Columbia University, New York City
May 9, 2008
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Tom Kalin When I first got to know Christine Vachon we both sort of bonded over our mutual love of terrible paperback true crime books that usually had photographs in the middle, sort of appalling photographs. “Oh my God! Look at that corpse!” So she gave me this book to read. It was in a different category from the books I normally read. It was a beautifully written book. It’s a series of … primarily the book is not a chronological narrative; it’s a series of first-person interviews with the people who knew Barbara, Brooks, and Tony. Obviously the book was written in the mid-’80s. It was the shocking tabloid aspect of the material that drew me to it at first; you know, the truth is stranger than fiction. I couldn’t believe the material of it, but it obviously had real resonance with Greek tragedy. There’s kind of amazing mythological weight to the story. I’m very actor-driven, so I just thought they were amazing. The three parts were really incredible. It was interesting to me, because they were not characters that were typically … . I have not so far made a feature as a director with traditionally sympathetic protagonists. So I was also interested in this story, because I didn’t really identify with any of the characters in the way that you traditionally identify. I’m not really actually asking the audience to identify in that way. In other words: What would it say about me as a human being if I identified with Barbara and Tony? Yikes!
So I think the key in the movie is that I wanted to try to see … I wanted to make a movie that was based on behavior and not psychology in the traditional way. I wanted to really carefully observe, very patiently observe, what actually happened between these two people and how it led to what happens—to the kind of penultimate death. I was very drawn to this material by just a really basic question, in the same way that I was drawn to Swoon—a very basic question. This film the basic question was: Does Barbara get murdered by Tony, or is it actually suicide? Is this a character just so full of despair that she’s actually used her son as a tool that she “sharpens” over many years into the device with which to kill herself? Because she’s such a narcissist, she fails in her attempt to commit suicide—or to commit suicide herself—because she doesn’t have the “bravery” to do it. So that was one of the questions I was trying to get at. I’ve been trying to really imagine what happened, especially in London. But leading up to London, how did these two people get there? And to avoid sort of traditional ideas of psychologizing. That’s why Tony’s descent into mental illness isn’t really handled in a kind of traditional way. I adore Psycho, for instance, except for the last three minutes where Tony Perkins sits there; and they explain he’s schizophrenic and what’s going on. Swoon was similar in the sense that I think that I’m more interested in the audience making up their own mind about what they think is going on with the characters and not explaining in that way.
Bette Gordon The other aspect of that is your interest in the social-political climate in which these characters were living. So their behavior, of course—and in Swoon as well—you have sort of this fascination with—aristocracy, class, and, I would call it, a social critique. I guess you probably would too. But could you also talk a little bit about that?
TK A huge part of it is autobiographical. I came from—as some of you know—I’m the youngest of 11 children. I come from a sort of lower-middle class Irish Catholic family, so I’m actually more similar, in terms of my biography, to Barbara than any of the other characters. I was on the wrong side of the tracks dreaming of having the life I ended up actually getting to live. So I’m grateful about that. Swoon and Savage Grace are as much about class as it is about sex. My work is a lot about the seeming relationship between sex and power. Those are definitely a big part of what I’m trying to get at. I’m very interested in the idea of how class in American society is one of the most important conduits of how we relate to each other and how invisible it’s made in our culture. We’re supposed to be this class-free society. To be really honest, there’s really a certain amount of kind of emotional desire to be inside those rooms; the need to make sure they’re sitting on the right sofa or handling the right props is an obsession on my part. I want to make sure I get it right. One of the things I’m most satisfied by are when genuinely upper-class people who come from this world are like, You got the film right. Sad, but true!
