Lisa Cholodenko, director of "The Kids Are All Right," drew from personal experience


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Lisa Cholodenko shot "The Kids Are All Right" in a mere 23 days, but that cinematic sprint was part of a movie marathon.

The director and co-writer first gave actress Julianne Moore an early version of the script five years ago, but life imitating art prolonged the movie's gestation.

"We had started the casting process in 2005-06, and then I got pregnant, so it didn't look like it was going to time out, so I pulled the plug on everything and had my son," Ms. Cholodenko said this week by phone.

Like the women in the film, Ms. Cholodenko became pregnant by an anonymous sperm donor. She and her partner, musician Wendy Melvoin, welcomed a boy named Calder into their lives four years ago.

"When I got back to work, I realized I wanted to further develop the script; it felt like it needed to be more comedic and there were things that I wanted to address. ... And I'm glad I did that because it really helped me figure out who was the best person to play Nic, and that obviously was Annette [Bening]."

Ms. Moore and Ms. Bening play Jules and Nic, a longtime California couple whose two teenage children track down the anonymous sperm donor who fathered them. Mark Ruffalo plays that role of Paul.

Becoming a mother herself didn't change what Ms. Cholodenko penned with co-writer Stuart Blumberg, who had been a sperm donor in college.

"I don't think it gave me new information, per se, but it certainly made my affection for all of the characters and for the moms that much greater. I think it helped me just recognize the credibility in the stuff that we were writing for Nic and Jules, particularly Nic, who was more of the mama bear in the story."

Ms. Cholodenko, an apprentice editor in the cutting room of John Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood," has a history of making movies with strong female performances: "High Art" with Ally Sheedy, "Laurel Canyon" with Frances McDormand and "Cavedweller" with Kyra Sedgwick.

The director, coincidentally, sounds like Ms. Bening on the phone, which leads to the natural question about how much people assume she is like Nic.

"I get asked that question all the time," and it's natural "when you write a story that's personal and it wasn't financed by a studio and it wasn't based on material that was a book or anything. It was out of our brains and the inception of it was particularly out of my brain.

"Yeah, I think definitely there's elements of me in all the characters and undoubtedly there's elements of me in both these women. I think, weirdly, there's elements of Stuart Blumberg in all these characters and the women, as well. You sort of draw on your own soul, in a way, when you're writing from scratch."

Ms. Cholodenko and Mr. Blumberg wrote and wrote and wrote. They spent months on the outline, months on the first draft and reworked every scene, character and line at least 10 times.

The trigger for the story is the teens' decision to put a face to the blank on their family tree.

"On some level, they've been imagining who he is all their lives, and I wanted to show that when you don't know somebody, there's always that kind of first blush of fantasy about who that person is, and nobody lives up to that.

"Everybody is human and ultimately falls from grace in a certain way when they're held up to some kind of perfect ideal, and I think that, more or less, is the arc for both of the kids."

Ms. Cholodenko says she's been "blown away" by how the movie has been warmly embraced, from Sundance to Berlin to Cannes and, now, the States, where it's opening in cities such as Pittsburgh.

"When we took it to Berlin, I was really stunned at how well it played and how resonant it was to people across cultures."

She thinks it has hit a nerve and is grateful that moviegoers are focusing on what is universal about it. "They're looking at it like a relationship film and a family film, a comedy, a drama, in all the right ways, all the ways we intended it to be perceived."

Ms. Cholodenko cast Mia Wasikowska as daughter Joni based on HBO's "In Treatment" (Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" had yet to open) and chose Josh Hutcherson, from "Journey to the Center of the Earth," "Zathura" and other family films, as the younger brother.

She wasn't necessarily looking to hire actors who resembled the leads but wanted ones who got the film's tone.

"I also loved that both of them are not from Los Angeles or New York. Mia's from Australia and Josh actually was raised in Kentucky, and they have a very -- in an essential way -- very unaffected sensibilities and spirits, and I really loved that. There was a kind of purity to spirit which I felt like these kids needed."

As for the most startling twist in the movie (partial spoiler ahead) involving Paul and one of the other key characters, Ms. Cholodenko says, "It's one of those things that's surprising, but in the scheme of the story, kind of inevitable, and that's the pleasure of it.

"You don't quite see it coming, but when you think about it, in the scope of the story and what's going on in all of the relationships, it sort of makes sense that he might be a perfect person to triangulate with, at least in her distorted judgment-making of the moment."

Plus, it makes for some very funny scenes.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies.


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