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Capone interviews Lisa Cholodenko, director and co-writer of one of the year's best, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko's has only made three feature films, but the quality of these works (HIGH ART, LAUREL CANYON, and her latest, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT) are so strong that she has managed to bring in some high-profile actors to bring her words to life in her indie setting. On the surface, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT would appear to be her most personal, as it's the story of a lesbian couple (Annette Benning and Julianne Moore), each of whom have given birth to a child from the same anonymous sperm donor. (The high school-age kids are played by ALICE IN WONDERLAND's Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson.) The kids become curious about their birth father, and track him down to discover he is a very earthy and charming restaurant owner (played by Mark Ruffalo). The result work is one of the year's finest to date, and nearly all of the performances are worthy of awards consideration (I think by the end of the year, Benning's will be the one most remembered). Cholodenko actually had a child (with her musician partner and former Prince and the Revolution band member Wendy Melvoin) by means of a donor not long ago, and the experience clearly influenced her, but I'm pretty sure that's where the similarities end. Between film gigs, Cholodenko has director episodes of TV shows such as "Homicide," "Six Feet Under," and "The L Word," but it was the ever-evolving screenplay for THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (which she co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg) that she has clearly poured her heart and soul into for many years. And the resulting film is just about perfect and highly accessible, believe it or not, a fact she takes great pride in. I loved talking to Lisa when she came to Chicago recently. Please enjoy our enlightening chat, and go see this movie when it opens near you soon.
Capone: How are you? Lisa Cholodenko: I’m good. How are you doing? Capone: Excellent. No lie, the first thing I thought when I watched this movie was “This is a great film to put out in the summer,” because this feels, dare I say, "mainstream." I think this could be a hit in it’s own world. LC: I hope so! Capone: I’m not just saying that, because you are here; I really was like "This is accessible to everyone." I can’t imagine someone seeing it and not just feeling really positive about it. LC: Oh, thanks. Capone: I won’t say, "feel good" movie, because it’s sort of mixed on the emotional spectrum. So did you set out to make something a little more… LC: Yes! [laughs] I would say I set out to do something shamelessly mainstream. You know what? I actually think it’s subversive to take material like this and go “I’m going to make it mainstream and I’m not going to make it LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. I’m not going to make a joke out of it. I’m going to take it seriously, but I’m going to do it in a way that makes it accessible, makes it like a fun and interesting ride, but also makes it appealing to a diversity of people and not just preaching to the converted or that kind of a rarefied audience.” I want this to reach. Capone: There are elements to the film that I thought I could see the gay community almost not being happy with, the fact that Julianne Moore sleeps with a man or the female couple get off watching gay male porn. LC: Oh yeah! Capone: I kind of wondered, “How is this going to fly?” I don’t know, maybe I’m being too closed minded about it. LC: You know what? I didn’t feel like I was forsaking any personal politic or personal experiential anything. I felt like it’s like a personal film at the end of the day and it makes perfect sense to me. It emotionally hangs together for me, and I think that there’s people on all sort of points of a continuum. There’s definitely going to be those people in the gay community that feel like “I don’t want to see that. Why are you putting that idea out there?”, and then there are other people that are going to go like “I’m so glad you put that idea out there; that’s my experience!” It’s a movie. At the end of the day, it’s coming out of one person’s imagination, it’s not like a political position. Capone: And that’s almost a shame that so many films at gay film festivals or anything like gets labeled “Gay Cinema,” they do carry with them that they speak for the community. I’m sure there are a lot of people in the gay-movie audience that watch a film and say “That is not what my life is like. That doesn’t represent me.” LC: Yeah, absolutely. You go to the most doctrinaire thing and you are like “I don’t want to see that. I don’t identify with that. That’s so rigid. That’s so closed.” To me, I think that the thing that I was focusing on--you are speaking about the sexuality in the film--the thing with Julianne and Mark Ruffalo’s characters is that… He is who he is, but she is clearly like somebody who is open and interested and curious about that. I don’t know if you were at the screening last night… Capone: Not last night, no. LC: But personally I think that that’s a very powerful thing to meet the counterpart to your child. This is the man that she has a child with, who she obviously adores. I always meant it to be beyond the sexuality, there’s like a very reasonable kind of charge between them that’s simply because they have a child together. Capone: There is that connection, so you feel like there should be an intimacy, even if there never was. LC: Right and I really wanted to play with that idea and I think that it’s in there and I like it. I think it’s an interesting idea. Capone: So I know you took a long time in writing this and rewriting this, did you do anything in that process to make it more accessible? LC: Yeah, I think once we really got the roots of the story down and kind of felt like we knew