Director Lisa Cholodenko On Conceiving 'The Kids' The film The Kids Are All Right stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a couple whose two teenage children have decided to track down their moms' anonymous sperm donor, played by Mark Ruffalo. Director Lisa Cholodenko explains how her own experiences inspired the film.
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Director Lisa Cholodenko On Conceiving 'The Kids'

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Director Lisa Cholodenko On Conceiving 'The Kids'

Director Lisa Cholodenko On Conceiving 'The Kids'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new movie "The Kids Are All Right" was directed and co-written by my guest, Lisa Cholodenko. She also made the films "Laurel Canyon" and "High Art," which won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Ally Sheedy's performance and a screenwriting award at Sundance in 1998.

In "The Kids Are All Right," Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a lesbian couple. Each of the women used the same anonymous sperm donor to become pregnant. Their children are now teenagers.

At the beginning of the film, after the daughter, Joni, reaches the legal age at which she's allowed to learn the identity of her genetic father, she and her brother track down the sperm donor, who is played by Mark Ruffalo.

After they meet him, each member of the family is changed by him in ways they could never have predicted. Our film critic, David Edelstein, described the film as a situation comedy, a superb one, that shakes up our way of looking at the family.

Let's start with a scene. The mothers are concerned about their son, Laser, who has been spending a lot of time with a wild male friend and has grown distant. Thinking that Laser is holding something back from them, like maybe he's gay, the mothers have a talk with him. Laser is played by Josh Hutcherson.

(Soundbite of film, "The Kids Are All Right")

Ms. ANNETTE BENING (Actor): (As Nic) Your mom and I sense that there's some other stuff going on in your life. We just want to be let in.

Mr. JOSH HUTCHERSON (Actor): (As Laser) What do you mean?

Ms. JULIANNE MOORE (Actor): (As Jules) Are you having a relationship with someone?

Ms. BENING: (As Nic) You can tell us, honey. We would understand and support you.

Mr. HUTCHERSON: (As Laser) Look, I only met him once.

Ms. BENING: (As Nic) What do you mean once?

Ms. MOORE: (As Jules) Did he find you online?

Ms. BENING: (As Nic) Wait, wait, wait, who did you meet once?

Mr. HUTCHERSON: (As Laser) Paul.

Ms. MOORE: (As Jules) Paul? Who's Paul?

Mr. HUTCHERSON: (As Laser) I met him with Joni.

Ms. MOORE: (As Jules) Why was Joni there?

Mr. HUTCHERSON: (As Laser) She set it up.

Ms. BENING: (As Nic) Forget the setup. Who's Paul?

Mr. HUTCHERSON: (As Laser) Our sperm donor. Did you guys think I was gay?

Ms. MOORE: (As Jules) No, no way.

Ms. BENING: (As Nic) Well, of course not.

GROSS: That's a scene from "The Kids are All Right." Lisa Cholodenko, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you decide to write and direct a movie about a lesbian couple whose children track down the sperm donor who is their father?

Ms. LISA CHOLODENKO (Director, "The Kids Are All Right"): I started writing it about five years ago, and the original idea came on the heels of my girlfriend and I had just decided to have, or tried to have a child with an anonymous sperm donor. And we'd gone though, you know, a lot of conversations about which way to go, do we go with a friend, do we do this, you know, with this anonymous person, and what does that mean, and what will that mean for the child-to-be in 18 years, you know, will he be able to find this gentleman?

So I became very absorbed in these meditations on what's, you know, what's the life of this child that I hopefully will have. What's it going to be? And when I sat down to write an original script, I was sort of consumed with this idea.

And so this sort of template for this family came out without, you know, it was sort of unmediated. I just started writing, and there they were, and there they were on the brink of their eldest child turning 18 and being of age where she, you know, had the prerogative to reach out to seek the sperm donor and, if he was interested, to have contact with him.

So it really began there. I had a kind of interesting kismet moment when I was into the script for about a month, and in walked an old friend from New York, I was in L.A. at the time, Stuart Blumberg, who, you know, sat down, and we had a conversation, what are you doing, what are you doing, and within a half an hour, I learned that he had been a sperm donor in college.

