It was the baby picture that swung it. When Lisa Cholodenko and her partner Wendy decided to have a child together, they visited the cryobank not far from their home in LA, and started scrolling through the database of donors. "I made it my project for months," says Cholodenko, "to go through all these guys and find somebody who stood out – and I did. The donors are anonymous, so you can't get pictures of them as adults, but you can get a baby picture and I remember being really struck by this one. Not, 'Oh, that's such a cute baby', but there was a visceral feeling, and reading his essays and interviews reinforced it. It trumped this idea of, 'Is he intelligent?' or 'Is he good looking?' I thought: 'I'm connecting to him.'"
That decision led to the birth of their son, Calder, in 2006, and the process loosely inspired Cholodenko's new film, The Kids Are All Right, which she directed herself, and co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg, a friend who had been a sperm donor in the past. Cholodenko started writing it in 2004, and along the way she worried that someone else would film a similar story first. A plot that revolved around sperm donation was so obvious, she thought, "it felt ripe for the picking".
It's true that the film's setup is a brilliant basis for a big, funny, emotional unravelling. Two women get together, each has a child by the same sperm donor, their happy family ages, shifts and strengthens – and then, when their daughter turns 18, the age when she can contact her biological father, she does just that, and the family unit implodes. With Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as the couple, and Mark Ruffalo as the tall, shambling, supremely sexy interloper, it's perfectly played, incredibly funny, and genuinely moving. It's a big breakthrough for Cholodenko, who's 46. The other two films that she's written and directed, High Art (1998) and Laurel Canyon (2002), were both well-received, but The Kids Are All Right has had a sensational reception, with buzz about both Oscars and good box office (not bad for a shoot that took 23 days on a budget of $4m).
But in some ways it's not surprising that nobody beat Cholodenko to the screen; after all, her film is also highly unusual. It's hard to think of many other examples of a happy, ordinary, essentially well-adjusted gay family being depicted on screen – the gay stories we tend to see often brim with sadness, if not tragedy. Can she think of any exceptions? "Well, I'm in England, so of course the first gay-themed film I think of is something like Prick Up Your Ears, where you are in the world of Joe Orton, in the world of gay men, but there is a kind of homo-outcast-tragedy thing, which is always going on. It's like, fucking hell, it's such a drag. Let's find a more interesting way to work with these kinds of characters. I think people have found The Kids Are All Right incredibly fresh because it's like, finally, somebody doesn't have to die. I feel really cynical about the gay martyr movie. I think we're way past having to be represented like that. You know, I challenge people, if they're going to put gay life or gay characters on screen, to do it in a much more complex, fresh and worthy way."
Hopefully, they will. In the meantime, Cholodenko seems to be enjoying this flush of success. She credits her partner, Wendy Melvoin (a singer-songwriter who has performed in Prince's band The Revolution, and the duo Wendy and Lisa) with helping her through the struggle to get the film made, "because there were many times when I was just like, fuck this, I just can't do any more, and she said, 'you have to finish this'". Would they both be happy if, in 14 years time, Calder decides to meet his own biological father? "Absolutely," she says. "Oh my God, yeah. I want my kid to feel as positive about his origins as possible. We're in an era where there are a lot more kids growing up as a result of egg donors and sperm donors, and I think it's a really positive thing."
A happy conception, all round.
Lisa Cholodenko on Getting Under the Skin of Frances McDormand's 'Olive Kitteridge'
Lisa Cholodenko started off in the independent world, but over the last 20 years the Oscar-nominated writer and director’s work has also stretched to include television, including episodes of “Hung,” “Six Feet Under” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Her newest project is the HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge,” starring Frances McDormand as a woman who, over 25 years of life, finds happiness elusive, and is surrounded by a big name cast that includes Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan, John Gallagher Jr., Jesse Plemons and Bill Murray. Indiewire got the chance to ask her about what kind of advantages you get when working for the second time with an actor, the “Gone Girl”-esque appetite for unlikeable women on screen and not giving Bill Murray any ammunition to use against her.
What brought you to “Olive Kitteridge”?
I think it was Fran who attracted me to it, because I didn’t know about the book. I was just off the publicity trail of “The Kids Are Alright” (2010) and she called and said,”Hey I’ve optioned a book that I’m in love with and I want to adapt it for a series or miniseries and will you read it and maybe you’d want to adapt it. Of course, I wanted to read it. And then I did and then I said to her, “I loved this book and you are this character, but I don’t think I know how to adapt it.” Then, she took it and went on her way, but I told her that if it’s adapted and it doesn’t have a director attached to it, call me. I went about my business and probably two and a half years later, I got a phone call from her, from HBO. They said we have a script and will you read it, and it was great. She found the right place to adapt it.
