Lisa Cholodenko’s brilliant new movie The Kids Are All Right has been the recipient of well-deserved raves ever since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s certainly a quantum leap forward for a filmmaker who gained similar kudos for earlier films, Laurel Canyon and High Art, with its highly unique spin on the “dysfunctional family reunion dramedy” we’ve seen so many independent filmmakers tackle.
Much of what sets “Kids” apart, even from Cholodenko’s previous films, is that the script, co-written by Stuart Bluberg, is so damn good, and she pulled together an impressive cast to bring these characters to life. First and foremost there’s Annette Bening and Julianne Moore playing Nic and Jules, the lesbian matriarchs of two kids, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Josh Hutcherson), the results of their Moms being impregnated by the same sperm donor. Once Joni turns 18, she has an opportunity to meet that donor and what she and her brother find is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a womanizing slacker who has very different ideals from their mothers yet tries his best to bond with his new family.
Much of the raves for the movie mention how either or both Bening and Moore are likely to get another Oscar nomination for their performances, but people have been just as impressed by the other three actors, particularly Mia, whose Joni is absolutely nothing like her Alice. In fact, you might not even believe it’s the same actress.
Having become fans of the movie after seeing it at ShoWest, ComingSoon.net sat down with Ms. Cholodenko last week. We were somewhat surprised not only by how much she resembled Bening’s character in the movie, but also talked very similar when answering our questions.
ComingSoon.net: It’s been a few years since your last movie, and you didn’t work with Stuart before, I guess.
Lisa Cholodenko: No, this is the first time.
CS: So how did it come about that you two decided to work together?
Cholodenko: Yeah, I knew Stuart from New York when I was living here, and ran into him about six months or a year after I relocated to L.A. I was talking to him about this script I had begun about this family who has this encounter with their sperm donor, and he revealed to me in the course of our conversation that he had been a sperm donor in college. And I thought, “God, that’s so interesting. It’s kismet that we’re having this conversation,” so I just asked him spontaneously if he wanted to try writing this with me, and he did, and we sort of got married right then and there.
CS: Before seeing this, I had never heard of sperm donors meeting the results of their donation. It’s not like being parents who have a kid and give it up for adoption, so is this very common for kids of sperm donors to want to meet their fathers?
Cholodenko: It’s becoming more common, because now there’s a whole generation of kids that are donor kids that have one parent who is a sperm donor who are coming of age. Who are 18, who can reach out, and see if that anonymous sperm donor wants to have contact. At 18, the donor agrees to be contacted by the offspring, and “I will decide then if I do or don’t want to have contact.”
CS: That was obviously a big part of the script you were writing and I assume you had the family worked out, so what did you want Stuart to bring to it when he came on board? Did you need more help with Mark’s character?
Cholodenko: No, I just felt that A.) I didn’t really want to be writing alone then. I had done two screenplays by myself for my other two films and felt like… it’s just a lonely experience and one that I didn’t particularly want to have again right away. I also felt there was something about the fact that he had this experience of being a sperm donor, that he could lend an emotional veracity to the whole thing, not just to the Mark character. There was that, and then the third thing was in the course of that conversation, we were talking about how in the course of my career, I had been making these auteur-like films and they were more personal and it would be interesting if I could get them into a wider audience or write them in a way that was broader. He himself was looking to make films that were slightly more personal, because he had been working on studio projects. That was also inspiring. I thought we have sort of a compatibility here in that we can mash up these instincts and maybe become something interest.
CS: There are definitely some throughlines from “High Art” through “Laurel Canyon” to “Kids.” Was there something conscious that you dealt with some of the same themes from your other movies or was it just subconscious?
Cholodenko: I think it’s more that. I think when you’re writing films that just come fresh out of your own imagination. I think probably anyone who’s done that, there are certain themes or styles. M. Night Shyamalan has a genre that he likes to live in or I have certain themes I return to or they augment or mature but there are strands of those themes in at least these three films.
CS: Did the title come to you very early on in the writing?
Cholodenko: It did. It was more like a working title and I never thought we’d end up with it, but it just kept feeling resonant, so I thought, “You know, stick it on there and see if it passes, and if The Who is not going to sue me, then we’ll use it.”
CS: When you hear “The Kids Are All Right,” you expect it to be spelled with one ‘l’ and being one word, but the way it’s spelled has a very different meaning. Was that something you toyed around with or was that just the way it was and that worked?
Cholodenko: No, it was partly because of the copyright and partly because we liked the double entendre of it.