And Stuart was a screenwriter and writing kind of more commercial studio movies. And before that breakfast, lunch, dinner, I don't remember what it was, was over, I had sort of spontaneously asked him if he wanted to co-write this script with me.

GROSS: So that's great. You had both points of view, the lesbian woman looking for a sperm donor and the former sperm donor.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Exactly, yes. And it was interesting because I had, you know, been in the world of looking for a sperm donor, but I had never actually met a sperm donor. So there he was, and he was my friend. I had known him for many years.

GROSS: So did you subsequently actually find a sperm donor and have a baby?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: I did, yes, and, you know, that process had begun right around the time I started the film. We had chosen someone, which was a long process for me. I had to go through every applicant that ever existed on this website, and...

GROSS: Is that not bizarre to, like, have auditions for a father?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Oh, my God. Yes, it was psychedelic. I don't know how to describe what that was, but hence I made a film out of it in some way.

GROSS: So you got the baby and the film.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Yes, I got the baby and the film. So we picked somebody, and I felt really confident about the guy that we picked. And we have a four-year-old now, and he's a great kid. He's great.

GROSS: So in the family that you've created for the movie, the teenage children have drifted away from their parents, and it's very, very painful for the parents to see that happen. And it's something that I think happens to so many parents.

In making this movie, did you think any part of that had to do with it being gay parents? Or did you just see that as being, like, that's what so many families face, that the teenagers reach an age, and they maybe get sullen or, you know, annoyed with the parent, that they just want to be their own people. And in the struggle to become your own person, you forcibly reject your parents sometimes in ways that you may or may not feel bad about later in life?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Yeah, I think it was kind of two parts. You know, one was, we're entering the moment of this family, you know, at a very decisive point. She's 18, and she can reach out and meet this donor.

And once we decided that that was the decisive point, you know, it made it easier for us to say, well, what is the moment for each of these individual characters, knowing that the oldest child is going off to college, and what is that bringing up for each of them?

So part, I think, of the journey of writing this script was how do we take something that's so universal to families, you know, or many, many families face this thing of their children going off to work or going off to college or moving out of the house, and how does that impact everybody.

And then also to get into the psychology of each of the characters, particularly the moms and I've had a lot of questions about Annette Bening's character, and why is she so taut, and why is she, you know, kind of rigid and seemingly on edge all the time?

And, you know, for me, it makes perfect sense. She's really hung up and stressed out and upset that her baby is leaving, and she's taking it hard. And it's coming out in the strangest, most unappealing ways until, you know, toward the end of the film where, you know, she finally kind of lets her guard down, and you see what she's been keeping at bay, all that emotion that she's been kind of holding back.

GROSS: So your co-writer on "The Kids Are All Right" was Stuart Blumberg, and he had been a sperm donor. So you had both sides of the story here, both sides of the experience. What did he tell you about being a sperm donor that you found really enlightening, both in terms of your personal experience as having used a sperm donor but also in terms of understanding the Mark Ruffalo character, who plays the sperm donor in the movie?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: A few things. I think at first, I was being very kind of provocative with him. And I was, like, oh, well, let's, you know, call your university and see if you have any offspring.

And you know, all of the blood drained out of his face, and I could see, like, wow, that was something he was horribly afraid to discover. Like, he wasn't interested in that, or he hadn't prepared himself for a phone call like that. So I thought that that was interesting, that there would be this kind of range of reticence and fear, and you know, what did that all mean. So we sort of chipped away at that reaction.

So that was one piece of, you know, Stuart's experience that I think that we sort of comported to the Paul character. And then also spending time with Stuart and trying to figure out, well, who were you, Stuart at, you know, this younger age. I don't know, it was 19 or 20, who wanted to donate sperm. And, you know, where was your head when you did that?

What was your thinking? You know, was it just financial? Was there, like, a higher kind of calling that you wanted to, you know, help people who couldn't have children, as Mark Ruffalo tries to tell Josh Hutcherson's character in the film.

And, you know, he had a lot of different responses to it that I think informed Mark Ruffalo's character. But one that was interesting was this idea that there was a real disconnect from being in the moment and being that age and doing that and what would come to pass 18, 20, 25 years later.

