"Savage" should put Moore in best actress races

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"Savage" story:  It's only May, but that doesn't mean it's too early to start talking about potential awards contender films and performances.

A case in point is the true-life drama "Savage Grace," opening via IFC May 30 in New York, June 6 in L.A. and expanding afterwards, in which Julianne Moore delivers a performance that should make her a best actress contender for Oscar and Golden Globe consideration. After an early look at "Savage" I'm expecting Moore's performance as Barbara Daly, whose husband Brooks Baekeland was heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune, to be one of the most talked about this awards season.

Directed by Tom Kalin ("Swoon"), its screenplay by Howard A. Rodman ("Joe Gould's Secret") is based on the book by Natalie Robbins and Steven M. Aronson. Produced by Iker Monfort, Katie Rournel, Pamela Koffler and Christine Vachon, it was executive produced by John Wells, Temple Fennell, Jonathan Dorfman, Hengameh Panahi, Stephen Hays, Peter M. Graham II and Howard A. Rodman. Besides Moore, there also are strong performances by Stephen Dillane as Baekeland and Eddie Redmayne as their son, Tony, whose relationship with his mother was shocking, to put it just mildly. 

"The movie 'Savage Grace' begins with the book 'Savage Grace,' which was published in the 1980s," Kalin told me. "One of my producers, Christine Vachon, and I share a sort of unhealthy love of true crime fiction. So in one of those reading material swaps she gave me this amazing book, which just completely grabbed my imagination. It's tabloid-shocking subject matter, but handled beautifully in terms of the writing. Much of this book is actually first-person interviews with the participants and the witnesses to the story.

"Not only is it compelling in a sensational way, but it has echoes of Greek tragedy. It has an incredible sweep in the period (it covers from1946-72). It even picks up on some great literary themes. It recalls the work of Henry James or Edith Wharton sort of to the extreme end. All those things were attractive and I knew there were at least three really strong roles at the core of the story and that was what I found so really compelling because it's such an actor-driven piece."

Casting was on his mind from the very beginning: "Completely. Several things had to be dealt with. I needed actors with the range and structure and brilliance to pull these roles off. There was really no other choice than Julianne in terms of thinking about Barbara. I think she's just amazing in the film. And then finding Eddie was such a different journey because it was really a sort of discovery. I mean, he'd done a little bit of work in film before we worked together and had done some theater, but it's relatively early in his career. We were pounding the pavement and looked at almost a hundred actors either in person or on tape to find him. And Stephen Dillane I'd always admired. He's so amazing. So starting with the three of them was great and especially, given this material, believing that Julianne could be the mother of Eddie was so critical."

Asked how he worked with Rodman on the screenplay, Kalin replied, "The book is compelling, but it covers a hundred years. There's a ton of back story. I knew Howard from the Independent Spirit Awards. We were both on the nominating committee. I had tried to do a movie years ago on Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith and he was encouraging on that. So when it came time to pick a writer Howard was a very strong contender. He was really honest about his passion for the material, but also the fact that he was terrified of it, that it was really scary and difficult. And his honesty about that made me know he'd be on his toes. It made the possibility of collaboration really exciting.

"I had the initial thought that if you could tell this big epic drama in five days what would those days be? That idea didn't literally carry itself out because only the opening and the closing of the film really take place within one day, but it's more the idea of how to take the epic scale of a story and whittle it down to the key turning points. This was largely based on pictures. There were a lot of photographs in the original book and I had gathered others. The book, itself, is compelling. The prose is compelling. But the photographs were equally compelling."

One key photo, he explained, is "of Tony at age 11 in the bathtub that's startling because you think 'so tender, so sweet' in the photograph, but what mother takes a picture of her son under those circumstances? How did she get there? The picture at the end of the film is very strongly modeled after Barbara and Tony sitting on the sofa dressed very elegantly, looking for all the world like husband and wife not like mother and son. We went into our separate corners and came back essentially with the same anecdotes, the same moments -- a young mother with her baby on the phone or how do we get to that bathtub image or the sofa image from the end of the film. And the springboard for the collaboration was finding these turning points and wanting to substantially dig into them and then have the story turn and move forward and see another turn of the wheel in the change with the characters."