CS: I’m sure you’re asked this a lot, but as you were writing, did you feel one of the Moms was more you or that you could relate to one of the characters more than the other or that it was more your voice?
Cholodenko: You know, I really feel like I’m in both those characters. I don’t think I’ve cloned my personality or psychology wholesale, but I think that I’m in both of them. I think I understand the tensions and dilemmas in both of them, as does Stuart. We used ourselves, we used people we know, we used our Moms, we used marriages that we’ve observed. When you’re writing these people and they’re inventions, you really pull from everywhere to give it authenticity.
CS: About how far along were you in the writing before Annette or Julianne came on board? Had you already met one or both of them before finishing the script?
Cholodenko: I’d met Julianne in L.A. a number of years earlier and when Stuart and I were writing the script, we got to a place close to the end of the first draft where we said, “You know what? I really do think Julianne Moore can be cool in this.” In a way, she was on our minds through a lot of the writing and I had told her that I would send something to her if I had written a part, and I did, and she said, “Yes,” and she stayed involved and attached for a good long time, for almost five years.
CS: So it was never a matter of who would play the other Mom?
Cholodenko: No, there were no conditions, no, and because she was as generous-spirited and whatnot as she was, I felt I owed it to her and I wanted to consult her about who would play the other person, so at a certain point, I think I came to New York and we sat together and I said, “I’m thinking of Annette Bening and how do you feel about it,” and she said, “I think that’s a great idea, and I’ll write her an Email. I don’t know her but I’ll tell her I think it’s a great idea,” and I think all those things helped.
CS: They’re both really amazing actresses, really forces when they’re on screen alone, so it’s amazing to have them on-screen together as much as you do in the movie. I imagine it must have been great for them to be able to push and challenge each other. Was there any kind of rehearsal, or did they do their own work, and then you shot the script?
Cholodenko: They were out for like five days before we started shooting. Annette lives there, but Julianne was there for five days or something, and we had some rehearsal time, but not much. A few days, sitting around a hotel room, and just page-reading through the script and breaking it down and talking about scenes and character and stuff, but there was very little prep time.
CS: You mentioned you were hoping to do something that might reach a wider audience. Did you decide early on that you were going to do it independently, make the movie the way you wanted then put it on the festival circuit? What was your take on whether or not to have a studio involved from the beginning?
Cholodenko: I tried to entice a studio at the beginning and nobody wanted to do it, so I just said, “Well, I’m just going to keep writing it and we’re going to put it together independently.” I think at a certain point, a company called Overture was going to get involved but it was right at the point where they started restructuring and having problems. As we were moving towards production, all the casting and everything was coming together, Overture was kind of coming unglued, and we had to go out and get private investors and whatnot. It was weird timing and it was very stressful at the time… very stressful… but in the end it worked out great.
CS: I know how hard it is getting financing, but when you have two actresses like these, it must have been easier.
Cholodenko: Yeah, it was easier, it wasn’t a slam dunk. It was more of like a whole package. Here’s these two actresses, this is their window, this is when they want to do it, this is what we got going on, and we had a lot of conversations, and a lot of flirtations with companies, but in the end, it was hard to get people to dig into their pockets and pony it up.
CS: What about Mia? I saw your movie within a week or two of seeing “Alice in Wonderland” and I didn’t even realize this was the same actress until the very end. How did you find her? Had she already done “Alice” at that point?
Cholodenko: She was somebody I was aware of from a show called “In Treatment,” that HBO show. She’d been on the first season, I think, and my older sister was a big fan of the show and kept telling me when I was going to cast this part to think about this girl or look at her. It just got lodged in my brain so I was asking about her, and as it turned out, she had just wrapped “Alice in Wonderland,” they were editing at that point. So I hadn’t seen the film, but she did like an audition on tape from Australia, and I thought she was incredibly compelling, just out of the box and special. It helped to know that she had just done this film that was going to get a major release and push her name along, but it certainly wasn’t the reason why I reached out to her.
CS: What’s interesting about this movie is that it really is a five-hander, which you don’t see often. You have family dramas but you always have one character who gets the focus, and while this is Joni’s story, every single character has an arc and has their moments, ups, downs. How hard is it to balance and maintain that throughout the process. Did the script change at all when you got on set and started filming?
Cholodenko: Yeah, it did. Not in radical ways, but definitely things got revised and shifted and scenes got shortened and mutated. Yeah, there was changes all the way until the end of the shoot for sure. I have great actors in the film that at that point really knew who those characters were and could weigh in with their instincts about things. I was seeing things that was occurring to me as the story was evolving and had a few moments where I would take Stuart aside–he was out for the shoot–and say, “We need to address this thing in this scene. Let’s write another part to this scene.” That happened a few times.
