When I met Cholodenko last week, I got the impression that hearing compliments about High Art was an old comfortable habit. This year's Sundance triumph was more vividly felt. Not that excitement is easy to read in the writer/director. She has a laid back Californian vibe and a way of speaking that was reportedly pilfered a bit by Moore herself in her portrayal of Jules, the boho half of the film's lesbian coupling. We jumped into the Sundance hoopla right away. Did she know it would be a hot item going in?
"It wasn't finished, actually. We were still cutting. It was a little stressful interrupting that process and going to Sundance but we felt that, at the end of the day, if we got it there we would end up getting the right distribution for it. That was important at the time." But, yes, she already knew the film would "play" as they say. "We had screened it for friends and other filmmakers and other producers. People were like 'This is good. We should take it.'"
The film, about a lesbian couple Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and the emotional chaos that follows their children's sudden interest in the sperm donor father Paul (Mark Ruffalo), was an immediate sensation at the festival, prompting a bidding war.
One of the funniest threads in the film involves Nic & Jules and their interest in gay male porn. It's already a bone of contention in some reviews — people do love to be outraged — but when we spoke I told Cholodenko that I found the disbelief interesting since I have lesbian friends who watch it myself. Was she conscious of talking points and pushing buttons while writing the screenplay with Stuart Blumberg?
"No, not at all." She quickly responded. "We were fumbling our way through early drafts. It came out of a conversation that Stuart and I had about gay pornography. We were talking about that and things people like. That came up and he was like 'Really? Lesbians like that? We have to make a scene out of that!' So, it came up organically and then we realized this is funny. What if the son is raiding the room for dirty movies and this is what he gets? And then it became a conduit for revealing the plot. It was a very organic process. It wasn't 'Let's think of the most risque weirdo thing we can.' It was rooted in something real."
In Cholodenko's first two films the characters had all, like Lisa and her wife Wendy Melvoin (of Wendy & Lisa fame), worked in creative professions. Why weren't Jules and Nic also in arts or entertainment? "There was a very intentional choice to be not rarified, not in the arts, and the gay topic to not be a politicized thing. We wanted these people to be really relatable, very American, very familiar."
We discussed the lack of overt politics — gay marriage is never name-checked per se though Jules and Nic are as married as anyone in the movies has ever been — and I asked her about the timing of the release. That seems political in itself.
"I think the timing is cool. It would have been cool before, too." She added in her typical chill fashion. "You never know how these things will touch or intersect with the culture. It's uncanny. We've been working on it for a long time and it happens that it's going to be released now and the Prop 8 issue is at the Supreme Court and whatnot. Obviously there's political potential in the film. We've never seen a lesbian family, we've never seen a two mom family with teenage kids and a sperm donor on the screen. The idea that that family looks not that different from the next family that's comprised of mom, dad, two kids. That's where the politics is."
Julianne Moore also wanted to stress the universal rather than the gay specific. She's played a handful of lesbian or bisexual characters now and worked for out gay auteurs before Lisa, most notably Todd Haynes ([safe], Far From Heaven, I'm Not There) but when I asked about her relationship to the gay community, she expressed a wariness about the labels. "I always hate to be divisive about gender or sexuality or race or anything like that. I feel like sometimes, even with the best of intentions, when we put ourselves into boxes, it ends up being a less universal thing. But I will say that I've always worked with filmmakers who are interested in very human not so much plot driven stories, more kind of character and emotionally driven. A lot of gay filmmakers fall into that category."
She relished the chance to work with both Lisa Cholodenko and Annette Bening. "You never get to do that. Just to be around women. It's very exciting. You're always with guys. Always, always, always with guys."
I had always assumed that High Art was an excellent calling card for Cholodenko when it came to actresses. They must be dying to work with her. At least with Julianne, this suspicion was correct. "I met Lisa at a Women in Film luncheon." Julianne explained. "I went over to meet her and I said 'Hey, why didn't I see the script to High Art?' She laughed. And I was like 'No, seriously. I don't understand. I see all these scripts. I never saw your script. I loved the movie. I just thought it was great.' She kind of laughed. Not too long after that she sent me Kids... which she had written with me in mind. I would have done anything she sent me, probably. And it just happened to be this really terrific script."
[If you're a fan of Julianne Moore, feel free to check out the full transcript of the interview. She was kind enough to grant me an audience and, since she was the first actress I ever wrote about, I was meeting a personal hero.]
When we said our goodbyes, I wished the talented filmmaker good luck on the film's release and in any future Oscar campaign. I suspect she won't need it. The works speaks very eloquently and with great humor for itself. While we were talking Oscar, we spoke briefly about Kathryn Bigelow being the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director this past March. "I though it was cool," Cholodenko said, though she admitted that she hadn't given the topic much mind. "I'm sober about where things are and how quickly or not quickly things move along. I was appreciative that someone pushed over that domino. And I thought it was deserving. But, you know, things move along at their own weird pace."
Isn't that ever the truth?
What we (hopefully) have in The Kids Are All Right is the next big gay Oscar contender to follow in the rather illustrious footsteps of Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Milk
(2008). It's pure coincidence but it feels rather serendipidious
that as an imagined triple feature they're moving forward in time
(literally) from the 1960s to the 2010s, from the pain of the closet, through gay liberation and right up
to the present day when gay marriage is the battleground. It's an important battle
and still a painful one, with regular losses. But think of all the progress we've made.
Things move along at their own pace. Future generations may well scratch their heads wondering what all the fuss was about, the kids being all right.