Last night out director Lisa Cholodenko was honored at the Outfest Legacy Awards where she was given the Visionary Award for her work in film and television. The 51-year-old began her career as a filmmaker at Columbia University in the early ’90s, creating award-winning shorts that led her to write and shoot her first feature, High Art, the 1998 indie starring Ally Sheedy as a moody, drug-addled photographer and her relationship with her awe-struck neighbor (Radha Mitchell). The dark lesbian-themed film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won a screenwriting award at Sundance.
Her next film continued to explore queer themes, as Laurel Canyon (2002) put stars Kate Beckinsale and Frances McDormond into a peculiarly sexual scenario despite the former being engaged to the latter’s son (Christian Bale). The movie was about a record producer (Frances) whose eccentric and fluid lifestyle is at odds with her adult son’s search for stability. The writing, performances and story about the double-edged sword of success solidified Lisa Cholodenko’s brand of broodiness, one that was tantalizing enough to keep viewers wanting to stay for the fun but ready to leave when the ride was over. (It’s all fun and games until reality sets in.)
Between Laurel Canyon and her next film in 2010, Lisa directed episodes of Six Feet Under, The L Word and Hung, bringing her very specific sensibility to premium cable shows with queer creators and writers at the helm. But it was the movie starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a middle-age lesbian couple of mothers to two teenagers that gained her the most amount of notoriety thus far. The Kids Are All Right was well-liked at Sundance and distributed nationwide by Focus Features. Based on her real life experience having children with her partner and an anonymous sperm donor, the story followed the imagined scenario of children looking to meet the person behind the donated sperm. In the film, that person was played by Mark Ruffalo, a womanizing restauranteur who ends up sleeping with Jules (Julianne Moore). Despite the movie having the distinction of being one of the first to focus on a lesbian couple and their family and significant star power attached, many LGBT viewers were less than thrilled about the storyline. The film went on to win a Golden Globe (Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy) and the Teddy Award at Berlinale. It also racked up nominations at the Academy Awards and the BAFTAs, and grossed more than $34 million worldwide.
Since then, Lisa has returned to television for NBC’s The Slap and her most recent, the multiple Emmy-award winning mini-series Olive Kitteridge. Lisa herself won a Golden Globe and Emmy for her direction of the series that reunited her with Frances McDormond and was adapted by out screenwriter Jane Anderson. Both series were without any LGBT themes or characters, a departure for Lisa whose Outfest award was very much about her work for and about the community.
“Really, my stuff is about sort of transcending the gay theme, really, and finding what’s kind of connective about everybody and finding sameness,” Lisa said on the red carpet. “I write from my own experience and things that are interesting to me or concerning to me, so oftentimes they are gay characters and gay themes, but it isn’t my uber agenda–to me, what’s interesting is how weird people are, whether they’re gay or straight.”
But that doesn’t mean that Lisa is not looking to create more queer work. She’s currently developing a new series with HBO after an adaptation of The Kids Are All Right didn’t work out.
“I think we kind of went around that block and I wrote a pilot that I think is great,” Lisa said of the adaptation. “Maybe I’ll return to it, but I’m kind of interested in other things right now. Of course I want to see [lesbian characters]. I want to spend my time writing about them and thinking about them. I’m sure I’ll find a way to sneak it all in there–or not sneak it.”
Lisa said she’s consistently shocked to hear what project of hers is someone’s favorite.
“Everybody always has a different one,” she said. “It always surprises me. Yesterday, somebody did say [High Art was theirs] and I’m always really happy when that happens because it was a while ago.” (I joke about a sequel and she says, “I don’t know, didn’t somebody die? I guess I could make something up!”)
In recent discussions over the lack of women being hired for directing jobs in film and television, Lisa’s name is one that is frequently brought up as a candidate that any studio or production team would be lucky to have. But like a recent conversation had with Jamie Babbit, the issue also has to do with the kinds of work Lisa and other queer women (and even women at all) want to make.
“You know, it’s like a profound thing when you’ve been working really hard for a long time. I’m going on almost 20 years of working and I really care about my work,” Lisa said. “I make choices that aren’t always financially lucrative choices. I mean, I work from the place that I want the films to have special, enduring quality and have integrity. So to have done and that and get to a place where people are like, ‘We see what you do and we value it,’ I still won’t make money but at least I’m valued.”
Instead, some of the jobs that get sent her way are those that wouldn’t feel right; the kind of work that would surely bring in more money but lack the kind of sincerity and strength Lisa is looking to put her limited time and energy into.
Lisa with fellow honoree Tom Hanks
“It’s horrible. I wish I was more mercenary,” she said. “It’s just a hard job and for me, it’d be just almost dreadful to throw myself that hard into something I didn’t love.”
Recently John Cooper, the director of the Sundance Film Festival, told Vulture that Lisa is among the women directors he’d suggest Hollywood to make more use of, praising “her understanding of complicated characters.” Producer Donna Gigliotti echoed the sentiment, saying she also knows Lisa “plays well with others,” adding “That’s part of the résumé, right?” High Art star Patricia Clarkson also vouched for Lisa, saying she worships her (alongside two other great women directors, Isabel Coixet and Ruba Nadda): “They get it. They get you on a cellular level, and it’s organic and it’s lovely and they’re remarkable people. They happen to be great directors because they’ve lived and they’ve loved and they have lives. And they bring that to the table, and that’s my favorite part of them.”
It takes a special kind of director to be able to be a masterful storyteller when it’s both something they wrote themselves, and something they did not; to deliver the same kind of attention to detail and poignancy of character and drive to bring a fully-fleshed out piece of real life to the screen. Lisa Cholodenko has that ability and we’re a generation that will hopefully continue to benefitting from her hard-earned but ever-present gift. Even those who might have found parts of her work polarizing cannot find it without merit. She is a true visionary, and, like most artists, she doesn’t mind if you don’t share that vision. But if you do, you’re in great company.