It took about a year to get a good first draft of the screenplay done. "I think he probably delivered one draft to me," Kalin said. "I gave him some notes and then he wrote another draft. And then I wrote a note to Julianne. Christine Vachon and Killer Films had worked with Todd Haynes on both (the 1995 thriller) 'Safe' and (the 2002 romantic drama) 'Far From Heaven' (both of which had starred Moore). I'd met Julianne very briefly during a screening of 'Safe' and then again on the set of 'Far From Heaven.' I knew her well enough just to write a note and explain to her why I thought she would be so amazing as Barbara.

"Maybe a week after that we had lunch. She wanted to know what my take was on the material and to talk more about the tone and the approach. I showed her a lot of pictures of the characters and really at the end of that lunch she was on board. She wanted to do the film. Her commitment was obviously a key to getting the film put together."

It was in the summer and fall of 2003 that Kalin was putting his cast together.  "That went on for really almost an entire year or a little bit longer because financing for the movie was complicated," he said. "Killer tried to put the movie together in a bunch of different ways. It's no accident that the film was financed largely by Spain and France with some U.S. money. Many people said that the script was a page turner. People were completely compelled by the material. I was asked constantly, 'How are you going to deal with that (mother-son) scene in London?' And I would always answer, 'Very carefully.' I think people were intrigued and drawn by the material and by Julianne's participation and Killer's track record and my past work and also were understandably scared of what the film was going to be."

There is absolutely so sense of exploitation of the material in "Savage," which could have easily been the case had the same story wound up in other filmmaking hands. "The people who did come aboard and finance it were Celluloid Dreams and Monfort Productions. We really benefited from the Spanish government's production subsidies. And there was another (financing) company called ATO Pictures," Kalin pointed out. "With all of them there was a confidence and a belief that there was a way to tell this story with the subject matter, but not be exploitative. I really started with the actors actually, which was the idea of being empathetic and bringing compassion to these characters, but not necessarily in the traditional sense identifying with them.

"People ask Julianne all the time, 'What did you identify with in playing Barbara?' and she laughs and says, 'Nothing.' It's similar for me. I don't see these characters as my alter egos. I didn't project myself into them in a kind of traditional way of identifying with characters. That isn't to say though that I don't care for them quite a bit and find their stories to be full of emotion and certainly compassion for them. But I think it was key to modulate the sort of formal distance you needed from these characters, but at the same time bringing a certain kind of emotional access to them."

In casting Redmayne to play the disturbed young Tony, Kalin told me, "I met Eddie three separate times. The first time was even before he had done 'The Good Shepherd' (directed by Robert De Niro and starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin and De Niro). He had won a prize in England for playing in the Edward Albee play 'The Goat,' which I had not seen but had heard great things about. He'd shot a film in Australia with Toni Collette (the thriller 'Like Minds'). So I met him early and he read. He was really compelling, but very young still. He (spoke) intelligently, very articulately about going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Museum and (said) that's what he was going to do with the rest of his time in New York because he had studied art history at Cambridge. So all of that came through with Eddie in that he to some degree came from that sort of posh world.

"The second time I met him he'd already done 'The Good Shepherd.' He was starting to be on people's radar. He just read amazingly that second time, much more authoritatively. He'd been very good the first time and he was great the second time. And then there was a third reading where I invited four or five actors that were sort of finalists and had Julianne read across from them to see what kind of chemistry there was and Eddie just came and sort of snatched the part. There was no doubt. He was absolutely the clear choice." Redmayne, by the way, is a very good bet to land supporting actor consideration for his work in "Savage."

