Lisa Cholodenko: ‘The Kids Are All Right,’ But the Road Was Rough

Lisa Cholodenko set out to make a commercial movie — but Hollywood, she says, was skeptical

First, let’s get the Best Actress vs. Best Supporting Actress positioning controversy out of the way. Lisa Cholodenko, the co-writer and director of “The Kids Are All Right,” thinks both of her leading actresses belong in the Best Actress category, and would never advise Julianne Moore to follow the advice of some and campaign in the supporting category so as not to split the vote with Annette Bening.

“To me, being political about it is counter to the spirit of the film that I wrote and the film that they signed up for,” Cholodenko told theWrap. “They both did an amazing job, I think they’re both leading parts, and I would never  encourage either of them to compromise their integrity because somebody is saying that if you do this you can win that.”

Annette Bening Lisa Cholodenko and Julianne MooreIt’s no accident that Cholodenko’s film, in which Bening and Moore play a lesbian couple whose teenaged children seek out the anonymous sperm donor who unbeknownst to himself is their father, is a commercial and critical hit that has found itself in the thick of the awards race.

According to its director (left, between Bening and Moore), at least the commercial part of that was the plan all along.

“It was designed to be seen and released on a much wider level than my other movies,” said Cholodenko on the eve of the film’s DVD release, which takes place on Tuesday.

“Along my path, I’ve realized that this comedy/drama balance is something that’s really interesting to me, and I feel like authentic to my voice,” says the director whose previous films include “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon.”   “And I realized if I wanted to up the comedy and put it in more human relief with the drama, I might be able to make a film that had more commercial appeal.”

A key to that, she said, was bringing in Stuart Blumberg (“The Girl Next Door,” “Keeping the Faith”) as her co-writer.  “Stuart’s got this background in a more commercial kind of comedic writing, and he has that craft down. And I’ve been doing this thing that’s more psychological, which I would love to be able to bridge with his thing. I thought, if we could do it, we’d get something that’s complicated and really gratifying.”

Cholodenko had the concept and the broad strokes when she began work with Blumberg, who had served as a sperm donor in college. The director, who is in a long-term relationship with musician Wendy Melvoin, also knew the world she wanted to put onscreen – one where the fact that the leading characters are gay is not what drives the plot or prompts the central conflict.

“I understand this couple, I know this world, and it’s a world that I want to see on the screen,” she said. “This isn’t about that per se, but I think that starting from a place that I can identify with, that I‘ll have energy for, will allow me to dig deeper into issues and themes and ideas that are universal.

“I’m interested in the modern gay family, but it isn’t a film about that.”

Of course, the fact that Moore and Bening are playing gay characters didn’t help when it came time to sell the film, which took more than four years to develop and finance.

“Hopefully those things will get easier,” she said, “but I really feel like sometimes it gets broken down to, ‘Is it a gay movie? How much do movies for gay audiences make?’ People in the business are pedestrian, and they want to break things down like that before they give you money.”

Annette Bening and Julianne MooreThe basic reaction, she said, was that potential distributors liked the material but thought it was execution-dependent, and didn’t completely trust Cholodenko to pull it off. “The attitude was ‘Let them find the money on their own, and maybe we’ll buy it when we see it.’ That’s not what you want at this point in your career with those kinds of actors, but that’s what happened.”

With the help of a French company and a group of equity investors, Cholodenko raised a budget of $4 million – just enough to make the movie, though the film’s insurance company insisted that she cut the script to a size that was realistic for her 23-day shooting schedule.

“We had to say, ‘What is absolutely essential, and what can be cut?’” she said. “We had to be as lean and mean as possible, which was nerve-wracking when you’re about to go into pre-production. Am I cutting things that I’m later gonna go, ‘Oh, it was there for a reason’? But we had to do that – we couldn’t get bonded unless it was a certain page count.”

Cholodenko said she worked hard with cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo to give the film “some cinematic energy, some movement, so it wasn’t claustrophobic, which can sometimes happen when you’re shooting fast and for low budget in houses.”

And in the end, her commercial movie, which would be picked up by Focus Features out of Sundance and do good business and prompt talk of a Best Picture nomination and a couple of acting nods, came together … just barely.

“There was a period of time when I was afraid that the end of the film wasn’t going to be there, which was scary,” she said. “We ran out of time when we were shooting that. It was just good fortune that I had the right pieces to make that ending land the way that I wanted it to, and needed it to."