Tom Kalin Swoon: The NON-Player
Tom Kalin is an indie filmmaker. I’ll admit, I had never heard of him before. He made his directorial debut with the 1992 drama, Swoon. The movie retold the story of infamous child killers Leopold and Loeb with an emphasis on their homosexuality. Kalin’s film was part of a movement in the early nineties that was called New Queer Cinema. In the September 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Hollywood writer Christopher Hunt met with the New York director to discuss the differences between his movie and two previous adaptations of the same story.
We would tell him to come at midnight and tell him not to breathe a word. We would meet on the green of the 17th hole of the fox chapel golf club, the one ringed by huge oaks, impenetrable at night from squaw run road. We–Tim and I–would tell young Matthew that we had pinched a copy of the key to the pro shop and a bottle of scotch from Tim’s Dad. Tim and I were 15, Matthew was 13, and, as we were all budding boozers and junior duffers, Tim figured that would be bounty enough to draw Matthew into our web. Have I mentioned that this was all really Tim’s idea? Tim hated Matthew-something about a disparaging remark Matthew had made one morning after Chapel at our Prep School.
I didn’t hate Matthew, but I didn’t much care for him either, and could see that a world without his smug mug would perhaps be a better place. I was a nihilist. I had tickets to the Sex Pistols and had recently quit the tennis team. We were going to wail on Matthew’s head with a golf club stolen from the pro shop (we did have the key), then take his body out in the rowboat to the middle of the biggest water hazard on the course and weigh it down. Goodbye Matthew. Then we’d drink the scotch. We debated hotly about which club would be the lethalest weapon–a wood or an iron. Tim even did some experiments with cantaloupes-our first mistake, as Tim’s mom slipped on cantaloupe brains on the back porch and sprained her ankle.
The big problem was, we really did need a car, so Tim suggested we put the whole thing off until summer came and we turned 16. We never mentioned it again. That spring I met Patsy Foxen and decided I’d kill only for her. And that spring Tim was suspended for bringing what may have been a real gun to school to threaten someone else for some other reason.
I had heard of Leopold and Loeb-barely. I knew only that they were killers-they had murdered someone in Chicago, a long time ago. I had, in truth, occasionally confused them with Lerner and Loewe, and when the musical version of Cinderella with Lesley Ann Warren came on TV, I marveled at their rehabilitation into a successful songwriting team. Somehow, it didn’t make sense. But after six years in Hollywood, where I’ve often toyed with the idea of putting that almost-murder scene in one of my screenplays, I understand a little bit more about life. I realize, for instance, that I am no killer. Why? Because I’ve been six years in Hollywood and I haven’t killed anybody.
Glad I got that off my shoulders. Don’t worry-the article you set out to read will be coming along here in seconds. That memory, by the way, did not come up after years of therapy (nothing has yet come up after years of therapy), but while watching Swoon, a brilliant and chilling version of the Leopold and Loeb murder case, written, directed, edited and co-produced by 30-year-old New York independent filmmaker Tom Kalin. As I watched Kalin’s movie, I compared it with the Hollywood product I deal with every day-the movies my friends and I work on, the films that come to a megaplex near you. Swoon is different. There seems to have been something on Kalin’s mind while he made it. There seems to have been something in his mind, too. I can’t tell you how easily we in Hollywood forget about New York films. We forget about New York period. And then once in a while something comes out of that strange island city that reminds us we’d better start paying attention again. I had to meet this Tom Kalin.
One of the more remarkable things about Swoon is that the Leopold and Loeb true-crime story it’s based on has inspired two Hollywood films already: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope and Richard Fleischer’s 1959 Compulsion. Here are the facts of the story behind all three films: Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were 18 and 19 in 1924, both sons of wealthy Jewish Chicago businessmen. Loeb graduated from college at 17 and was fascinated by Nietzsche’s “Superman” theories of moral superiority. With the help of his willing partner and lover, Leopold, who had an IQ of 200 and was frequently characterized as a “shy amateur ornithologist,” he kidnapped and then killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks for the pure hell of it. Loeb was obsessed with the idea of committing the “perfect crime.” Leopold was obsessed with keeping it together with Loeb. In the end, their cockiness overshadowed their smarts, and the two were easily caught. It was called “The Crime of the Century” (but of course, it was early yet). The public and press were obsessed with these two young men, who, as wealthy, Jewish, philosophy-reading homosexual child killers, were about as far-out as anyone could dare to imagine. Clarence Darrow, the famous liberal humanist lawyer, defended Leopold and Loeb and saved them from the death penalty by basing a plea of insanity on their homosexuality. They got life, plus 99 years.
