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Interview: Lisa Cholodenko

Feelin' All Right

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Lisa Cholodenko's High Art (1998) was a major landmark for lesbian filmmakers in the 1990s, even if Cholodenko wasn't particularly interested in such things. Instead, she's one of the rare filmmakers that makes films to please herself. After moving from New York to Los Angeles, she made the romantic Los Angeles ensemble Laurel Canyon (2002), with no LGBT issues whatsoever. Now, after some time dealing with distribution troubles and working on television, the 46 year-old Cholodenko returns to the big screen with her finest film yet, The Kids Are All Right.

Julianne Moore and Annette Bening star as a couple of lesbian moms raising two teenagers. It's the final summer before the daughter (Mia Wasikowska) goes to college and her younger brother (Josh Hutcherson) wants to meet their sperm donor dad, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), which winds up creating more drama than anyone could have anticipated.

Cholodenko decided to work on the story since she and her partner are raising their own four year-old son from a sperm donor. Working for the first time with co-writer Stuart Blumberg, the new film is a superbly written, vivid character study with a genuine erotic texture; it's a summer movie that's warmer and more human than most of the big blockbusters.

Ms. Cholodenko recently visited San Francisco to talk about the film.

Jeffrey M. Anderson: The characters seem to exist before the movie begins, and they continue to exist after the movie ends. How do you feel about the characters after you left them?

Lisa Cholodenko: With these characters, I felt a real affection for them. I just really cared about them. It wasn't the narrative itself. It ended where it ended, and it definitely could have gone on. I felt a sense of closure, in a way that I liked. But I felt like I was still thinking about the characters and missing them. I felt love for them. That's good. As a writer, that's not something you can always achieve.

JMA: They're just a great couple, with a lot of shorthand and chemistry. How much time did they spend together?

LC: Not much. They're great actors, and were passionate about doing the movie. The script had been developed over a long period of time, so there was a level of depth to the writing... I didn't have to explain so much. It was really on the page. Julianne Moore had been involved for several years. She said she wanted to do it and was waiting for us to get it together. Annette Bening came on later, partly because Julianne and I agreed she would be a good person. She came on and we had maybe five days. I spent two or three afternoons with them, just reading through.

JMA: You worked with Stuart Blumberg on this. How did you know him, and what was that writing partnership like?

LC: I'd known Stuart in New York. He was an old, dear friend of a guy named Craig Wedren, who was the composer on my first two films. When he came to L.A. to do his own writing, we just happened to run into each other. I think I was just kind of hoping to draw somebody in; psychically I think I had my antennae up. I wanted to write with somebody. I had done my first two films by myself. I was not up for the loneliness of doing another film by myself, but also I felt like I had things to learn, and I wanted to grow and be challenged as a writer. I knew that would happen if I wrote with somebody else. So I was about 20 pages into a first draft when I ran into him, and I pitched the idea to him, and he said he was a sperm donor in college. And I said, "That's the sign I need! How can I argue with that?"

JMA: There's a line in the movie about how meeting the donor father can be a disaster. Have you heard stories like that?

LC: Yeah. There's not that much literature on it, and obviously I haven't done a PhD's worth of research on it, but I was curious and needed to have my facts backed up a little bit. You read stuff... there's kids who say, "It was great and exciting and I'm so glad I got to meet him. I have half-siblings and that's great." And then there are other kids who are like, "This was really hard and I wanted to have a relationship with this person and it didn't work." So you sort of have to take it at face value. What else does that person bring to the picture? How was that person parented? What kind of family did the donor kid come from? There are so many pieces to the puzzle. In the grab bag of experiences, I'm sure there are lots of donor kids who are like, "This sucks. I wish I wasn't a donor kid."

JMA: It's very interesting how you leave off with the Paul character...

LC: We spent a lot of time thinking about that character and his arc and what to do with him. It was important to feel sympathetic to him and give him a throughline. He's a type. He's very individual. He's that Peter Pan guy who's just doing his thing. You peel away the layers and he's probably got some hang-ups about going to the next step with somebody and intimacy and being trapped. And now he's got gray in his beard and he's getting older and it's scary to be that guy. It takes this kind of seminal experience to wake him up and realize that he's in that place. He's got this tragic throughline... he bottoms out. But it's not signed, sealed and delivered.

JMA: Are you concerned about how the film is going to be received in the lesbian community, given that one of the lesbian characters experiments with straight sex?

LC: I don't feel like this movie comes with a political agenda. It's sort of an auteur film. Fortunately it has a mainstream potential to it, but it's my vision, and it's Stuart's vision. And I think that sexuality is so fluid and ambiguous. I'm certainly a sympathetic person. I can understand politicized lesbians being put off that there's this transgression with a straight man, and having a whole dissertation on that. But I think any lesbian should be frickin' glad that I could figure out how to package these characters so that it could be delivered to the theater in their neighborhood and not get hung up on that stuff. Because getting hung up on that stuff is what keeps people stratified and closeted and segregated. And also, it's not about "is she straight, or is she gay?" It's that she sees this man, and she's vulnerable, and he's telling her that she's cool, and he's cute, and they have a kid together. It's intoxicating.

JMA: And there's that great line about how she sees her kids expressions in his face...

LC: Yeah. It's a soulful thing. It goes beyond sexuality. They've made a child together. That's pretty sexy.

JMA: Some of us stayed after the screening to talk about it, and the question came up: I wonder who's going to be offended by this?

LC: Bring it on! People need to drop their stuff. How can you speak for everybody? I don't feel like I'm selling out. This resonates for me. But I think if people really open themselves up, it's kind of cool that we get to see these lesbian moms and their teenage kids on the big screen.

JMA: I really like the food in this movie. It's a terrific food movie. Everybody's into their food. And even Los Angeles feels great here. It's not a mall-scape. There's a real texture to it.

LC: I have a lot of gripes about L.A. Trust me. But I think that there's things about it that are really sensual and singular and very cool. And one of them is the kind of relationship that people can have with their personal outdoor space and just outdoor space in general, highways and sunsets and mountains and weird, kind of craggy landscapes, and it's all evocative. There are really not that many actors in this, so I think it's important to have that openness and sense of place. It affects the characters in a subliminal way.

Photo by Danielle Taormina-Keenan
Lisa Cholodenko Movies on DVD and Blu-Ray
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Partial Lisa Cholodenko Filmography:
High Art (1998)
Laurel Canyon (2002)
Cavedweller (2004)
The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Please also see my interview at Greencine

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