Director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko’s comedy-drama “The Kids Are All Right” concerns a lesbian couple — Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) — whose peaceful co-existence is shattered when their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) contacts her biological father Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a sperm donor.
Cholodenko, who helmed the outstanding dramas “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon,” describes all her films as “postmodern soap operas.” Sharply dressed and sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, Cholodenko thinks about this, pauses a moment and then asks, “Am I diminishing myself?”
Hardly. The openly lesbian filmmaker’s work exhibits a confidence that is rare in independent American cinema. Although her characters speak their minds, they also act rashly. Nic and Jules both experience a relationship shift as a result of Paul being identified. They want — or think they have — everything under control, only to lose that control with comic and/or dramatic results.
“That’s very observant. I don’t know that I put that together for myself,” Cholodenko acknowledged. “On some level, if there is anything thematic in [my] films, it is the tension between the two sides of the poles — of what it means to be ordered and appropriate and precise and what it means to abandon and see where it lands.”
The characters in her films often lose their order when they encounter a stranger who fascinates them. In “High Art,” Syd (Radha Mitchell) becomes infatuated with her upstairs neighbor, the photographer Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy). In “Laurel Canyon,” Alex (Kate Beckinsale) is seduced literally and figuratively by her boyfriend Sam’s (Christian Bale) mother Jane (Frances McDormand). In “Kids,” it is Jules who becomes enamored with Paul, and begins a hot and heavy affair with him.
The director understands the appeal of a desirable stranger. She explains that her films juxtapose what someone projects on another against the attraction they feel. “You don’t really know [someone] when you are interested, or intrigued by them. When you know someone better, and the intimacies are deeper, the person is more exposed. The underbelly of it all is: What makes an illicit affair charged? What is transgression? What is crossing a boundary? When it is so forbidden, and so taboo, so wrong, does that make something more tempting, and more erotic or attractive?”
Cholodenko explores these issues with mordant humor in “Kids,” and the film mines laughs by juxtaposing Nic and Jules’ sex — which involves watching gay-male porn — against the wild passions Jules and Paul share. The filmmaker, who has included scenes of female sexual pleasure in all of her films, demurs when it comes to her proclivity for portraying oral sex on screen.
“When it comes to that stuff, there isn’t a lot of calculation; I just write what flies into my brain. It’s just one element of the story that I’m telling. I am interested in power struggles in intimacy, how people connect and don’t connect. Psychosexual states are pretty interesting and complicated. I like poking around in those places — no pun intended.”
Actually, all the sex in “Kids” is being used to explore a greater issue. Namely, Cholodenko’s concern: “What does sex look like in the middle of your marriage, when your kids are teenagers?”
Her film answers this in detail. Nic faces palpable mid-life angst not only in her relationship with Jules, but also in her anxiety about her daughter Joni heading off to college. Nic is questioning if she has been a good mother, and if raising children in a gay family unit has helped or hindered her kids’ development.
Regarding the issue of whether lesbians make suitable parents — or even better parents, as a recent study concluded — the film is not taking a stance.
“I’m sure there is a Fundamentalist contingent that [suspects] aberrant behavior,” Cholodenko offered. “But I think in terms of a normal sample population of free-thinking people, they will be able to identify their own impulses of mistakes and behavior in the film, and this would counter the [other] impulse.”
While “Kids” is a pretty savvy — and nervy — project, with its candid depictions of sex and nonchalant treatment of gay parenting, Cholodenko makes the film quite poignant. The writer/director came up with the storyline when she and her partner decided to have a child through artificial insemination. (Fun fact: Her co-screenwriter, Stuart Blumberg, is a straight male who donated sperm in college.)
Cholodenko considers her reputation in the industry. “I think I’m perceived as someone who’s taken these films with these lesbian strains in them, and not been pigeonholed as a gay filmmaker per se, or a political filmmaker, but more of an independent filmmaker.”
But has it been difficult for her to get projects off the ground because she is a female director and a lesbian? She answers thoughtfully, truthfully, “I would never dismiss the good fortune I have of meeting the people who have wanted to support my career, work with me, invest money in me, and I feel like I’ve had opportunities that 99 percent of the filmmaking population hasn’t. It’s a mixed thing. I’ve had opportunities and advocates and that’s made my life easier, and I’ve tried to approach companies and studios with these independently minded kinds of works, and they get nervous. It’s all about the cash dollar. They like it, but is it going to make money? What’s great about this film is that I feel strongly that this is going to have a box-office life. It’s going to change that.”
In separate Q&As, actors Moore and Ruffalo chatted about the film and queer family values.