And I think that's a real marker of youth, that you think kind of whatever's happening in the moment, there's no sense of, you know, that there are real ramifications.

GROSS: More like giving blood than giving sperm.


GROSS: Have you gotten any criticism for casting two straight actors in the role of the mothers when there's probably a lot of lesbian actresses looking for good roles?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: People have asked me about it, and I keep coming back with the same answer. I feel kind of resolute that, you know, people's domestic lives, their, you know, personal lives, their non-professional lives are their lives. And their professional lives, in this case, you know, they're screen actors. That's just a different category. And I don't feel political about it.

You know, if there was a great actress or actor that availed themselves to me that was gay, and I felt that they could nail the part as well as Julianne or Annette, or Mark for that matter, I would have been all for casting them.

But as it turns out, you know, I wanted recognizable actors. You know, I was reaching for A-list actors, which I was fortunate to get, and actors that I personally felt would be convincing and compelling in these parts not just, you know, simply because they could play gay, and they could, you know, pretend, but that they had a lot of dimension and kind of take these roles and transcend the gender identification or the sexuality identification, whatever it was.

GROSS: You know, I want to say one of the things I really like about Annette Bening is that I don't think she's had any cosmetic surgery on her face. And maybe she has, but she looks like she's aging naturally, and I think it makes her so attractive, you know. I just really respect so much women who are able to have a career in something like the movies without having to undergo the knife in order to do it.

And I understand why women do it. I understand the pressures that they're under, but to say no to that, as I think she has, I think is really tremendous.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: I hear what you're saying, and I think it's true. I think it's one of the things that on some level repelled me from other actors that I may have considered at some point in this process. I felt like particularly in this family, where I feel like what I want to get at is how authentic and how real and how relatable these people are that this is not, you know, one of those Hollywood movies, where people are going to be, you know, botoxed and pinched.

And these are real people, and what's going to be attractive about them is that they're soulful and, you know, that they are aging gracefully and that they are, you know, self-possessed. I think that that's really the key. I think that implies a person who can embrace themselves and still feel central and powerful.

GROSS: My guest is Lisa Cholodenko. She directed and co-wrote the new film "The Kids Are All Right." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lisa Cholodenko. She directed and co-wrote the new movie "The Kids Are All Right."

Now, your first feature-length film, "High Art," do you want to give the two-sentence description of it and spare me having to condense it like that? Can I make you do it?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: I can try. I haven't pitched it in a while, but it's about a young woman who's an aspiring magazine editor and finds herself in Manhattan in kind of in the thick of the art scene. It's set in the late '90s, and she discovers through a plumbing accident, the neighbors upstairs, and a woman named in the film, Ally Sheedy, Lucy Berliner, who's kind of been a very prominent photographer in the New York art scene and has since kind of fallen into seclusion and is heavily involved in a drug scene.

GROSS: And is lovers with a German actress named Greta.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: And is lovers with a German right.

GROSS: Who is played by Patricia Clarkson in what I think was Patricia Clarkson's first big role, at least that's the first time I saw her.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Yeah, it probably was her first, like, sort of major featured role. I know she had been in a lot of big films but as very sort of supporting characters, and she had also done a stint on a television show, and I don't remember the name.

GROSS: Well, she was so good in this role, I was sure that she was German, which of course she's not.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: No, she's definitely not.

GROSS: So let me play a scene from "High Art" because I think Patricia Clarkson and Ally Sheedy give such really good performances that are really different roles for them.

So in this scene, they're having a fight because Patricia Clarkson has nearly OD'ed. She was rescued in part by the young editorial assistant, who wants to get Ally Sheedy into the magazine that the editorial assistant writes for, and Ally Sheedy clearly is attracted to her. And Patricia Clarkson is aware of that attraction and very jealous of it.

So here's the scene, and Ally Sheedy talks first.

(Soundbite of film, "High Art")

Ms. ALLY SHEEDY (Actor): (As Lucy Berliner) You don't know when to stop. You have no limits. You get a really clean bag, and you keep kicking it back until you go unconscious.

