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Over the course of just three feature films, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko established herself as a wry, observant, vital chronicler of the foibles and insecurities of middle-aged women. After getting her MFA from Columbia, Cholodenko helped edit Boyz N The Hood and Used People before making her feature-length directorial debut with High Art, a moody, sensual drama about artists, sex, and drugs that won Cholodenko the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance and kudos for stars Radha Mitchell, Patricia Clarkson, and Ally Sheedy. (Sheedy picked up best-actress honors from the Independent Spirit Awards and the National Society Of Film Critics for her performance.) Cholodenko followed it up with 2002’s Laurel Canyon, a winning character study about a music-industry lifer (Frances McDormand) and her neurotic son (Christian Bale). Cholodenko has worked extensively in television over the past decade, but she makes a triumphant return to the big screen with The Kids Are All Right, a timely, funny, trenchant comedy-drama about a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) whose teenage children (Josh Hutcherson and Alice In Wonderland star Mia Wasikowska) seek out the sperm donor who sired them (Mark Ruffalo), with unpredictable results. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the filmmaker about unconventional families, Ruffalo’s boyish charm, and the recent glut of pregnancy-themed films.
The A.V. Club: What was the film’s genesis?
Lisa Cholodenko: God, where did it come from? I had recently moved from New York back to L.A., where I’m from. My girlfriend was walking through the hall [Wendy Melvoin, formerly of Prince And The Revolution], and we were talking about having a kid, and how would we have a kid? And would we do it with a friend, and blah blah blah. And we got on the highway to doing it with an anonymous sperm donor. That seemed like the best bet for us, because we really didn’t have a friend that seemed like the right fit. You know, we were just kind of in the whole process of figuring that out, and starting to look for one, and researching it and going online and the whole machinations of “How do you have a kid with a vial of sperm you bought from the sperm bank? How do I pick that? Who is this person?” I took it really seriously. I mean, I’ve known people that have done it and were just like, “Who cares? I’ll go through it. I’ll find somebody good, and I want to have a kid.” And for me, it was like I might not have a relationship with this person, but I have somebody’s whole family history as 50 percent of my child-to-be, and I want to know that person.
AVC: How much control do you have in that situation in terms of laying out your criteria and setting standards?
LC: They break it down. At the place that we went, which was called the California Cryobank, it was incredibly comprehensive. There’s these dossiers on these guys all the way from donor essays to audiotapes of them being interviewed. Baby pictures. Family. Social history. Health history all the way back to the grandparents, aunts, uncles. SAT scores. Personality tests. You know, there’s a lot of stuff. So while you never meet the adult person, I think when you distill all this information, there’s a fairly coherent representation of who that guy might be. Stuart Blumberg, who I wrote it with, had been a sperm donor in college. So it was interesting to bounce a lot of these ideas off of him and plumb his reactions for Mark Ruffalo’s.
AVC: How did you come to work with Stuart Blumberg?
LC: I had been living in New York and knew Stuart through some friends, and we weren’t close friends, but I just knew him socially for a number of years, and knew he was writing some bigger, commercial scripts and had gotten some films made. I moved out to L.A. to make Laurel Canyon, and then I decided to come back and relocate there. And I had been there for maybe less than a year, and saw him in a coffee shop that I hung out in a lot near my house. We said hi and sat down. “What are you doing?” “What are you doing?” He wanted to write something that was more personal than what he had been writing, and I wanted to write something more commercial. And I just kind of got it in my head that I would tell him about what I was starting to write, which was this general idea. And then he said, “Oh, that’s really interesting. I was a sperm donor in college.” And at that moment, I felt like “This is some kind of kismet. It kind of freaks me out. I’m like throwing myself into the arms of this stranger, and this could be a disaster. But I don’t want to write alone right now. It feels really hard and lonely, and I’m just going to throw this out there.” So I asked him if he wanted to write it together. He did and, to his credit, man, for very little money, he hung in there for five years and did all the revisions with me and really just muscled it through.
AVC: What was the actual process like? Did you revise each other’s work?
LC: No. For some reason, we just decided we wouldn’t write independently. He was in L.A. for a period of time, but then mostly lived in New York, and we didn’t really want to Skype or iChat or send scenes back and forth. We felt like there was some synergy that happened when we were together. He was coming out to L.A. a lot to work and be social and escape the New York winters. And I went to New York a number of times to work with him, probably a third of the time that he came out here or less, but I did go. And we would just plan this week or two or a month or whatever, and kind of get a draft done. And it just went on and on and on like that. And I had a kid in there, but it lasted quite a long time.