PGN: Julianne, you often do extraordinary work playing “desperate housewives” for indie queer filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Tom Ford and now Lisa Cholodenko. What do you notice about working with queer filmmakers? JM: I don’t like being divisive about people’s gender or sexuality, or race or nationality. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career that I worked with so many talented filmmakers and many gay filmmakers among them, but I never found that their sexuality determines … The people I’ve worked with are telling the stories — sometimes extreme stories — about what it means to be a human being. And I’m attracted to people with that kind of sensibility, whether they are gay or straight or whatever.
PGN: You have a pretty raunchy sex scene with Annette Bening’s character … JM: I’ve done love scenes with men and women and the only thing that really matters is that you have a partner you can trust. And that you know what the tone is of the scene that you are doing and that you do it together. If you are ever in the situation — and I haven’t been — where it’s not comfortable, then it’s difficult. But that’s not the case here.
PGN: The sex scenes with Mark are really wild and intense too … JM: They were funny. It was easy because I know him really well. We did “Blindness” together and [on that film we] didn’t spend a minute apart, because he was holding on to my arm the whole time. So I’m really good friends with him and his wife as well. We had a couple hours to shoot that [sex] stuff and we had to be very funny. He was a great partner.
PGN: How did you develop your on-screen relationship with Annette Bening? JM: Annette and I got into [our relationship] very easily. We both have been married for a really long time. We are both parents, and living a family life. We have that sensibility in common, so it was very easy to connect that way.
PGN: What statement do you think “The Kids Are All Right” is making about gay parents and families? JM: The great thing about it is that it is making no statement at all. It simply is. People keep asking if movies influence culture, but actually, more often they reflect it. We are able to have a movie like this because it is something that is occurring in our society all over the world. For my children, it is a reality for them. They know kids who have two moms or two dads. It’s not unusual. It simply is.
PGN: You and Annette are authentic as lesbians — and you’re not gay … JM: [Interrupts.] It’s acting! We were talking a lot about the Newsweek story by that effing asshole who made that comment and gay actors not being able to play straight. Excuse me! Gay actors have been playing straight roles for centuries. Super, super long time. It’s a ridiculous comment! Actors are acting. It’s interesting to me that Lisa [Cholodenko] is a parent of a 4-year-old and was able to project what it means to have an adolescent and she obviously hasn’t experienced that yet. But she is able to tell the story. That’s the business that we’re in. That’s when I was talking about filmmakers telling stories about human beings. We are trying to put ourselves in a place as actors and filmmakers to channel these stories about what it means to be alive.
PGN: Did you write a letter to the editor of Newsweek? JM: No. But I haven’t bought Newsweek — and I never will again.
PGN: You switch from comedy to drama effortlessly in this film and in your work in general. What is your preference in terms of a role? JM: I think lately, I’ve been really interested in comedy in particular. I think that life is hard, particularly now. I think of what I want to see, and what people respond to, and how do you tell a story. I think as you get older, oddly, [pauses] tragedy gets less appealing. [Laughs.]
PGN: Mark, how close are you to the character of Paul? Have you/would you ever donate sperm? Are you a motorcycle enthusiast? How is your basketball game? Do you garden? MR: I like to approach the world in a similar way that Paul does. I have a certain joie de vivre that I share with him. But that is about where it stops. I suck at hoops. I blow. For budgetary reasons as a young man, I began to do a certain amount of gardening. I’ve gardened for a long time, and it’s very satisfying for me to do it. I wish they had a sperm bank in my low-income Latino neighborhood when I could have used it. I wasted a lot of talent back then. $60 a pop — that would have been really good money for me. I’d be lucky if I’d made that back then. I’ve never done it. I couldn’t afford a car in L.A. when I was a young man, so I had a motorcycle. Having a motorcycle that you have to get around on quickly removes the romanticism of a motorcycle — especially when you get hit by a car. I’ve had that happen, too.
PGN: What was it like to perform sex scenes with Julianne Moore? MR: Contrary to popular belief — it’s not fun. I did have fun with the character, there’s a lot of irreverence and humor — but the sex scenes look more fun than they are. It’s not very sexy; it’s very formalized. Hope you can laugh at it, but at worst, you have your partner telling you how you are doing everything wrong in front of strangers, and … you should try it some time!
PGN: What music do you listen to — Joni Mitchell, as in the film? MR: I love Joni Mitchell. But I also love Tool. My music tastes span a pretty broad spectrum. Is Joni Mitchell lesbian music? I am half-lesbian myself.
PGN: What about you being “a lesbian-marriage buster?” MR: Yesterday, after an interview, this woman said, “I’m a lesbian, and you lay off our women!” And she totally meant it! I was like, “Are you kidding me? I support your women from head to toe. I am a lesbian!” That was really strange. First, I thought she was kidding and then, quickly, I realized she was really serious, and she would arm-wrestle me. I wouldn’t have won against that passion.