Monday 1 March 2010

Lisa Cholodenko (b.1964)

source: Movie City News (2002/3)

Five years ago, in her critically acclaimed debut film, High Art, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko introduced audiences to a group of tragically hip Manhattan artists and photographers, whose only relief from the ravages of terminal boredom came from heroin and kinky sex.

Her second feature, Laurel Canyon (opening Friday in limited release) may have been set in a far sunnier and infinitely more casual corner of NeverNeverland, but the featured sybarites are every bit as determined to keep reality at bay for as long as is humanly possible. Instead of heroin, marijuana and beer are the primary intoxicants ingested by a group of musicians working feverishly to complete an album, under the watchful eye of a record producer who might have been around when Joni Mitchell first wrote "Ladies of the Canyon."

Frances McDormand delivers another smashing performance as Jane, the free-spirited producer who refuses to act her age. Complications arise when her conservative son, Sam (Christian Bale), returns home after graduation from Harvard Medical School with his rich fiancé, Alex (Kate Beckinsale), who's trying to complete on a research project. The idea of sharing the house with his mother and her much-younger boyfriend doesn't appeal to Sam, especially when Alex allows herself to be seduced by the rock 'n' roll lifestyle he abhors.

Just as she did in High Art, Cholodenko paints a remarkably detailed portrait of a highly dysfunctional group of artists and musicians cohabitating in the timeless oasis that is Laurel Canyon. She again resists the temptation to moralize or critique the lifestyles of her characters. It is a stance that's as refreshing as it is unusual.

This interview with the 38-year-old Valley native took place at the Le Meridien Hotel, last month.

by: Gary Dretzka

Movie City News: The Peter Pan male is a familiar character in the movies. Jane seems to possess all the characteristics of a Peter Pan female ... someone who lives in the Never-Neverland of Laurel Canyon, and has no real desire to grow up.

Lisa Cholodenko: Yeah. I didn't want to design a character that would come off as being some kind of desperado. It would have to be more of an unconscious thing.

MCN: Living in Laurel Canyon, and working in the music industry, there was very little pressure on Jane to stop smoking pot, find different friends, or dress and act like other women her age.

LC: Exactly. I didn't want her to be hung up on sex or drugs. Male characters in similar circumstances never are.

MCN: It seems as Jane could have stepped right out of Joni Mitchell's song, Laurel Canyon.

LC: I wanted to construct a character that might have lived through that period, and embodied some of the spirit of the women in that song.

MCN: Of course, she also had a home in Malibu, where her ex-boyfriend was camped out.

LC: Yes, a very booshie one.

MCN: Did the positive response to your first film, High Art,help grease the wheels for Laurel Canyon?

LC: Things were very weird for me in Hollywood that year, so the whole process took a long time. Then, when it looked as if the actors might go out on strike, we thought we'd have to put the project on hold for a while.

MCN: Considering that Frances played a rock 'n' roll mother - albeit of a very different sort - was it difficult to persuade her to play Jane?

LC: Someone suggested Frances to me for the part. I loved her work, and was really happy to hear she might be available. After her agent gave her the script, Frances was eager to do the part. We met with her the next day, and it seemed as if she was courting it.

MCN: And Jane wasn't required to experience the usual assortment of guilt feelings, second-guesses and anxiety that Hollywood normally expects from free-spirited women characters.

LC: When you think about, it's a juicy part for a woman of a certain age to play ... a sex object.

MCN: Did Jane's laissez-faire attitude toward drugs, sex, rock 'n' roll and motherhood - and Hollywood's traditional skittishness toward such permissive behavior in women - narrow the talent pool?

LC: Ironically, there weren't that many great actors for Kate's role. Maybe, that's because it's a less sympathetic role than Jane, in some way.

MCN: It reminded me, in some ways, of the risks Ally Sheedy took in High Art.

LC: The part of Jane is a great star role for a woman in her 40s. It required work to keep her sympathetic in all the usual ways ... she couldn't be sleazy, but she had to be sexy and have a great sense of humor. Frances embodies that better than any woman I could have imagined.

MCN: It isn't too much of stretch for me to believe that someone who grew up in the Valley could draw a persuasive portrait of this particular Lady of the Canyon. It surprised me, though, that you seemed to have such a handle on New York's heroin-chic art crowd.

LC: Well, I attended graduate school at Columbia and was living in New York before I made that movie. I knew that scene and modeled some of the characters from my friends there.

MCN: Recreational drug use was prevalent in both movies. Even so, it was presented in a very matter-of-fact and non-gratuitous way. In New York, the drugs of choice were heroin and cocaine, while the Laurel Canyon crowd preferred pot and booze. Did you get any feedback on this seemingly neutral POV?

LC: People were skittish about drug use in High Art. Not viewers, per se, but the companies we brought it to before it was made.

MCN: In High Art, the heroin use ultimately proved to be destructive to the lead character. Even so, these were the attractive people, and they looked good doing the drug. Some viewers might have found it difficult to "just say no" to heroin chic.

LC: I didn't see it that way. But I can understand how some people might have interpreted it that way. Lucy's death was a tragedy.

MCN: One of the recurring themes in your movies involves the complications that come from intimacy.

LC: I'm getting the feeling that people in our age group - I'm pushing 40 - are the ones who are going to respond to this movie most. I find it interesting that the only intelligent questions I've gotten on the movie are from people who are old enough to remember the '60s.

MCN: Maybe younger viewers are uncomfortable with Frances' character ... an unrepentant sybarite old enough to be their mother.

LC: Maybe. If you didn't live through that "if I feels good, do it" period, it's tough to envision what it was like. Things are different today.

MCN: Jane has a much younger boyfriend ... a rock singer who's closer in age to her son. I kept waiting for him to turn into a schmuck and dump her, but it doesn't happen.

LC: I liked him. He was a normal guy, not some cliché hair rocker. I suppose, some people will think he's adolescent, but I didn't. He was just one slice of Jane's pie. Some of the people in this movie might have been reckless pleasure seekers, but they weren't evil or malicious people. Ian really wanted to be with Jane.

MCN: Her home, with its lush vegetation and sprawling swimming pool, was just as important a presence in the film as any character. The Chateau Marmont also played an important role.

LC: People around the country only know about the Chateau because it was John Belushi died of a drug overdose. But, in L.A., it's known more as a hangout for artists and musicians. For me, it was more of a fun, personal location.

MCN: Not a product placement?

LC: No, no. Jane is the kind of L.A. woman who would have homes in Laurel Canyon and Malibu, but would crash at the Chateau when things got too crazy. We were shooting on location, anyway ... so, why not do it for real?

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In this blog I intend to do some historical justice to the many, many women who have contributed with their genius, creativity, adventurous spirit, nurturing - amongst other qualities - to the apparent linear and male dominated prescribed notion of History. This is just the beggining.