LISA CHOLODENKO, “THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT”

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Originally posted online on July 7, 2010. The Kids Are All Right is nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Annette Bening), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo) and Best Original Screenplay (Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg).

It’s been eight years since Lisa Cholodenko’s last feature film (six if you count her TV adaptation of Dorothy Allison’s novel Cavedweller), but for the 46-year-old writer-director of 1998’s High Art (winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance) and 2002’s Laurel Canyon (starring Frances McDormand and Christian Bale) the time has, if anything, only sharpened her wits and powers of empathic observation, not to mention her considerable talent for guiding seasoned actors to perform at their finest. Her interest in chronicling the mid-life anxieties and self-doubts of artsy, sexually unorthodox women (Ally Sheedy’s druggy boho photographer in High Art, McDormand’s bisexual record-biz maven in Laurel Canyon) have aligned her in some ways with the lesbian community, but it doesn’t do Cholodenko justice to assign her body of work to any narrow cultural niche. Her films are far too personal, her characters too honest and generous, too universal in their familiar foibles, for such descriptive shorthand.

Cholodenko’s latest, The Kids Are All Right, co-written with Stuart Blumberg (The Girl Next Door), tells the story of a blissfully married lesbian couple, Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening), raising their college-age daughter Joni (Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) and teenage son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) in Southern California. Without informing their parents, whom they affectionately refer to as “Moms,” the kids decide to seek out their sperm-donor father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a boyishly handsome, motorcycle-riding restaurateur who leads a harmlessly decadent life but has no family of his own. After an awkward first encounter engineered by Joni, the effortlessly charming, laid-back Paul meets the rest of the clan and, with Jules and Nic’s ambivalent approval, begins to edge into their lives in unexpected ways. A wise, tender, sexy, disarmingly funny portrait of modern family life that won critical acclaim at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals for its comically trenchant script and note-perfect performances, The Kids Are All Right is a highly entertaining fusion of commercial and indie-film sensibilities that seems as fresh and timely as anything Cholodenko has yet brought to life on the big screen.

Filmmaker sat down with Cholodenko last week in New York to talk about screenwriting, sperm banks, and lesbian chic. The Kids Are All Right opens Friday.

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko. Courtesy Focus Features.

Filmmaker: The Kids Are All Right is an impressive piece of work. The writing in particular is so sharp here—the comedy is dead-on, the characters are all fully realized, and even more impressively, none draws our sympathy more than the others. I think a lot of effort must have gone into making it play that way on the screen.

Cholodenko: Thanks, it did.

Filmmaker: What did realizing such a funny, true-to-life family scenario with your co-writer, Stuart Blumberg, really involve?

Cholodenko: We took a really long time writing it. It wasn’t a pleasure cruise. It was a lot of head scratching and banging, us asking questions of ourselves, like “Whose film is this? Should it be about the kids?” Or, “Now we have too much Paul, and it shouldn’t be Paul’s film.” So there was a lot of groping in the dark—and there’s despair in that, especially when this is your livelihood. We’re not doing arts and crafts, we’re both serious filmmakers. And I had to get another one out. I think it took us a long time to hit on the idea that the integrity of this family was the main character, and within that, the Moms were the nucleus. Their relationship was the anchor for that. It seems simple now, in retrospect. You get caught up with people telling you what they want to see. “Why are you making this movie about two older women? That’s so tired.” We tried a bunch of different things but every time we started to get into a stride, it kept unfolding in the same way. Then when we hit that point where we thought, We know what this is now, let’s really be careful with how we dig into the characters and what we show about them. I think to keep everybody’s sympathy, each character had to be fully expressed in terms of what’s weird and questionable about them and what’s redeemable and vulnerable.

Filmmaker: Joni and Laser felt like real people, too, not movie kids.

Cholodenko: Sometimes when you’re watching films, you’re like, Wait a minute, we haven’t seen the kids in forty-five minutes! And in the end, it’s really the kids who are the jump ball of the film—and the closure. It’s really about what makes a family, what are the composite pieces.

Filmmaker: You mentioned that the writing process was somewhat angst-ridden. At what point did you arrive at a moment where you said, “All right, this is good, this feels real to me.”

Cholodenko: It’s partly influenced by casting. When cast becomes available, you try to get the ball rolling. Annette said yes, and I’m glad we finally figured out that it’s [her] we wanted in that role—it took three years. So all of a sudden we’re writing these drafts and feeling closer and that’s being timed out to casting.

Filmmaker: So you were you shaping it around cast specifically?

Cholodenko: When Annette said she’d do it we did the draft and tried to get her voice in there, a little sharper. She came in and did some script meetings with us and that was awesome. It really informed one of the later drafts. That said, you never know until you’re there. Laser’s last line in the film was written while we were in pre-production. Two critical scenes were written while we were filming, a couple of things got rejiggered, and another actually went away when my costumer came on and said, You know what? This one scene [isn’t working]. We were just grabbing it at the end and hoping that we were making all the right choices.

Filmmaker: You had some version of The Kids Are All Right as far back as 2005. What did the extra time allow you to do in terms of crafting this in a way you hadn’t expected?

