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By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Files, An Interview with Lisa Cholodenko, Director of The Kids Are All Right

Family Matters : An Interview with Lisa Cholodenko, Director of The Kids Are All Right

We may only be halfway through the year, but one thing you can bet on: come the end of December, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right will score among many 2010 Top Ten lists. The director made a huge splash on the indie scene in 1998 with her feature debut, High Art; after breaking into television directing episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets and Six Feet Under, she eluded the sophomore jinx with her 2002 feature, Laurel Canyon. Her latest film, The Kids Are All Right, is her strongest yet, an astute, deeply moving comedy of manners, and a true joy: laid back but sly, it’s one of the best written—and acted—films in many a moon.Lesbian lovers Nic (Annette Bening), a level-headed doctor, and Jules (Julianne Moore), a New Age-y landscape designer, are a long-committed Los Angeles area couple who each gave birth years ago via an anonymous sperm donor. When their eldest, Joni (Mia Wazikowska) becomes legally an adult at 18, her younger half-brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) urges her to exercise her right to contact their biological father through the sperm bank
office. “Dad” turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a freewheeling, unmarried restaurateur who’s at first stunned, then delighted, to hear from the kids he didn’t know he had.

How their lives unfold over the summer following this fateful contact is something I don’t want to spoil, so I’ve been deliberately vague in some of my plot references in this interview I conducted with the director the day after her enthusiastically received screening and Q&A in Chicago, part of her recent tour to promote the July 9th opening of the Focus Features release.

Andrea Gronvall: During your Q&A you mentioned that same-sex heads of families are now part of the zeitgeist; for example, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore know gay parents whose children are friends with their own kids at school. But you and your co-writer Stuart Blumberg have also drawn another character that’s very contemporary. Mark Ruffalo’s Paul is a successful, charming, fairly decent — but graying — guy who has postponed growing up by remaining single.

Lisa Cholodenko: We definitely said many times: he’s got that Peter Pan thing, where he’s just kind of hanging out. We had two feelings about it. One was that he felt like, “I got my restaurant, I got my farm, I got my motorcycle, and I got my sexy girlfriends” — or bed buddies, or whatever it is — “I’m having a nice run.” And then the flip side is that probably underneath a character like this is somebody who’s got a lot of anxiety about commitments, and a deeper sort of intimacy.

So, he is detached in a certain way, and we meet him in the film at the point where that’s catching up with him, where he realizes that’s left him kind of disaffected and lonely. And hence, it’s like a tragic irony that when the last impossible, most meaningful chase that he makes is the one that really lands him on his ass. So, it was very calculated, but I thought that it came off as feeling kind of loose.

AG: It’s interesting that he’s looking for attachment at a time when there’s a specific detachment starting within the family, as Joni (Mia Wasikowska) prepares to leave home for college. That push-pull dynamic gives the movie so much life–as do Bening and Moore, who show no vanity in their performances. They portray Nic and Jules with flaws and all, and make them very accessible.

LC: Well, those are the kinds of films I like. I personally have a hard time watching films that are supposed to be intimate domestic stories, but where people are really shiny: they wake up and they’re made up and everything is sort of coiffed and perfect. It makes me uncomfortable, as though I’m watching the artifice of the film, and it’s hard for me to get absorbed. I really appreciate films where you don’t have to work so hard to move through that, or suspend that disbelief. I really appreciate when actors will do that, and directors can work with that and still make people attractive, and make them appealing, but not artificial.

AG: I’d like to talk a bit about the dinner sequence at Paul’s house, after Nic has found Joni Mitchell’s Blue album among his vinyl collection and begins singing the lyrics. What a bravura moment—not only for Bening as an actress, but also for her character.

LC: She was awesome.

AG: It’s the first time Nic lets her guard down. Nic has the job of being the hard-ass in the family, and yet she is the reason why ultimately the kids are all right.

LC: It is; she is. I feel like she’s iconic in a way: she’s tough, on top of it, all over her kids, a for-better-and-for-worse kind of mom, who really underneath it all is incredibly vulnerable.