READ MORE: Watch: Olive Kitteridge’ Trailer Catches Frances McDormand & Bill Murray With the Small-Town Blues
I know a lot of times you direct your own writing, but it also seems like this isn’t completely out of the norm for you.
No. I’ve done episodic television and some other things that have been written by other people. I have enjoyed writing my own stuff and it’s been a privilege to be able to scrap some money together to be able to make films from my own scripts. But I love Fran and she has great taste. It was definitely worth considering and looking at the script, it was just a great read.
I’m a slow reader typically, but I got the four scripts [by Jane Anderson] and I couldn’t put it down. I just went through it, I was completely immersed in it. I thought “wow,” you know? Just great writing — this was somebody who went to those deep places that I try to go when I’m doing my own work, and it was so exciting because I didn’t have to suffer through the writing process. Because it’s hard.
For you on set, how did you go about finding a balance between trying to make sure you’re not making the most depressing thing ever, but also staying true to the real emotion of the piece?
Well, I feel like if you feel good about a script and you feel confident about your ability to direct and just capture it right, it’s all just, really, really in your favor there. I just thought it had a great balance of comedy and pathos. And watching the performance with Richard Jenkins and Fran and everybody. Bill Murray and John Gallagher Jr. and everybody who was cast just had some innate ability to juggle those two things and make them come out whole.
They’re three dimensional characters. I really feel it’s just one of those lucky strikes. The script is great, the source material is great, the casting is right. So many of the elements were right… It was a delicate tone. It’s hard to describe. But I really felt like it all came together.
So it was important to me that it wasn’t maudlin — I didn’t want it to be like some kind of satire. You know, freaky depressed people up in Maine, that kind of thing. I wanted to get under the skin of these people in a way that was compelling, where the dark was offset by things that were funny.
You’d worked with Frances McDormand before [on the 2002 film “Laurel Canyon”] — what was the difference between directing her the first time and directing her the second time? Did you have a shorthand that made things easier?
Yeah. Obviously, working with somebody, there’s certain things you know that you know about them. Like I’ll walk onto a set and be like, okay, this might be a scene where she’s going to have an opinion, it’s going to be really strong and I’ve got to stick to my guns and we might butt heads a little bit. But I know this is how it works between us. So take the high road and be thoughtful about you deal with this and be collaborative.
Certain actors like different things, and that’s the dynamic I have with Fran. She really likes a dialogue, she likes to spar it out. I think that the more people we got into this show, the more thoughtful we got about doing that — we could have long dialogues about things. That was the pleasure of having worked with her before and knowing her a little bit. It was also such a long shoot — it was over 60 days — you kind of get into a groove. Well, you hope you do. I think we did.
When you started the project, did the two of you have the same approach to her character?
Well, we have the source material — it was really rich and it was a great translation of it for the adaptation. I think Fran had lived with it for so long and had really imagined it, marinated in it, that she had a very specific and personal take that I don’t even know she could have articulated. And in a certain way I don’t think she wanted to psychoanalyze it or objectify it. She just wanted to live it and at first that made me insecure. I though, god, are we making the same movie?
Whatever she was thinking, she was sort of brewing her own connection to it — I was doing the same in my own way. And then we brought it to the table and it almost became something else. Those places where she might have wanted to make it more comic, where my nature is maybe a little more melancholy than hers… We had to bend to each other, but that was kind of the beauty of it, between the two of us. We kind of covered those two poles pretty well.
I know you’re incredibly busy, but what do you know about “Gone Girl”? Have you gotten to see it or read the book?
I know about the book. I was never that interested in reading it, but people loved it.
And it almost seems like it’s starting a new conversation about the unlikable female character, the concept of the female sociopath. Olive, of course, is not a sociopath, but she is very unique and strong and you know, quasi-unlikable.
Yeah, definitely. Repelling aspects.
Approaching that — what is it about this period of time that makes those stories possible? You necessarily wouldn’t see a miniseries like this 10 years ago.
Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve never contextualized it like that. Was it too high risk to do that before, because we were so much younger and feminist? I guess it has to do with just being at a different level of tolerance. Things have opened up more.
I think there’s an appetite to see more multi-dimensional women. Women like men. Everyone on the planet has a dark and a light. That’s a multi-dimensional character. I think you’ll see any character in any movie, in any character that’s multi-dimensional. It all really focuses on not hiding this. There are things that [Olive] is struggling with — how to cope with those aspects with herself, how to negotiate her relationships with that aspect of herself and I think that’s fresh. It’s an interesting angle.