Young men weren’t allowed to kiss on-screen when Hitchcock made Rope, but John Dall and Farley Granger play Shaw and Philip, the fictionalized Leopold and Loeb, as markedly effeminate New York roommates in a bachelor pad with more closets than bedrooms. In Compulsion, which is also fictionalized but much more factually driven, Dean Stockwell, as the Leopoldish Jud Steiner, and Bradford Dillman, as the Loeb-like Artie Strauss, have an even more muted relationship, and the show is given over to Orson Welles as the lawyer based on Darrow.
I didn’t know what to expect when I settled down to watch Swoon. Something like Richard Brooks’s true crime classic In Cold Blood, perhaps? I’d read the review in Hollywood’s trade-paper bible Daily Variety, which ends like this: “Director’s esoteric methods, much more than his subject matter, limit his intended audience to a very small group, but within it, the film will find a degree of favor.” In other words: we’re not sure what this film’s about but we do know it’s not going to make any money.
The name “Intolerance Productions” flashed starkly on-screen, followed by an opening scene that sets the tone: A stylish tableau-young Leopold and Loeb (played by the very unknown Craig Chester and Daniel Schlachet), artfully arranged with some drag-queen flapper pals, recite this line: “You must be the slave and feel the lash.” Not unlike, I immediately thought, an over-the-top Obsession for Men TV commercial. Kalin begins to engage in such amusing flourishes as setting the lads’ pre-murder crime spree to the tune of “Let’s Misbehave.” Then various anachronisms subtly begin to appear-a push-button phone (it’s the ’20s, remember) and a TV. The weird and inspiring touches keep piling up: Leopold the bird fancier is seen at one point removing some feathered friends from inside his trousers; Kalin plops the boys’ bed down into the middle of the courtroom when the trial starts hinging on their sex life. What is this filmmaker up to?
Kalin’s press biography, which comes in at a scant two paragraphs, explains that Swoon is his first feature. He’s previously written and directed a variety of short works on film and video-“art” films in the purest sense (i.e., no profit motive attached). I haven’t seen any of them-they show at places like The Whitney Biennial-but the lowercase titles alone, finally destroy us, they are lost to vision altogether, suggest Soho seriousness, art with a lowercase “a.” Kalin has also worked for three years as a producer for AIDS-Films, which the press notes describe as “a non-profit education company which produces prevention education for communities of color,” and is a founding member of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury. Apparently to pay the rent, he’s written for the Village Voice and Art-forum.
Out here in Hollywood, I boycott Coors, Marlboro and Domino’s Pizza, send a few dollars to Greenpeace, add my sig to a petition protesting censorship of various priapic rap groups, and, like, try not to oppress my dates. That’s about the extent of my political correctness. But I know: as an upper-middle-class over-educated heterosexual WASP male (blond, yet) whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, I’m supposed to work at it. Recently, I threw a party and stuck a video on the VCR-a mind-blowing film called The Last of England. It’s a mystical, terrifying look at the nightmare end of the Queen’s realm that happens to have been made by a gay filmmaker, and it’s got a touch of homoeroticism in it. One of my guests came up to me and announced, “There are two guys having sex on your TV.” He was looking at me wide-eyed, as though seeing me for the first time, but maintaining his what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it? Smirk. I snuck a peak: it wasn’t pornographic or anything. “Don’t worry,” I said, squeezing his shoulder warmly. “I happen to know they’re all the way over there in England.”
Tom Kalin is all the way over in New York. Soho, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, is where you live after college-before you move uptown, work for Random House or MTV and become neurotic “Seinfeld” New Yorkers. It’s less terminally hip than the East Village, which is where you score smack. Soho is where you can score a Julian Schnabel canvas, and where, at The Odeon back in the ’80s, I once almost decked Boy George for stealing my chair, before I realized how tall he was.
