January 3, 2007

Savage Screenplay

Bringing Murder To Life On The Big Screen

By James Tella

Howard Rodman works with Julianne Moore on the set of Savage Grace.
One of the hallmarks of the School of Cinematic Arts is an environment where theory and practice interact—even, at times, collide. For faculty who balance careers in the industry and university, it can prove an interesting juggling act. Just ask Howard A. Rodman, who’s spent the past year chairing the writing division and teaching, while at the same time penning a pilot for HBO and edging his adaptation of the 1985 nonfiction book Savage Grace toward the big screen.

“The teaching keeps you engaged, and is a lovely balance to what can often be a very solitary profession,” said Rodman, whose credits include episodes of the Showtime anthologies Fallen Angels (1993) and the drama Joe Gould’s Secret (2000). “And the skills I’ve learned as Chair—about budgets, about leading and learning from a large cohort of colleagues, about navigating bureaucracies, about managing time, about the arts of inspiration—have been very portable. They’re the same skills you need to will a film into existence.”

The task of adapting Savage Grace originated in 1999 when Rodman was first introduced to the story by Killer Films’ principals, Christine Vachon, Pam Koffler and Katie Roumel (Boys Don’t Cry, Far from Heaven). Adapted from the book of the same name by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson, Savage Grace is the true crime tale of the 1972 murder of Barbara Baekeland. Once married to the heir of the Bakelite plastic fortune, Baekeland, played by Academy Award-nominee Julianne Moore, desires to remain entrenched in her ex-husband’s world of high society while taking an all-too-personal interest in curing her son of his sexual orientation.

While drawing from his past writing experiences, the project took Rodman far beyond his comfort zone of, as he puts it, “stories of poignance, melancholy, and regret” and presented him with subject matter full of practical and emotional challenges like murder, suicide, insanity and incest.
Howard Rodman on the set with a Citroen convertible.

“As a writer it’s tempting to find your niche and live in it. But every once in a while it’s necessary to leave that little cave,” said Rodman who worked very closely with the film’s director Tom Kalin. “Maybe even to explode it.”

“Every time there was a casting change, a location change, a financing change, Tom and I would talk, and I’d generate another set of revisions. The process was as exhausting as it was exhaustive. But it’s the model, I think, of what every screenwriter wants: to be all the time in the middle of everything,”

Even with numerous films and television episodes under his belt, Rodman added that seeing his words come to life on the screen is still thrilling. As an example, he points to a scene added late in the shoot that emphasizes Baekeland’s irresponsible behavior by having her careen around perilous mountain curves in a convertible.

“I’ve always admired, from afar, Henri Chapron’s Citroen convertibles, of which very few were actually made. And it seemed the perfect car for Barbara at that wild point in her life,” recalled Rodman. “So, two years ago, I typed the words ‘Citroen convertible.’ Then, two years later, there I was in the courtyard of a castle on the outskirts of Barcelona, watching the car of my dreams being delivered to the set. It was something out of a fever dream. It’s great to see a world that you imagined built before your eyes. It’s even greater to see it come to life in ways you hadn’t expected or couldn’t have anticipated,” he added.

While writing a script from scratch can be daunting, the process of bringing a story to the screen from a book carries its own frustrations and rewards.

“Adaptations are lovely because someone has created an entire world and you just have to climb in it and close the hatch over your head. In other ways it’s difficult—because you want so badly to be true to what’s already written.”

Though he won’t return to his teaching duties until January, Rodman still has a crowded fall on tap. He’ll be finishing work on a novel, as well as doing a rewrite on a large-scale time-travel thriller for Steven Soderbergh at Warner Bros. He’ll also be doing what he can to help sell Savage Grace to a domestic distributor to help get the movie into festivals such as Berlin and Sundance. He continues his work on the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America west, and will continue to serve as a creative advisor and artistic director with the Sundance Screenwriting Labs.

In addition, he will also chair the selection committee for the 2007 USC Scripter Award, bestowed each spring by the Friends of the USC Libraries in recognition of the best film adaptation of a book or novella. Now in its 19th year, the prize is given to both the author and screenwriter.