“We were both raised Jewish and upper-middle-class,” writer-director Lisa Cholodenko said of herself and Stuart Blumberg, with whom she wrote “The Kids Are All Right”—and won best screenplay today at at the 2011 Independent Film Spirit Awards (catch the ceremony on TV tonight, Feb. 26, at 10 p.m. ET/PT). The comedy-drama—which on Feb. 27 will complete for four Oscars, including best picture and original screenplay—spotlights lesbian moms whose children seek out their sperm donor, with shattering results.
“What was interesting is that my folks are still together and Stuart’s parents divorced when he was , so we had a menu of emotional experience in our own first families to draw from,” Cholodenko said, at a question-and-answer session at the Writers Guild Theater. “When we talk about something that was similar, it’s our Jewish mothers of a certain era and socioeconomic milieu…the parts that might tend to be a little [concerned] and invested. There are benefits to that, and then sometimes if you are trying to find your own path, there can be [drama].”
Aspects of their own mothers perhaps emerged most – along with many other influences—in the character of Nic (Annette Bening), the obstetrician who is the family breadwinner and the stricter of the two moms. Nic’s wife, Jules (Julianne Moore), has become frustrated during her tenure as stay-at-home mom and is trying to reinvent herself; their strong family ties unravel when sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) enters the picture.
Cholodenko grew up in Encino; her debut feature, “High Art,” (1998), about an artist’s unexpected relationship with her magazine editor, spotlighted a character who was the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Cholodenko’s critically acclaimed “Laurel Canyon” (2002), starred Frances McDormand, Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale.
Blumberg—who was raised in Cleveland, attended a Conservative synagogue and a Jewish day school – previously wrote “The Girl Next Door.” He also penned Edward Norton’s directorial debut (the two are friends from Yale), about a rabbi (Ben Stiller), and a priest (Norton) who fall in love with the same non-Jewish woman.
Here are some excerpts from their recent “Kids Are All Right” Q & A:
On How “Kids” was conceived:
Cholodenko: ‘Way back in 2004, I knew I wanted to get back to work, but I wasn’t seeing anything I loved that I wanted to direct. Meanwhile, my girlfriend and I decided to start a family with an anonymous sperm donor—a big project in of itself—and that obviously was really on my mind. I sat down for the first time in a long time and I just forced myself to start writing something, not censoring myself, and the first kind of brushstroke was the idea for this family and this setup of one of the children coming of age and seeking her sperm donor in a covert way. I got maybe 15 pages into it and then I started having a lot of my [internal] critic come out, and I decided to take long, long breaks down at the coffee shop near where I live. I was having breakfast by myself one morning, stalling, and in walks an old friend from New York I hadn’t seen in a long time. And it was this guy [points to Blumberg].
Blumberg: So we catch up and I ask Lisa what she’s up to and she says, “I’m working on this idea for a script about two moms who have kids with a sperm donor and I’m just trying to figure it out.” And I said, “That’s interesting, because in college I was a sperm donor and I always wondered whether I had [fathered] any kids and what would happen if they tried to contact me.”
I had always really admired Lisa’s work, and in my own work, I felt that I wanted to go more in the direction of nuanced character stuff [like Cholodenko’s films], which I had been writing but in the context of bigger studio pictures. What I said in a sort of passive-aggressive way was, “You know, Lisa, you really should do something more mainstream or readily accessible,” thinking that would be my way in. And Lisa said, “Yeah, I guess so – and you should probably do something a little deeper.” I said “I want to,” and then we decided very sort of cavalierly in a way to throw our hats in the ring together and see if we could try to write something that would be a blending of our sensibilities—which as it turned out, weren’t so far apart.
On whether Blumberg ever tried to look up any children he might have fathered:
Blumberg: Lisa was pregnant while we were working on the project. Throughout the writing, whenever we were procrastinating, she’d go, “You know what would be fun? Let’s find out if you have any kids.” And I’d almost puke, and then say, “We have to focus on the writing!’
Cholodenko: In all earnestness, I felt very protective of this subject matter, so veracity was very important to me. Clearly, I was covering the mommy-having-the-baby side of it, but the sperm donor side was kind of vague to me. I didn’t have a relationship with my sperm donor, so while Stuart wasn’t a stand in for the Mark Ruffalo character, there were things about Stuart’s experience that we talked about a lot and somehow they mutated and found their way into forming that character.
On the dinner scene where Nic discovers that Paul and Jules have been having an affair (Nic discovers some of Jules’ hair in his bathtub):
Cholodenko: When we wrote that scene and when I directed it, I always related to it just in a purely empathic way. I’m just in that horror with Nic. One weekend, when there were a lot of events [for the film] I was introduced to Quentin Tarantino, and he decided he wanted to do a master class on this film, while we were talking in a corner of a party. He said he felt like that scene with Annette is the most suspenseful scene he had seen in a film all year; it created that kind of anxiety in him. And it was the first time I’d ever thought about the scene like that – like, “Oh, my God, what’s going to happen here?”
On how the film, which revolves around a lesbian couple, is universal:
Blumberg: We were both interested in exploring notions about a relationship and about family: what makes a family; parent-child dynamics; and also extra-marital assignations—all the intrigue, boredom, intimacy, [etc.] that many of us go through in our relationships—we just wanted to dig in. Early on, the whole thing of this being an alternative family just dropped away in terms of its importance. There were a few things we wanted to highlight about that, but we wanted to get into the universality of all this.
On casting Annette Bening:
Cholodenko: I was vexed for a long time and couldn’t make a decision about casting that part. I had Julianne, who was attached for a long time—since the first draft; and the deeper we got into the story and trying to find its tone, I came to feel like the actor who played Nic had to have the ability to go from comedy to drama in a nanosecond.
Annette Bening was on the first pass of potential people who could do the role of Nic. She always stayed on that list, but we focused on other people along the way and then as we pared down her character and it became clearer and humor became so critical, we had to consider: Who is in that age group, and a great, known actor and could actually be believable as Julianne Moore’s long-term partner? Annette [was the one].
On not casting real-life lesbians for the lesbian roles:
Blumberg: Honestly, we were just looking at actors who were great to make the movie with.
Cholodenko: It’s an interesting question, because we really wanted [the fact that the characters are lesbians] to be understated, so for me to make a point to cast lesbians would have been just some agenda that I didn’t feel interested in.
On the ending of the film, in which the family rejects Paul as an “interloper:”
Blumberg: We felt that to have some kind of resolution [for] Paul, just didn’t feel authentic. We’re not saying it was great the way they handle it; we’re not saying it wasn’t messy—it was messy—but that’s the way life is. Some people have accused us of hating Paul, which is not true. I think we both love Paul. But that doesn’t mean we have to give the film a false ending.