What's the opposite of denial?

"Laurel Canyon" director Lisa Cholodenko on casting the "awesome" Frances McDormand, the influence of D.H. Lawrence (whom she hasn't read) and the sexuality of her interviewer.

Published March 7, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Lisa Cholodenko's second movie takes place in the hippie-historic Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles, but the filmmaker is firmly from the suburban San Fernando Valley. You can hear it in her "likes," her "totallys" and her "awesome."

"Laurel Canyon" is a movie about seduction and temptation and lust, but at its center it's an intricate character drama about what it means to be emotionally responsible. Frances McDormand plays Jane, a record producer trying to get a hit out of an English band in her home studio. Jane is in her 40s, smokes pot and sleeps with the much younger lead singer of the band (Alessandro Nivola).

Jane's son, Sam (Christian Bale), is an uptight psychiatrist who has rejected Jane's cocktails-in-the-pool California lifestyle for an East Coast education and prim fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale). When Sam and Alex move back to California with their twin rolling suitcases, they end up in Jane's house with the band. Piece by piece, Alex finds herself drawn to the band, its music and its libertine frontman. Meanwhile, Sam starts to fall for an Israeli doctor at his hospital (Natascha McElhone).

One of the best things about "Laurel Canyon" is that it just feels right; every piece of it has a rare honesty, from its characters' decisions to the crates and crates of vinyl stacked against the wall at Jane's house. I've never seen a better movie about recording music, and by extension about the often banal process of making art.

I spoke with Cholodenko, who also directed Ally Sheedy in "High Art," another dense, subtle film about seduction, over the phone last week. She was in Colorado, doing press for "Laurel Canyon," while I was in New York, recovering from a blizzard. The director's California mien extended beyond her casual slang, as I found out toward the end of our conversation, when Cholodenko asked me a personal question with all the loose confidence of one of her Left Coast protagonists. It's not that she was being nosy; she was just being open.

Were you interested in the music business before this movie, or was that just where these characters happened to find themselves?

I mean, I think the answer is a little bit of both. I was curious enough to want to spend a few years with the music business because that's what it takes as a writer. So I was interested in how it works and how it doesn't work, and how it's oddly similar to the film business in a way.

What do you mean?

You know, the way that I dramatize it within the film is as these commercial demands that are going on outside. Then there are people on deadline to do something spectacular when all they really want to do something in a different direction or something more personal. Which is reminiscent of something I struggle with as a filmmaker. That said, I think the music-business aspect of this film came less as this overdetermined idea to set a film in that world than out of the character, Jane. As I fleshed her out, this world got created around her. It came from within, rather than from the outside.

Was she modeled on a particular music business figure?

Not really. Because as I discovered later after writing the first draft of it, there really wasn't anybody of her age group, of her generation, any women who were record producers.

What about Ian's band? Is his band modeled on a particular group?

I started writing this in 1998, right around the time that Radiohead's "OK Computer" was all the rage. And I really liked that record, and became aware of bands following in that tradition, like Travis or Coldplay, mid-tempo, balladeering rock-pop music. So in that tradition.

How much did Folk Implosion, the indie rock group that plays Ian's band, bring to the film? Did you learn about band behavior from them?

No, not really. They sort of came in at the last minute and saved my ass. I was really having a hard time casting actors to play a band. It seemed like a recipe for disaster to do that. I think what they helped was for Fran McDormand and Alessandro Nivola to get a general sort of energy, if you will. And while this band isn't modeled on the Folk Implosion, those guys have been in the music business for a long time so there's just a general demeanor ...

They look exactly like a band sitting around a table smoking pot.

Yeah, well, that's exactly what they were supposed to be. They didn't have huge personalities. They just were there making a record. And their frontman is the charisma guy.

I wanted to get into this idea about emotional responsibility, which is this phrase that I've read you use. I wanted to ask what that meant to you.

Oh, man, that's like a huge question!


Do you want to ask it about a specific character? Did you see the film?

Yeah, absolutely. My question is kind of vague, but I was so drawn to that idea. One of my favorite scenes, and one of the best sex scenes I've ever seen, was when Christian Bale and Natascha McElhone are in the car.


They're basically having this emotionally irresponsible affair. There's no actual sex involved, but he's cheating on his fiancée in a bad way. So he is sort of betraying an emotional fidelity. But I think the idea of emotional responsibility is something bigger in the film ...

In a kind of crass shorthand way, I would say that emotional responsibility in this film means copping to your fuck-ups, which doesn't mean that you have to be honest about everything that you do and think. It's like the opposite of denial. It's about admitting where your boundaries are and are not. I think it's a portrait of this couple that is in extreme denial about who they are. So while they have this self-righteous opinion of themselves, while it's unspoken, it's emotionally irresponsible of them in a certain sense that they're so vulnerable to being set off course, if you will.

Do they love each other?

Yeah, I think they love each other in that kind of repressed, "Do I love you or are you my Barbie doll? I don't know 'cause I haven't gone to the other side to figure it out" sort of way.

So they might not really even know what love is?

I think that's a great way of saying it. I think the film is kind of a funny meditation on that. Kind of like, you got to go to know.

You have to what?

You got to go to know.

You got to know ... gotcha.

Gotta go.

