Sundance: Guy-sex and the modern lesbian

Director Lisa Cholodenko on her pro-family, lesbian-marriage comedy (the one with hot hetero sex)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 29, 2010 11:29AM (EST)

Lisa Cholodenko, writer and director of "The Kids Are All Right."
Lisa Cholodenko, writer and director of "The Kids Are All Right."

PARK CITY, Utah -- One of the biggest successes at Sundance this year -- which has produced the only old-school studio bidding war of the festival -- is Lisa Cholodenko's film "The Kids Are All Right," now known around the world as the "lesbian marriage movie" starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening. A beautifully constructed comedy with five strong characters and a rapier wit, it has delighted audiences here and has been snapped up by Focus Features, the quasi-indie division of Universal Pictures.

For such a supremely enjoyable film, "The Kids Are All Right" is likely to push many people's buttons in various different ways. Not only is it a film about a family anchored by a lesbian marriage, but one of the partners (Moore) strays by sleeping with a man (Mark Ruffalo), who just happens to be the donor whose sperm helped produce the couple's two children. As Cholodenko says, this is a pro-family film that treats the issue of infidelity very seriously -- Focus on the Family would probably love it, if it weren't for that one nettlesome detail about the particular family in this story.

Cholodenko has been working on and off to get "The Kids Are All Right" made since her last film, "Laurel Canyon," was released in 2003. Along the way she's been doing "research," as she says, herself having a child with partner Wendy Melvoin, a musician and composer. Some of the early commenters on Salon after I posted my review of the film presumably didn't know much about Cholodenko's life or films. I read her a little of the angrier feedback about her lesbian-does-dude plot and she laughed it off: "Maybe those people need to take their pink megaphone somewhere else."

I met Cholodenko in the lobby of her luxurious hotel just outside Park City. She has the relaxed drawl, easy laugh and friendly manner of a native Californian, but don't let that fool you. This woman is very sure of herself.

Wow, Lisa, it's been seven years since "Laurel Canyon." I think we were all wondering what had happened to you. It's exciting to have you back.

It's been a thrill. It's been a long ride to get here and we're all pretty excited about it. In between I made a small film for Showtime, a film called "Cavedweller" with Kyra Sedgwick, and I've done some television work, but mostly I've been focused on this. I mean, I also had a kid. I got domesticated. I was doing research. I should get paid for that.

Given the recent history and politics of the gay marriage issue, I guess this movie is hitting at the perfect time. I take it that's a total accident?

That's a complete accident. I'm thrilled, I feel like the stars aligned on this one. We started it in 2005, and at the time we thought, "Oh, wow, this is kind of front and center in the Zeitgeist, and we should rush to get this out before somebody -- in that hundredth monkey way -- taps into the idea and comes up with the very same plot." It just took that long to get this made, and if anything the Zeitgeist has become even more focused on this issue. So that's great.

Well, somebody in Hollywood definitely will make a gay-marriage comedy. I'm sort of surprised they haven't already. So it was important for you to get out front.

Yeah, I mean that was the hope, that somebody from the inside could do this movie. Somebody who authentically lives this life, and who has a point of view on it that isn't overtly political, isn't far left, but also isn't doing that Hollywood rendition of what this movie would be -- cheeseball and glossy and farce-y, whatever that movie would be.

You have such a great, rich set of characters. I've been asking myself how this story would be different if it were about a heterosexual marriage, and I'm not quite sure what the right answer is.

I think in all the really important ways, it wouldn't be different. It's a portrait of a marriage, a portrait of a family, you know? It's about -- not to blow the plot -- how an affair rocks a family. When you do something like that when you're married and you have kids, you're not just doing it for yourself. You're doing it at the expense of other people who are depending on a certain kind of stability.

I'm really interested in that question: Why do some marriages survive that and some don't? What's that weird, vague elixir that keeps people glued, even in the hardest circumstances. Germane to the title, I think it's having kids, it's having respect for the sanctity of a family. So in a certain way, this story is way off to the right, you know? It's really pro-family.

Right, there's only one aspect of this story that might not appeal to the pro-family, right-wing crowd.

But they should check it out. It's right in their camp

When you ask that movie question -- who's the main character here? I think the main character is the family. Each of the five main characters gets a turn at the center of the story.

That was conscious. You write something for that long and you get into the minutiae of, like, what's the rule here? Are we going to sustain an interest in this person if they only get this much screen time? It becomes this annoying kind of calculus, but I came to the conclusion that I didn't want to prioritize one character over the next, that they all felt like constituent parts of a whole, and it was important to represent each of them in as complete a way as I could. I hated having that math problem, it was sort of vexing. But in the end I felt like we cracked it. There is this sympathy that spills out to all five of them, and it's really gratifying as a writer to have that happen.

All five of these people contribute to what happens. All five of them make mistakes. But I think it's really impressive how little judgment you have toward all of them. It would be easy to see Nic, the Annette Bening character who gets cheated on, as the wronged woman, the person who has been most injured. But it's not that simple: She's helped create the situation herself.

