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Interview: Lisa Cholodenko Of The Kids Are All Right

By Joseph Erbentraut in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 2, 2010 9:15PM

2010_07_02_cholodenko.jpg Typically, a summer film centered on the family dynamics between a suburban middle-class married couple and their two children hardly feels like the sort of thing that could be described as even remotely "radical," nor a "hit." But through her latest creation, The Kids Are All Right, film writer and director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) has ventured into some emotionally provoking territory worthy of both aforementioned labels.

That's because there's no man involved in the marriage around which The Kids Are All Right's drama is initially built -- until one suddenly arrives. The film stars Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as Jules and Nic, a long-term lesbian couple whose already stagnating relationship is further rocked when their children meet their father Paul, a previously anonymous sperm donor played by Mark Ruffalo. Paul's hipstery, organic farmer presence infiltrates the family's core, particularly when he and Jules embark on a straight-curious tryst of their own.

While the premise might seem difficult to wrap your head around if you're not of the in-a-long-term-lesbian-relationship persuasion, the film's themes reach far beyond the gender of the film's romantic leads. The film met rave reviews at its premiere at Sundance and has a solid shot at reaching middle America and going Brokeback.

Recently in town for an advance screening of her film, premiering in Chicago theaters next Friday, July 9, Cholodenko spoke with Chicagoist.

Chicagoist: Congratulations on a phenomenal film. It was mentioned during the post-screening discussion that your collaborator and co-writer Stuart Blumberg was a sperm donor and contributed that semi-autobiographic component. Do you see yourself in either of the main characters, Nic or Jules?

Lisa Cholodenko: Yeah, definitely. I don't think I'm a carbon copy of either of them but when you write these kinds of films, you draw upon yourself all the time and bring that one. There's definitely a quality of me that's like Annette [Bening]'s character. Very nervous and kind of controlling, like a director. That can be overbearing and condescending sometimes. But in some ways, I tried to expose that she's actually quite vulnerable and a a sensitive person. With the Jules character [played by Julianne Moore] is revealed a part of me that had problems in my life, feeling self-conscious and insecure with what I was doing and looking for approval a lot. I think that really came through to her and how she communicated with Paul [played by Mark Ruffalo] in needing that kind of validation.

C: Regarding Ruffalo's character, I think his presence could be interpreted by some in the gay community as playing into certain stereotypes - that you're only gay until you've met "the right guy" or "the right girl." How do you respond to that perspective?

LC: This plot element was always there from the conception of the film, of the kids having a relationship with Paul, one of the moms feeling threatened and the other mom using it as a bit of a wedge. That all made sense to me and felt very comfortable to me. In terms of understanding sexuality on a continuum, it's believable to me that she could be with her lesbian partner for so long and be curious about men. Then here's this man, whom she had a child with, and she's going through all kinds of emotional things and is feeling needy.

I wanted to be very careful, and I feel I did it, to show that he's becoming fixated on her at some point while she's basically using him. There's some schmaltz to it. There will be some people who will think about [the plot element] through that lens, but they should feel fortunate that I put a gay film up on the screen.

C: Definitely, especially considering how that doesn't appear to be the easiest thing in the world to do right now. I Love You, Philip Morris, a forthcoming film starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as gay lovers, has continually seen its release date delayed, for example. Was that difficulty a contributing factor to your decision to avoid the "hot woman-on-woman"-type scene between Julianne and Annette?

LC:I think this stuff is hard. It wouldn't be interesting if it wasn't breaking new ground. If you look at films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk that have done well and there's a real emotional subtext, a theme that's bigger than the sexuality of the characters and the way that sexuality is represented is restrained; not absent, but restrained. I personally don't love watching anything but an X-rated film based on watching people have sex on the camera. I don't really like it and it's not my bag anyway.

We knew we wanted to have the Mark-Julianne thing done really explicitly, but in a comedic, carnal and ridiculous way. But I think that any kind of romantic, poetic love scene would have been against my nature. I haven't seen the Ewan and Jim film, but thought it was awesome and brave for them to do it. I was really curious about it. But I sense that it's a dark film that doesn't end well and that the sex is pretty bold and gratuitous. I think we're just not there in the culture. We're barely there with straight sex. With whatever we did in this film in terms of sexuality and how it was conceptualized, I was really mindful of wanting this film to have a commercial life. In terms of the boundaries of the culture and what it will be able to absorb, I don't feel I was on a radical mission or I'd be shooting myself in the foot. It was a radical mission, as it was, to get a film like this out there.

C: Although the film hasn't been widely released yet, there's already been some response from social conservatives. There was an article on Slate called "The Sperm-Donor Kids Are Not Really All Right" whose author is associated with a conservative coalition alongside names like the National Organization for Marriage spokeswoman Maggie Gallagher. Do you anticipate more of a political backlash from this film and how do you respond to that concern?

LC: I think we were very overt in making this film about a kind of bourgeoise, middle class, conventional couple so that we weren't doing something "radical" on the surface. What was radical was that they're two women. I'd be curious to know what these peoples' arguments are. I don't think there's anything in this film that indicates that the kids aren't all right. We went to great pains to represent the scenario that because these kids have a foundation that's pretty solid with their long-term, married parents, they're going to find their way.

C: Tell me a bit more about how Julianne and Annette got into their characters. One of the audience members seemed perplexed about how they could stretch themselves to relate to the so-drastically-different "gay life" but their roles read very universally relatable.

LC: Yes, I think they both just got into the characters and found their humanness and how they were described on the page. They didn't respond to the scenario as gay people or straight people, they just responded as the invented people who were a host of many things, gay being a very small addition to that list.

C: What do you hope audiences will take away from this film, perhaps as one of their first close-up experiences of a gay or lesbian-headed family, albeit a made up one?

LC: That the kids are all right, as well as the families they came from, and that there should be equal rights for everyone.