Family dynamic: Lisa Cholodenko explores modern parenthood in 'The Kids Are All Right'
Los Angeles-based filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko’s upcoming The Kids Are All Right hits all the right notes with its superb cast wonderfully putting across a story that deserved and got some special care. Focus Features releases the film in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco on July 9, with expansions throughout July.
Powered by a delicious, innovative concept, the comedy-drama stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as lesbian couple Nic and Jules, each of whom gave birth to a child with the same anonymous sperm donor. Now teenagers, their children seek out this biological father and bring him into the family orbit.
Stunned when approached by these kids he has sired, Mark Ruffalo’s Paul, the red-blooded, free-spirited hunk swinging in blissful bachelorhood, is the perfect counterpoint to the settled, committed couple on the other side of this biological equation. Of course, complications from this unexpected reunion arise and provide a trove of funny and emotionally wrenching moments. And sexy ones too, as one of the moms finds herself in bed with “bio-dad” for some steamy encounters that got the film its R rating. And did we mention that the lesbian couple enhance their lovemaking with gay male porn?
And let’s not forget the younger demographic: Mia Wasikowska, star of the Tim Burton blockbuster Alice in Wonderland, and Josh Hutcherson (Journey to the Center of the Earth) also excel as Joni and Laser, the teenagers whose search propels the comic crisis.
With Kids, Cholodenko continues to write and direct erotically charged films. Neither her breakthrough debut feature High Art nor its big-screen follow-up Laurel Canyon skimped on the sex. But Kids is her most personal work to date.
Based in L.A., where the film is set, she and her longtime female partner have a four-year-old son, Calder, to whom Cholodenko gave birth by way of an anonymous sperm donor. She explains, “I’m curious to know the father, but he must legally remain anonymous. As the film shows, only the kids when they turn 18 can have access to that information.”
The positive buzz surrounding the film began at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and continued the next month at Berlin’s annual February event. Even before Sundance, Cholodenko saw signs that the film was where she wanted it. “We grew more confident as we were shooting and editing and, especially, as we slowly began showing it to groups of people for feedback. We rushed last December to get it ready for Sundance where we wanted to sell it, and once there we had a wildly successful screening. There was a lot of laughter in the audience and we could feel that people were moved. Then right afterwards, the distributors lined up and we were able to do our deal with Focus right there.”
Although the picture was snapped up quickly, it was hardly a snap getting it made. The process took many years, including four years for Cholodenko’s writing collaboration—her first—with Stuart Blumberg, a longtime friend.
The film required a number of producers to get behind it, a struggle eased by the great cast attracted to the material. First came Moore, then Ruffalo, then Bening. Says Cholodenko, “People really admired what Stuart and I got on the page but there was a fear factor regarding how the film was going to make money, as the subject matter is tricky. It was also about how to market the film.”
An obvious audience is a gay audience, but is there such an audience? “There are gay people in the audience and a population of gay people who will come to see the film,” Cholodenko responds. “But it’s not a gay film per se. I believe it does its job to cross over and will pull in a wider audience.”
Though the whole process spanned years, rehearsals and the actual shoot took a mere five weeks in L.A. For reasons unknown, indie films made in L.A. seem to fight bigger odds than those shot in New York, but Kids is sure to break that curse.
Cholodenko came up with the original story and Blumberg, whom she met during her stint in New York, had a background in writing more mainstream and comedic material (such as Edward Norton’s Keeping the Faith directorial debut and Universal’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah Disco). Plus, as a “straight guy who was once a sperm donor and is very funny,” notes Cholodenko, “he tapped into my instincts so that we could do something more commercial and broader.”
Not that The Kids Are All Right is lightweight. It deals with such universal issues as the importance of family values and slyly, without any soapbox preaching, puts across not just that kids can be all right in same-sex marriages but that same-sex marriage itself can be natural and beautiful.