There’s also other autobiographical issues, which I hadn’t really recognized till much, much later. My father starting in the late ’50s ran something called the St. Charles School for Boys, which was a reformatory school for juvenile delinquents where my mother raised my adorable four older sisters in the presence of a bunch of teen rapists. I’m not kidding. Then later in his career he was the director of Stateville Penitentiary Parole Department, which is, weirdly Stateville is where Leopold was incarcerated. As a kid, as a teenager, I visited prisons thinking that visiting a prison was like, “Dad’s Day at Work.” I was going to visit Dad at work! It didn’t really occur to me at 13 or 14 that this was super odd. In some ways it’s, I joke but it’s serious, about some sort of attempt to understand the so-called criminal mind. Mostly to bring empathy to characters that cannot be considered worthy of empathy and compassion. I think that’s what’s so amazing about the three main actors, especially Julianne: the boldness of choosing not to judge this character. People ask her all the time, What did you identify with in playing Barbara? She’s like, Nothing, I have two kids and am a relatively well-adjusted person. So I think that’s possible. I think you can ask an audience to go on a journey with characters and they don’t … I think that’s different that the audience doesn’t identify. I think that Swoon is a very different movie, even though on the surface there are similarities. Swoon was more influenced by Bonnie and Clyde and things like that, where I thought I was making a kind of movie where the characters were sort of symbolic anti-heroes. What they did had a symbolic meaning, and you were supposed to be cathartically involved in it. So I identified more with Leopold and Loeb than I did with Barbara, Brooks, and Tony. This movie, there isn’t an allegory or metaphor in Savage Grace. It’s meant to be reporting in that sense of being documentary or journalistic. I’m not asking you to kind of see the transgressive aspects of this crime as having symbolic, metaphoric, cathartic kind of meaning.
BG There’s a lusciousness. Every frame there are doors and windows and reflections and just the eye of you as an artist is so clear. Your background actually is in thinking about things like color and structure and form; so how did you work from there to the design of the scenes to the camera and the choices that you made? You know, the camera’s very quiet. It’s beautifully quiet. I mean you could practically hear a pin drop at certain points. Visually, if you could just sort of set the scene for that.
TK My background is a visual artist. My undergraduate, I studied as a painter. I didn’t study film. I did my graduate degrees in photography, and I did experimental video. So a lot a lot of my prep has to do with looking at painting when I’m trying to visualize a movie. I spent weeks in the Met and looking at painting or looking at photography. I watch other movies and certainly Joseph Losey or Bertolucci or Visconti or a million people out there, [Luis] Buñuel. Anything referenced or nodded to. I hope the movie has its own language. I don’t really think of myself as a postmodernist in the sense that I’m borrowing from other places or copying other work. So with the DP [Director of Photography] really the discussion was about single source lighting and paintings, like Rembrandt’s paintings or Vermeer’s paintings. That’s actually how we live. All of Mallorca is lit by using available light through the windows. I’m not supposed to actually say that because you’re supposed to think it’s electrically lit. In fact we were shooting in just the daylight in places where we could control the light with shutters; and it’s very, very simply photographed. I tend to move the camera a lot, and this time I wanted to explore how could you escalate tension by not moving the camera. We created kind of conceptual rules in certain places. Like in discussing London, one thing we agreed on very early is that you would never see the knife go in or out. When the stabbing happened, we called that shot actually “The Kiss”; it looks like they’re kissing. Also, whenever possible in London, the camera should not move. It should be completely patient and very observational. Only at moments when the tension has kind of escalating does the camera move, but glacially slow in a dolly. And if you look at that sequence, it’s like: static, static, static, slow movement, static, static, static, slow movement. All the way through the sequence to create a kind of sense of claustrophobia and increasing tension in those sequences. In some ways I’m able to be proud of being comfortable enough to be simple in things and not try to be fancy with the camera.
BG Swoon was black and white, and beautifully so; and this is color. Every sequence has a color. Her dresses are to die for. How did you think about following the color as we go from beginning to end?
TK Color always came first. Color was huge. I was always a fanatic. My approach was basically that everything that had to be photographed had to work color-wise. So things would come kind of unconsciously like I knew that she—just based on Julianne’s coloring and her look, pale skin, red hair—I wanted to see her in lavender. There were these kind of Japanese woodblock paintings of irises, a pale lavender and green and brown around them. I was like, Okay that’s what I want. I want dark brown. She’s pale and lavender, so that really stands out. Or things that were “incorrectly” of the period, like Julianne doesn’t wear any jewelry in the Stork Club, which is really wrong for the period. A woman in the 1940s would wear, would be dripping with, diamonds. So every other woman at the table was accessorized and dressing. She’s modern actually; she’s wearing no necklace. She looks completely against period. Or the use of pink and red in the film. We called her the “Red Menace”—
BG The red at the end! Yes!