Yeah. I just didn't want to reduce it to those tropes. That's too simple, and not authentic. If I was going to take on this subject -- and we've been in this territory before -- I need to go way deeper. Why do these things happen? They don't happen in a vacuum. It's a symbiotic relationship, there's something that happens in that dynamic that pushes in one direction or another. All the pieces have to be in the right or wrong place for those events to go down. Personally, I wanted to understand that better: Why do things like that happen in a marriage? What leads to that?

And you know what? The answer is that shit happens. You can't keep all your pieces in the right places all the time, and people make those choices. They may be shitty choices, but you can understand how they happen.

I also think you handle Mark Ruffalo's character with a lot of restraint. Here's a movie about a family and a lesbian marriage, and here comes the good-looking, irresponsible straight guy who screws everything up. You could have made him into a caricature, but in some ways he's a very likable guy.

In the same way that I didn't want to vilify the Annette Bening character, I felt like Mark Ruffalo's character was a flawed person like anybody else. He's about to bottom out with his issue in the wrong circumstance at the wrong time -- and bummer! It's a good place to anchor a film, because his stakes are probably the most heightened in terms of his character's life, but I never wanted to bust the sympathy that you feel for him. You get him, he's a normal guy. This is just his weak link, and he makes a stupid choice.

Well, it's got to be a weird thing: He suddenly discovers he has biological offspring wandering around who he didn't even know about. It's like that triggers something: There something that he wants, and he doesn't even know he wants it.

Yeah, absolutely. It's like a flashing light, or an alarm going off. "Oh shit! I'm this guy, doing this kind of lifestyle. I'm this age. I'm lonely, and I didn't even know it."

You even do a lot with minor characters in this film. He has a business partner and occasional lover, this beautiful African-American woman, and their scenes together are very subtle. He thinks he's doing the right thing and being a mature grownup, and he's totally not. He's not even listening to her.

I definitely felt like this character has a fatal flaw. He's got intimacy issues. Clearly, he's got this gorgeous, available, delicious woman in his face, and you can tell from the way she looks at him that he's in love with him and is ready to go anywhere he wants to go. And he can't even take that on. He has to go chase the impossible, the unavailable, the worst possible choice. Somebody who's not fully mature makes choices like that.

Right. When he breaks up with her, he tells her that it's because he wants to have kids and a family. But for all he knows, that's what she wants too. 

Yeah, and when you watch it again, you'll see that early scene where he says, "I was 19 when I donated sperm. I never thought anybody would use my stuff." And she says, "Hey, I'd use it." She's looking at him going, "I'm into you, I want to have kids with you," and he can't even go there. He's just too damaged or immature, however you want to put it.

Which makes me think about Julianne Moore's character, who is so funny and easygoing, so much less uptight than Annette Bening's character. But the way she's kind of drifty and rootless, ultimately her whole family pays a price for that. You can see why she and Ruffalo's character are drawn to each other.

I never thought about that, but they're both grappling with self-esteem issues. He works it out his way, and she realizes she has to get her shit together. She is a parent and she is an adult, and she's taken on these responsibilities. It's one thing to have an identity crisis, and it's another thing to, like, sink the whole ship that's carrying your people.

It must have been amazing, getting these two actresses to work together with you so intimately. That seems like a dream opportunity.

Yeah -- it didn't fall into my lap! It took some heavy lifting. Julianne Moore was involved from the beginning. I met Julie almost 10 years ago and we had always talked about doing something together. She's lovely and forthright: "Write something for me! Let's do something!" So I did, and showed it to her four or five years ago. She really stayed committed the whole way through.

Then I had a kid, and I had cast the film one way and then was rethinking it over those years. I went to New York to visit Julie and said, "Listen, let's get serious. I'm ready to do this now." I gave her a list of five or six people and said, "I think Annette Bening would be a wonderful counterpart." She thought that was a great idea and wrote Annette an email. It was a long courtship, but I think they were both curious about each other and had mutual respect and felt like they could do that together. As personalities, they're definitely the yin and yang you see in the film, and I think that helped.

In this film you have a lesbian character who sleeps with a man. In context, it's definitely not about Julianne Moore's character turning straight, although that question does come up. But it's a hot-button issue for some people, and I'm sure you'll hear complaints.

I feel like the films I make are personal. I'm so glad this film is going to have a commercial life. I really think it will, it deserves to. But it's still an auteur film. I'm not trying to please a studio. I'm not out there predetermining the demographic. I'm just writing it from my heart. It wasn't contrived, it wasn't a conceit, it wasn't somebody else's fantasy. This seems true for me and for people I know. I see sexuality as much more fluid. I believe people can have sexual desire for people of the opposite sex and the same sex, but that emotionally they can be whatever, homosexual or heterosexual, and that's who they're emotionally drawn to, and going to have the best chance of having a relationship with.

I think sexuality at times can be separate from that, and you can have sexual response to opposite genders or same genders. I just don't see them as inextricably linked. For me personally -- there are people who see sexual identity as bound forever, and that there's no continuum at all. I find that thinking, and the critique that comes from that, really dated. So that bothers me. I feel like the lack of open-mindedness to that idea is really square and dated. So that's where I'm coming from.

Yeah. And as we learn in your film, some lesbians like to look at "gay man-porn."

[Laughter.] And you know what? I just said, "Let's explain it to the kids!" So everybody gets it.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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