A Marriage of Minds
An interview with Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
(l.-r.) Mia Wasikowska, Lisa Cholodenko and Julianne Moore on the set of The Kids Are All Right, a Focus Features release.
Lisa Cholodenko's comedy The Kids Are All Right is a movie about marriage and family that in many ways started as a marriage of writers. When Cholodenko was pregnant and getting ready to have her first child, she reconnected with her old friend Stuart Blumberg. The two embarked on a screen-writing partnership that stretched out several years in the crafting the remarkable script for this movie. The following interview between director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg details their long relationship from their meet-cute in a LA coffee shop to the rocky afternoons of shaping a script, to the happy days of creating their film family with the casting of Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, to the surprise sensation the movie made when it arrived at the Sundance Film Festival. After seeing the film in Park City, New York Magazine was not alone in noticing, "The film boasts a whip-smart and witty script that left the audience howling, and allows Moore and Bening to be funny like you've rarely seen them before."
James Schamus, Focus Features’ CEO, and himself a screenwriter of some note (The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil), was also impressed with the script: “The Kids Are All Right is a marvel of a screenplay. It must have been a bear to write––to fine tune so many great characters, and so many pitch-perfect laughs (and tears, too!)––but Lisa and Stuart make it all seem effortless."
The ampersand in the credits of The Kids Are All Right would seem to indicate that you wrote this script together. Is that the case?
Stuart Blumberg [screenwriter]: We’ve been very close. Hated each other. Really liked each other. Taken naps together when we were tired.
Lisa Cholodenko [screenwriter/director]: It was a long process; it took us over four years.
SB: We’ve gone through it together. I wouldn’t call it brother/sister –
LC: Our history was, we were acquaintances for many years in New York –
SB: We always got along really well. I had met Lisa through a mutual friend, and we became friendly.
LC: We ran into each other in a coffee shop in Los Angeles, and Stuart asked what I was doing. I told him that I was writing this script, but I had just started and I was into writer’s block, and what was he doing?
[My second feature film] Laurel Canyon had been released; I was doing some [directing for] television. But I really wanted to write an original screenplay; everything that I was reading that was being sent to me was just not areas where I wanted to go. I felt that I’d already started this process of doing more personal work; where I felt comfortable was with more character-identified scripts.
SB: She said, “I want to write a mainstream movie about moms who have kids and sperm donors,” and I said, “That’s funny, because I want to do something more like [the movies] you do;” something more indie.
LC: I kind of pitched him the idea. He for his own reasons had an interest in it –
SB: I was a sperm donor in college.
LC: I had friends who had been on all sides of that equation, and my partner and I were trying to get pregnant. There had been a lot of stories about donor kids – in The New York Times, on 60 Minutes – and those kids are now coming of age. That’s a brave new world for families.
So while Stuart thought it would be fun to go for the more indie flavor, I thought it would be interesting for this project to bring in somebody who had a more commercial sensibility. We figured this could be a good marriage.
SB: Neither one of us had written anything collaboratively before.
LC: We got together the next day and decided to try.
Did you just start writing scenes, or went at it another way?
SB: We spent months on the outline, months on the first draft. We sat side by side for months on end, pounding it out together. Every single scene, character, line was reworked at least 10 times.
LC: We worked the script to the bone. We asked each other questions about these characters, shaped them, and put them into contrast with each other. When I felt like the script was veering into the superficial, or politically correct, we would rein it back in.
SB: It was an interesting dynamic; men and women are different. I loved working with Lisa. Sometimes I’d sit at the computer and be like, “Okay, I’ve only got so much time, so let’s get started,” but she’d be like, “No, no, tell me about your weekend. What happened?” “We really have to start.” “No, no, we need to process.”
LC: When I would lament to my partner that I didn’t know if the script was any good, she’d say, “Keep writing ‘til you break your own heart. If it’s resonating with you, it’s on the right track.”
Stuart and I had been writing for about a year and a half, and I was simultaneously trying to get pregnant – which I did. We thought we could make the film and get it all done before I had the baby. There was a first incarnation of the film; we tried to get the production up in 2005-2006.
That didn’t exactly time out. By the time the financing came together, I was too pregnant to make the movie. So I had my son, and spent the next couple of years trying to get my life re-oriented and spend time with him. But Stuart and I continued to write. Revisions made the script better. Because we had worked on it for a long time, it read really visually, too.
Speaking of visuals – you shot the movie on film, right?
LC: Yes, [cinematographer] Igor Jadue-Lillo and I used 35 millimeter [film]. I love film [stock], and I didn’t want a dense, hyper-real vibe [from digital]. I wanted to see some grain in the picture. It felt to me like it should be very photographic, like the films I grew up on.
Were you also intent from the beginning that audiences take away a message from the movie?
SB: There isn’t a message about gay marriage. There is maybe some of that old joke; “Gay people deserve to be as miserable as straight people...”
I think when Lisa and I started writing The Kids Are All Right, we were saying, “This is something that happens and let’s explore the story that comes out of that.” We focused on human beings, not on issues.
LC: I don’t see myself as an overly political person, in part because I feel these are human rights issues. I know, human rights issues are political issues, but my relationship and contribution to them is from the creative and artistic perspective.
I know some will say, “Oh, there’s an unconventional family, two moms and their kids.” To me, it looks pretty typical. We’re putting it on-screen in a way that isn’t part of a politicized environment. It’s just, “Here’s this family.”
SB: They’ve led a wonderful sort of Ozzie and Harriet life, but we’re catching these characters in transition. Hopefully the story is rich and complex enough that it compels on its own merits.
