Interview with director Lisa Cholodenko

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Director Lisa Cholodenko Director Lisa Cholodenko (center) with stars Annette Bening (left) and Julianne Moore (right)

From the Winter 2003 issue of Filmmaker magazine:

In Laurel Canyon, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s follow-up to her masterful High Art, Kate Beckinsale plays a young med student who accompanies her first-year-resident boyfriend (Christian Bale) to Los Angeles, where the two move in with his mother, a free-spirited, hard-living, bisexual rock-’n’-roll producer (Frances McDormand). In Cholodenko’s skilled hands, the hills above Hollywood are transformed into a kind of languid hothouse as Beckinsale’s character is drawn from the cool specifics of medical science to the emotionally messy world of the rock subculture.

We asked filmmaker Ira Sachs, whose films — Lady, The Delta — are themselves adroit essays on culture and desires, to speak with Cholodenko. Sachs, in fact, is currently in the final stages of development of a new feature, Forty Shades of Blue, which will star Maggie Cheung and Rip Torn and is set within the Memphis music scene.

Ira Sachs: One of the things that I was thinking as I was watching the film was that this is one of those films that doesn’t get made anymore — at least not on film.

Lisa Cholodenko: Really?

Sachs: Don’t you agree?

Cholodenko: I don’t know; tell me more.

Sachs: It’s a character drama, and there’s absolutely no genre to it. The film is just about people in a very complex emotional situation. And my feeling is that TV has made it much more difficult for those of us who want to tell stories like these in a feature-length format. People now look to television to see everyday lives, whether that be Oprah, or The Real World, or ER or whatever. They look to the movies for the bigger-than-life. The B movie has become the A movie, and the A movie has become TV.

Cholodenko: Do you think Laurel Canyon is like television? Tell me the truth.

Sachs: Absolutely not. Not in any way, shape or form. I just think that television has taken the lead role in telling character-based dramas. Your film is totally contemplative, it’s measured, it’s thoughtful and it’s much more formal than television could ever be.

Cholodenko: I think this film is a little looser than High Art. High Art was almost a genre film, but I wouldn’t know what the genre is.

Sachs: Maybe it was more of a melodrama.

Cholodenko: Maybe. I did consider this along the way as I was writing Laurel Canyon. I thought, how can I make it more pop? How can I take what’s comedic in this thing and really punch it up? I admired Election a lot. What can I take from Election, I thought? And every time I tried to move it into a more comedic direction, I started to strip out the heart of the film, the sensitivity and the sensibility of it, and it ended up just like a kind of middle-range satire.

Sachs: Both of your films are about artists, which I find is one of the hardest things to do. It’s hard to make a film about the creative act.

Cholodenko: Yeah, and I think inherently it’s kind of pretentious, right? So I can’t even believe I went there twice. What I was very consciously trying to do [in these movies] was to really spend time with the characters — and not to make the films about the artists’ dilemmas. I was trying to use the milieus that the films are set in as backdrop or texture rather than as plot points. In both films, the characters’ emotional dilemmas are more foregrounded and compelling.

Sachs: You don’t seem like this in person, but one of the things that I felt from watching this film, and also High Art, is that you’re so nostalgic.

Cholodenko: [laughs] How do you see that?

Kate Beckinsale in Laurel Canyon

Kate Beckinsale in Laurel Canyon

Sachs: There’s just some romantic feeling for a time when it was different to make art and be creative. And there’s a sort of nostalgic wish. The heroes of your films are the two artists, Frances McDormand and Ally Sheedy, really. Frances’s character is kind of the force around which everything else revolves.

Cholodenko: Nostalgic… to be of a different era… Yeah. I guess I have a kind of fantasy about the eras before my own.

Sachs: I think we’re very similar in this way. For me, I always think of it as my “bourgeois-bohemian” clash, in the sense that I grew up in the suburbs. I actually had an eccentric bohemian father, but [there is] that tension between very conventional American-backyard swimming pool culture, and then this idea of being an artist living in New York and being gay and being different. And every day, both internally and externally, I sort of try to moderate between those two.

Cholodenko: I couldn’t have said it more succinctly. I think there is that tension for me, and probably both these films are in some way an effort to explore it or negotiate it or reconcile it.

Sachs: Did you feel that tension when you were growing up?

Cholodenko: Growing up in L.A., I was always attracted to people who were of the generation right before my own — people who grew up in the late ’60s, early ’70s. People who caught the tail end of a more experimental “love, sex, drugs, music” culture than my own. My coming of age was sort of at the age of a new conservatism; it was a kind of disco-into-Reagan thing.

Sachs: And what was your exposure growing up in L.A. to that kind of world? In the film, it seems very familiar and known.

Cholodenko: You know, it sounds kind of schmaltzy, but when I was young, I went every year to summer camp in the hills in Malibu, and all the people who ran the camp were of that generation. So I got a really strong hit of what that time and culture were like.

Sachs: And were you a hip teenager?

Cholodenko: I mean, what is hip? I guess I was hip in that I was experimental in a way. I was always interested in things that were somewhat pushing the boundaries.

Sachs: So in your family’s world, you were more like Frances McDormand’s character. Would you agree?

Cholodenko: Maybe. I mean I don’t identify with being a record producer with a much younger boyfriend, but I do identify with, philosophically or emotionally, the way she expresses her femininity or her femaleness. She was the more androgynous character to me.

