INTERVIEW: Lisa Cholodenko
by Jeffrey M. Anderson
Lisa Cholodenko's well-received 1998 debut High Art was a major landmark for lesbian filmmaking in the '90s, even if the writer-director makes films more to please herself than to fill any LGBT niches. After moving from New York to Los Angeles (where she shot 2002's titularly set ensemble drama Laurel Canyon—which, coincidentally, was centered around straight people), dealing with distribution troubles and working in television (directing episodes of The L Word and the short-lived Push, Nevada), the 46 year-old auteur returns to the big screen with her finest and most widely released effort yet, The Kids Are All Right.
Julianne Moore and Annette Bening star as a lesbian couple raising two teenagers. It's the final summer before their daughter (Mia Wasikowska) goes to college and her younger brother (Josh Hutcherson) wants to meet their sperm donor dad (Mark Ruffalo), creating more drama than anyone might've anticipated. (Life certainly imitates art: Cholodenko and her partner are raising a four year-old son, also helped by a sperm donor.) Working for the first time with co-writer Stuart Blumberg (The Girl Next Door), The Kids Are All Right is a superbly written, vivid character study with a genuinely erotic texture, a warmer and more humane summer movie amidst a slew of soulless blockbusters. While visiting San Francisco, Cholodenko sat down with me to discuss the film.
Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a convincing onscreen couple in all their shorthand and chemistry. How much time did the actresses spend together?
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 had been involved [with the project] 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'd be a good person for it. We had maybe five days together [before shooting]. I spent two or three afternoons with them, just reading through.
How did you know Stuart Blumberg, and what was that partnership like?
I'd known Stuart in New York. He was an old, dear friend of a guy named Craig Wedren, 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 hoping to draw somebody in. Psychically, I had my antennae up. I had done my first two films by myself and was not up for the loneliness of doing another solo, but also I felt like I had things to learn, and wanted to grow and be challenged as a writer. I knew that would happen if I wrote with somebody else. I was about 20 pages into a first draft when I ran into him, and pitched the idea. He said he was a sperm donor in college, and I said, "That's the sign I need! How can I argue with that?"
There's a line in the movie about how meeting the donor father can be a disaster. Did you research stories along those lines?
Yeah. There's not that much literature on it, and obviously I haven't done a PhD's worth of research, but I was curious and needed to have my facts backed up a little bit. There are kids who say, "It was exciting and I'm so glad I got to meet him. I have half-siblings and that's great." Then there are other kids who are like, "This was really hard and I wanted to have a relationship with this person and it just didn't work." So you 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."
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