CS: Stuart was there and stayed involved the whole time.
Cholodenko: Yeah, yeah, and it was great.
CS: Did he stay through editing as well?
Cholodenko: No, no.
CS: I was curious about that because when you spend as much time perfecting a script as you did…
Cholodenko: Yeah, and he wanted to be there. I really needed him there.
CS: But the script must be somewhat precious by that point and all the actors love it, so you don’t want to mess with it too much.
Cholodenko: But it’s like a living breathing thing. Yeah, it’s just one of those things. You hope that you catch all the pieces and they all hang together in the right balance.
CS: Did you do any testing before Sundance as far as playing it for other people. I was always curious about that, because some filmmakers just want to wait or they’re so pressed to finish it up before Sundance. Some just play it for friends to get their thoughts.
Cholodenko: Yeah, definitely there was two times I brought some friends together. Once was small, like maybe ten people, and the next was maybe 20 people, some friends and family and some filmmakers that I know (that are friends) in a very rough cut form and just got a vibe and some feedback. That was good, that really helped a lot.
CS: When did you actually start shooting the movie?
Cholodenko: I think it was from July 1st to July whatever, it was like over the month of July like a year ago, almost to the day. That’s wild.
CS: I wondered about any changes you’ve made since Sundance. When I saw the movie at ShoWest, I thought the gay porn stuff was a lot more graphic, so I was shocked it got an R rating. Then I saw it again recently, and I thought maybe it got toned down. Am I mistaken or was it toned down for the MPAA?
Cholodenko: Yeah, there were two scenes that they asked me to pull back on the porn. I wonder if I did it in the Moms scene, too. We were still trimming, so I wanted to take stuff out, but when the boys are watching the porn, they didn’t like how graphic it was, there were a couple shots that were really blatant, so I switched a shot and repositioned a shot on the screen, so it wasn’t so stark. That was toned down, and when Julianne and Mark are having their shagfest, there’s some of that. They thought it was going on too long, so I pulled back on some of that.
CS: As a filmmaker who’s used to having so much freedom, what’s it like having to change the movie you made to get a rating like that? You’re obviously working with a studio who wants to be able to advertise. Some filmmakers I’ve spoken to would just rather go out unrated than deal with that. You can’t really do that with a movie like this.
Cholodenko: Yeah, I was pissed off, and I was disappointed and in a way…
CS: I don’t think the changes hurts the movie.
Cholodenko: No, you know it was a weird thing, because I had lost my editor at that point, and I brought him back and he only had a certain amount of time, so at a certain point, I was just like, “You know what? F*ck it. Just cut it here. I don’t want to go back and forth with the MPAA. I gotta get on with this.” It’s frustrating, and I sort of regret that I didn’t… there’s ways to play the MPAA a little bit more and get away with more, and I just was like, “F*ck it.” I cut my nose to spite my face a little bit. I think I went too far… but it’s fine and I’m okay with it. And you know what? It’s still that question of that’s pretty graphic stuff and some people aren’t even going to like that. I want it to be a mainstream film, and the cineastes among us can watch the Director’s Cut.
CS: I remember when I watched it at ShoWest with many older people from the MidWest and the reaction to those scenes was priceless.
Cholodenko: Like, whoa!
CS: No one fainted or anything, some were laughing, some got into the cheeky vibe of the movie and that it was going to be a very different movie, but as I watched it, I thought, “There’s no way that’s going to get past the MPAA,” knowing what they look for.
Cholodenko: Yeah, yeah.
CS: Do you generally work on one project at a time until you complete it or do you have a bunch of things you’re working on?
Cholodenko: I do. I think I might be more in the spirit now of balancing more than one thing, having other things in development, but with this, my two projects was I was trying to conceive and have and raise a little kid and do this, and now that kid is on his way, he’s 4, so maybe I can do two things at once.
CS: 4 is still pretty young…
Cholodenko: Yeah, but I can take my eye off him for two minutes and he’ll be okay.
CS: You’ve made three very personal films. Do you think at this point, you can maybe look at other people’s script to direct or do you feel like you want to stick with stuff you write?
Cholodenko: No, no, I’m very open to reading. If there’s a studio film, I’d be more than happy to consider it, especially if it’s in the kind of genre that I can feel confident about.
The Kids Are All Right opens in New York, L.A., Chicago and San Francisco on Friday with plans to expand to other cities. Look for ComingSoon.net’s video interviews later this week and an additional interview with Josh Hutcherson, probably next week.