Sachs: When you say “androgynous,” it makes me think that for a woman to be in power, whether within the music industry or the film industry, it takes a certain amount of drag.

Cholodenko: Yeah, I think so. It feels like it.

Sachs: Does it to you as well?

Cholodenko: Yeah, I think the fact is that that’s sort of naturally who I am. It’s not like some kind of identity or some sort of quality in my personality laying dormant that I had to cultivate. I’ve never been fearful of exhibiting the more feminine qualities of myself, my emotions or sexuality. But I also have a kind of strong-mindedness which could be perceived as more masculine in quality. I don’t really understand or subscribe to conventional feminine modes, codes, behaviors, whatever you want to call them.

Sachs: In a way, sometimes I, as a gay male director, almost envy your maleness, even though you’re a woman, within the film industry. You seem very comfortable with a certain kind of expectation that you will be listened to, that you fit in and that somehow you will be able to actually make these films. You play the game very well, and I say that with some admiration. Do you know what I mean?

Cholodenko: I do. I think the gayness sort of works its way in there too. I don’t know how it is for straight women, but it’s really quite easy for me to talk shop in this largely straight-male industry, let alone world. There’s something about being gay that I think sets me outside the normal boundaries of male-female propriety. I think a lot of straight men can feel more at ease with me. That could be wrong, but that’s sort of just my sense of things.

Frances McDormand in Laurel Canyon

Frances McDormand in
Laurel Canyon

Sachs: How do you work with actors in general?

Cholodenko: Well, unfortunately, you make these things and you get zero time to rehearse. I think for me the work is prior to getting it into preproduction — writing a script and finding the voice. I know that I’m going to end up in a situation where I don’t have a lot of time to work those things out. I handed the actors scripts that I felt read pretty naturally. I also felt that the characters were pretty well carved out. Kate and Christian’s characters were a little less defined, and probably remain a little less defined in the film, for better or worse, than Frances’s or Alessandro’s. So I spent more time with the two of them, hearing their ideas and kind of negotiating stuff that I had come up with. Whereas with Frances, that was pretty hard and fast. She really felt like she had what she needed on the page and kind of went for it.

Sachs: You haven’t mentioned my favorite performance in the film, which is Natascha McElhone, who I think is a total revelation. Tell me about the development of that great scene in the garage with her and Christian Bale. Was that fully scripted?

Cholodenko: That scene was always there. I had written that scene like a gazillion times. God, at one point it had been set in a bar parking lot. One time it was set in Venice Beach. It was set in a lot of different places, and a lot of different things happened to it. In the end, it got boiled down to a more “conservative” version of what I had originally imagined. But what I think is interesting about it is that it’s just these two people, in a garage, having some version of phone sex, and it’s more erotic than anything I could have filmed or had them do physically with each other.

Sachs: For me, her character is actually the heart of the film. She’s got the line at the end of the movie, “I can’t control my heart, and I wouldn’t have wanted to if I tried.” And I feel like that is what this movie is about, and what makes it truly meaningful is that sentiment. Did you know that that was the key line?

Cholodenko: That’s going back to that thing that I was saying before, [about] that part of me that’s kind of — I don’t want to be pejorative — schmaltzy, sentimental or emotional.

Sachs: I think the attempt to describe very basic and possibly trite emotions in a way that seems real and new and experiential, that’s what poetry is about. That’s what art is about. So it didn’t even come close to being schmaltzy for me.

Cholodenko: Well, I’m glad you feel that way.

Sachs: Do you storyboard? How do you create your images?

Cholodenko: I tend to spend a lot of time sort of storyboarding in my imagination when I’m writing. Not necessarily shot by shot, but more building the spaces through my mind and watching the film sort of play out as if it were a play on the stage. And so I have kind of the architecture for it when I go into preproduction in my mind, and then I communicate that to the production designer and look at photographs and stuff. And then I usually sit down with the script with the d.p. and go through it scene by scene and just do a shot list. The only things that were storyboarded in this film were a couple of stunts — the motorcycle stuff.

Sachs: The first shot of the movie is a helicopter shot, which seems to imply that you had more money than you did on High Art. When I saw it, I was like, okay, now Lisa Cholodenko gets to make this kind of movie. Was it a very different environment working on this film than your last one?

Cholodenko: No, in a way it wasn’t. I mean, it’s amazing High Art got done. How much was The Delta?

Sachs: The Delta was about $200,000.

Cholodenko: So you know. If you consider teamsters and unions and a healthy amount of shooting days, which still means a small amount, but five or 10 days more than you had on the last one, it doesn’t take much to get to $7 million. I could have made this film for a lot less, for sure, but we had a certain amount of name actors; we obviously were shooting in L.A. and it’s expensive to shoot here — everything is unionized. And also, music was important, so we had to spend a lot of cash on a music budget. Stuff like that. I just had certain demands that racked up a budget.

Sachs: I think the danger for those of us trying to make our second or third features is that we’re also getting older and we’re getting a little less feisty.

Cholodenko: Less guerrilla?

Sachs: Yeah, less guerrilla. Not that we were ever very guerrilla. We’re all in our mid- and late-30s, and it’s harder to make the sacrifices. Actually, it’s the conflict of your movie: The bourgeois takes over and it’s much harder to be truly bohemian. At least for me, I feel like I’d better keep a hold of that bohemian spirit or I’ll never make another film.

Cholodenko: Awww...

Sachs: I’m just being nostalgic.

Cholodenko: I know.