where it’s edges and boundaries were, we felt like we could focus on making the characters sharper, and in sharpening them, we could make them funnier. We knew them so well that we could accentuate their foibles in a way that was funny, and it would hang together and make sense for who they were and what their arcs were in the narrative. Capone: There is so much humor in the film. Was it interesting writing jokes? Or did you say “You know what? I’m going to let the actors make this material funny with their delivery,” as opposed to writing? LC: I think we wrote stuff that amused us that we knew that coming out of the right actors with the right energy would be funny, and there were a few times where [co-writer] Stuart [Blumberg] and I were flat out laughing. That was a ball and then there was some stuff that came up on the set that was totally unexpected that I was like “This is great.” These actors are so into these roles and are such great actors that they can just kind of wing it and do some improv stuff that goes with the scene or kind of goes with the flow of the dialog, but is really their own and it’s funny. Capone: I see enough movies in the year to get frustrated with any time where I catch an actor is playing a character. These felt like very lived-in roles, like we were catching these people at this moment. This isn’t something where you give each character a little introduction or anything like that. It feels very natural and very lived in. How much prep time did you really have with this film, in terms of rehearsing or having the actors hang out or anything like that? LC: Yeah. The real prep work and the real heavy lifting happened before we even got to a set, and it was really just working through the script and then being obsessive about casting. I just was relentlessly meticulous and I didn’t want to put the film together and go into production and try to get it made until I was absolutely comfortable with at least the Nic and Jules characters, because I felt like with a film like this, if that piece of the film wasn’t spot on, it very well could not work. Capone: Yeah, I understand Julianne Moore was involved with this fairly early on. You wrote it for her, is that accurate? LC: You know, she had made it clear to me that she wanted to do something with me a long time ago--I think after HIGH ART--and I was always a big fan of hers and so we had had that conversation. Then Stuart and I wrote this first draft and had said to each other throughout like “You know, I think Julianne more could really do one of these parts,” so I sent it to her and I said “We have written this script and I would really love you to be in it, which part do you want?” She picked that one. Capone: I think it’s always a cause for celebration whenever Annette Bening decides to make a film, because she doesn’t work as often as a lot of other people. It strikes me as funny that she takes on the most conservative family ideals of the film, while everyone else around her is just trying to be a little more loose and free. Was that kind of fun to play with that idea that she is sort of the family-values person in the mix? LC: Yeah, in a way I think that they both are. I think it’s just expressed differently, and she’s got her loose ends too. She’s hitting the red wine pretty hard, so yeah, there are things that are questionable. I gave her her stuff. When I was thinking about who to put in that part and I had already had Julianne in the Jules part, I was very limited. There’s not that many bankable or A-list people…I really wanted a marquee actor. I wanted it to try and be a mainstream film and in that age group that I felt like had a kind of sexuality that could be mutable, that could seem gay. It’s hard. There’s not a long list. I had been thinking about her on and off for a couple of years while I was casting it and like “Maybe that’s right…,” and then I really started thinking about AMERICAN BEAUTY, not necessarily her sexuality, but that thing that she can do that’s so awesome and rare, which is go between comedy and drama at the drop of a dime. And I just thought it’s less like a rigid family-values person and more that she is a person that’s kind of trying the keep control and trying to do what’s right in an almost external way, like an idea of it and then tripping over herself and devolving into these other places. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s tragic, and I thought “Wow, she would be able to represent that without it being oppressive,” because she has all of these other components that she easily transfers into. Capone: It’s funny to see Mark Ruffalo play such an overtly sexual character--charming, as handsome as I’ve ever seen him look in a film. And it occurred to me as I’m watching it “I don’t think I’ve ever really seen him go that full force with his good looks.” Did he, in any way, hesitate to do that? He does it really well, but a lot of times he is playing someone a little off. LC: Yeah and in a way he’s really off here. I think he just understood this character. He had lived in L.A. for a long time, he rides a motorcycle, and he lived in that part of L.A. He’s been with his wife for many years; I don’t think he’s a Lothario kind of guy, but I think he got that earthy, crunchy foodie kind of sensitive hipster guy who gets a lot of tail. [Both Laugh] Capone: I guess that’s the aspect that I noticed, that master seducer sort of role. LC: Yeah. What I like about it is that he infused it with a real humanness and humor and tenderness, even though it was unsavory what he was up to, and I think that he just had the elements to pull that off. I think he really enjoyed it. He had known Julianne. They had done a movie called BLINDNESS together years ago, and so they are friendly and Julianne knows his wife pretty well; they really like each other, so I think there was a feeling of like “This is safe. It’s fun. It’s sexy, but she’s my friend, and we can play this together and there’s not all of that weird shit of ‘Hi, my name’s Mark. Hi, I’m Julie.” “I don’t know you, let’s get naked.” Capone: And I said it felt like a mainstream summer movie, but those sex scenes are pretty explicit and lengthy at times. Was there ever any pressure to tone them down a little bit? LC: Yeah, they were even lengthier. I don’t know when you saw the film. Capone: Just two weeks ago. Not at Sundance. LC: I don’t know what version you saw. Capone: I assumed it was finished, but maybe I’m wrong. LC: We had to trim a little bit of that one heterosexual scene. At the end of it, they felt like it was going on a little too long, so there’s a little trimming with a little bit taken out. I liked it like that. I thought it was fun, but the MPAA said "No." But you know, it still does its thing. Capone: I want to talk about Mia [Wasikowska], because I’ve seen her in other things before. Especially in "In Treatment" she really blew me away with her performance in that. She seems like she’s really poised to be something just huge. She’s got work booked for the next couple of years. Tell me about how you found her. Did you audition people for the kids’ roles? LC: Josh Hutcherson was somebody that the casting director in L.A. brought in. He had been doing a lot of bigger features and people have been interested in him. I think he’s a great talent. He’s a great young actor. Capone: I’ve never seen him do anything like this before though, but I have seen him a lot. LC: And Mia was somebody that I didn’t really know of. My sister had mentioned her a few times that she had really like her in "In Treatment," and I had asked around about her a little bit and then found out that she had just shot Tim Burton’s movie [ALICE IN WONDERLAND], and I was like “You know, I’m curious about her. Maybe she will put herself on tape and do a few scenes while she was in Australia,” and she did that and I just thought “You know what? This girl is unusual. There’s just something about her that’s from left field, and I like that it’s not expected.” So without really knowing much of her work, I just said “I’m going to do that.” Capone: So she’s the only really major character that had to really audition for you then. LC: Yeah, I mean I wanted to offer it to her and I was interested in her, but I didn’t really know her work, so she did that as a courtesy to me. She knew I was expressly interested in her, so it wasn’t like an open call where I had to go through a bunch of tapes or anything. Capone: Yeah, it is kind of interesting that there develops this rivalry between the two kids for the father’s attention, but then that same thing also happens with the moms too that Annette Bening kind of feels left out, that she’s the only one that’s not… LC: Hooked in? Capone: With Mark, yeah, and it’s so heartbreaking that when she finally gets there that that’s such a turning point in the movie. At that point, I actually thought, “You know, this movie could go either way. She could never find out about the affair and then the other two could be cool and just stop” or "She can find out and her whole world falls apart." It would be fine with me either way, whatever happens. Did you set those up as parallel elements in Mark's life, that everyone was going for a piece of him once he was excepted into the group? LC: I felt like here’s this piece that everyone is trying to figure out “Is it an important piece?” “Is this a missing piece?” “What is this piece?” “How does this person fit?” I thought it was interesting that first it’s the boy that’s curious and initiating it, and then he is immediately like “That guy is kind of a narce case,” and then the girl realizes “This is sort of a missing piece for me and am I really interested?” And then Julianne’s got this kind of issue and unexpectedly this guy is filling her void. Then Annette Bening feels like her family is being hijacked, so she’s got to get in on the show or she’s going to miss the boat completely. It’s almost screwball. It’s a comedy of kind of mis-impulses. [Both Laugh] Capone: Are we going to have to wait a long time again for you to do something next or do you sort of have some ideas that you’ve been sitting on for a while, while you’ve been getting this one made? LC: You know I do and I feel much more… I had a kid in this process and that was a big deal. I moved back from New York to L.A. and got into a relationship and bought a house and had a kid, so there was a lot of domestic life to sort out, and now I’m much more in my life and ready to keep working, so I think it will be quicker. Capone: Have you ever been a director for hire? I know you have done some TV. LC: Like worked for a studio? Capone: No, I mean just something that you did not self generate. LC: I’ve done episodic television and I did do an adaptation of a Dorothy Allison novel [CAVEDWELLER] for a Showtime movie feature about five years ago. Capone: Is that the Kyra Sedgwick film? LC: Yeah. Capone: Okay, right. LC: Which was kind of an odd experience for me. It was a “job” job. I think I’d be happy to do a work-for-hire thing, which I’m kind of looking for, but not I don’t think for television. Capone: The shows you have worked on are some of my favorites--"Homocide" and "Six Feet Under"--but I’ve always wondered. [WINTER'S BONE director] Debra Granik was just here a couple of weeks ago… LC: Isn't she great? She’s a great director. Capone: I agree. I could not have loved her movie more and I asked her the same thing, because she’s so immersive in the way she works and I said, “That’d be really hard for someone to just say 'Hey, would you direct this script?'" She would want to dive into it for six months before you had even shot anything. LC: Yeah, I know. I don’t know her process. She’s had more experience working from other people’s writing and stuff. Mine is all self generated, so in that way she has a leg up. Capone: Exactly. Anyway, thank you very much, Lisa. It was really great to meet you. LC: Thank you. Nice to meet you, too.
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