AVC: You mentioned it being a five-year process. Was it difficult to get financing for it?
LC: It wasn’t like five years pounding on doors. There were big breaks. I had a child. But I thought it was going to be a lot easier. I did. I was really surprised at how difficult it was. It came together and we got enough money to get it made, but it was a freakishly tight budget and tight shooting schedule, and one that intimidated me. I even considered not doing it, because I thought I had worked this long on the script, I could very well fuck up the film having sub-adequate resources. And that would have been sad.
But then I thought, “You know what? I have these amazing actresses, and I’ve done this before, and I’ve shot television, and I know how to do it fast,” and I hired a DP that was ready to rock it. It wasn’t fancy camerawork, so I just thought, “I’ve got to get this done. I’m going to be depressed if I don’t just go for it.”
AVC: One of the impressive things about the film was the lived-in nature of Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s relationship. As a director, is there something you can do to engender that sense of intimacy, or do you just have to trust your actors?
LC: I think Julianne was kind of in the picture at the outset. We had written a draft and shown her, and she wanted to do it. She said to me several years earlier than that first draft between High Art and Laurel Canyon, like, “I’d love to do something with you at some point.” So she was always in my mind. By the time I came around to casting [the character of] Nic, I had a very short list of people I felt could pull it off. So I went to New York to talk to Julianne about who I wanted to cast, to make sure she was good with it, because I wanted her to feel like she was a partner. She had hung in for so long. And when I suggested Annette, she said, “I don’t know Annette, but I admire her a great deal, and I think she would be great. And I’ll send her e-mail and tell her how much I like the idea and go from there.” I think they both felt like they had some ownership in their pairing, which was good and helped. It wasn’t foisted on them. At least Julianne—if she had moments of having any difficulty with Annette—probably in her own mind, she could fall back on “This was something I supported and chose, and I’m in it. I’m going to make this work.” That said, they were pushed into these characters fast and furiously, and figured them out. It was pretty astonishing. I didn’t have to do a lot of real directing.
AVC: You don’t have to tell Julianne Moore or Annette Bening how to act.
LC: No. I mean, it was like, “I don’t think this is hitting it,” or “Maybe we can try it this way.” Those are things you always expect. But to go in there and start deconstructing it so they can understand it and what to do—people like that, you don’t have to do that. That’s the total pleasure of my job: to be sitting there and have those kinds of performances and be able to just crack up on a set and go, “Oh my God, that was so weird and funny. I never would have thought of that.”
AVC: It’s a little surprising how sexy Mark Ruffalo is in the film.
LC: I just remembered how I felt after watching You Can Count On Me a long time ago. That movie, and also a movie called—this filmmaker named John Curran did it. It was with Laura Dern and Naomi Watts. We Don’t Live Here Anymore. I thought, “Mark has this thing where he’s boyish but mannish. And he’s a little wily, but he’s also really earnest. You kind of can’t pluck the Midwestern out of him. He’s from Wisconsin, you know. It makes him really loveable and I thought, “Who could pull off a role like this, where this character is doing some really kind of unsavory, weird shit, and you don’t know—is he a jerk? Is he an operator? Or is he just like this guy who’s kind of narcissistic and clueless?” And I thought if anybody could pull it off, it’s him.
AVC: All three of the lead characters do things that would seemingly render them unsympathetic, and yet you remain emotionally invested. Were you worried that audiences would turn on any of the leads?
LC: Yeah, definitely. There were times where I thought “Nic is so brittle and bitchy.” And people are going to be like, “Yeah, go have an affair. She’s an asshole.” And then I thought, “I have to peel away the onion, and I gotta get into her inner life, so we can know she’s really vulnerable, and that there’s something driving her to be controlling like this, and there’s something really loveable under it.” And I think picking Annette was so spot-on, just because she’s that deft as a dramatic actress, and she has a great comedic ability. She can offset what was off-putting with this great, sort of sarcastic humor. And I think it makes her sympathetic. And I think that Ruffalo really has that. We changed that character a lot through different things that we took away and added and had to ask ourselves about.
AVC: What kind of evolution did that character go through?