Ms. PATRICIA CLARKSON (Actor): (As Greta) Tell that Syd to stop coming around. She's a little psycho-phant(ph).

Ms. SHEEDY: (As Lucy) A psycho-phant? What is that? I don't know what that is.

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Greta) You know what that is. She's a bootlicker, a parasite.

Ms. SHEEDY: (As Lucy) She saved your (beep) life.

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Greta) Joan(ph) threw me in that tub, and I wasn't dying anyway.

Ms. SHEEDY: (As Lucy) When I came into that room, you weren't breathing.

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Greta) She (BEEP) me off. You're so wrapped up in her you can't even see it. She comes in here all cocky and eager. She doesn't know (BEEP). She's a teenager.

Ms. SHEEDY: (As Lucy) Greta, would you just leave that, please?

GROSS: That's a scene with Patricia Clarkson and Ally Sheedy from the film "High Art," which was written and directed by my guest, Lisa Cholodenko, who also made the new movie, "The Kids Are All Right."

So what made you think of casting Ally Sheedy and Patricia Clarkson? Patricia Clarkson was so new to film, and Ally Sheedy was known as this former teenage star and had kind of dropped out of sight, for the most part.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: It was one of those things that there was never any kind of preconception about who could play these parts. I wrote the film when I was actually still in film school. I was in graduate school, and I was just, you know, kind of busy writing away, and then when I finally had the opportunity to make it, I was for the first time thrown into a casting process. And I had obviously never done that. I was, you know, a student.

So I was working with a casting director, and people were coming in and reading for me, and, you know, I read amazing actors, but nobody had sort of nailed it for me. And the casting director came in one day and said: You know, I got a call from Ally Sheedy, and she called me herself, and she wants to fly herself to New York to read for you she's in L.A. - and are you open to that?

And I sort of scratched my head, and I said: That seems so weird. Really? There was a certain part of me that thought, well, that would be interesting, I mean, she's a known actor, but all I could think of was "The Breakfast Club." It just seemed weird. And I hadn't really followed her career or anything since then. And it also seemed like was it going to take my film in another direction? And, you know, I had a whole host of anxieties. I mean, making that decision to cast somebody in a lead role is a big one.

Anyway, I got home that night, and there was a phone call from Ally herself. She called me and said look, you know, I feel like this is my life. This is an experience I have gone through, and I feel like you wrote this for me. And I was like: Well, I'm glad you feel that way. I didn't, you know, and she said, well, I feel like that, and I'm going to put myself on a plane, and I'm going to be there, you know, tomorrow, or whatever.

And she did it. She just hustled to New York, and she walked in, and she read some scenes to me, and, you know, against sort of my resistance because I was, I was really predisposed to not casting her, I felt like: Oh, you do know this. This could have been written for you.

And it was kind of one of those things where it was, like, a stunning audition. It just, there just wasn't a question for me, I just said okay, you got it. You got it.

GROSS: Which was the part of the story that she had lived?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: She had been in her younger life involved with a rock guy, a rock 'n' roll guy, and had developed a dependency on a kind of heavy sedative. And, you know, her friends were concerned about her, and there was an intervention, and they sent her to Hazelden. And this is all documented. I think she wrote about it. And had gone, you know, to rehab and so felt like, you know, this whole episode of getting dependent on this drug and then feeling like she'd become a drug addict and an intervention and then cleaning up and how it had affected her reputation and whatnot really had stayed with her, and she felt like it was a really defining thing in her life. So I think she brought that experience to the role.

GROSS: And what about Patricia Clarkson?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: You know, Patricia, I had no knowledge of Patricia Clarkson. You know, I looked at her resume and stuff, and I don't think I had seen her in anything, television or any of the larger features that she had had supporting roles in.

But I was in a place where we were we got the financing together, and everybody's dates were kind of coming due. You know, actors had committed to certain times, and it's hard to get everybody on the same page at the same time making a film. And I still hadn't cast that role, that Greta role.

And I was on the brink of having to cast somebody that I didn't feel was really right for it, and I was kind of panicking. And I said to the casting director: You have to pull out all the stops. We have to have, like, an emergency casting session.

