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Lisa Cholodenko – Making It All Right

Lisa Cholodenko

Making It All Right

by Jay S. Jacobs

Lisa Cholodenko has been turning heads in Hollywood since her 1998 film High Art featuring Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy. One of those heads which was turned belonged to actress Julianne Moore, who made a point of talking to Cholodenko at a Women in Film celebration years ago and told her that she wanted to work together.

Cholodenko followed that cult favorite film with another acclaimed indie in 2002, Laurel Canyon with Frances McDormand and Kate Beckinsale. However, other than a film made for Showtime cable network called Cavedweller, Cholodenko has been missing in action for several years.

She wasn't just relaxing, though. She was actually working on the film which she pictured Moore in, a smart and funny look at the changing face of family values called The Kids Are All Right. The film was a labor of love six years in the making – a time in which Cholodenko became a mother herself – however Moore championed the project and stuck around for as long as it took to be made.

The story of Jules (Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening), a longtime lesbian couple raising teen children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) who become curious to meet their sperm donor father (Mark Ruffalo), the movie takes a nuanced and apolitical look at the complications of a family unit.

The film became a critical darling when shown at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Soon before The Kids Are All Right received its wide release in theaters, Cholodenko flew into the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York and spoke with a select group of journalists – myself included – about the odyssey which led to the movie's release.

Are you happy with the finished product? Does it live up to your ideals five years in the making?

It is. Yeah. I really am quite happy. Yes.

Are you happy with the initial response from viewers?

Yes. It’s really beyond what I ever imagined – in that hope that it could be a wider movie, potentially a mainstream movie in that it would be affecting and whatnot to a wide audience of ages and sexual identities, sexual preferences and genders and whatnot. It’s great. And it’s surprising.

Julianne [Moore] was just telling us earlier how she had been wanting to work with you ever since she saw High Art and you have been talking about working together for a while. How important was it to have her attached to the idea of a movie for all these years?

It was great. In times where I thought we’re never going to crack it, it’s not where I want it to be, it’s not this, it’s not that, knowing that she was checking in with me periodically and holding her ground was very, very motivating, and inspiring. Obviously, it’s flattering. And it’s stressful, too. You’re like, “Oh, I don’t know if I’m ever going to get there.” But I think it gave me some fire to keep pressing and some confidence that there was a way to actualize this film in the way that I wanted it to be.

How do you work with actors? What kind of director are you?

I am mean. I come in with a stick, a cattle prod… I humiliate. (laughs) No, I'm kind of the opposite. We worked on the script for a very long time, so I felt like the material was really there, and they got it. I knew that they got it, even [younger actors] Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson. I just could feel it. That made my job as a director a lot easier, and I know that's always the case. When you have the written material in a certain shape, your chances of fucking up when you’re on set directing are much smaller. That said, I had also spent a lot of time casting. Not just Julianne courting that for all those years, but being really, really careful who was going to be her counterpart. It took me a long time. I thought I was losing my mind. I was in my bedroom mixing and matching cards and faces. It was unpleasant. Anyway, once that cast was pulled together and I felt like I'd cast the right people and the script was in the right spot and I had pulled together the right people to technically work on the film, I really hung back. I felt very confident. We’d just have to nudge people here and there. There was not a lot of time to walk off the set and have a big analysis, or rethink things, or scrap a location or whatever. We just had 23 days, so we had to really dig in.

They said you were really prepared…

Well, you know what? I didn’t have a choice. It’s like having a serious fire under your butt.

It’s been six years since your last film was released. Why did it take a long time to get this project off the ground? Was it the subject matter?

No, it was really largely just my own personal odyssey. I can’t remember the year Laurel Canyon came out…


Yeah, and then I made a film for Showtime and that was I guess 2004. I had done some television, some commercial stuff and then began writing this. But the impetus to write this was my own domesticating. My girlfriend and I were trying to figure out how to have a family, how to have a kid, and we decided to go with an anonymous sperm donor. That was a big project, figuring that out, selecting a person. Then I did get pregnant. I had a kid, and all the while we kept coming back to this script and developing it. But there would be serious down time. So that was going on in my personal life. [Co-writer] Stuart [Blumberg] was writing studio stuff – a lot of time in New York. By the time we got the script to a place that I felt like it was right, and it was doing what it should be doing, it was later.

You sounded just like Annette Bening there.

I know. (laughs) I don’t know what that is. Maybe it’s the glasses. They make me sound like her. It’s weird. We both are from Southern California. She is from San Diego, I think, and I’m from Los Angeles. So that could have something to do with it.

Which character is more like you in your relationship?

You know, I think as in all relationships, people switch hats. It’s more one minute to the next. I hope I communicated that between these two. They are so entwined that they are kind of bouncing off each other.

What did you learn from making this that you can take to the next movie?

