Unsung Auteurs: Lisa Cholodenko

August 18, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: the artful and offbeat Lisa Cholodenko, who directed The Kids Are All Right, Laurel Canyon and High Art.

For a male director, being at the helm of a film nominated for four Oscars would pretty much provide an open door for at least a few years of solid work for the big screen. Most male directors would also be gifted a few opportunities to fail before being sent off into exile. But how did this pan out for writer/director Lisa Cholodenko? In 2010, her acclaimed comedy drama The Kids Are All Right received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and two in the Best Supporting Actor categories. An authentic, sharply written and wonderfully performed film about issues that matter, The Kids Are All Right scored great reviews and was appreciated by those audiences that saw it. Despite this, Lisa Cholodenko has not directed a film since.

This gifted, highly creative director has, indeed, been directing absolutely exceptional TV projects (including the top-tier limited series Olive Kitteridge with Frances McDormand and Unbelievable with Toni Collette and Merritt Weaver) since The Kids Are All Right, and there may very well be a whole host of reasons why she hasn’t directed a film since delivering one that received four Oscar nominations. But it just seems a little strange to us that Lisa Cholodenko’s very obvious talents haven’t been put to better and more frequent use on the big screen. A visual stylist with a true knack for offbeat characters, Lisa Cholodenko is a true Unsung Auteur.

Lisa Cholodenko on set.

Born in 1964 and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Cholodenko received a BA in anthropology and ethnic studies from San Francisco State University, where she was a teaching assistant for author, philosopher and renowned activist Angela Davis. Always interested in film, Cholodenko made her firsts moves into the industry in the early nineties, when she worked as an apprentice editor on John Singleton’s game-changing Boyz n the Hood. Cholodenko then moved into the editorial department, working as an assistant editor on Beeban Kidron’s Used People, Brett Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man, and Gus Van Sant’s To Die For. She also studied screenwriting and directing at Columbia University’s School Of The Arts, and wrote and directed a number of short films during her studies, including Souvenir (1994) and Dinner Party (1997), which aired on European television and picked up a number of awards.

While still at Columbia, Cholodenko wrote and directed her first feature film in 1998. Stunningly shot, poetically written, and acted with profound depth and feeling, High Art remains something of a rarity, even for indie American cinema. A highly complex lesbian romance, the film’s characters avoid stereotyping at every turn, and are allowed to freely develop – deep, fructuous flaws and all – just as a heterosexual couple would in a straight romantic drama. Australian actress Radha Mitchell is great in her first international role as a young intern at a magazine who falls under the thrall of a jaded, too-cool lesbian photographer, played with bravura flair by Ally Sheedy in arguably her best performance.

Radha Mitchell and Ally Sheedy in High Art.

A superb debut, the artful and poetic High Art was positively reviewed, won an award at The Sundance Film Festival, and played to acclaim at The Cannes Film Festival. It marked a very, very auspicious start to Lisa Cholodenko’s directing career. When we were making it and cutting it, I always felt like it had a kind of honesty to it that was effective for me,” the director told Indiewire in 1998. “But I knew also that it had a pace and a tone that might not work for general audiences. I was concerned about it. It’s much more European in its approach. It’s languid, and it takes a while for it to unfold. I was prepared for it not to work in terms of reaching audiences. So I can’t tell you how thrilling and satisfying it is to know that people are interested in looking at films like this. All the way through, from getting into Sundance, to the response there, to the positive journalists’ response and getting to Cannes, has been great. It’s just been amazing. It makes me hopeful.”

Cholodenko directed some very classy TV (Six Feet Under, Homicide: Life On The Street) before proving that High Art was no first-time fluke. Cholodenko’s follow-up film, 2002’s Laurel Canyon, was just as expertly off-beat, thoughtful, and engaging. Set amongst the flashy music biz bohemia of LA’s famed Laurel Canyon, the film follows four disparate characters: legendary music producer Jane (Frances McDormand); her much younger lover, British musician Ian (Alessandro Nivola); Jane’s conservative son Sam (Christian Bale); and his fiancé Alex (Kate Beckinsale). When Sam and Jane move in temporarily with Jane whilst completing their medical school studies in Los Angeles, two very different worlds collide.

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

Beautifully evoking the famously freewheeling vibe of its eponymous LA artists’ enclave, Laurel Canyon is a stylish, funky look at where sexual experimentation can take you, and at how even unconventional families are families nonetheless. The film’s excellent cast are all on top form, and Cholodenko ingeniously concocts a keen-eyed love letter to America of the sixties and seventies through McDormand’s fascinatingly flawed hippy character. “Growing up in LA, I was always attracted to people who were of the generation right before my own – people who grew up in the late ’60s, early ’70s,” Cholodenko said upon the film’s release. “People who caught the tail end of a more experimental ‘love, sex, drugs, music’ culture than my own. My coming of age was sort of at the age of a new conservatism; it was a kind of disco-into-Reagan thing.”

A wonderfully evocative look at LA’s music scene, Laurel Canyon is sadly under-loved these days, and deserves a little overdue recognition. From there, Cholodenko moved onto more high quality episodic TV (Push, Nevada, The L Word), and the TV movie Cavedweller. Her first feature length project that Cholodenko didn’t write herself, the little seen 2004 drama stars Kyra Sedgwick as a musician who returns to her small hometown in an effort to reunite with the two daughters that she had abandoned many years prior, which also puts her on a course to confront her abusive, alcoholic ex-boyfriend (Aidan Quinn). “It’s a new frontier for me because I won’t have anything to do with the writing of it,” Cholodenko told Film Freak Central just before starting work on Cavedweller. “It’s exciting to just be able to throw yourself into the directing aspect of it and not have to hole yourself away for years with a script just hacking away at it.”

Lisa Cholodenko with Annette Bening and Julianne Moore on the set of The Kids Are All Right.

2010 saw the release of Cholodenko’s biggest film with the aforementioned The Kids Are All Right. Fresh, humorous and emotionally involving, this winning comedy drama revolves around a decidedly non-mainstream family: mothers, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), and their two teenage children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Their comfortable world is thrown into a spin, however, when Joni and Laser track down Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a middle-aged hippie and restaurateur, and also the sperm donor who made their very lives possible. Penned by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, it’s a set-up packed with possibility, and the director gets everything out of it, ultimately delivering something wonderfully moving and true. “The impetus to write this was my own domesticating,” Cholodenko explained to Pop Entertainment upon the film’s release. “My girlfriend and I were trying to figure out how to have a family, how to have a kid, and we decided to go with an anonymous sperm donor. That was a big project, figuring that out, selecting a person. Then I did get pregnant. I had a kid, and all the while we kept coming back to this script and developing it.”

A filmmaker of great skill with an eye on both the arthouse and the multiplex, Lisa Cholodenko makes movies filled with original, flawed, likeable characters dealing with the muck and confusion of family dysfunction and everyday life. Hers is a unique, compelling vision, and we’d all be better for seeing much, much more of it.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Robert Greenwald, Phyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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