And this fellow, Kerry Barden, who was just so supportive and generous-spirited and just would go the nine yards said come in tomorrow. I'll have, you know, people here for you to read.

And I walked in, and Patty Clarkson was sitting there, and she, you know, read some scenes to me, and my jaw just dropped. I was just flabbergasted at how awesome she was, qualities that you wouldn't expect in the same person, you know, or that somebody could merge into the same character in a performance. And she was so tragic and kind of comic at the same time. It was stunning, and it wasn't at all what I had written. I had, like, missed something that was absolutely necessary for that character to have, and Patty just brought it instinctively.

GROSS: My guest, Lisa Cholodenko, will be back in the second half of the show. She directed and co-wrote the new film "The Kids Are All Right." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lisa Cholodenko, the director and co-writer of the new film "The Kids Are All Right," starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a lesbian couple who are the parents of two teenage children who track down the anonymous sperm donor who is their father. Cholodenko also made the films "High Art" and "Laurel Canyon."

You started your professional film career working as an editor for John Singleton on his movie "Boyz n The Hood." How did you get to work on that movie?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Why, I have to correct you and say I started my career working as an apprentice editor.


Ms. CHOLODENKO: It was my first experience in the cutting room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHOLODENKO: So I went on to become an assistant editor and worked on other studio features before heading off to film school. In terms of the John Singleton experience, I was kind of deciding that I wanted to find my way into a career in film. And I had a friend that was one of the producers on that movie and she managed to get me into the cutting room. It was a kind of seminal experience for me, particularly because I was, you know, working so closely with this young guy who, you know, he was 24 at the time. He was right out of USC Film School, you know, who not only had made this major feature film for, I guess at the time, it was Columbia Pictures but, you know, had been given the money to do so based on a script that he had written, but also had written something that was entirely personal about, you know, his community from a very heartfelt and kind of singular perspective.

And I think in some way that that had a large influence on me. I saw that, you know, while John Singleton's world and his experiences was quite different from my own, that it was possible that a person take their experience, and if you have enough passion and enough stomach for it, that you can actually get to the point where you can make a film from it and many people go see it.

GROSS: We're living in a time, now, where coming out is really easy for some people because things have changed so much; but is really, really hard for some other people, because depending on where you live and what your family is like and what your religion is, coming out can be very, very difficult. You can really sacrifice a lot. Was coming out a big deal for you or were you able to do it pretty easily?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: You know, I'm in my mid-40s now and I came out when I was in, I guess, like 11th grade, so I must've been like 17. And so that's quite a long time ago and, you know, the temperature and the culture was different and I was young. So it was fraught for me, in the sense that, you know, I was in high school and there weren't other people who were gay that I knew, and so I felt different and confused about that.

But I had a great love affair in high school. You know, let myself have that love affair and tried to keep it kind of to myself. But I come from a very talkative and inquisitive, and pretty liberal Jewish family in a pretty liberal place - Los Angeles - and I sort of was eventually kind of outed by my mother, who kind of took me aside one day and said, you know, well, it's obvious to me you're love with this person and, you know, you're struggling to kind of sort it out. So why don't you go get some therapy and, you know, feel better about it because I don't want you to feel bad.

GROSS: Feel about it, not get some therapy and change.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Right. Right. Right. Just, you know, as your Jewish mother, it's hard to see you struggling. That kind of thing.

GROSS: Did you seek therapy?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: I did. It was great. I was happy to go see my therapist every week.

GROSS: And that helped...

Ms. CHOLODENKO: You know, it's what year was that? That was, you know, in the early 80s, and it was just a different time. I'm really glad that, you know, the culture is changing and that there's so many more places for young people to, you know, be out and meet other young people who are out and that there's much better feeling about it and exposure. And that's when people grapple with their sexuality so, you know, I think we have to embrace everybody. It wasn't that I wasn't being embraced, it's just was that it just wasn't a time when people felt like they could be exposed.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Well, thanks for having me. It's a pleasure. It's an honor. Thanks.

GROSS: Lisa Cholodenko directed and co-wrote the new film "The Kids Are All Right."

Coming up, our antiquated electric grid and how to fix it. We talk with science journalist Joe Achenbach.

This is FRESH AIR.

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