What did I learn? Something that I learned is that it makes a better film and it’s worth it if you’re going to write an original script to keep working on it until you feel like it’s arrived. It’s a weird thing to say, because I was being supported by my partner and it was grueling, and I felt very insecure a lot of the time. I thought: What am I doing? I’m heading nowhere fast and all this nonsense. But in the end, had I not done that, I don’t think the film would resonate nearly as well as it seems to have been resonating with people. So, it’s something that I knew from other experiences, but it has proven itself again.

You started the script before you had your baby. When you were making it later after having the baby were all family things resonating for you even more?

Yeah, I think that all the tensions that come up between the moms – that in some way are inflected or have to do with the children – I could really identify with that. I think for anybody who has kids or a family, a lot of the tensions that happen in a marriage are because of this kind of over-involvement, and love and concern and whatever, about the kids. It’s a complicated dance. How to preserve your marriage, and let your kids do their thing, but be involved in helping them grow. It was tricky. It was good that I had the kid in there, because it definitely informed how I could understand these moms.

Was the affair between Jules [Julianne Moore’s character] and Paul [Mark Ruffalo’s character] always there? Did that come up in rewrites?

It was always there. Those five characters were always there. Those two moms, the boy, the girl that’s going to college, and this man… I think in the earlier drafts, the daughter was more fixated on Paul, and it had more of a kind of Oedipal thing. That felt like I was heading down the Roman Polanski road or something. I don’t think this is mainstream, let’s pull this back. It was too heightened.

Have there been any controversial reactions around Jules and Paul getting together?

I don’t think there has been a lot of judgment, per se, but there’s been a lot of questioning. I just come back to the same thing – which is that’s that character, and she happens to be in that space in time, where she’s kind of weak and vulnerable, and is having an affair. And it happens to be that person who comes into the mix, and they have kind of a chemistry because, well, they have a child together, and he’s kind of cute, and on the Kinsey scale she’s somewhere in the middle, and she’s obviously kind of curious about men, so…. It all makes sense to me; it feels organic. It’s probably going to bug people who have a political agenda for the film, but it resonates as truthful, and as emotionally grounded to me as anything else would.

Did you from the beginning see Paul as a hippyish, carefree sort?

He wasn’t as scruffy. He was a little more like an LA restaurateur. A little more groomed. I think once we stumbled into the organic garden, got on that whole track, and grew him the beard, I sort of did that number to him, he felt more lovable to me. I could understand him better.

Did you face any major obstacles in making this film?

The obstacles were the obvious ones: it doesn’t matter what shape your script is in if it’s something that’s outside the box, or it hasn’t had a predecessor in the marketplace that they can crunch the numbers and say, “We know that this film did this, so we can bet that this film will do that” – it’s going to be hard to get money. It just is. It was harder than I thought; having a track record, having a script that I thought was in really good shape, having really excellent actresses, etc., etc. It’s disappointing, but that’s the truth of it.

What message would you like for mainstream audiences to take away from the film?

I feel like we really tried hard to make a movie that was about the value of family. Not just in a kind of soapboxy, stick with it no matter what… but, like, you know what? It’s messy, and it gets broken, and you have to glue it back together. If there’s a will and there’s a commitment, then there’s a way to muscle through difficult times – in longtime marriages and between family members.

Your dialogue is so character specific. Do you feel them in your head? How did they come to you?

Yeah. It’s very late in the game, you know? I think that it takes a long time to get to that place where they are coming off the page and I can go into a room and start tweaking dialogue and saying, “She wouldn’t say that. That just doesn’t sound like her.” Or “That doesn’t move that scene along. That just seems contrived.” Or whatever. And know with some confidence that would be coming out of her mouth. To me, there is kind of a lot of misery in screenwriting. I don’t really love it because it’s very lonely and it’s very painful trying to crack it. But the pleasure and the real treat is at the end when that exact thing happens and you can go in a quiet room and spend time with them and you know where they’re going to go or not go.

What’s next?

I thought I’d go take a nap and maybe freshen up for tonight.

Not in the next 15 minutes, let’s say in the next few months…

I’m going back to California, where I’m living, and try to figure out a couple of things. I might actually develop something for television.

There was a massive bidding war for The Kids Are All Right at Sundance. What was it like to be embroiled in something like that? Were you involved in it at all?

Massive bidding wars aren’t what they used to be. They used to throw many, many millions of dollars around, and it was like, “Woo Hoo!” maybe 10-15 years ago. Our film sold for under $5 million. And that was great. That was the only film at Sundance this year that did that, but it didn’t put any money in my pocket. What I was involved with, and I work with people that I really love and respect and have worked with for a long time, everybody consulted with me along the way and said, “Look, so and so wants it.” And “there are companies like this and they’re going to pay this.” At the end of the day, I said Focus might not be the biggest bidder, but they are going to do the most with this film, and that’s the right home for it. We all agreed, and I’m feeling really, really happy to be with them.

Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved. Posted: July 9, 2010.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2010 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2010 Suzanne Tenner. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2010 Suzanne Tenner. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2010 Suzanne Tenner. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2010 Suzanne Tenner. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.

#6 © 2010 Suzanne Tenner. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.

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