Howard A. Rodman
“I would visit my [screenwriter] dad, and he'd be laying on the couch, head propped up on pillows reading Popular Mechanics and I would go up to him and he'd say, 'Go away, I'm working.' And I felt like, 'Gosh, I want that job.'”
Noblesse Oblige and Tragedy in America
Written by Dylan Callaghan

The dramatic power of the new film Savage Grace comes where the lacquered illusions of life at the apex of American wealth, glamour and erudition meet the sordid, stark finality of a true-life human tragedy. Adapted by scripter Howard A. Rodman from the same-titled book by Natalie Robins, Steven Aronson, Grace tells the hyper-colored tale of Brooks and Barbara Baekeland -- real-life American heirs to a plastics fortune, who, in between looking gorgeous, hobnobbing with the likes of Salvador Dali, James Jones and the Vanderbilts, and romping through uncharted jungles in search of lost civilizations, sank shockingly into a perverse chasm of murder, suicide and supposed incest.

It's the kind of story that makes fiction writers everywhere concede: you can't make this stuff up. Indeed, this story and the original 500-page book face the kind of embarrassment of riches that can be a thorny bramble to someone attempting to prune it to an effective 120-page film script.

Scripter Rodman spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his journey from initial reluctance to tackle this material to his personal and professional pride in the finished film, which stars Julianne Moore as Barbara and Stephen Dillane as Brooks.

How much familiarity did you have with the actual 1972 murder prior to becoming involved in this film?

I had some vague awareness. In 1972, I was living in New York and it got some play, but it wasn't that memorable to me.

Photo: © 2007 Monfort Producciones S.L
Julianne Moore in Savage Grace.
So my real familiarity with the case didn't come until [producer] Christine Vachon and [director] Tom Kalin had me take a look at the book.

And once you read the book, did you think it was something you could adapt?

My immediate reaction was that this was something I couldn't adapt, actually. It scared the daylights out of me. The characters in it were very, very strong, and that always makes an adaptation fun. What scared me was that it went to some very dark places. Although I've written a lot of noir stuff and I love it, this was dark in a whole different way. This was dark in a way that I knew if I was going to write it I was also going to have to go to what James Elroy called My Dark Places. I wasn't sure I wanted to do that, or if, frankly, I had the emotional resources to do it.

Weirdly enough, when I expressed those reservations to Tom, instead of him saying, “You scaredycat and wuss, go away,” he seemed to like the fact that I was showing...

An emotional susceptibility?

Yeah, because the material scared him, too.

There's a lot going on in this story -- glamour, the American dream, incest, cultural luminaries. What element or elements did you feel were the crucial ones that you wanted to script to hinge on?

Boy, “jambalaya” is a good word there. It does have all of those things and there are clearly many different films that could be made from this raw material. Also it's a 500-page, dense piece of non-fiction. The first thing we knew was that there was something deeply American about this story. There was a blurb about the book from E.L. Doctorow that said, “In the history of Europeanized Americans begun by James and continued by Hemingway, [Savage Grace ] proposes the final awful chapter.” We wanted to talk about the ambition and blindness of America crashed up against the rocks of old Europe.

Then there is the personal, family tragedy of this story. This goes back to something that, of all people, William F. Buckley said. I don't normally look to William F. Buckley as my moral touchstone, but one of the things that he said was, “Seldom has there been so devastating an exposure of consequences, for the most sophisticated people, of failure in the simplest duties of love.” Tom and I both read that and said, “Yeah, that's what happened.”

There are some very basic obligations of love as someone who is a father, son, husband and friend; you learn some thing about the do's and don'ts of love. Some of them are real basic... One of the simplest duties of love is that you put the needs of the person you love ahead of your own, and this is something they just didn't get.

I know you worked on the screen adaptation of Joe Gould's Secret -- how challenging an adaptation was this?

Some of the challenges were craft challenges. The book is 500 pages long and covers 100 years of Baekeland history. Real human lives are continuous, but movies are made up of little chunks of people's lives. So the key was to find the parts that stood in for the whole.

Tom and I gave ourselves the task to find the five or six individual moments in the book that we could build out into scenes that would allow us to graft the whole longer story -- five or six points with which the viewer could get the whole larger arc of the story by connecting the dots.

And how difficult was it to winnow it down to those final points?

We thought it was going to be incredibly difficult, but Tom and I went home and, weirdly, came up with the same six moments. It was uncanny, and those are the six moments that are in the finished film.

How close is the finished film to what you envisioned as you worked the script?

Ridiculously close. I think the finished product resembled not only the script and what I saw in my head, but the vision Tom had for the film, more so than any other film I've worked on.

Your father was a writer as well--were there any big lessons you took away from watching his career?

I would visit my dad, and he'd be laying on the couch, head propped up on pillows reading Popular Mechanics and I would go up to him and he'd say, “Go away, I'm working.” And I felt like, “Gosh, I want that job.” So I would say part of what I learned from him was the idea that spending a life as a writer was not an impossible dream. It's an advantage because other writers, in addition to having to invent themselves, have to create that belief that this can be done.

But I'd have to say that I have thought that if he were in the garment business, I'd be sewing pockets today -- that I became a writer out of a sort of terminal failure of imagination.