AG: Where that comes out the most is after her she makes that shattering discovery, and the camera moves in for a tight close-up of her face, and your sound designer layers this intense 35-second stretch where things go–

LC: Nutty.

AG: Yes, nutty! It’s like Bening is channeling the kind of steeliness a doctor has to have in emergency situations. A doctor can’t lose it in front of a patient.

LC: Yeah, she’s in front of her kids. That’s also about being a really vigilant parent. Like what are you going to do? Are you going to have a meltdown in front of your kids?

AG: You also got great work out of Julianne Moore. She’s always been a terrific actress, but I’d never seen her in anything where she’s this funny.

LC: I think she was really looking to do something that had comedy in it, and she was ripe for it. We just figured out a tone that worked for her.

AG: Maybe it’s due to the kind of roles she’s choosing now, but she’s so much warmer on the screen than she used to be. For that matter, everyone in The Kids Are All Right is warm, right down to the smaller roles, like Tanya, Paul’s co-worker and some time lover, played by Yaya DaCosta. She’s wonderful! Where did you find her?

LC: That was kind of one of those weird things. My girlfriend in real life [Wendy Melvoin] is a musician, and has played with Erykah Badu. So, I know Erykah a little bit and was friendly with her and wanted her to do this role. And we talked about it, and she was going to come out to do it. But then there were complications, because she had just had a baby, and has a big posse–she comes with too much of a caravan, so it wasn’t going to work with her.

I spent so long thinking about Erykah Badu in this role that I wanted a black woman, somebody who has that same sexy, freak-flag hair, that vibe. And so my casting director found four or five people that she thought were solid actors and that I would want in a part like that, and Yaya DaCosta was one of them. I was wowed. She’s got great instincts.

AG: How did you choose Carter Burwell, the Coen Brothers’ favorite composer,
to write the score?

LC: It was kind of roundabout. I was working with another composer, and just feeling like it wasn’t. And so when I got further involved with Focus Features, we said, we’re not solid on a score yet, that’s kind of the last detail of the film that we need to hone. And then my agent-manager said, “You know, I’ve known Carter Burwell for a number of years, and I know Focus has worked with him on a few films — let’s reach out to him.” He’s a really established, respected, interesting composer, and he wanted to do it. And he knew it was a small film, and he knew we had to do it quickly, and he was still game to do it.

AG: A 23-day shoot: that’s really a brutal schedule.

LC: It sure is.

AG: Did your work in TV help make this packed shoot any easier?

LC: Yeah! I think had I not had those experiences in television, I might not have known what it meant to push that fast. So, those are the ironic truths of life: when you’re doing television, you’re thinking, “This is fucked up. This is too fast. This isn’t creative.” But then it kind of kicks you into shape, to just know how to move, and just make a decision, and go, “Does it work? It does work. We’ve got it.” And move on, and not feel that you have the luxury to be fussy, to over-think it.

AG: Are you finding that people seem to assume — as some did at your screening the other night — that a lot of the film is autobiographical?

LC: Well, in press I’ve been very open about my own experience of having a kid with a sperm donor and my partner. So, I think people just assume that, “Oh, [the movie’s about] you and your partner and that’s your experience.” I mean, that’s the door to one of my experiences, but I don’t have teenage kids, and I’ve never met my sperm donor, and I’m not a doctor. I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I’m gay, I have a kid now, we have a house; I know people like Mark Ruffalo’s character.

I’m a filmmaker, so my antenna is up, and I’ve heard a lot of stories, and I’m reading a lot. I know a lot in terms of the subject matter, but it’s not my story. I do think one of the objectives in working [the script] so hard was to pinpoint what it is about long-term relationships that’s universal, that people can identify with — that’s not just germane to “the gay relationship,” but also to the struggles, or the tenor, of a marriage. And I think that was something we worked pretty hard to do well, and be sophisticated about.

– Andrea Gronvall
July 7, 2010

Andrea Gronvall is a regular contributor to the Chicago Reader, a frequent speaker for Harlan Jacobson’s Talk Cinema, and teaches film at the University of Chicago’s Graham School of General Studies.

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“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
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