In an old building on Broadway, I find the seventh floor office of Intolerance Productions. A hand-lettered sign indicates that the space is shared with Bronze Eye and Apparatus Productions, though the two grey-walled rooms inside don’t seem large enough for one production entity, let alone three. Kalin, tall, thin and boyish, with curly brown hair, looks grim and very tense when I come in. Framed by a poster on the wall for the Todd Haynes’s movie Poison, Kalin asks me to wait, and then goes about answering several phone calls and giving final instructions to an intern named Ned who is dressed, as Kalin is, in muted New York downtown artist chic. The battered shelves in the office are filled with paperbacks: The Granta Monthly, Deliverance, The Name of the Rose, Mommie Dearest, Red Dragon and James Agee. Research, or bathroom reading? Ah, but here tucked away in the corner is something revealing: Lefcourt’s Screenwriting-the same how-to book every sushi chef and Gap salesperson in L.A. keeps by their bedside.
At last Kalin’s ready to talk, and he quickly reveals himself to be perfectly able to smile. Just before we leave the office, I steal a peek at a note scribbled on a desk: “If you have the $$, could Ned get the office a broom?” This is not exactly suite living on the level of the newly refurbished, Japanese-owned studio buildings in Hollywood where the young directors I know kick back and wait for Katzenberg to call. As we turn off Broadway onto a side street, Kalin worries about Ned’s ability to find himself some lunch. “During the year it’s easy to get student interns for no money, but I still feel like I should be able to get them a sandwich once in a while. Listen, by the way-“Kalin asks, “Could I borrow a couple bucks for coffee? Otherwise, we have to stop at my bank machine.”
“Hey, don’t worry,” I offer, genuinely floored by this filmmaker’s cash-flow dilemma. “I’ll put it on my expense account.” Hell, if he plays his cards right, I’ll buy him a broom.
We visit the hip and bustling gourmet café Dean & Deluca, but the noise level is deafening, so we go back out on the street. New Yorkers like to walk, I figure, because the sidewalks are wider than their apartments. They’re always saying, “It’s just 20 blocks away,” and it’s always 25, which is well over a mile, for God’s sake. These are people who don’t valet park. These are people who don’t own cars. Kalin’s got long legs and a good strong Manhattanite’s stride. As we race down a side street lined with furniture galleries, he suddenly halts. “Believe it or not, this is probably one of the quietest places we’ll find in Soho.” Where? We are standing by a stoop of chilly looking metal steps next to a storefront. Here? My back aches just to look, and if this is quiet-well, there’s a car alarm whining in front of us and a cab driver expostulating behind us. But Kalin looks like a man in tune with the essence of New York. We sit. We crouch.
Kalin pulls a cigarette-the first of many-from a metal case and surveys the intricate white latticework furniture in a show window across the street. “Where are the people who have money to buy these thousand-dollar chairs?” he muses. (I keep to myself the information that at least one of them, my friend Liza, is up on 72nd Street with a complete set on her patio.) I tell him it’s my understanding that there are a lot of wealthy people in New York, and he grins. “There are probably more in L.A. The film industry here is doing okay, but no one’s paid anything.” A connection is made in the back of my brain: low-budget gay independents–Poison–Todd Haynes–the poster in Kalin’s office.
Could it be that these two filmmakers work out of the same small office? Kalin nods. His producer, Christine Vachon, is Haynes’s producer too. “I met Christine through Todd,” Kalin says. “And I met Todd in ’87-he’d just done Superstar [the underground classic in which Karen Carpenter’s story is told with Barbie dolls instead of actors], and I saw it when I first moved to New York. I wrote him and said, ‘This film’s amazing and I want to talk to you because I don’t know anyone in New York and this is exactly the kind of work I want to make.’ … It’s been great to be able to find a way to work with him that’s separate and yet related.” Kalin pauses, then answers my next question before I ask it. “When people say Swoon looks like Poison, I want to fall over. I’m like, it’s got a different director of photography! What are you saying? It doesn’t at all! Oh well,” he smiles, “it’s a gay film. They’re all the same.”