Not that any marriage is easy, as Moore’s character so eloquently explains in a wonderfully written and delivered third-act speech. “Julianne delivered exactly what we wrote,” says Cholodenko, “but Stuart and I worked on it carefully for quite a bit of time.”
Their writing collaboration was complicated by geography, not by any butting of heads over issues of gender or orientation or different takes on the humor, dialogue or plot points. Cholodenko explains, “Stuart was in New York and I’m in Los Angeles, so we each had to do marathons in the other’s city. And after a while we weren’t being paid for our work. So it was a logistical challenge. And there were the frustrations about always trying to agree on what works, what things are more authentic. I might have been the one pushing a little harder for specifics by being more bottom-line and demanding.” Next time, she assures, commuting to write will be out of the question.
Bening also made some writing contributions by way of “good feedback. She didn’t provide a lot of notes, but thought that certain things dropped from the script should be reinstated and would help the narrative work better.” All the actors stayed close to the script, but all three did occasionally improvise some of the dialogue, Cholodenko confides, as the changes were good for the film.
In partnering with Blumberg, Cholodenko drew upon a key lesson learned from her previous features. “It’s often important to include elements of humor with your drama. If scenes are serious, it really helps to include some comedy, as it makes the drama easier to swallow.”
But might a film like Kids that’s not really arty and not of obvious broad appeal because of its subject matter risk falling between the cracks? Answers Cholodenko, “What’s great is that it has an indie spirit, a particular, singular independent vision, and is pushing some boundaries. Yet with its package and the overarching themes for mainstream audiences, we’ve woven our two objectives.”
Whatever the ultimate audience, Focus opted for a careful platform release and wide breakout to quickly follow. “[Focus] consulted me about their plan and I saw it as a good idea, as they are so good at marketing and I trust them implicitly. And the strategy will take advantage of word of mouth.”
And the murmur may be about entertainment value, not about any implicit message in the film, in spite of its two lesbian heroines. Yes, Kids might have a positive impact on people’s negative notions about marriage equality but Cholodenko’s focus, she says, is on people, relationships and family rather than issues. Yet in its own low-key way, The Kids Are All Right does discreetly whisper that two mommies or two daddies are “all right.”
Cholodenko grew up in the San Fernando Valley but got her film career in gear in New York in the early ’90s. After a few odd jobs in film, she landed positions as an assistant editor on Boyz N the Hood with the film’s writer-director, double Academy Award nominee John Singleton, and on Used People with director Beeban Kidron.
Soon afterward, she enrolled at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she received her M.F.A. in screenwriting and directing. There, under the auspices of mentor Milos Forman, she wrote and directed a number of acclaimed short films which did the festival circuit and aired on European TV. Columbia University served her well in another way: Future Focus Features CEO James Schamus was one of her professors.
Cholodenko’s feature debut High Art, starring Ally Sheedy, Radha Mitchell and Patricia Clarkson, brought her the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance and many awards following the film’s successful commercial release. Her follow-up, Laurel Canyon, attracted marquee talent like Kate Beckinsale, Christian Bale and Frances McDormand and brought Alessandro Nivola to the attention of audiences. It also brought Cholodenko to Cannes, where the film, a saga of rock ’n’ rollers and hangers-on in their bohemian L.A. enclave, had its world premiere.
Her third feature, Cavedweller, was an adaptation for Showtime by Anne Meredith from the Dorothy Allison novel and starred Kyra Sedgwick and Aidan Quinn, both of whom earned Independent Spirit Award nominations for their performances. Also for TV, she has directed episodes for such series as “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Six Feet Under” and “The L Word.”
Cholodenko says her inspiration to get into film came from such favorites as The Graduate, Five Easy Pieces and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, all movies that brilliantly incorporate elements of both tragedy and humor. “I loved these films because they so effectively blended both elements.”
Kids doesn’t turn tragic, but it does mix some heavy drama with wonderful and often hilarious moments. And, like that trio of her classic faves, it captures the zeitgeist of our challenged era while reminding that the really important things defy time.