Lisa Cholodenko garnered critical praise for her first feature High Art, which starred Ally Sheedy as a retired photographer brought back into the limelight by a young intern. The straight-and-narrow intern falls in love with the older photographer and her bohemian lifestyle.
Laurel Canyon is Cholodenko’s second effort, and it treads some of the same ground: a straight-laced young medical student is seduced by the rock ‘n roll lifestyle of her fiancé’s record-producing mother.
I spoke with Cholodenko about her influences, about the thematic similarities between her two films, and about her way with actors.
Marty Mapes: Tell me a little about your background.
Lisa Cholodenko: Actually, my background is kind of conventional in a way, I mean I grew up in L.A.; I grew up in the suburbs in San Fernando Valley, my folks are still married, they still live in the house I grew up in. My father is a graphic designer and my mother is a school principal. I went to public schools. It’s pretty straight. I don’t know if I was straight, but the scene wasn’t all that bohemian.
MM: How did you get involved in movies? Were you always in love with them?
|Cholodenko tunes in to her actors, drawing great performances|
And then in my mid-twenties I just kind of stumbled into this job at the American Film Institute and got exposed to filmmakers and filmmaking, and from that point, kind of started this slow trajectory of training myself to be a filmmaker. I left L.A. I went to New York. I did an MFA at Columbia. I made short films and stuff like that.
MM: That’s surprising. It seems like so many people out there are doing it from the start.
LC: Yeah, in a way I’m really grateful that it came through the back door because I fee like I have a lot of — I traveled, I studied a lot of different things — I felt like I had more to bring to it once I decided to do it.
MM: Both of your films talk about art and it seems like something that you care about. Did you have some experience in the art world?
LC: I’ve always been kind of attracted to it in a generic way, because these films are about subjects in the art world. I think in a way I’m less interested in those disciplines or the lives of artists than I’m interested in those personality types as metaphors for free expression. It has in these two films set up this opposition of the person who follows the rules, the do-righter, the person who’s looking to solve the problem in a more formal way, and then the person who’s like the free-thinker.
MM: That’s an interesting answer, sort of a revealing answer. Watching the movies, it seemed that the artists were more artist-types, but then they flesh out. So it’s interesting to hear you say that you’re more interested in the artists as a type than in the art they do.
LC: Yeah, in High Art — I love photography and I really was impressed by a certain style of photography that I represented in that film, but I think it’s the larger theme that makes a film transcendent rather than this specific thing. If it’s just the specific thing, It’s hard to connect to it if it’s not your own interest or your own experience. So you take it like it has a metaphorical quality to it.
I’m obviously really interested in the world of music — all of it, the problems of it, the process of it, all the aspects of it — but to dignify my intentions I would say that’s really why these things keep coming up.
MM: Both movies seem to involve somebody falling in love with a way of life, with this whole other way of looking at things.
LC: Yeah, and I think in both cases, one of the strains in the film is this younger, unformed person who has been playing by all the rules and doing it the, quote, right way, stumbles into a world where the wrong way feels like such a higher position to be in. Just so much more of an expanded kind of place.
MM: Have you thought about that in your own life?
LC: Yeah, I think any sort of creative person or most free-thinking people wrestle with that to varying degrees. I mean there’s so many great movies, if you think about it, like all the great movies from the early seventies that were made in the states. Many of the great movies really wrestled with — had those themes of the protagonist wrestling with...
MM: Can you give me an example or two?
LC: The big inspiration for this film was The Graduate. And another film I adore is Five Easy Pieces. Those are two classic films of young-person-on-existential-journey to deal with family, and the trappings of expectation, and sort out their identity on their own terms, and those kinds of things.
MM: You have a great rapport with the actors, a great sense of intimacy. What does it take to get actors to be that intimate and open with a camera right there in there face.
|I’m less interested in [...] the lives of artists than I’m interested in those personality types as metaphors for free expression|
MM: The scene in the pool with the kiss... the camera gets close in, and you’re in the pool, and it’s gotta be an odd setup to get the camera and the crew and the lighting and everything. And yet the moment is so intimate between these three. Was that hard to get, or was it just another scene?
LC: It’s a big deal in that I’m kinda — oddly enough, I write this shit but — I’m really shy. So it’s uncomfortable for me to direct it. I overidentify, I think. I get kind of co-dependent with the actors. But you know, I wrote it, I spent a long time writing it, I thought through each detail of it a gazillion times. It wasn’t like I read it the night before and thought “wow how am I gonna do that?”
And then the actors, they signed up for it and they know exactly what they’re doing and what’s gonna happen. And as we’re setting it up they know which pieces are gonna be done when. I had a really good cinematographer and sort of figured out the right place to put the camera. And you know, we just shot it and really tried to do it economically so they didn’t have to play it out five million times, and I can get them out of the pool and be done with it. I think it’s more painful for me to do those scenes than it is for the actors.
MM: The straight-laced characters seem a little less vivid than the artist characters.
LC: On some level, quite honestly, it was harder to write those characters because I understand them experientially or emotionally less. But that said, I feel like what I’m saying with those characters is that they’re people that are kind of undiscovered, and they’re undiscovered to themselves. They’re bottled up. And what I wanted to create was these kind of characters that are a little bit like ciphers, like you’re not really sure what is ticking, because it’s all kind of carefully compacted.
As the film escalates we see Christian Bale’s character start to get twitchy and aggravated and have these little confrontations, little tremors with Fran. And then Kate’s character starting to have insomnia, it’s like they incrementally are kind of becoming unraveled, so that at the end when they really do unravel you’re like “okay, here were these pent-up, bottled-up, repressed people and now they’ve been shot out of the cannon — what’s next?”
MM: What did you think of the ending? It’s a superficially”happy” ending, but emotionally it plays very different.
LC: Yeah, it’s gonna be interesting. I think people are gonna have all kinds of reactions to the end. I personally am much more drawn to films that have open ends. I make these films that are kind of realistic. I’m into that kind of acting. I’m into that kind of dialogue. I think that in a real life way, there is no conclusive ending to anything until you’re dead, and who knows even after that.
I feel like when I look at a film and it has a kind of tagged-on ending — I mean sometimes I’m in the mood for melodrama and that thrills me, or I just want to be wrapped up and have a good sob or whatever. This isn’t really that style of film. So I felt like to get to the end and have a very definitive kind of closed ending, at least in a plot sense, would feel hokey. And it felt more organic to the film to take each character to a definitively new place internally that we could identify with.
I think it’s more a film about change rather than resolution.
MM: Let me ask you about your favorite films. Do you like to watch movies?
LC: Yeah, I love movies. I think we’re in an interesting time. I think the films that are nominated for Oscars this year are interesting. Alexander Payne is a friend and I really love his movies. I think he makes great, fun, sarcastic, character drama-comedies. Spike Jonze I think is really interesting and I loved Adaptation. I didn’t really love the end but I loved that movie.
Laurel Canyon opened on the coasts a few weeks ago. It opens in Denver today. See Movie Habit’s review of Laurel Canyon for links to showtimes.