I ask Kalin what drew him to the subject of Leopold and Loeb to make his feature film debut. “I grew up in Chicago,” he says, “where Leopold and Loeb are very much a part of the local lore. My grandmother kept a scrapbook of the case. My mother is 72, and her generation grew up with this. I think she’s still disturbed that I chose to make this my subject matter but, I mean, I grew up with Manson: my capacity for horror is very different from hers.”
From Leopold and Loeb to Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez-Americans remain obsessed with the theme of killers-as-heroes. We don’t keep scrapbooks so much anymore because we don’t have to-true-crime books dominate the best-seller lists, and then they’re turned into TV movies of the week. But in these TV movies the soul of the story is usually the hard-working cops and the noble attorneys-like Clarence Darrow, whose life was recently the subject of a hit “American Playhouse” TV movie.
So why does Darrow barely appear at all in Swoon? “I do a number on him,” answers Kalin, “because, although I admire him-he was a visionary in terms of the legal system-my bone to pick with him is that he defended Leopold and Loeb by saying that the homosexual relationship between the two constituted in and of itself a kind of pathology. I cast a character actor who’s quite buffoonish and I gave him five lines. The people at the Darrow Institute are like, ‘You cut out the most beautiful summation speech!’ That was the point.”
The same rethinking of the story seems to be behind Kalin’s omitting any mention of Nietzsche: “At the time of the case, Leopold and Loeb were too easily turned into Nietzschean Supermen, embodying those superhuman aspects, and part of that was society’s inability to see them as ordinary people-because of their sexual identity, because of their Jewishness and because of their wealth. I wanted to normalize them-I wanted to ask the audience to, at least for a minute, think about themselves as being romantically obsessed with someone and imagine what it would be like to have society tell them they could never have a romantic future ….. Part of what I’m trying to do with the film is shift some of the responsibility-not the blame, but the responsibility-onto the culture that makes a gay identity an untenable one…”
Kalin has a measured, sometimes academic way of speaking. “Not the blame, but the responsibility …” An interesting distinction. It’s the kind of distinction that has everyone in an uproar in the wake of the Los Angeles riots. As an imperfect but enthusiastic liberal, I can say that in theory I really, really get the logic behind that way of thinking. And in reality, I’m looking for a place to hide.
I’m wondering how the Reverend Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi will react of Swoon. After all, Kalin’s colleague Todd Haynes raised the Reverend’s blood pressure something fierce last year with Poison, which was, like Swoon, funded in part with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Wildmon slammed the film and the NEA because, he said, the film featured “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex.” In truth, Poison is not pornography. A little more sex, and it might have actually made some money. Wildmon hadn’t seen the film, it turns out. I ask Kalin if Swoon would be able to get NEA funding today, in light of what happened with Poison, but it turns out that his grant came through after the controversy happened. “The NEA funded Swoon to the full amount-25 grand. They got a full script and 35 minutes of the film. They know what they funded. I’ve not heard a word from Reverend Wildmon and company.”
That may change upon Swoon‘s official release-or it may not. The film strikes me as being as big a target for the far right as Poison, but who can say with those clowns? Don’t you folks down there in Tupelo go faxing Wildmon this article, either. He can buy it at the newsstand like everyone else. Kalin, meanwhile, turns out to have a slightly left-of-center perspective on grants in any case:
“The NEA and other institutions have systematically excluded certain people from getting money. People of color who aren’t tied in to a film community may not be able to get a grant-not because they’re not talented but because the grant form may seem daunting or unfamiliar. As a white middle-class man, I’m not shocked that I’ve gotten funded.” So the bottom line, which I think I can see if I reflect soberly and gaze through all these troubled waters, is that pissing off the media watchdogs may be soul satisfying on one level, but it isn’t always a smooth move. “There’s the idea that controversy with the NEA is good marketing,” says Kalin, “that it somehow brings the film greater attention and success-that may be true; that is the way the media works-but let’s not forget that it also makes Reverend Wildmon a very rich man. I don’t want to elicit a controversy because it’s only gonna serve the interest of the far right even more.”
