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A Chat with Lisa Cholodenko, director of “The Kids Are All Right”

Lisa Cholodenko isn’t a household name as writer/directors go, but that may change somewhat after her latest film, “The Kids Are All Right,” which was released smack in the middle of the summer, and came out on DVD and Blu-ray last week. The movie features three of our greatest actors – Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo – doing some of the most astute work of their careers. Expect the movie to snag some Oscar nominations for one or more of the trio, and if there’s any justice, Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg will be nominated for Best Original Screenplay as well.

The movie is blisteringly funny while at the same time painfully honest. It tells the story of a lesbian couple (Bening and Moore) who’ve been together for 20 years and raised two children (played Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) who are now at an age when they’re interested in meeting their sperm donor (Ruffalo). Human comedy ensues with unexpected results. “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the best movies of the year, and Cholodenko, whose previous films include “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon,” is a huge factor in its success. Now you might be thinking that a movie about two lesbians and their kids isn’t exactly what you’re looking for. If so, you’re exactly the person who should see this film, because it’ll change your ideas of what makes a family in this day and age. And it will make you laugh – loud and hard.

Cholodenko took some time out to talk to Bullz-Eye on the occasion of the film’s home video release and after some introductory chit-chat we discussed the lesbian right, gay porn, and new meanings for the word “tribe.”

Bullz-Eye: “The Kids are All Right” was like this oasis of reason in an ocean of CGI and fart jokes this past summer. Do you get frustrated when you look around see the types of movies that rake in the big bucks these days?

Lisa Cholodenko: I wish we would kind of go back to the time where there were more interesting, idiosyncratic human kinds of comedies and dramas, and not such the kind of broad and farcical, box office driven fare, but that’s where we are right now, so, I just accept it, and I’m glad that there’s space for films like this.

BE: Well, so am I. There was some fairly vocal criticism of the film from the most unlikely of places – the lesbian community. Where do you think that kind of outrage comes from and, outside of raising awareness for the film itself, does that kind of anger serve any worthwhile purpose for a thoughtful movie like this?

LC: I keep referring to them as the lesbian right (chuckling), and I think that in any kind of group there’s going to be a contingent of people that are more extreme in their views of things, and more politicized and so, I think there’s room for everybody, and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s gets a little tedious speaking to it – not to you – but when I’ve heard it in Q & A’s and stuff, but I’m sympathetic. There’ve obviously been no great representations of lesbians in cinema, or certainly there hasn’t been in a long time, and it’s kind of an old school doctrinaire, “Oh of course the lesbian goes off with a man.” But if you look at the film with any kind of care, it’s really not about that at all.

BE: No, no, it isn’t.

LC: She really goes off with her partner. So it gets a little knee-jerky and tedious for me, but I’m sympathetic that there’s no representation, and with starvation sometimes you get a lot of mixed feelings.

BE: Well, here’s a weird question, and you gotta help me out here, because it was the one thing in the whole movie that baffled me. Lesbian couples watching gay male porn to get in the mood. Is this common? Is this something that I’m just totally unaware of?

LC: You know, I don’t know because I’m not a social scientist. I just thought, you know, different strokes for different folks, and it’s always fascinating to find out what people do to turn it on. Stuart [Blumberg, co-writer of the movie] and I stumbled on that idea, and wrote a scene, and laughed and I said, “No, it’s too risqué,” and he said, “No it’s not. It’s funny. It’s great.”

BE: There’s no question it was hilarious – don’t misread me on that. The climax of the movie – which is played silently hollow, is so effective and moving and truthful. Anybody who’s ever been in a situation like that knows exactly how Nic [Annette Bening’s character] was feeling in that moment. How did you come to that place of “This is what we’ve got to do right here – not say anything”?

LC: It was one of those great moments with Stuart where we just wrote the scene and it came out of our brains very much like what we ended up filming. That beat where she comes back from the bathroom and discovered what she has, um, I don’t remember who said or who wrote it, but I think we both just knew instinctively that that’s a moment where there’s that complete isolation and silent horror. There was no question that she was gonna implode, she wasn’t gonna make a scene in front of her children, so what was she going to do with those feelings but go dark and silent? That resonated with both of us, so we just wrote it very specifically that the sound drops out like that.