Cholodenko: Well, it was kind of a meta experience because I was working out a relationship with Stuart, trying to figure out my life in L.A., and having a kid. I have a really generous girlfriend [musician Wendy Melvoin, of Wendy & Lisa fame] who was like, I’m going to keep humping and working so you can keep going and finish. So that was great. And then there was this whole thing of “How are we going to have a kid?” I got into a really crazy domestic space, because we were getting older, pushing 40, so I think all this attention to how are we going to do it—with a friend, a straight person, a gay person—then picking the person, going into those files [at a sperm bank], that’s very intense, very weird. Like, I’m picking the father of my child! For me, as a writer, it became a totally mind-boggling, absorbing, frightening, freaky, sci-fi venture, and so I think I took a lot of time with that and then translating it into fiction. It just took a while to process.

Filmmaker: Was the idea of the garden there in the beginning with The Kids Are All Right, because it was such a rich metaphor for fertility, with Jules being an underemployed landscape designer and Paul a farm-to-table restaurateur who needed someone to work on his vegetable garden.

Cholodenko: It’s that weird stuff when you’re writing these films that are personal films, in a way, auteur films. At the time, my girlfriend and I had bought this house and it needed work. We were involved in a very big landscape job, because I was picking out plants and shit, so I was just like, she’ll be that. And I liked that because they live in Southern California, it’s that thing when you’ve got inside and outside [space], and this makes sense to my experience. Then the idea that Paul [would be] an organic farmer—he was always a restaurateur—there was one point where we weren’t sure if Annette Bening could come to New York City or Julie to L.A.. So we said we’ll just transpose it all and set it in New York. Stuart and I had this idea that the family would live in Maplewood, New Jersey, where all the gays and liberal people are moving, and Paul would be a Red Hook pioneer guy. Stuart said, “If he has his restaurant there, why don’t we do this other thing where he has this organic garden? I worked in an organic garden in Red Hook.” It was this kind of uber-liberal enterprise where people bring inner-city kids to pick heirloom tomatos or whatever. And that resonated. It was a set piece and we kind of ran with it.

Filmmaker: That would have been a very different film, I think, in terms of feel. The California vibe is such a rich texture in the film, especially where Jules’s character is concerned.

Cholodenko: The ease of it, yeah, the kind of driftiness, the loose-boundariness. Still, I think it would have worked, totally. It was fun to think about—I like that draft. For personal reasons, I’m glad [we wrote it]. Then sometimes you think, well, it originated here [in L.A.], there’s probably something to that. It’s really organically meant to be here.

Filmmaker: When you first started making films after graduating from Columbia, did you know you wanted to focus more on human relationships, rather than ideas? Was it just intuitive for you?

Cholodenko: I think it was more intuitive, it was second nature. Even if I had stepped back at the beginning and said, “What’s interesting to me about filmmaking?,” I would say it’s the observation of human behavior and the plumbing of emotional and psychological experiences. Those are the films I’ve always personally been drawn to. I’ve said this many times, but the golden age in this country of the independent studio films in the ’70s, those are really important for me. And probably, on the some level, they got me on track to making my own. That’s not vogue right now, those kinds of films. So it’s tricky to figure out what is vogue and what do we take from popular culture and what do we use from that to make these kinds of films. One of the things that was great about working with Stuart is that he comes from a more commercial, broad-comedy background, so I think he was attracted to making these kind of richer-character, emotional and psychological films, and I was interested in finding a way to make the humor that I think was in the other films really bust out, and get into that kind of pacing and commercial shorthand. So we thought, let’s fuse it and see if we can figure out how to make it work.

Filmmaker: Speaking of voguish things in pop culture, what do you think is behind lesbian chic nowadays?

Cholodenko: Is there one? I’m out of it.

Filmmaker: There seems to be a fairly consistent desire to see other lifestyles presented in a flattering and sexy way.

Cholodenko: Well, I think it’s a bigger question than time permits. I certainly think we’ve been inching toward it in the culture. There’s been a lot of events that have led us to a moment where it’s more in the mainstream and now I think with all this gay-marriage business being one state after the next, it’s—whether people are repelled or not—it’s just in the zeitgeist, it’s what up, you know? It’s unignorable. There’s probably something refreshing for people to go, like, well, let’s make it sexy, otherwise it’s just another outcast cast, scratching on the door for their civil rights. I don’t know, I’m just riffing.

Filmmaker: A lot of my straight women friends are into The L Word franchise, for instance, and the idea that women’s sexuality is celebrated and represented in a way that’s not conventional.

Cholodenko: I think that show is fun if it’s observed purely on a fantasy level. One of the interesting challenges of this film was that I really wanted to play it real. So I was like, look, this is about a teenage girl who’s 18 [seeking her donor father], I’m starting from that premise. That means the mommies have to be a certain age and who am I going to get in those roles who are still sexy, that I can hinge this drama comedy around and that you’re going to want to watch? It raised a lot of trippy questions. I’m really proud of these actors for being as sexy and as real and as frickin’ awesome as they were and of me, for not going, well, let me just get, you know, Kate Winslet—how old is she, 37 or something?—and make believe she’s pushing 50. That was a high-risk choice, and I think that’s a good thing for lesbian chic.