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She couldn’t let go

Special to The Times

Even by tortuously circuitous indie film standards, Toni Kalem, the writer and director of “A Slipping Down Life,” deserves some kind of trophy for persistence. How long has she been at it? When Kalem, who plays a Mafia widow on “The Sopranos,” started the project, David Chase was best known as the guy who produced “The Rockford Files,” if he was known at all. And when the petite Kalem pulls up a chair at a Beverly Hills cafe, an actor at a nearby table stares in her direction, trying to place her. She remembers him -- and the audition he did for “Slipping Down” many years ago. “He keeps looking over at me like he should recognize me but can’t remember from where,” Kalem confides.

Two decades in the making, “A Slipping Down Life” stars Lili Taylor as Evie Decker, a timid small-town southerner. Stalking a mysterious rock singer, Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce), after hearing his music on the radio, she proves her devotion by carving his name on her forehead with a piece of glass. The unlikely love story, which has received mixed reviews, is based on a novel by Anne Tyler.

Kalem first optioned “A Slipping Down Life” in 1984, seeing the novel as an acting vehicle that would allow her to break out of the feisty Italian-American type she’d played in “The Wanderers” and “Private Benjamin.” “I was at my parents’ house one day and saw this Anne Tyler book on the shelf, which I’d pilfered from the shelves of Random House when I had been a secretary there, supporting my acting habit,” Kalem recalls. “I fell in love with Evie.”

As written by Tyler, Evie was an overweight 16-year-old, but Kalem pictured her a more mature character dealing with some of the same issues she experienced as an actress. “For me, this was about taking control of your own life. I just knew there was more to me than sitting around waiting for my agent to call with an audition. I couldn’t bear that feeling of powerlessness, and that was a huge thing I responded to in the story.”

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Keeping “A Slipping Down Life” from slipping out of her control was not a cheap proposition. Kalem emptied her bank account every two years to extend the option, which kept getting more expensive as Tyler became hotter in Hollywood after a Pulitzer Prize win and the film adaptation of “An Accidental Tourist.” Once, studio insiders tipped Kalem that well-heeled producers wanted to poach the rights, and she had to catch an overnight flight to New York and “basically beg” for an extension.

Early on, Kalem met with working writers to come up with a script, but she was disappointed in their literal “cut and paste” ideas. To spell out her vision more clearly, Kalem wrote her own story outline, which eventually morphed into a first draft that friends told her was a perfectly viable script on its own.

Kalem still believed she needed a director. Circumventing agents, she contacted Bill Forsythe, Billy August, Pat O’Connor and Diane Kurys, the latter a former actress herself, who gave Kalem three words of advice: Direct it yourself.

“I remember Diane saying to me, ‘This is your story; you know it better than anybody else. You should direct it.’ At that point, being an actress and being used to rejection, I just saw it as another way of saying no.”

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Eventually, the advice sunk in. In the mid-'90s, Kalem, married by now and raising a daughter, gave up on the idea of starring in the picture and instead embraced the role of auteur. She rounded up $250,000 worth of free actors, free film stock, free cameras, free dollies and free locations. In one weekend, she directed a 13-minute short in Silver Lake featuring five scenes from her script.

“It’s not that many people actually saw this piece of film,” Kalem explains. “But I decided I needed to talk the talk and know the lingo. ‘Oh yeah, the color correction.’ Now I could go into a room and say words like ‘telecine’ and not sound like an amateur. In a lot of ways it was like acting the part of director, but going through the process gave me the confidence I needed.”

‘I heard all these voices’

Kalem then hooked up with producer Richard Raddon, who in turn recruited Texas investors to finance “A Slipping Down Life” to the tune of roughly $4 million. Kalem spent the next year obsessing over songwriters like Joe Henry, Robyn Hitchcock, Ron Sexsmith and Vic Chestnut, who would define the Drumstrings persona.

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She spent 10 days in a small North Carolina town with Dexter Romweber, leader of the guitarist-and-drummer band Flat Duo Jets, who served as a model for Drumstrings Casey and his two-man group. She sent a script to Leonard Cohen while he meditated in a monastery. She approached Sexsmith after a Borders bookstore performance.

“I was constantly pulling off the side of the road listening to the radio. Like Evie, I heard all these voices on the airwaves. I felt, together, their voices could make up the voice of Drum.” Assembling her actors, Kalem cast against type and picked Taylor, best known at the time for edgy urban films including “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “Girls Town.” Pearce, who had yet to make “Memento,” was in town promoting “L.A. Confidential.” After a script meeting, he phoned her and said, “Let me serenade you.” In his room at the Sunset Marquis he did just that, strumming guitar and performing his own songs until Kalem was convinced Pearce could pull off the oft-treacherous actor-playing-rock-star challenge.

In July 1998, Kalem and company faced scorching 100-degree days, a crew of skeptical Texas Teamsters and an attack of predatory locusts as they shot the movie in 31 days in and around Austin. Five months after production wrapped in August, closure seemed near for “Slipping Down.”

An auspicious showing

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The film premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. Several distributors were interested in purchasing the film but, unexpectedly, the financiers refused to sell. “It was horrible,” Kalem recounts. “Hellish? That’s a euphemism. I had no control.” Litigation ensued.

“Basically, I had to go on with my career. I just kept thinking somehow this movie is going to happen.” Indeed, Kalem was cast on “The Sopranos” as the wife of the character Big Pussy and parlayed the acting work into a story-editing and writing gig for the HBO series. Meanwhile, the Texas financiers went bankrupt. Bankers assumed control of “A Slipping Down Life” and quickly sold the feature to Lions Gate in December 2002.

Though Kalem didn’t wind up playing the character she’d envisioned for herself as a twentysomething actress, she says headstrong Evie served her purpose, scarred forehead and all.

“As I tried to process all these ‘no’s’ that were piling up, I kept going back to Evie. She was my metaphor. Because I never interpreted the cutting as weird,” Kalem says. “For Evie, it made sense. She’d taken these little tiny steps all her life that had gotten her nowhere. She’d been walking in place, and she had to take a giant leap off a building in order to come alive.

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“What I guess I related to was the idea that I would end up sticking with this so long. It just seemed so crazy to so many people. Making this movie myself was, to me, as crazy as cutting somebody’s name in my forehead.”


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