How “The Kids Are All Right” Director Lisa Cholodenko Became Queen Of The Indie Aesthetic: 52 Weeks Of Directors

by Lauren C. Byrd

“Do we value highly enough the aesthetic to which women are attracted? We valued it in the ’70s, when films like The GraduateFive Easy Pieces,and Coming Home got made. But now? I don’t think that we do,” director Lisa Cholodenko spoke to The Guardian about her thoughts on women in film.

“You know, I get asked why there aren’t more female directors all the time,” she says. “I’m kind of reluctant to talk about it. That’s not because I think the question is irrelevant or stupid. It’s just that there are so many mitigating factors. Here, the dollar is the final frontier and its men who are typically attracted to the kind of material that brings in the masses: comic books, thrillers, special effects. Women tend to be more interested in character, in psychology. Are there women out there who are rabid to make those [more macho] kind of movies? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe they just can’t get into the system. But that’s not at all my sense of what’s happening.”

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She may not have an answer for why there are so few women in Hollywood, but like so many other female filmmakers, she’s carving out her own place in its landscape.

Cholodenko grew up in the San Fernando Valley in a liberal Jewish family. She left LA to attend college at San Francisco State, where she studied a mixture of anthropology, ethnic studies, and women’s studies. She became a teaching assistant to Angela Davis, the activist and academic. Cholodenko said despite her interdisciplinary major, her interest in film grew thanks to a college roommate. After college, she traveled to Nepal and India, spending 18 months in Jerusalem, where she worked for a lawyer in the justice department during the time of the intifada. The lawyer’s job was to refute the charges from Amnesty International. “It was interesting, but it was hard,” she said. “As an American Jew, I feel protective of Israel, but it was horrible defending things I felt were basic human rights abuses.”

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Upon returning to Los Angeles, she began working in post-production. Her first jobs were on Boyz n the Hood and Used People. After gaining exposure in the film world, she applied to graduate school and attended Columbia University, where she earned an MFA in screenwriting and directing. She was a teaching assistant for Andrew Sarris and cites her first viewing of Five Easy Pieces in his Cinema of the 1970s class as a peak film experience for her. “I just had a visceral reaction to it. It just had this searing impact on me, from script to visuals, all the components. I felt it appealed to my sensibility. Whatever that was!”

During her time at Columbia, she also wrote and directed a number of short films, including Souvenir, which played at several international film festivals, and Dinner Party, which aired on UK, French, and Swiss television. One of her mentors was director Milos Forman, who encouraged the development of her first feature, High Art.

“I remember one incredible conversation at his apartment. He was smoking a cigar, I was smoking a cigarette, and he told me he loved my script. That was a huge thing for me. A shot in the arm.” Cholodenko simply says she was in the right place at the right time with High Art. “It was New York at the apex of the independent film movement with Miramax and people going out and making a film over the weekend. You felt, I can do this.”

High Art premiered at Cannes and went on to win the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. It was actually in the editing room of High Art that Cholodenko was inspired for her next film. She says she and the editor were listening to different music and one of the albums was Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, which got Cholodenko thinking about what it must have been like to live in Laurel Canyon among the musicians who made their home there during the 60s and 70s. “I thought it would be fun to set a movie in that same scene but in a modern context.”

Laurel Canyon, much like High Art, focuses more on the psychologies of people and the interaction between those different people and personalities. In Laurel Canyon, buttoned up, budding doctor Sam (Christian Bale) and his equally serious scientist fiancee, Alex (Kate Beckinsale) decide to leave the East Coast for the West. But through some miscommunication, they end up sharing the house with his music producer mother Jane (Frances McDormand) while she tries to record an album for her new boyfriend, Ian’s band. Ian quickly develops an interest in Alex, who quickly develops a new found interest in pop music. There’s tension and lots of late night pool parties in the canyon while Sam is interning at a mental health facility. Sam also seems to be the only member of this odd foursome who is not transformed by his bohemian surroundings.

Cholodenko said she was interested in playing with the psychologies especially within the mother/son relationship, such as whether Sam is the parent in his relationship with Jane, or if he’s truly the child and she’s the adult. (Not to mention how that might extend or reflect in his romantic relationships.) She also admits that her time in New York and her re-entry to Los Angeles was part of the inspiration and thought process behind creating the conflicting characters in the film.

Both High Art and Laurel Canyon were small budget films. Cholodenko refers to High Art as micro budget, guerilla, non-union, seat of your pants, throw the camera in the air filmmaking, while Laurel Canyon was a more formal shoot with an experienced, union crew.


Even Cholodenko’s arguably most well-known film, The Kids Are All Right, was filmed on the fraction of the budget most Academy Award nominated films are made for. The film cost $3.5 million and in a way, could be considered Cholodenko’s most personal project. While trying to have a child through an anonymous sperm donor, she met with her friend, screenwriter Stuart Blumberg, who had been a sperm donor in college, to talk about the idea of a film based around the subject. Together, they decided to write the screenplay.

The film took five years to get to production and was filmed in 23 days. “I wanted to make a film that was not sentimental, sanctimonious or apologetic; so did Annette and Julianne. So that’s what we did. It is a political film, in the sense that it’s saying: this marriage is as messy and flawed and complicated as any other marriage. I couldn’t have done that anywhere other than in the independent sector,” Cholodenko told The Guardian in 2010.

Despite the trials and pitfalls, it received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Actress for Annette Bening and Best Actor for Mark Ruffalo.

After the success with Kids, Cholodenko was in a bit of a director limbo, not knowing what her next project would be. At the time, she had a two-year deal with HBO to develop television projects. But Cholodenko claims her next project, a four-part series of Olive Kitteridge, was all Frances McDormand’s doing. “She had optioned the book and she called me and asked if I wanted to read it and adapt it. I read it and loved it and believed she was Olive, but I wasn’t sure how to adapt it. Frances went off on her way and probably two years later, she called and said she and HBO had a script and will you read it.”

With Kitteridge‘s critical acclaim, there seemed to be a new wave of media critics citing television as an even better frontier for creators, whether it be writers or directors, to really show off their skills and their craft. In some of those articles, critics cite hopefully that maybe it’s a better environment for budding female directors. (Although according to statistics, this is the opposite of true.) I think Cholodenko would be reticent to sound the death knell for the film form, even as she moves on to direct more television based projects, such as The Slap for NBC.

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