As if one extreme isn’t enough, Kalin’s also facing the wrath of the far left. Leopold and Loeb are hardly the movie role models that gay activist groups are lobbying for. Swoon‘s already been called politically incorrect by some, and been lumped, absurdly enough, together with films like Basic Instinct, the Michael Douglas nudie which has angered so many gay activists. “For me, it’s difficult,” says Kalin, “because I’ve been involved with AIDS activism, but I feel like my politics have grown more complicated-I don’t see myself as less political now, but my politics now include wanting to talk about a difficult situation in history instead of being some kind of pro-active spokesperson for an alleged gay community and making positive middle-class representations of people with station wagons and collies-that’s not my life.
One politically correct idea that I take exception to is that images have the ability to teach an audience behavior. That a film could be directly responsible for someone going out and becoming a serial killer or a gay basher. I just don’t think it’s true. You find certain feminists having an alliance with the far right around pornography and I find that troubling because it shuts down the arena of speech. I’m a little hesitant to bash political correctness whole-heartedly, because we do live in a racist society that’s totally screwed up-there is a reason to be angry. But you’ve gotta have a sense of humor. Politics can no longer remain outside of pop culture. You know, Madonna’s political-sorry! Painful as that may be.” So, for that matter, is Bart Simpson. These are who we have in the ’90s instead of Dylan. You really do need a sense of humor.
At this point, Kalin himself brings up the subject of sexual identity in relation to his work. I wonder if he thinks I’ve been avoiding it. I wonder if I’ve been avoiding it. Breaking the ice somewhat icily, he tells me, “I’ve ended up with interviewers asking me how people feel about my being gay, and I’m like, get a grip-how do you feel about me being gay? Take a sedative. It’s not my job to make you comfortable with my being gay. How do I feel about you being straight? Instead of being able to talk about editing and casting-the things other filmmakers get to talk about.”
Yeah, he’s a director, all right. He wants to talk about editing. I press on: “Do you find that the press tries to lump you in a group, as strictly a gay filmmaker?” This question is about as insightful as asking Spike Lee if anyone’s noticed he’s black. But Kalin Cannily runs with it: “I’ve been complicit with that to a degree insofar as sure, you need your hook to hang your story on-I’ll be a queer filmmaker for you, that’s fine. But what is queer film-is it one made by a gay or lesbian director, or one with a gay theme? I think that I will not be making films my entire life that deal with gay and lesbian subject matter. The problem is, when you talk about gay film, you only make it white middle-class gay men and you don’t mention the fact that there are many women and makers of color at work. The labeling device is convenient-it’s something I’m deeply suspicious of when it doesn’t include everyone it’s supposed to include. So you take what you can get from it and hope that you’ll have the chance to say what I’m saying now.”
Actually, what Tom should really hope for are magazine editors who leave quotes like that in. Who knows, in fact, whether this somewhat desperate segue will ever see the light of day? The truth is, when I interview someone, I’m as quick as anyone to cut out the speechifying, but in this case, I’m happy to let Kalin speak his mind. We both want something from the other here-it’s very much like doing a Hollywood deal. Besides, we both know how short-lived good press is. You can’t eat your press clippings, for instance. A great man said that, I think. I can’t remember who it was. Actually, I think it was Bette Midler.
“There’s the paradox of the perceived fabulousness of fame,” Kalin says, “and the reality that we just paid our entire advance to the film lab because we owe them every penny. I don’t have health insurance, I have no salary-I am very broke. You get to go to the festivals and have great press and your day-to-day conditions aren’t so great.” He pauses, then continues with a touch of resignation, “There’s a way out. I know it. I will make music videos. I’ll do it. That’s a real agenda for Christine and myself this year-short-term commercial work that’s not too painful. To get health insurance-that’s my goal for the next six months. It’s pathetic.”
But Tom–there’s an answer to your money woes, and its name is Hollywood. Take it from me. With a hot film under your belt, now’s just the time to make that movie. Well? “I’m not extremely familiar with the Hollywood filmmaking community,” Kalin answers carefully. “Only by such fabulous things as You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, which I read with great delight.” You and me both. I tell Kalin that everything he thinks about Hollywood is true. “That’s why I liked The Player,” he smiles. “I knew it was telling the truth. It was also like reading a triple issue of People magazine-it was trashy in a great way.” Kalin could come and do a well-needed number on Hollywood, I suppose, but I’m not going to sit here and try to convince him to do it-I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.