BE: It was so beautiful. Really, really beautiful. Speaking of truths, really, the whole movie is littered with universal truths. My wife and I probably didn’t go into the movie thinking we’d see ourselves in this lesbian couple, and yet there were so many moments that reminded us of us. Was it important for you to reach as many people as possible with the film, instead of just crafting an indie arthouse film that would only appeal to a certain kind of audience?

LC: Yeah, I set out from the beginning to write something that was more commercial, that had a more universal kind of heartbeat, and that wasn’t rarified, or super political or politically correct. We didn’t want to make a film about the underdogs or the alienated family or whatever. We wanted to say “Here’s this couple who’s raised two kids, and they’ve been together for 20 years, and this is what happens with life and a marriage.” It doesn’t mean your marriage is over or it’s bad. This is what it looks like. Once we got into the groove of looking at those kinds of questions, and those kind of universal ideas, it was exciting to us, because then we broke out of a place that we didn’t want to be in anyway.

BE: To me, that’s kind of the brilliance of the movie, you know, unless you’re just the most closed-minded buffoon, if you’ve got some kind of family that you’ve put together over years and years, this has to resonate with you on some level. It’s very, very perceptive work.

LC: Thank you.

BE: I noticed in some of the extras on the Blu-ray that you tend to use the word tribe quite a bit instead of family, and that’s interesting. What’s the difference, if any, between the two words for you? Does saying tribe indicate something a little different, a little more modern, maybe?

LC: God, I don’t know – I don’t remember what I said on that! (both of us start laughing) I don’t know why I chose those words.

BE: It’s just interesting because to me a tribe sounds like something that’s more assembled, more modern. It just seems like a new word for the kinds of families that we do have today.

LC: Well, certainly with a gay family you’re putting it together rather than just stumbling into it. There’s a lot of conscious effort that goes into creating a family and keeping it together, but certainly the “creating it” part. I guess when I use the word tribe, I probably use it more casually than I’m saying right now, interchanging it with the word family just to spice it up. But I probably also meant that that’s their tribe – that’s the like-minded community of intimates that are primary in the film.

BE: Well I like it and I’m going to start using it, just so you know.

LC: Yeah.

BE: Just by sheer coincidence – even before I knew I was going to interview you – this past weekend I read the little essay you wrote for Bazaar. And I don’t even read Bazaar often, I don’t know why I was.

LC: Oh, yeah, yeah – about having our kid.

BE: I reread it last night and wondered, if in 15 years Calder decides to go find his sperm donor – how do you think you’ll deal with that?

LC: Um, you know he…he (giggles)…

BE: I’m sorry. Is that too personal?

LC: No, no, no, no! My partner and I are actually nothing like the people in the film, like Annette Bening’s character. We both feel that he should absolutely be raised in an environment of openness and clearness. He knows he has a sperm donor father, and it’s important to me and Wendy, too, that he feels we’re always behind him in his life so that when he turns 18 and he wants to reach out and try to make contact with that man who I’m so grateful toward, because we have a great kid – I’m all for it. I’m actually curious to meet him. I think it’s a good thing and I support it.

BE: I feel like I could talk to you for an hour about this movie, but I know time’s limited.

LC: Yeah, I think I’m getting the “one more question” vibe [from the publicist].

BE: Well, I don’t necessarily have any more questions, so I guess I’ll end this by saying that not only did I really love “The Kids Are All Right,” but also “Laurel Canyon” was a big movie for me, and I really hooked into that film.

LC: Oh, thanks. That’s nice to hear. It’s great to hear that at the end of the day.

BE: I usually go out to L.A. about once a year, and I have a certain ideas of what L.A.’s like, but that movie really changed the way I look at Los Angeles as a city. That and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” for whatever that’s worth. For reasons I’m not even entirely sure of, those two movies just changed my perception of L.A. – in a positive way.

LC: Well, that’s good, some P.R. help. So that’s good.

BE: Well, that’s about all I got, but I would like to tell you that whatever you do in the future, please, please keep making movies, because we really, really need you.

LC: Oh, you’re a sweetheart. Thank you for all that. I really appreciate it.

BE: You are such a fantastic filmmaker, and I just wanna see you keep making movies forever.

LC: Well, we’ll talk again.

BE: We will.,

LC: Thank you so much for your time. Thanks again, Ross. Bye!

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