One thing you really don’t see a lot of — speaking of tropes — is the concept of the reluctant mother or the ambivalent mother. You got to dig into that here, and I was wondering, for those scenes, where she’s in direct conflict with her son, what was key for you in terms of bringing out that aspect of her character without losing the audience?
The ingredients of ambivalence are complicated, and I never saw that character as outright ambivalent. I thought of somebody with depression and a lot of unattended sorrow, as it were. Just a lot of deep sorrow and pain that were really super unresolved in her own life, from her own childhood. And growing up in a culture that’s all about buttoning it up and stepping it back — she was a person where there were some cracks, things were leaking out and she couldn’t keep her shit together. That’s sort of traumatic, but in a way kind of beautiful.
“Olive Kitteridge” is four hours long — in your head, do you think of it as episodic or as a complete package?
You know, it’s funny. I was just thinking about this. When I saw it back for the first time on a screen, it’s got this really lovely title sequence and says “A Film by Lisa Cholodenko” — and I watched it and I thought, wow does it feel like that? Is that going to be strange?
And then at the end I really felt like, gosh, that really is a film, it was really such a great opportunity to make this four hour film, you know? It does have these chapters but for me it feels very coherent. It’s all in the piece and it hangs together and it is like a film. We shot it like a film, I approached it like a film, I think visually it feels like a film and narratively I thought of it as a film with the whole arc: Where does she go, where does she start, does it have a midpoint? All these things weave together — even though they’re episodes — into a bigger picture.
The major difference, of course, is the length. What kind of effect that did that have on your normal filmmaking process?
It was a super-rigorous shoot. It was over 60 days, away from my home, my family. In the script it featured four seasons, it featured a woman — several people going through big age changes over 25 years. There were a lot of details in production I felt committed to rendering in the best way I possibly could. It was a lot to bite off, a lot to think about — to pull it together and make it coherent and not feel like oh, here’s four episodes, this one looks like this and this one feels like that. Like, make it coherent as a whole. We’re not making a TV show, we’re making a four hour film and that’s great, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I was exhausted beyond repair when I got home, but I’m glad we did it.
What’s your recovery strategy after a shoot like that?
Oh my god. The strategy that I have in my mind — the wish strategy and the reality… The wish strategy would be that I’d get on a plane and go to Tahiti or Indonesia or something and I’d lie on a beach, slurp cocktails and sleep. But I’ve got to go back. I have an 8 year old son so I just go back and jump into real life. It’s hard. It’s the closest I’ve come to being in combat. You are in that mode — it’s really fight or flight for a long time. Being in production — you’re away, that’s your job, you’re on a mission. It’s a lot of day in and day out. It’s close to 5 months I was there and after a while — it’s kind of unrelenting. You’re captive while you’re there and then you’re not there and you’re nervous and a little tweaked out for awhile. But then you finally relax and you think again that you’re not in the midst of danger. Everything’s alright.
And then you get to start it up all over again for the next project.
That’s right. That’s my career choice — I’m joking, I’m being very facetious. Have you seen it?
“Olive Kitteridge”? Yeah, of course. I really liked the final scene — I thought it was a perfect ending.
Oh, good. I liked it too. And you know what I really liked? I felt like having Bill Murray do that scene was one of the perfect moments of making that film. Not only because he’s Bill Murray, and it was a treat for me to work with him, but I realized when I was watching him and Fran, how similar they are as actors — in terms of their dark and light and comedy and drama and just the balance of it, essentially.
In doing interviews, have you gotten a lot of the “how did you get Bill Murray?” question?
I’ve gotten some of it. Probably anybody who’s interviewed anybody that’s worked with him gets the same answer, which is he doesn’t have a phone, you get to call his lawyer and you get to write a letter — to pass to Bill. It was probably one of the best letters I’ve ever written. It was spontaneous, it was from the heart and I know he read it, he said he did and I don’t know… Maybe it was just that single thing, a letter. Wouldn’t that been nice to think?
He recently heckled his director during a post-screening Q&A for “St. Vincent.”
He did? Why?
It was a friendly joshing. It was clearly very good-natured, but while the quotes themselves are pretty funny, they’re kind of rough.
Yeah. Bill’s the kind of guy where you want to go slow, so you’re safe because he’s harsh — he’s him. You don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. I mean, I knew I was going to get great stuff on film, but a friendship with him? I don’t know. I was very diplomatic, warm and didn’t give him too much fodder to tease me in public or in front of my crew.
Did that happen at all?
No, it didn’t happen. At all. I just thought that this is the kind of the guy who can definitely find something funny and humiliating to do with you if you give him some good material. So I tried my best to not give him too much material about me.
Sounds like a good strategy.
The first two parts of “Olive Kitteridge” premiere Sunday night at 9pm on HBO.
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