TK So with a lot of that, I was so blessed; because the costume designer in the movie, this was her first feature. She’s a costume designer. She’s done only opera before; but she, in the opera, thought in this hugely theatrical way about the use of color and form. So she got right into my head in that way. So she, Gabriela, did a bunch of clothes that you see on film. They were specific; it was like a Balenciaga white sailor suit from the late 1950s. I was like, I want that dress knocked off. Or the mint color Dior dress that she wears to the Paris launch; I had that specific dress in mind. Then we borrowed clothes from a place called Didier Ludox in Paris, which is this amazing couturier. So we had this sort of Givenchy, the pink, the magenta crazy dress she wears in the airport was partially I just wanted a piece of clothing that expressed the explosion that was going on in this character. I wanted a piece where the second you saw her on camera, your eye, wherever she was, would go immediately to her. Oh, there were crazy things.
I was so lucky Julianne—you know I worked with movie stars—so I was lucky to have a movie star who could call Karl Lagerfeld up and get him. He made the pink dress that she wears when she’s in the café scene where she’s wearing a bandage. [The dress] is made by Karl Lagerfeld for the movie. I mean I still pinch myself. I’m like, I can’t believe I’ve worked on a movie where Karl Lagerfeld made a dress for the movie! The crazier part was that I was in Japan and clothes were so important in the Japanese release of the film that I did a press conference sitting next to all of Julianne’s clothes. They were just on mannequins. I was just like, This is a little weird.
BG Oh my god, on mannequins? Oh my god!
TK On mannequins. It was just like, Hello Julianne! Hello Julianne! But they were all mannequins of Julianne.
BG In her clothes, right. Well let’s talk a little big about Julianne and how she got attached to the project, what that meant in terms of getting it made, and how you worked with her.
TK I was lucky enough. Obviously Killer Films produced the movie. Killer did Safe and Far from Heaven. I had met Julianne when she was doing Safe during a rough cut of the movie. Then I came to the set of Far from Heaven, and I met her again. I re-introduced myself. She’s so down-to-earth and sort of normal as a person. She was like, I met you when I was making Safe. I was like, Oh my god, okay, you’re paying attention. So I had an advantage when I wrote to her. I had a completely specific, personal letter really, saying, Dear Julianne, this is an amazing script, and this is why I think you should play the part (talking a little bit about her past work, but talking about specifically why her and not anybody else). She was the only person that I approached. To me this is a really different part for her actually. She usually plays fragile, internalized, damaged housewives. The period aspect people recognize Julianne, but if you think of her in Far from Heaven, Safe, some of her most popular films— Boogie Nights, of course not, or even Magnolia. It’s much more internal. It was this ferocious, angry, narcissist, who’s not sympathetic, who I saw as sort of a Barbara Stanwyck from pre-Code movies vibe. This sort of incredible female character. She responded to that [letter]. We had a lunch together. I brought the notebook of the pictures. She was not heavily into rehearsing as an actor at all. So a lot of my prep work was done—she was attached to the film for almost two years, two and a half years, before we shot—so a lot of it was getting her to read the book, giving her letters of Barbara, meeting regularly for lunch, and talking about sort of all the things that you talk about anyway, like how color was part of the story or how much framing was a part of the story or how much on-screen I was going to show of sex or not. We both agreed that a director’s job is not to give an actor a line-reading ever. I’ve never given an actor a line-reading on set. I’ve never acted out, like, I want you walk in the direction—unless the actor is desperately a mess. I think the director’s job is really to be a conductor of the audience’s attention. So you orchestrate the audience’s attention and say this is what’s important and this is what’s not. I think we really connected in the sense that my job was never going to be to give her line readings. My job would be to create a challenge, a free working environment where she could take absolute risks if she needed to, and that the details of the world were so convincing that she could be the character. We shifted all the time so she had to be able to walk into Paris and be like, Okay this is who I am based on what I’m wearing, based on what’s around me.
BG The other key question is how the independent film world might have changed or has changed from when you made Swoon and when I did my work and Maggie did her work. We all began, and now there’s this whole new environment. We fit into it and you guys have to fit into it, so your take on … You also produced films in between the ones that you made.
