Lisa Cholodenko

Cholodenko directs Christian Bale and Natascha
McElhone on the Laurel Canyon set.

In the past 35 years, the American independent film
scene has witnessed two important revolutions. The first, beginning
with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde in 1967, served to
disband the long-held allegiance to the studio system hierarchy
and introduce the idea of “auteurism” into popular film lexicon.
It was this decade of New Hollywood moviemaking that brought directors
like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and
Robert Altman to the forefront of their craft. The second belle
époque, whose players grew up watching these New Hollywood
films, re-established the importance of the independent film scene
in 1989 with such groundbreaking work as Steven Soderbergh’s sex,
lies, and videotape,
Michael Moore’s Roger & Me and
Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Though it’s this first group
of moviemakers that inspired many of the themes in writer/director
Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon, it’s the latter generation
that inspired her to put stories to celluloid in the first place.

Like the independent mavericks before her, Cholodenko
notes that the notion of moviemaking as a career “was probably in
the back of my mind in some weird, unformed way when I was young.”
But unlike her admitted ‘film geek’ predecessors—who wear their
hours logged at the local cineplex as a badge of accomplishment
(Soderbergh admits to seeing Jaws 28 times in the theater)—it
wasn’t until 1989 that she considered this path a real possibility.

“I first started thinking that I wanted to
make films in the late ’80s, when I saw two films that were pretty
seminal to me: Jane Campion’s Sweetie and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. It was probably the first time that I could
sort of identify an author behind the work.”

Though wildly different films, Jane Campion’s feature
film debut and the movie that brought Gus Van Sant to the public’s
attention both set forth definite themes and sensibilities that
have come to define Cholodenko’s work. Specifically, these films
share a non-judgmental representation of flawed characters, a deep
exploration of dysfunctional “family” life and an unrelenting honesty.
For Christian Bale, who stars in Laurel Canyon, it was this
sincerity that attracted him to Lisa’s script in the first place.

“The story seemed to be so highly personal to her.
From working with Lisa, I know she has a great deal going on internally—always—even
if she doesn’t think she’s communicating it. I found her face to
be very easily readable, and I found myself kind of looking at her
rather than listening to her. I would imagine that her real enjoyment
comes through the writing of a film. I think she’s really more interested
in the whole emotional side of it. You get some directors who fall
in love with the whole technical side of it and the physical staging
of things, but she is definitely someone whose first love is the
whole emotional side of what’s happening.”

Lisa Cholodenko

Though Cholodenko admits that she concerns herself
with character before camera, what struck cinematographer Wally
Pfister was her understanding of how to let the technical aspects
move the storytelling forward. “Lisa is a sensitive filmmaker with
a keen sense of visual style and a great respect for the camera’s
role in storytelling. Together, we labored over finding the best
place to put the camera, whether to move it or not and the mood
of the environment that these characters were photographed in. I
love working with writer/directors like Lisa. I find they are the
most passionate about the characters and the story they’re telling.
This helps drive me to do my best work photographically.”

Making its premiere at Cannes in 2002, Laurel Canyon went on to screen at such venerable fests as Toronto and
Sundance before hitting theaters, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics,
this spring. Shot on a budget of just under $7 million, the film
explores the strained relationship between Jane (Frances McDormand)
a carefree music producer trying to complete her latest project,
and her straitlaced son, Sam (Christian Bale). Sam has moved back
to Los Angeles with his equally prudish fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale)
to begin his medical career. As Sam carpools to the hospital with
an attractive coworker (Natascha McElhone), Alex is left at home
to finish her dissertation. But she is slowly seduced by Jane’s
world, which includes her much younger lover, Ian (Alessandro Nivola),
the singer whose album she is producing.

Like High Art before it, Laurel Canyon tests
the boundaries of love and fidelity, revealing its characters—in
all their flawed glory—at their weakest. For Cholodenko, film is
a medium of authenticity, better suited to revealing our primal
fears and desires than our storybook dreams of love and romance. Laurel Canyon is her latest testament to the truth.

Jennifer Wood (MM): How did the
idea for
Laurel Canyon happen?

Lisa Cholodenko (LC): Well, the writing
was sort of a long process, but the germ of the idea happened in
the editing room when I was cutting High Art. My editor (she
was an LA person; I had met her in LA) had brought in the Joni Mitchell
record “Ladies of the Canyon.” I started looking at the cover of
that record and spinning the yarn about the people that used to
live up in Laurel Canyon—the Joni Mitchell types and the
sort of bohemian world that was up there in the early ’70s. I said,
that morning, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to set a film in that
world?’ So that was the germ—that’s where it started.

“She has a great deal going on internally,
even if she doesn’t think she’s communicating it.”
–Christian Bale

MM: How long was the writing process for
this film?

LC: It took me probably three years. I wasn’t
writing it full-time.
I was working, directing episodic television, rewriting and doing
jobs for hire.

MM: The tone of Laurel Canyon is
certainly lighter than High Art. Was this an intentional departure
for you? Were you looking to do something completely different?

LC: The idea for the story was organic. But
in the writing, I think it was important for me to try to turn the
comic-tragic more toward the comic. I was more interested in trying
to explore that part of myself. I didn’t really want to go back
into that dark territory that I did with High Art. Plus,
the film that Laurel Canyon was, there wasn’t really anything
particularly tragic about it!

MM: Both of your films have been distinctly
about “location.” How does place inform your writing and/or direction
of a film?