“I just don’t know how I would go about making feature films through the Hollywood system,” Kalin says. “Because I don’t ever want to make a movie I couldn’t live with on every level.” Isn’t there something he can think of that would pique his interest in Hollywood? “Tell Juliette Lewis for me-if she wants to make me respectable, she can do it at any time. I have a script ready for her.” Kalin lights up another cigarette. “I’m not a purist who hates Hollywood on principle. I just don’t see how it’d work for me. I’d have to be on a long leash–very long. And I don’t want everything to be made easy by a big fat check and development hell.”
Big fat checks and development hell are what allow me to travel so often, but the fact is, Kalin is right. The CEO of Intolerance Productions, with his work-boots and his serious stride coming down the Hollywood corridors of power, would probably have all the execs under their desks, thinking “earthquake?” I don’t even bother to ask Kalin if he’s familiar with the Hollywood studio which, I happen to know, is gay-run top to bottom. What does it matter, since all they care about is lowest-common-denominator profit-making movies, just like everyone else?
Oh boy-all this Hollywood talk has me thinking about money. I am thinking about millions of dollars, and what they do and don’t do for your sense of freedom. Filmically speaking, of course. Swoon‘s entire budget was probably less than Alec Baldwin’s expense account, but Swoon is Kalin’s movie. He didn’t have to worry about Alec pausing mid-take to say with shake of the head, “I, ah, you know, I’m sorry, Tom, but-but Kim just doesn’t see my character killing the kid.”
Kalin has by now answered all of my questions and listened patiently while I rambled on in sleep-deprivation mode. It seems right, then, to tell him about what I came across in Lenny Bruce’s autobiography. Lenny was explaining why Time magazine labeled him “‘the sickest of them all.’ The reason: In connection with the Leopold-Loeb case, I had said, ‘Bobby Franks was snotty.’ Of course, if Nathan Leopold had any sense of humor, the day he got out he would have grabbed another kid!” Kalin laughs knowingly-he’s already heard it. “People were so offended,” he says. “I mean, I probably shouldn’t say this loudly or publicly-people are already annoyed-but I understand Lenny’s point and I think it’s funny myself. Swoon has a certain amount of black humor about it. Not to denigrate the horrible loss of a child, but there is a way in which treating murder in a really casual way, as a kind of hostile gesture-I understand that. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing-it’s certainly volatile.”
On my way uptown, I stop off in a grim little hole-in-the-wall bar for a pick-me-up; through the cigar smoke, I can just make out a small, authentically yellowed poster of JFK on the wall, and a much larger one of 01′ Blue Eyes. “It’s Sinatra’s World,” the poster reads. “We just live in it.” I take a moment to scan the place, noticing for the first time that it’s filled with grizzled men in plaid jackets reading the Daily Racing Form. That would explain, I guess, the hostile looks coming my way, though it takes me a minute to realize the reason: my hair’s over my collar, my earring’s showing and I’ve asked for one of those foreign beers. Oh well, the hell with these guys. I hop a cab, the driver of which has some definite opinions about the Los Angeles riots: “I’ll tell you, Archie Bunker, he said some great things and he said some really funny things. And one of the great things he said, which I also thought was funny, was: ‘They ain’t gonna be happy until they’re white.'”
I ponder this for a moment. You know, I haven’t actually been oppressed here-I am never oppressed, here or anywhere. I don’t feel particularly guilty about that either, which probably explains why I am politically incorrect. And I am going back to Hollywood soon, where, as my idol Eli Cross says in The Stunt Man, “the setting sun bleeds into a million swimming pools a man can hide in.” Hide I will, but for how long? Archie Bunker said some funny things and some great things. It is Sinatra’s world, isn’t it? And Wildmon’s. I guess that’s what Kalin has been telling me.
Christopher Hunt wrote Moveline‘s “Edge of the Apocalypse” column. He is presently on sabbatical. Hunt’s most recent film projects include Buddy!, a musical version of Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and a sex farce, Sixteen If She’s a Day.