The third key role is Moore's dashing husband in the film played by Dillane: "I'd known his work for years in smaller films like 'Welcome to Sarajevo' and bigger films like 'The Hours' and always admired him and always wanted to work with him. Julianne had known him, but had not worked with him in 'The Hours.' He came aboard somewhere in the process of putting the whole ensemble together. The first three people cast were Julianne, Stephen and Eddie."

After Dillane signed on, he added, "there were five or six more months of casting and then we were shooting. There was a sort of longer period where Julianne was attached and money was being assembled and we tried to do the film in the U.K. and France and Spain and then we tried to put the movie together by doing it in the Isle of Mann and Spain. Then it became clear that shooting the movie entirely in Spain was the best path. Once that was clear, I guess it was six months (before shooting began).

"We shot in July and August of '06 and it was probably December and January of '05 and'06 when all the pieces came together and the three key cast members were chosen. The rest of the cast is English and Spanish with a lot of Spanish actors. I didn't start auditioning and looking at Spanish actors until maybe eight weeks before shooting the film. The same was true of finding Barney Clark, who played Tony as a young boy. Other than the three main characters, pretty much everyone else was cast in maybe that eight or nine weeks leading up to principal photography."

Asked how he likes to work with his actors, Kalin explained, "I love to rehearse but on this movie, sadly, there wasn't a huge amount of rehearsal available because of everyone's schedule. Stephen was coming from a movie. Julianne was coming from a movie. Eddie wasn't on something, but had just finished something before. So I spent a lot of time on the phone and through e-mail being in close contact with the three of them, getting to know them, sending them the book and then photographs and, particularly, letters and journal entries for Tony that I had from the real character to try to immerse them in the world of the characters. Each actor is a different sort of dance partner, you know. Each actor works a different way or has different instincts.

"Julianne, for instance, is very instinctive. You'll be talking to her about a book over lunch and she just sort of pulls the performance up out of her. She's not somebody who's walking around in character the whole time and being heavily analytical in terms of her discussion. Stephen liked a lot of rehearsal so as much rehearsal as could be done on the day was. So there was a little bit of rehearsal leading up to shooting. The method every day is that the actors would come before they went into hair and makeup and we would rehearse the scene -- often more for staging and blocking and physical questions -- and then jump in. It's a limitation of shooting a low budget or modestly budgeted film, but also a benefit of shooting that way because the performance is very alive and malleable and happening right then."

Shooting took place, he said, over the course of "five six-day weeks. We shot a fair amount every day and some days a lot. Because I'd lived with the material a long time, I had this strong instinct or feeling for it, but also there's something great about not having too much time to bake the cake because the movie stays very alive that way."

How did he prepare for shooting? "Before I came to Spain I imagined shooting in a vacuum in terms of what the movie would look or feel like or what style it would take," he answered. "Then when you go to the place where you're going to be shooting you start to find locations. That's really where the process comes to life. The movie was pretty much entirely shot on location so finding those locations, walking around in them and finding where the camera might be is kind of the first step. I had amazing collaborators, starting with the DP. It was an entirely Spanish crew. Juan Miguel Azpiroz shot it. Victor Molero was the production designer and is doing the new Pedro Almodovar film.

"It was just an incredible experience of looking and photographing and talking and then for maybe two weeks before shooting Juan and I would meet every day for three or four hours going through the film shot by shot basically -- more drawing little doodles, not elaborately storyboarding and relying on shot listing (as to) what the scene would be. Having a plan for what was ideally going to happen (was important) and then having a back-up plan for what would happen if time and whatever wrench (caused problems)."

Because of the limited amount of shooting time that Kalin had, he didn't wind up with a ton of footage to wrestle with in the editing room: "The script had really been focused down to largely what you see. The first cut of the movie was 103 minutes and the final cut of the film is 96. So we really only shaved off seven or eight minutes off the film from first to last cut because we shot economically in five weeks, which required knowing all the time where you were all the time with period and having a clear idea what the camera was going to do and what things were going to look like."