LC: I guess in a certain way, when I start
thinking about these things, I think simultaneously about place
and person. There’s some sort of character in place. Laurel Canyon much more so, because the idea sort of spawned from looking at a
picture—a watercolor—that Joni Mitchell painted of a Laurel Canyon
hillside. So it really started with place, then went to character
and then to situation.

MM: How do your dual roles of writer and
director inform each other when you’re working? When you’re writing
a script with the intention of directing it, are you thinking about
how you’re going to pull something off on-screen, or do you separate
the two roles?

LC: When I’m writing, I feel like I do a lot
of the preparatory work for directing. By the time the cast finally
gets on the set, I kind of feel like I’ve already imagined it all—a
little bit like a play in my imagination—so it makes the directing
more pleasurable, really.

Cholodenko with Kate Beckinsale and Bale on
the set of Laurel Canyon.

MM: Do you think even in terms of budget
when you’re writing, like ‘Well, I could do this shot, but that
means I’ll have to do things A, B and C as well, so I’ll just write
it differently.’

LC: Yeah. I thought that way much more with High Art, because we were basically doing it with a dime
and I didn’t have that much latitude to blowout my imagination.
But because I tend to focus on character, I don’t really have any
extravagant things I want to do. It’s more important to me to be
able to spend the time getting the character part of the story down.
I think I’m more willing than the next guy to lose things that are
visually interesting but expensive; those aren’t the things that
are most important to me.

MM: When you’re writing, do you have specific
people in mind? I guess I’m thinking of Frances McDormand in particular,
who really seemed so perfect for the role of Jane.

LC: No, I didn’t have her in mind at all. It
was just one of those beautiful sort of meant-to-be moments.

MM: Is there something that you think specific
actors—or the actors that you’ve worked with—have been able to bring
to a role that wasn’t on paper? With Frances McDormand, again, for
example. Was there something that she brought to the screen that
wasn’t there in the script but fit in well? Or was it just sort
of a perfect match of actor and material?

LC: I think it’s both things. What strikes
me in the question is that I felt about Frances very similar to
the way I felt about Patricia Clarkson in High Art. I think
what they both brought to their roles was humor. There was a sort
of acerbic subtext to these characters, but when I was interviewing
people or talking to them about those roles, the actors prior to
Patty Clarkson and Fran McDormand didn’t really capture that, which
was unfortunate for me. What made those characters wonderful in
the end was that those actors brought this kind of wry, acerbic
humor to them, and I think it makes both of those characters not
only more interesting and dynamic, but more loveable… [Frances]
is completely alive and present—and funny and irreverent. She’s
wonderful.

MM: The other thing that struck me about Laurel Canyon—being that this is so specifically an “American”
story—is that two of your lead actors, Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale,
are British.

LC: Yes, it was completely random. There was
really no sort of hidden agenda there; I wasn’t showing off or anything.
[laughs] It was the same in High Art—Rhada Mitchell is Australian.
You know, you write the thing and then you find the best person.

MM: I spoke with Wally Pfister, your DP,
a couple of weeks ago. He talked about your initial discussions
regarding
Laurel Canyon, and how you had wanted to make it
reminiscent of the New Hollywood films of the ’70s. Was there one
specific film that you were looking at? It seemed very much influenced
by
The Graduate.

"When I was writing the script, I kept
thinking
of The Graduate, because it seemed to have parallels.
And I liked that there were these funny sort of nods to that
film and inversions into the plot and plot lines.” —Cholodenko

LC: I think that, more than anything, The
Graduate
is just a really beloved film by me—and one of the
films that really inspired me to be a filmmaker along the way. But
I don’t think I saw it at the same time that I saw [Drugstore
Cowboy
or Sweetie]. When I was writing the script, I
kept thinking of The Graduate, because it seemed to have
parallels. And I liked that there were these funny sort of nods
to that film and inversions into the plot and plot lines.

I was very mindful of that in the years that I was
writing it and then, with Wally, I started talking about movies
that we could look at that had inspired my sensibility. We looked
at The Graduate, but just sort of scanned through it. Then,
as we sort of started, we thought ‘Let’s just lock the door and
sit here and really watch this movie.’ I believe that movie succeeds
on every level.

MM: What were some of the aspects of that
film—and of the films that came out of that period—that you were
interested in bringing into 2003? The obvious nods are the sort
of ambiguous ending; the affluent, California setting; the unconventional
families and relationships.

LC: Yeah, I think those things were sort of
particular to The Graduate. Another film we watched is Five
Easy Pieces
and [Robert] Altman’s films. I think Wally was a
big fan of Shampoo and Hal Ashby’s other movies. It’s really
kind of just what you’re saying: those films were both formal, in
that they moved forward—there wasn’t heavy plot per se, but there
was a definite story—and a kind of economy in the narrative expression.
It wasn’t a John Cassavetes film or a Wim Wenders film; they were
movie movies. But they did have these open endings and they did
take characters and follow them on these sort of existential journeys,
and that appealed to me.

MM: The end of the film is left open. As
author of the film, do you draw your own conclusions, or can you
see a few different things happening?

LC: Both. I can envision a few different things
happening. What I’ve said about the way that this film ends is that
what was more interesting to me—and kind of weirdly conclusive—is
that Christian Bale’s character is forced to consider this part
of himself that, prior to this point, has been repressed. It’s the
part that has to be open to chance and fate and things going off
on a course that wasn’t planned or anticipated. So, in that way,
he sort of has to face the truth that he’s probably more like his
mom than he had realized. And that was more interesting to me than
‘Does he run off with the first or second woman?’ Or ‘What’s he
going to do?’ Even though, in a plot way, that’s probably more the
question on people’s minds. MM

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