Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — while all three appear to lesser and greater degrees in the work of indie auteur Lisa Cholondenko, what’s always constant is a keen insight into the complexity and fragility of our closest relationships. From her breakout debut “High Art” (1998), a dance of seduction and power between two women, to “Laurel Canyon” (2002), which dissects varying familial and sexual triangles, to this year’s Sundance hit “The Kids Are All Right,” in which lesbian moms struggle to keep their family intact, Cholodenko’s characters express profound multi-dimensional lives with a single gaze. (Said Cholodenko’s longtime producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, “She could just as easily — and more easily, to be honest — been a novelist.”)
And yet, Cholodenko’s three films are strikingly different, as she has followed a trajectory of greater accessibility, from high art to popular art. But she’s quick to reject any notion of selling-out. “There’s no compromise,” she said to indieWIRE of “The Kids Are All Right,” which tells the story of two moms (Annette Benning, Julianne Moore), their teenage offspring and the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) that briefly turns their lives upside down. “This film is truly a reflection of my sensibility and my sense of humor. If there’s more audience for it because it has a tone and approach that’s more accessible, I’m really happy about it.”
If her approach to “Kids” feels more mainstream, the production was independent to the bone. Made in 23 days — originally scheduled for around 30 — and on a budget of a few million dollars, the filmmakers had to cut over 10 pages from the script within a week of shooting, and didn’t see all of the financing come together until the last minute. (The credits list as many as 18 different producers.) “It was as nail-biting as you can get,” said Levy-Hinte. “It’s a goddamn miracle that we shot the whole movie.”
Cholodenko ascribes her move away from art-house pretensions as a way of getting closer to the cinema that she admired and grew up on in the 1970s: “The Graduate,” “Five Easy Pieces,” and the wry, humanist films of Hal Ashby and Milos Foreman. The latter, who taught at Columbia University and served as Cholodenko’s mentor when she was in graduate school, was an especially important influence. “We had some lively, formative conversations,” she said, recalling the work they did together on developing “High Art.” “He was a big proponent of type-casting, casting your friends and non-actors for certain roles to give a kind of cred and authenticity. It’s something that I followed and I’ve done it in the three films I’ve made,” she added. “He had a huge impact.”
But with “The Kids Are All Right” — which was originally conceived immediately after “Laurel Canyon” as darker and more cynical, but then became lighter in tone – Cholodenko’s process was markedly different from her prior movies. For one, she’d never worked with a co-writer before, Stuart Blumberg (“The Girl Next Door”), a sperm donor himself. “I had begun writing the script in a sketchy form, and when he came into the fold, I thought all the voices were represented,” she said. She’d also never broken down a script the old-fashioned Hollywood way scene-by-scene with cards posted on a wall. “I found it liberating and very helpful that you could see your film in a different way.”
The project also went through several iterations, originally set in Los Angeles, and then adapted to New York, and then finally back in Los Angeles, with one near start-date between 2005 and 2006. But then Cholodenko got pregnant (with the help of a sperm donor, of course). “I thought I could stay in the game and film while pregnant,” she said, “but then I realized the timing was just going to be ridiculous. It was still hard [to make the film] with a 3-year-old; I couldn’t imagine doing it with a 1-month-old.”
But Cholodenko downplays the impact of her newfound role as a mother on the film’s script development. “I suppose on a certain level that I could feel the bond between the moms and their kids, and could understood what it meant to be a mama bear, and having that possessiveness over your children.” But ultimately, Cholodenko said the central difference in the earlier and later versions was more a consequence of spending more time with the characters. “Pre-baby, we had only been with the script for less than a year, but after I had my son, I continued writing with Stuart and we just kept asking new questions and pushing them deeper and deeper into their psychologies.”
“I also really wanted to plumb the comedy in the film and make sure it was popping as much it could,” she added. The other seminal difference in the drafts is the way a crucial plot twist is revealed. Originally, one of the children discovers the film’s key betrayal, as opposed to Benning’s character, Nic. “It took us a long time to make that choice, but when we did, we thought there was something just right about it.”
In another major change, actress Robin Wright Penn was originally set to play Nic, but with the more comic shift in tone, Cholodenko decided Benning would be more appropriate. Indeed, while all of the film’s performances stand out — Julianne Moore’s confused, insecure ex-hippie Jules; Mark Ruffalo’s poser-cool organic-farmer biker-dude — it’s Benning’s forceful wine-guzzling matriarch that takes center stage, particularly in the film’s most exceptional sequence, a dinner party that goes from tense to combustible. Within the scene, Cholodenko departs from the film’s prevailing traditional technique for the film’s only impressionistic moment.
“It was so important, I felt like it deserved a heightened reality,” she explained. “But it wasn’t overly fussy or complicated, either” — they slowed down the film slightly and used a special piece of equipment on the dolly to gracefully pivot around Benning. “The only direction I gave to my D.P. stylistically was this is one of those moments like Catherine Deneuve in ‘Repulsion’ — this really psychotic meltdown feeling, like you’re in a freaky fishbowl. And he got it.”
Though Cholodenko and Blumberg had always emphasized the pivotal drama in the scene — it was written in the script that the sound should drop out — the actual shot was conceived spontaneously. “It was the last shot of her set-up,” sayid Cholodenko. In post-production, the director also collaborated with sound designer Frank Gaeta to further expound upon the instant, making it “feel entirely subjective and alienated,” she said.
As the film’s only stylistic flourish, Cholodenko had some trepidations, “Is this going to feel self-conscious because I don’t do it anywhere else,” she wondered. “I thought about if there were places in the film where there should be that same heightened reality, but it didn’t feel earned anywhere else in the film.”
In another signature departure from her previous work, “The Kids Are All Right” is edited more like a mainstream film. “I thought this was a good opportunity to depart from the more languid pacing of my other films and just take that risk of cutting in later, cutting it out earlier and punctuating the moment,” she explained. “It’s fun to pace it up like that. For some films, it’s not appropriate, but for this film, I think it was an enhancement.”
With “Kids” finally finished and ready for release next week — Cholodenko was color correcting, working on the score and tightening the film up until just last month — she’s only just begun to focus on her future. She hasn’t made it a secret that she would like to graduate to the studio system. “Because that’s where the resources are at,” Levy-Hinte pointed out. But she’s not exactly sure where such aspirations will lead her. “I don’t really have a master plan,” she said. “I’d love to work with Stuart again; I’m reading some scripts and there’s a couple of projects and some TV stuff I’m flirting with. I’m just looking at all the options,” she added. “I think it’s a good time for some new directions.”