TK It’s a different planet now. Swoon was shot in 14 shooting days. The money was entirely raised through grants. Swoon was gotten into the Cannes for about $50,000. The entire budget of Swoon, including the blow up to 35 millimeters was about $240,000. So $50,000 was to get to Cannes, $100,000 was to get the labwork, maybe $110,000. The rest was sound and other post-stuff. This I can’t tell you the budget of right now, but I will someday. I can actually say to you that it’s under $10 million. It’s under $10 million. I could have never gotten this movie made without an actor of Julianne’s stature in the lead role. People were like, This is an impossible script. It’s not commercial in the slightest. It’s no mistake that the movie was financed through Spain and France almost entirely; there’s only a very small amount of money from the U.S. In my own career, I’ve been seen—I’m a weirdo anomaly. I’m a American/European director. The Europeans are like, You’re more European than American. No I’m an American! A filmmaker will go and continue to pursue opportunities to make movies not in the States if the content of the film is provocative or difficult enough. I’m certainly not going to do another psychosexual … You know this is as dark as I’m getting for a little while. We’re backing up and making a lighter movie.
BG He says that now!
TK Later on I might make a darker movie; but right now I want to make something much lighter. It’s an odd moment, because there’s a lot more work being done. It’s an exciting moment, because there’s so much great work happening. It’s also a really difficult moment at the same time, because so much fewer work is getting distributed. So I knew when making this movie, which became the “mother-son incest movie” that that was going to be a good thing. It was a way I could market the film. But I also knew I had to have someone of Julianne’s stature in the film to attract that kind of attention to make it marketable, make it saleable. I never would have gotten the money to make this movie had I decided to cast all unknown actors.
BG Which in Swoon —
TK I did.
BG You could. Yeah. So that’s a major way in which the landscape has changed. Even though the equipment has become more accessible and a lot of things of production have been, but yet there’s this market that’s got the power …
TK It’s market-driven. I know. We’re so old-fashion too. I mean the film was shot regular 35mm. There’s no digital post-work at all on the film. What you see is the photo-chemical, old fashioned, timed print. There’s no DI on the movie. There’s none of that stuff. I feel really strongly about working that way.
BG You made a CRI—Color Reversal Internegative?
TK No—well yes, we did CRI, but there’s no digital inter-media. There’s only two shots in the film that were digitally corrected because of problems in the shot. You would never notice they were digitally corrected. The content of the work that I’ve made is extremely provocative; but formally I’m kind of a classicist and very, in a funny way, aesthetically conservative. The attention in my work is between the content and the form, which is actually quite formal, quite old-fashioned in a lot of ways.
BG Well the story also has a classical element—whether you want to call it a classical tragedy or something close to, say, melodrama. Stella Dallas is another one of my favorite films about a mother who in some way is sacrificed for the good of the child, in this case for the opposite reason. I love that aspect about you who in one way seems so completely outrageous but in another way is really down to earth. Really, gravity is so much a part of what you do and how you think.
TK Sometimes I’ll shoot takes and not call “cut.” This is risky with film. So I’ll shoot a whole take, there’s not a lot of staging, especially because the camera’s not moving. Everybody okay? Fine. We’re back to one Julianne. Going? Action. So the actor’s in that zone already and goes again. All kind of things happen when you take another take immediately again. Because I think your enemy is the director and so is the word cut. Everyone’s focus diminishes; you become distracted. You become, Oh shit I’m so behind. Or, Oh I’m so hungry. Again this is a joke I make with all of you I’ve had in class, and it’s perverse but deeply true about directing. We do not pay enough attention on set. I know you all have been on set, suddenly spacing out thinking about laundry in the middle of a take, like, What am I doing! That does not go away. You have to teach yourself to pay attention in some very vital way. So the actors feel the pressure of your attention or the comfort of your attention that’s there, that’s helping them moment by moment pulling through. That’s a big part about it.
Audience Member 1 I want to ask about how do you put together this production as an American in Spain: how was your experience there, and also about the casting of Spanish actors?