LC: I think in the first incarnations, he was more of an extreme character. I think we saw him as somebody with a real intimacy issue. He was, for better or worse, kind of a sex addict, and somebody that should probably be going to meetings and recovering, but wasn’t there yet. His arc was, he was going to land on his ass and realize that. And then we thought, “That’s an interesting character, but he’s not the main character of the film, and people are not going to be able to embrace that. It’s just too much.” We took elements of that, but put it in a kind of range of things people could absorb, like the Cary Grant type, the bachelor guy who likes his freedom. For anybody who knows those kinds of people, there’s always probably something tripping them up underneath it all about making commitments. But we didn’t really want to get into the pathology as much as the lifestyle.
AVC: One of the impressive things about your films is the use of music. Do you write scenes with particular songs in mind?
LC: I think this movie is different from other movies. I didn’t really write music into the script, and I think that’s one of the things that probably made it hard to sell the movie: People didn’t have a soundtrack to read the script by. But I wasn’t really sure exactly what I wanted to do with the music and where it was going to go, or if I could even identify the music. I knew that I might need some help. Liza Richardson, who did the music supervising as a DJ on KCRW in L.A., has got her ear to the ground and knows up-and-coming and unsigned bands. I wanted somebody like that, who could come in and help us find things that were fresh. There was that.
I knew there was going to be that Joni Mitchell thing at the end. Beyond that, I think I always knew that the beginning of the film would have a needle-drop. But I hadn’t found it. I didn’t write it in. I just knew that it wasn’t going to be score, and I knew it needed something kinetic at the beginning. And then when we saw the film, I was like, “Well, I think there’s lot of places in here for needle-drop, and I like how some of this kind of unsigned, early-career music is informing a little bit about Mia’s character, and Mark’s got his own thing. We’ve got some of that vintage David Bowie in there, and the moms are listening to their Leon Russell when you walk in. It just felt like it gave everybody a shading that appealed to me.
AVC: This is a very personal film, yet it seems like there are a lot of movies coming out over a four- or five-month period that are about unconventional means of childbirth.
LC: Really? What’s coming?
AVC: There’s The Back-Up Plan, The Baster, and then Mother And Child.
LC: Right, which Annette was in.
AVC: That’s the crazy thing. Obviously this started a long, long time ago, but now it looks like a sudden trend. Were you cognizant of these films at the time?
LC: I only know about The Back-Up Plan since it came out. So I didn’t know really about that. I did know about The Baster, and I did some research into that, because when I heard about it, I was a little concerned, like, “Is this treading the same ground?” And I was quickly informed not to worry about it. I don’t know why all these films are coming out now, exactly. I can only venture to guess that there’s lots of donor kids coming of age, and there’s lots of journalistic stuff coming out about single mothers by choice, and people doing artificial insemination and egg donation and in vitro fertilization. There’s a lot of technology out there to help people have children in different ways, and later in life, for better or worse. This kind of loosely originated from my own experience and my own concerns and interests, and the more I got into this, the more I realized, “Wow, there’s like a whole world unfolding of gay people—men and women—having families and having children and figuring out ways to have them and then raising them.” And then what’s it like for the kids? What’s their journey going to be like? And I think this is sort of a stand-alone film in terms of those subjects, for sure.
AVC: It seems like for the children initially, finding out the Ruffalo character was their dad was a bit of a best-case scenario: He’s cool, he’s attractive, he’s interested in their lives. Then it takes a bit of a turn.
LC: I think I wanted to express that through Mia’s character, through Joni. At first, she’s really defensive, like, “I can’t open that can of worms. It’s a shitty time for me to do that.” And probably thinking, “This is going to be this horrible disappointment” and “I don’t want to go through that.” And then she meets this guy and all this fantasy projection, and it’s kind of Oedipal, and it is the best-case scenario. And then it goes full-circle, like “Okay, he’s human. He’s got a dark side and a charming side, and he’s a person. People are disappointing, and they’re the opposite. But invariably, they are disappointing because they’re not perfect.”
AVC: This film, like your previous films, concerns the fluidity of human sexuality. What interests you about that subject?
LC: God, I don’t know. I think I’m interested in these kinds of character dramas, psychological dramas, domestic dramas, whatever you want to call them—comedy dramas. Now I’m more interested in the comedy part. I think invariably when you are dealing with relationships, the films really center on that, and the plot is really born out of that. That’s the most core part of a relationship: intimacy, I think, whether it’s expressed or not.