Filmmaker Kanchi Wichmann, writer/director of Break My Fall, chats to legendary filmmaker Tom Kalin. In October 2011 Wichmann was invited to screen their feature film Break My Fall at the Mezipatra queer film festival in Prague. The festival was also celebrating the twentieth anniversary of New Queer Cinema, and Kalin and Todd Haynes were in attendance, screening their work’s, giving lectures and, in Tom’s case heading up the jury.
Kalin and Wichmann hung out and became friends. Wichmann is proud to be instrumental in bringing his 1992 debut feature film Swoon to a whole new generation at the Fringe! Film Fest here in London.
So So Gay: When you were making the film, who did you think your audience would be? Did you have any sense that it would end up getting the attention that it got?
Tom Kalin: Like most first time filmmakers I tried to make a movie that I wanted to watch. There were so incredibly few examples of queer films shown in commercial cinemas. I remember gasping with delight at Daniel Day Lewis & Gordon Warnecke’s kiss in My Beautiful Launderette. I also snuck downtown Chicago at seventeen to (illegally) watch Cruising with Al Pacino. It was a big deal to see a movie star ‘playing gay’ and I was as turned on as I was traumatized by that movie in equal measure.
I was an art student in college so I’d seen some Warhol. My awareness of ‘avant garde cinema’ was pretty developed by my early twenties. With Swoon I wanted to make an ‘art movie’ but also had ambitions to make a large audience gasp too. Of course Derek Jarman hugely influenced me in my use of anachronistic details in a period mise-en-scene.
Who knows how people will respond to the movies we make? I was shocked and thrilled by the attention then, and honored 20 years later we’re still talking about it![pullquote_left]Many people were doing their job for the first time – it was that kind of movie, assistants pulled up by their bootstraps.[/pullquote_left]SSG: Swoon is one of the lynchpin films of the so-called New Queer Cinema movement within US cinema in the 1990′s. Did you feel like you were part of a movement at the time?
Like many labels New Queer Cinema described a real phenomena and also helped to codify it. But most filmmakers are wary of labels and playing the role model. Just like ‘New Black Cinema’ and ‘New Asian Cinema’, the labels represent both opportunities and traps.
In my personal constellation, Todd Haynes’ Superstar – though it’s not obviously ‘queer’ – is a key film in the formation of what was to become New Queer Cinema. It tells the story of Karen Carpenter’s anorexia using Barbie dolls instead of actors. The scales fell from my eyes when I saw how you could use genre in such a funny and complicated way – the movie is heartbreaking and coolly analytical at the same time.
My response was to use the genre of film noir in a fresh and complicated way with Swoon. I’d grown up watching films where heterosexual sexual obsession was entangled with murder and it was romantic drama not pathology. No one boiled it down to a simple, ‘those nutty heteros. They’re fucking so much it’s driven them to kill.’ But when Leopold and Loeb killed, it was a different story.
Though the film was made from within the personal and social worlds, I was not self-conscious about being part of a wave of filmmaking. It’s a cliché but not untrue to describe us then in the vein of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies, ‘c’mon kids. Let’s hang up a bed sheet and have a show!’ Many people were doing their job for the first time – it was that kind of movie, assistants pulled up by their bootstraps. Director of Photography Ellen Kuras had never shot a feature nor worked in black and white. We could not afford to see dailies while shooting so relied on black and white polaroids taken on set. I can also can never watch Leopold and Loeb kissing in the movie’s opening wedding scene without remember the smell of sulphur smoke ‘cookies’ used in the scene or burning my fingers helping my Production Manager spread the smoke.
Like many of my friends I worked for cash in bars and clubs and spent nearly every night out until 4am for at least a decade. Hard to imagine now! The gorgeous subterranean world of after hours was key in the look of Swoon and I am eternally indebted to the visionary drag kings, drag queens, gender fuckers, and identity anarchists I met in that time. They really were heady days. The extras in the film are all a great who’s who of these overlapping spheres – artists, construction workers, fact-checkers, taxi drivers, drag queens. A great mix.
SSG: How easy it is for you to get your work made and to stick to your own vision within the American industry?
Like almost every filmmaker I know, I have spent more of my career not making feature films, or almost making them, than actually working on set. But I’ve been fortunate and substitute this with an exceptionally layered and eccentric career. In keeping with the overlapping and collaborative nature of much of my work, I have also produced feature films for other directors – Rose Troche’s Go Fish and Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol. I co-wrote Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer. I directed a number of short narratives too. In addition to my membership in Gran Fury I have made dozens of experimental films and video and installations for the past nearly thirty years, with screenings at venues including the Whitney Biennial, The Museum of Modern Art, Museum Reina Sofia Madrid, and The Getty Museum.
Moving forward I’ll continue to straddle multiple genres and media in my work. Upcoming projects include a new installation, collaborations with musician Thomas Bartlett (Doveman), and I’m developing two
new feature projects.
SSG: How does it feel to be celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Swoon and having all these screenings again?
Like most middle age people I now have the predictable shock that twenty years have passed. Swoon literally shaped the subsequent twenty years of my life. Craig Paull, one of Swoon’s cast and one of the phrenology heads in the film, was then my soon to be husband after 20 years. Swoon began my continuing collaboration and friendship with Christine Vachon, Kuras, and Production Designer Therese DePrez who have been significant ongoing collaborators as well as dear neighbors in upstate New York.
Swoon will be screened as part of the Fringe! Film Fest 2012, which takes 12 – 15 April 2012.
Featured image: Tom Kalin at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. Photograph: Courtesy of David Shankbone.