Lisa Cholodenko Makes Some "High Art"
by Tom Cunha
Lisa Cholodenko makes an impressive feature directorial debut with the
intriguing “High Art,” a gritty character piece that centers around Sid
(Radha Mitchell), a young magazine editor who’s gradually drawn into the
life of her drug-abusing neighbor Lucy (Ally Sheedy), a photographer who
deliberately turned her back on a promising career, opting instead to
take a self-destructive route with her junkie lover Greta (Patricia
Clarkson). The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year, where it
received strong critical praise, a screenwriting award and was quickly
picked up by October Films.
Much of the film’s attention comes from the striking presence of Ally
Sheedy, who, following her quick rise to fame as one of the ‘80’s-bred
brat Packers, has spent much of the 90’s working in largely unseen
features and TV movies. Here she is a stark revelation in a role that
could potentially redefine her career. Cholodenko, who previously worked
as an assistant editor on such features as “Boyz N the Hood” and “To Die
For,” began writing this project while working on her MFA at Columbia
indieWIRE: Much of this film takes place at a magazine. Did you ever
work in the magazine world?
Lisa Cholodenko: No, I didn’t work in the magazine world, but I had a
lot of different jobs and I feel like the politics and the power
structures are probably not dissimilar to what would go on at a pop
culture mag, or a fine art photography mag like “Frame.” I thought it
was a good place for me to anchor the film because of the Lucy [Ally
Sheedy] character and also because of things that I wanted to explore
with the Sid [Radha Mitchell] character. So it just seemed like a
natural place to anchor the film. I felt like I wanted to show the
politics in a way that anybody sort of irrespective of what you do
careerwise could identify with that.
iW: When did you begin working on the project?
Cholodenko: I started writing it when I was a student at Columbia. I was
in my second year of film school in fall of ’94. I started writing it in
a writing workshop which was required. In the midst of all that I was
making short films and teaching and trying to get through graduate
school. So it wasn’t a full time endeavor. Then once I finished all
those obligations, I was still really interested in the story and felt
like there was more I could do with it. It was around ’96 when
[producers] Dolly Hall and Jeff Levy-Hinte became involved and really
wanted to make it happen and we just buckled down and did revisions.
iW: How did you expect people to react to it when it first screened at
Cholodenko: When we were making it and cutting it, I always felt like it
had a kind of honesty to it that was effective for me. But I knew also
that it had a pace and a tone that might not work for general audiences.
I was concerned about it. I think its much more European in its
approach. It’s languid, it takes awhile for it to unfold. I think I was
sort of prepared for it not to work in terms of reaching audiences. So I
can’t tell you how thrilling and satisfying it is to know that people
are interested in looking at films like this. All the way through, from
getting into Sundance, to the response there, to the positive
journalists response and getting to Cannes. I mean, all the way through,
it’s just been amazing. It makes me kind of hopeful.
iW: Ally Sheedy’s character had all the opportunities of becoming
successful, yet she turns her back on it and chooses, instead, a
Cholodenko: I think the film started out more as a social critique. I
really wanted to, I think, draw that out of the film. The Lucy
character embodied that conflict between pure art making and commerce,
or the compromises that you have to make to be in the commercial realm.
The more I got involved in drawing that character out, it became clearer
and clearer that she would have to have some sort of self-destructive
nature not to be able to cope with that. So it came from a more topical
framework and then I widdled it down and got into the nuances of that
character and that’s what she became. So, it didn’t start with me
setting out to write a self-destructive character.
iW: This is the best work Sheedy’s done in years. How did you end up
casting her in the role?
Cholodenko: Radha Mitchell’s agent knew Ally. He wasn’t representing
her. He phoned Ally when he got the script and said, “Look I have this
script and I don’t know if anybody’s shown it to you, but it’s a pretty
great part. I think you’d be interested in it. I’m not your agent so I
can’t do the leg work. But if you’re interested, come by, I’ll copy it
for you and you can sort of pursue it on your own.” Which she did. She
called the casting director in New York and she phoned me at home. She
said, “I love this character. I love this story. It’s beautiful. I
really want to put myself on a plane and come read for you guys.” Which
she did. At the time, I didn’t really know who she was. I mean, I knew
vaguely the associations with the Brat Pack, but I had never seen “The
Breakfast Club,” and I didn’t know her work. So it’s kind of clean in a
iW: You made her character very ambiguous, which works well for the
Cholodenko: I wanted to draw Lucy’s character in a way that we could
identify with Sid’s attraction. There’s this enigmatic quality to Lucy
that I think is compelling to Sid. I know, as the author of that
character, I felt compelled to that character. This sort of intense
character that you can’t truly get a grip on, but when present is
incredibly present. I think those are the things that make for that
confusion or passion. I really didn’t want to give too much of her away.
iW: Did you feel like the Lucy and Sid characters were in love with each
Cholodenko: I felt like they were walking that really weird fine line
between being sort of obsessed or smitten or drawn. All those things.
That kind of informed desire. I think Sid might’ve gotten confused about
what love is and what exactly her feelings were for Lucy. But I wanted
to illustrate that the draw had become increasingly more intense for
her. In a way, in that scene in the bedroom, I wanted to show that she
says “I think I’m in love with you.” But really what she’s saying is “I
think I’m totally overwhelmed in my feeling for you or appreciation for
you or rapture for you.” That’s the best way I can describe it. The film
obviously has a tragic ending. I felt all the way through that it would
be really false to have Sid and Lucy get in a car and drive off into the
sunset. I never saw them as being a viable couple.
iW: It also would have felt false if Lucy’s career had taken off and she
Cholodenko: Right. And I think she was a villain all the way through and
it was sort of a last gasp to kind of repossess herself and wake up. But
for Lucy I don’t think it was like a “Wow, here’s this opportunity I’ve
been waiting for for so long. Make it happen for me, baby.” It was like
,”God, your presence is showing me really how low I’ve gotten in my own
reality.” It was more about those things, it was more about personal
iW: Patricia Clarkson is great in the film. Where did you find her?
Cholodenko: I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t write the role for her.
We were having a really rough time casting that character. There was a
point that was incredibly despairing and I thought I’d written a
character that I won’t be able to find. It’s just too bizarre and
complicated. I didn’t have a long time to cast and I just couldn’t find
[the right] person. We did an emergency casting session on a Saturday.
It was like five days before we started shooting and in came Patty
Clarkson. She read and my jaw just dropped. She’s sexy and she looked
right. She can pull off that sexy raunchy thing. She was the only actor
I’d seen for that role who’d gotten the tragic comic/essence of the
character. Everybody else was playing it really desperate and dark.