Gotta go to know.

Yeah. You don't necessarily have to act on every desire, but you have to be open to your doubts and your darker sides to really understand what you're about, what makes you tick and what love is.

Jane has gone all the way, and she's coming back. Is that what emotional responsibility is?

Yeah, totally.

So how do you go about doing this all of this in a way that doesn't come off moralistic? Because that is one of the real achievements of the film, that it doesn't seem preachy.

Well, thanks, I appreciate that. I don't know. It took me a long time to write it. I kind of saw the whole thing as a funny math problem. You know, I got all these people on a chessboard, and if I move so-and-so a little too much that way, this character seems like a victim and that character seems like an asshole. You know, then it sort of becomes a morality question. It was a constant balancing act with all of these characters. You know, they move in these incremental ways that affect the other person. But you try to keep them all in a place where their move seems not only affected by the other person's move, but reasonable given where they are coming from, and where we as an audience feel that to be better or more truthful people, they need to go.

D.H. Lawrence. Were you reading D.H. Lawrence when you were writing this?

No, but I should. Like "Lady Chatterley's Lover" or something?

In particular.

You know, I've never read that book.

Really? There's the greatest line in the film that I thought was a direct nod to it.

What is it?

The exchange between Christian Bale and Natascha McElhone that goes, "Are you having a sexuality crisis?" Answered by, "I'm not having any crisis."


"Crisis" is Lady Chatterley's term for orgasm.

Oh ... that's genius.

That's what I'm saying ...

I love that. I'm going to take that on the road. That's coming into every interview I do from here on out.

You can take it.

I haven't read that book, but I've been meaning to for 20 years.

OK, I'm going to change the subject. What did Frances McDormand bring to Jane?

God, she really kind of brought everything to Jane. She was this person who was in my imagination and she really made her 3-D in a way. You know, I invented this character who was sexy and saucy and smart and shrewd and flawed and hedonistic and tender and all these different things. And when I went to cast her, I thought, "I just screwed myself. This is impossible. I'm never going to get all these qualities in one actor." And she walked in looking like she does, and being like she is, and it was, you know ... Directing is a pretty rigorous thing to do with yourself, but there are moments that make it worth your time.

I'm sorry, I don't understand.

It's just that directing's real hard, and there's a lot of downside to it, a lot of anxiety and disappointment. But when something like that happens, when you've written this character where you thought, "I'm going to sink my own ship," and Fran McDormand walks in and she is that character, it's like a really awesome, transcendent moment that makes everything else seem reasonable.

I love the scene with the old man, when Alex, Jane's daughter-in-law, goes apartment hunting and looks at his house. I love the economy of it. It's showing that Alex really isn't working hard to find a way out of Jane's house, and it's also about another type of relationship between a parent and a child. I admire the way that every scene is trying to do more than one thing at once. Is this something that you try to achieve in your writing?

I appreciate that. That's a nice thing to say. I really care about the way that I write, and I think that way. I think that's the kind of stuff that gets lost in the translation if you're not sensitive to it, or not interested in that. I appreciate it. Yeah, that's what I enjoy when I go to see films. I really enjoy these layered, carefully inscribed character studies that have larger subtexts going on with them. So it's the kind of stuff that I try to write.

What about the production design? Did you have a lot to do with the way ... the house is so perfect to me. It's sort of the dream, the idyllic California ...

Can I ask you a question?

Yeah, sure.

Are you gay?

No. I'm straight.


[Laughs.] Why?

'Cause I just thought ... I was going to ask you if gay men were going to like this movie better than straight men.

I really couldn't say.

I'm glad to hear that you're straight.

I've never been asked that in an interview before.

Well, now you're not a virgin anymore. Yeah, well, it's a great house. A bitchin' house. My producer ...

No. It's more than the house. It's what's in the house. It's the racks of records, and all the flyers -- you have flyers from the old punk band Crime on the wall. Who's responsible for Crime flyers on the wall?

You know who did it? My production designer is this woman Catherine Hardwicke, who six months after doing my film went on to direct her own film, which just got bought at Sundance. She's got a film coming out called "13." [Hardwicke also did spectacular work in David O. Russell's "Three Kings."] And I wanted that house to feel like ... I don't want to spend a lot of expository time talking about Jane's past. I just want to walk in the house and go, "OK, I get it." It was filmed in this span of time, these are the people she hangs out with, she's got a lot of money, she's really cool, she's doing her own thing, she's got a huge collection of vinyl.

So, wait -- do you think gay men are going to like this movie more than straight men?

I don't know, because the other night we had a premiere ... I don't know. I just like that you're straight and that you're a detail-oriented guy. That's good. It's a quality that's a little more common in gay men. But then again, you're a culture guy, and it's your job. I hope you're not offended by that.

No, why would I be offended?

I don't know, maybe you have some trauma from the past.

Look, you have a total straight male fantasy at the center of your film. You've got a rock star who gets to have a three-way with Frances McDormand and Kate Beckinsale.

Yeah, that's good, huh?

It's really straight. It's so straight.

OK, good.

Well that's more than 20 minutes, and I only had 20 minutes of questions, so I should ...

Well, I appreciate talking to you. You're very astute.

Good luck with the film.

All right. Stay warm. [Laughs.]

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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