way. I've never wanted to be seen as a spokesperson, I just don't. I appreciate the support I've gotten from the gay and lesbian community as a filmmaker, but I just don't think of my films as identity-based in that kind of way. In other words, I'm not making a film that's trying to talk about all gay people. In my personal life I have a 15-year-long relationship that's happy and well-adjusted. I'm not a tortured soul at all, really.

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Kyle Buchanan