TK The movie got put together first by Killer Films, who I’ve worked with my entire career. They’ve been my producer my entire career. I’ve had an incredibly fortunate relationship; up until Savage Grace, I did not have an agent. I’ve never had representation in my career. I just had a producer, who I could call up and say, Hi, it’s me; I want to do this book. Do you guys have any money that I could do this book? So I’m kind of lucky. That’s because Christine and I came up at the same time, and we’ve been working together for over 20 years. We tried to get the movie made through the studio system here. Everybody read it and everyone said, It’s a page turner; Julianne’s amazing! It’s her tour de force performance! I would go into meetings and they’d say, How are you going to shoot that London stuff? What was I supposed to say? I said, Very carefully? In order to get an R-rating—the movie by the way is not going out rated. It’s going out unrated. Because what I’ve discovered in shooting the film is, although you see virtually no nudity in the film—and even in the Cadogen Square scene—the more I zoomed in, the closer the frame became, the more pornographic the material became. So the wide-shot of seeing her elbow moving was somehow less horrible than the close-up him being masturbated. I was like, Huh, this is interesting. If you don’t put it on camera, it becomes more perverse.
The movie really took shape when Celluloid Dreams, which is a French company which is mainly a sales agent and does sales for a lot of different films. Another film Killer did, I’m Not There, Celluloid Dreams pre-sold various territories. In my original arrangement with them. They pre-sold Japan. They pre-sold Germany. They pre-sold Italy. So there were distributors in places who put money upfront to buy the film, site unseen, really based on a pitch that I gave. They read the script and then I have a meeting to talk about the director’s point of view.
I found the Spanish actors amazing, just a total joy to work with. Julianne’s the only American actor in the cast, which is funny—literally, truly the only American actor in the cast. Everyone else is either Spanish or English. So that was great! It was a great adventure to work in another country. My Spanish got better; I understand much more than I speak. It wasn’t necessary really; English was the main language that was used. I don’t find working with actors across language that peculiar.
The music is done by Fernando Velasquez who is a young Spanish composer. He’s roughly 30. He did the film La Orfanto—The Orphanage. That’s a recent credit of his. He’s such a visionary genius. Fernando, truly. The reverb in the film—reverb contemporary, those of you who are advanced in sound know, that reverb is usually added technically now, used as a mechanical filter. The way that reverb is created on musical tracks here was that the music was played “dry” on speakers in an enormous cathedral and rerecorded, which is the old-fashioned way that reverb is added to musical tracks. In the ’30s and ’40s they’d record it “dry,” and then you would play it on a speaker in a big echoing space and rerecord it so that the echo, the reverb, of it would be added and warm up and give it dimension. So then there’s a video of Fernando and his lunatic engineers in this cathedral playing the Savage Grace soundtrack, recording the thing. He didn’t ask me if this was how reverb was going to be added; he was like, This is how we’re doing reverb! I was like, I worship you; you are my god!
Audience Member 2 This film could have been a lot darker if you wanted to—
TK I’m with you!
Audience Member 2 You decided to show less. I think doing it subtle is harder than being dramatic. Could you talk about how to decided to step back and just show and not go there?
TK My simplest first answer is pretty much rejecting every single reaction I had about how I should shoot things; because our first reaction is always cliché and always bad—myself totally included. So when you come to my office hours and I give you notes, be wary of that. They suck! Push past the note, because underneath the note is something good. That’s really the real answer. I had ideas about how things could be shot. I went through the whole movie and thought about it that way. I was like, It’s all too obvious. Also there’s a big belief about giving the audience credit and creating tension about what is not seen. We all know if movies: what’s imagined is stronger than anything we can see. Also I found it fascinating about this film because I’ve had people watch the film and say to me, During the sex scene between Barbara and Tony it was amazing to see Julianne’s breasts. I was like, You didn’t see her breasts. She was fully dressed during that scene. Then you realize, Wow this is completely irrational subject matter. So in sex people will imagine all kinds of things happen. That interested me that there was enormous power in this material around the taboo of it, and that people were going to bring something more than what was on screen. There’s a great quote from which is a guiding influence, Why use two violins when one will suffice? My belief as a director is just “less.” Be simpler. Slow down. Be calm and be simple. I might make some baroque movie now as a reaction to the minimalism of this; but for this it was the guiding—you know, simplify.