LC: The story is meant to be an exploration about what all families face, especially families with children; the anxiety and comedy and pain and pathos of watching your family shape-shift on you. Whether you’re gay or straight or single or interracial or whatever – everybody has a similar trajectory, all families face similar challenges; the emotional rites of passage, the choices made, and whether you stick things out and stay together as a family. What goes into making those decisions, and where can you get derailed – that’s also what we’re exploring.
SB: Our story’s family is as wonderful and troubled and flawed and impractical as any family. With stories like this, you get to delve into why human beings behave the way they do. While I love action movies and thrillers, getting to spend time within human nature can be really fun and fulfilling.
LC: When I decided I wanted to try to make films, what gave me the yen to do so were the movies that I saw when I was younger; films that had a real sense of comedy and tragedy. You could find the humanity and the complexity in the characters, and your sympathies were waxing and waning.
SB: Thinking of the films I’ve done before, well, unconsciously, are there any patterns? It’s, “a new character comes into an established situation and shakes things up.” I’m interested in people who are trying to find the meaning of where they are in their lives, and another person comes in and serves a catalyst to really make them think about those questions.
Mark Ruffalo brings a lot to the role of Paul. He goes really deep, and he’s really funny. This role reminds me of ones he did earlier in his career.
LC: Paul is a richer character with Mark playing the role. He was somebody I thought of for the part from the outset. He had other offers, for bigger films, but I think that some of the great actors feel that the pleasure of acting is being able to do smaller films that you can get fully into. Julianne Moore was great, because I said, “I’m going to go out to Mark, could you back me up? Maybe give him a call?” She called him.
Was Julianne Moore always your first choice?
SB: Sure, we wrote the character of Jules with Julianne in mind. It was wonderful to have the person you visualized actually say the words.
LC: On the set, Julianne was ready for anything, including the sex scenes. I first met Julie about 10 years ago. She and I talked casually over the years, and she’d say, “Write something for me.” I sent her an early draft of The Kids Are All Right and she attached herself in 2005, when the movie was going to get made and didn’t. Julie made herself available to do the movie for four years. She stuck around, stuck with me, and stuck with it. I went to New York and met with her and we talked a lot. There were many conversations with Julianne about where the drafts were heading, and how things had changed for the characters and why. Julianne got to know her character in a more organic way as Jules evolved.
SB: We thought that this was going to be something different than we’d seen from her before; Julianne usually plays very strong women. Not to say that Jules isn’t strong, but she’s much more vulnerable in this relationship.
While you were writing for Julianne all along, with no one cast as Nic was there by default a lot of Lisa in Nic?
LC: There’s parts of myself in Nic, strains of my personality. But, I am not the breadwinner in my family…
To play Nic, we needed a yin to Julianne’s yang. It took me a long time to determine who I would cast to play Nic. I knew I wanted a great actress who was funny, dramatic, strong, sexy, over 40, and recognizable. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sit down with anyone in an exploratory way; it was going to be an offer only, so I took the choice very seriously! In New York, Julie and I discussed a short list of actresses and focused on how Annette Bening was somebody we both adored, and I went out to her [with an offer]. Julie e-mailed Annette and said, “I’d love for you to do it.”
It was like an arranged marriage; much of the preparatory work for the movie was done in this act of choosing Annette. Both of them knew they were hand-picked for each other, and needed to make it work. They also liked the challenge of getting deep into this couple’s psychology and emotional space.
SB: Annette is amazing. Literally, she was putting on an acting clinic; every day on the set was an impressive display. The commitment she brings to the character! She’s done so much homework; it was inspirational to watch somebody so professional taking it so seriously. She inhabited the role of Nic.
LC: Since Annette was in L.A., she and I and Stuart had several script meetings and did some important revisions together. Script work is important to her and she’s good at it. Annette is formidable – very incisive, smart, and methodical. I realized that she was the character I had written, in that in real life she is a Mama Bear. So it was easy for her to access that for the part, being completely involved with her kids’ lives.
Working with Annette prior to Julianne getting to L.A. helped me have a greater understanding of the characters and their relationship – and how to help both actresses find the key moments that would translate into relationship authenticity on the screen. Playing the normalcy and humanity of their characters and of their marriage freed them to be natural and steer clear of anything arch and artificial.
How and in what ways did the younger actors surprise you?
SB: Well, Mia Wasikowska may seem to be one of those “it girls” who’s exploded onto the scene, but she’s incredibly level-headed and calm. She brought a real centeredness to playing Joni, a real gravitas to this 18-year-old. Josh Hutcherson did a wonderful job; he’s not at all like Laser in real life. We’d see him go from his own extroverted self to playing someone very internal and almost imploding.
How has the initial feedback been from audiences? The film was first screened in January and February 2010 at the Sundance and Berlin International Film Festivals…
LC: …which I hadn’t been preparing to do. We showed it unfinished as a world premiere at Sundance – it was fairly nerve-wracking hustling through temp mixes – but, in spite of that, the film played incredibly well. In fact, the reception was tremendous. The Berlin experience was also incredibly positive.
I think people were relieved to see a film that was grappling with something real and complicated, but was also funny. They’ve found the honest depiction of marriage and family refreshing, and the gay family aspect takes some audience members into uncharted territory. Viewers at both festivals appreciated the experience – more than I ever anticipated. The movie takes you on a ride that feels truthful and surprising, and drops you off somewhere that is hopeful.
Are you looking forward to further feedback/discussions?
LC: Of course! It’s going to be fun!