As for the biggest challenges he faced during production, Kalin told me, "We had to find a location that would encompass Jake and Tony's Majorca hash infused lair and also find a place that would accommodate Brooks and Blanca's home. They both needed to be the same location so we found a location that worked for both. The art department dressed it thoroughly and when the owners were trying to sell this kind of remote mountain location and saw the drawings and dressing that was done on the inside (with) all this kind of fur and sort of hippie accoutrements they completely panicked and put everything outside and locked the house. They put everything on the dirt road beside the house. They (explained that) they sensed diabolical vibrations in the decoration and that we couldn't shoot the film there. So we had two days left to find and re-dress another location. I'd never been accused of diabolical vibrations before or lost a location due to witchcraft!

"The other (big challenge was) to shoot that sort of amazing driving footage high above Barcelona. Barcelona had experienced a terrible drought last summer as it does many summers. It tends not to rain there a lot so we couldn't get official permission to shoot in that area. My very nervy, very brave team allowed me to shoot illegally, basically, unbeknownst until now to the actors because we weren't going to confess to them that we didn't have any (permits). They were worried about some kind of fire hazard, but we weren't causing any fire hazard in shooting the driving scene. But they were being unduly cautious and we just couldn't get them to come round. Half-way through the driving scene we were detected by the equivalent of a  Spanish forest ranger who inquired after us. After a very heated discussion in Spanish -- I only understood maybe a fifth of it because it was moving so quickly -- we were granted permission to continue and stay. So we got our shots."

"Savage" has already enjoyed some very successful festival showings at Cannes and London in 2007 and at Sundance earlier this year and has also been previewed for audiences elsewhere. "Different places have different reactions, of course," Kalin noted. "There's always a sort of very strong reaction to this film -- either for or against it. People seem to really like it or be really disturbed or troubled by it. I guess it's stereotyped to some degree (in that) Europe is perhaps less (disturbed than) America being a country founded by Puritans. Europe tends to be slightly less troubled or compelled to just discuss the sexual aspects of the story. That's not entirely true though because there's certainly been European countries where I've had every bit as volatile discussions. It's been great in terms of audience reactions.

"I think that people discover more the intention to bring empathy to the story and to try to shed light on what is a terrible story but a fundamental human tragedy. In Japan many of the journalists wanted to talk about the growing incidents of parents who kill their children or (vice versa). In Brazil there's a case like that right now and there was a terrible, terrible case in the news a day or two ago from Austria. We're in a period of time where many families are healthy and well adjusted and some inflict terrible injustices on each other. This story in some ways becomes a lightning rod for that kind of discussion and that's interesting to me."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Feb. 15, 1991's column: "If you compare the Oscar nominations with last December's Golden Globe nominations there's a strong correlation between the two in key categories. So strong, in fact, that Hollywood should step up its marketing efforts next year to win Globe nominations in the hopes of influencing Oscar nominations voting.

"Although it's been fashionable in the past to put down the Globes as reflecting the opinions of only 86 Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. members, it's evident that their thoughts about 1990's best filmmaking were very much in line with the opinions of the Motion Picture Academy's broader membership of over 4,800 people. The Globe nominations come first and seem to be a good barometer of Oscar nominations.

"In the best picture category, for instance, four of the five Oscar nominees were also Globe nominees -- 'Dances With Wolves,' which won the Globe for best motion picture (drama); 'The Godfather, Part III;' 'GoodFellas;' and 'Ghost.' Only 'Awakenings' made the Oscar list without getting a Globe nomination…

"In the directing category, four of the five Oscar nominees also received Globe nominations -- Kevin Costner, the Globe winner for 'Dances;' Francis Ford Coppola for 'Godfather III;' Martin Scorsese for 'GoodFellas;' and Barbet Schroeder for 'Reversal.' Only Stephen Frears, who received an Oscar nomination for 'Grifters,' was not also a Globe nominee…"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com
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