The Mystique of The Hollywood Hills; Lisa Cholodenko on “Laurel Canyon”
by Matthew Ross
In her 1998 debut feature “High Art,” Lisa Cholodenko created the most realistic rendering of the downtown New York art scene in recent memory. With her new film, “Laurel Canyon,” the California-raised writer/director sets her sights on hipster territory a bit closer to home — the boho music scene of the Hollywood Hills. The film tells the story of a young, extremely uptight Harvard Medical School grad named Sam (Christian Bale) and his scientist girlfriend, Alex (Kate Beckinsale), who decide to spend a summer working in Los Angeles. The problem is that they’re staying with Sam’s freespirited record producer mom, Jane (wonderfully played by Frances McDormand), who has also decided to let a band crash at the house as they finish their new album. Jane also happens to be sleeping with the young and cheeky lead singer, Ian (Allesandro Nivola), who seems to have eyes for Alex, who in turn seems to have an unlikely soft spot for British pop music. Did I mention that Jane also likes girls, and that Alex looks really good in her underwear? What starts off as a simple case of lifestyle incompatibility and mother-son resentment soon gives way to outright hostility and sexual tension, and then just a matter of time before clothes start coming off and all hell breaks loose.
“Laurel Canyon” premiered in the Director’s Fortnight section at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, and has since screened at Toronto and Sundance. Sony Pictures Classic releases it next Friday. Cholodenko spoke with indieWIRE contributor Matthew Ross, prior to Sundance 2003, about the inspiring power of Joni Mitchell, returning to Park City, and why she prefers L.A. to New York.
indieWIRE: It must be interesting to go to Sundance this time around with a distributor in place. Last time, with “High Art,” you were an unknown trying to sell your film. What was that first time like for you?
Cholodenko: Well, the real difference with that first time — outside of the fact that we didn’t have distribution — was that “High Art” hadn’t been screened in front of an audience. With “Laurel Canyon,” we’ve already played at Cannes and Toronto, so I’ve had that experience already. That first screening in Sundance with “High Art” was very, very scary. This time, it will hopefully be a like a nice homecoming for me, because my career really started at Sundance, and I developed “Laurel Canyon” at the Sundance lab.
iW: So how did this film come about?
Cholodenko: It really started when I was in the editing room for “High Art.” My editor and I were trying to avoid working. So we were listening to music and kind of drifting off. She brought in that Joni Mitchell record, “Ladies of the Canyon.” She also did the watercolor on the cover. I used to love that record. We listened to it, and started talking about what the Laurel Canyon scene must have been like in the late ’60s-early ’70s. And I thought it would be fun to set a movie in that scene but changed to a modern context. And I just took it from there.
iW: In several ways, “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon” are quite similar. Both involve young, inexperienced women who get involved with creative people and a creative lifestyle that has a profound effect on them. Do you consider these two films companion pieces?
Cholodenko: Well, I like that theme, and that’s why I returned to it, although I think that the tones of the films, and the root concerns of each story, are very different.
iW: How would you describe those differences?
Cholodenko: Well, I think both films have tragi-comic elements, but I think that the tone of “High Art” is more along the lines of tragedy, and “Laurel Canyon” is more on the side of comedy. So that’s an important distinction. “Laurel Canyon” is also more of an ensemble piece, with more interconnecting narratives, whereas “High Art” really just focused on the characters played by Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell. “Laurel Canyon” is really about lifestyle choices, whereas “High Art” had a lot to do with professional choices.
iW: Yet the connection between lifestyle and work are very important in “Laurel Canyon.” On one hand you’ve got the two doctors who are incredibly uptight and repressed, and then you’ve got these bohemian musicians. What was it about the clash of those lifestyle and professional choices that interested you?
Cholodenko: Well I’m sure there’s a piece of it that has to do with my own experience, having grown up in the West and then living in the East, sorting out my relationship with my professional life. When your profession is creative or you’re doing something in the arts, these issues come up a lot, because the boundaries are less defined in a certain way. It’s more fluid in terms of where the professional and the personal begin and end. So those themes worked in my mind, even though I didn’t have the specific experiences that those characters had. I could inject myself into the narrative that I invented and the emotional dilemmas I’ve experienced.
iW: In this film, everyone begins on one extreme or the other, no one’s really in the middle. Is there a metaphor at work here?
Cholodenko: I think the overarching theme is the urge to figure out a comfortable place in the middle. I postured those extremes, and I think the protagonists in the film reconcile with their extremes and figure out a place that’s closer to the middle. In the end, all roads in the film lead to that point of surrender.
iW: Would you say that there’s a social commentary at work? You can certainly read the film from the angle of how the notion of family has changed since the ’60s.
Cholodenko: Well, that’s certainly a topical element that’s at work in the film. But that’s also been done before, and my intention was to excavate the psychology between the mother and the son, trying to understand who’s the parent and who’s the child. I was more interested in getting under the skin of it, seeing how the dynamic works, rather than exploring a cultural phenomenon.
iW: Music plays such a strong role in the film. How would you describe the way it works thematically?
Cholodenko: Before I got into the nuts and bolts of the script, I got this idea that the music would serve as a sort of Greek chorus, as the center of the film. It would comment on the narrative issues and the character dilemmas that were happening in the film. And it still does that, but it’s not as literal as I imagined initially. There’s something about how music has a crossover potential, a popular appeal, yet it’s what gets under everyone’s skin in the film. It can reach people in an immediate kind of way, and that immediacy was what I was interested in.
iW: What was this production like compared to the “High Art” shoot?
Cholodenko: On a psychological level, it felt very similar. Both films have a chamber aspect to them — they’re both quite cozy and intimate. So the environment was quite the same. What was different was that we had more money, we were in California, and it was a more formal shoot, with a more experienced crew. “High Art” was more guerilla, no-budget, non-union, seat of your pants, throw the camera in the car sort of affair. This shoot was a good one too — it was interesting to work in a bigger context.
iW: “High Art” is very much a movie about New York, and “Laurel Canyon” is very much about Los Angeles. How do understand the connection between character and place?
Cholodenko: I think the concern of “High Art” is that of an ambitious, smart professional girl trying to climb up the latter in a rarified, snotty Manhattan world. I was new to New York when I started writing it, and I was sensitive to what that felt like. It was under my skin and I wanted to comment on it. With “Laurel Canyon,” I grew up here and live here now. I’ve always felt the mystique of the place, and the inexplicable attraction to the sensibility that only exists in the Canyon. It’s my homage to that.
iW: Are you back in L.A for good?
Cholodenko: I think I’m here to stay, up in Beachwood Canyon…I gotta say something: the clouds in the sky out my window are so insanely beautiful, I just had to tell someone. OK, I told you.
iW: Thanks. It’s dark and rainy in New York right now.
Cholodenko: That’s why I moved back. I wanted to see the sky.