Anatomy of a Contender: 'The Kids Are All Right'
Bringing Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian-mom comedy to the big screen was a seven-year marathon.
In June 2009, a month before shooting began on The Kids Are All Right, the prospect of making a film about the teenage kids of two lesbian moms who meet their biological father was starting to look less than promising.
In the middle of one of the worst economic climates for indie filmmaking in some time, several bits of bad news happened all at once: The film’s bond company, Film Finances Inc., told producers they needed to cut several scenes because there was no way the highly regarded screenplay could be shot in a tight 23-day schedule. To make matters worse, star Annette Bening would only participate in the film if it was shot in California, where she lived, instead of New York, where the movie originally was supposed to be shot in order to accommodate co-star Julianne Moore.
Suddenly, the crew was having flashbacks to the Black Christmas of 2005, when funding fell through and preproduction stopped after Peace Arch Entertainment, the film’s initial backer, withdrew.
The film eventually got made, of course: It became a hit at Sundance, then a word-of-mouth sensation. But on the road to nearly universal praise and enthusiastic audience support, the making of The Kids Are All Right is a tale of taking life’s challenges and making them work for the better. Consider it a coincidence that the film itself, about two moms who will do almost anything to give their kids a normal childhood, explores similar themes.
The road to making the film began in 2003, when Laurel Canyon helmer Lisa Cholodenko decided to have a child. Visiting sperm clinics to research potential fathers and reviewing their self-written bios, Cholodenko “spent time meditating on what it would be like for my child,” she says. “What fantasies about their father will my kid have in growing up? And if they should ever meet, how complicated would it be for this man to see this awesome child?”
Cholodenko began writing but hit writer’s block -- until one day, when she ran into an old friend, writer Stuart Blumberg (Keeping the Faith), who let slip that he had been a sperm donor himself. Cholodenko invited him to become her writing partner, and during the next couple of years, as they wrote, they played one game after another of “What if? …”
Both agreed that the characters shouldn’t be one-dimensional, adding quirky personality traits to each. Cholodenko ripped some characteristics, like sperm-donor dad Paul’s (Mark Ruffalo) love of motorcycles and art, directly from the sperm-donor applications she saw.
But the duo soon realized they had different tastes: Cholodenko’s were edgier and more arty, Blumberg’s more commercial. Somehow they soldiered on, however, and by 2005 had produced a 140-page script. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, a producer who had worked on Cholodenko films including High Art and Laurel Canyon, started taking the script around Hollywood. “All the major studios and distributors read it and admired it,” he says. “But most weren’t willing to take that kind of risk.”
Eventually, Peace Arch stepped up and committed a few million dollars, enough to begin shooting in late 2005 or early 2006. Moore, Robin Wright, Ewan McGregor and Evan Rachel Wood were set to star, and a shoot was planned for either Maplewood, N.J., or Brooklyn.
Then everything fell apart.
Without explaining why, Peace Arch suddenly told the filmmakers it would need several months before putting money into the film, and the deal soon unraveled. The delay caused Moore to fall out because she had to begin work on another film. Then Cholodenko got pregnant and could hardly imagine directing during her second trimester.
During Christmastime 2005, the film was put on hiatus. Most movies never recover from that status, but Cholodenko and Blumberg never gave up. They got back together to refine the script, making it less dark and adding a good dose of humor -- like the scenes between the precocious kids (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska) and hipster Paul -- to give it more commercial appeal.
Cholodenko also started thinking of casting Bening as Nic, the breadwinner of the family -- the role Wright would have played. Searching for a connection, she found that her partner’s twin sister knew a friend of the actress.
At a local coffee shop in Brentwood, Calif., a “chance” meeting was planned: Cholodenko strolled up to Bening, along with their mutual acquaintance, and a script soon was sent over. Bening signed on. During the following months, the actress was methodical in her preparation, peppering Cholodenko with questions and encouraging her in the lighter direction she was heading.
“The script was always well-written,” Bening says. “But I really didn’t want the characters to be too earnest. I don’t think a story about two well-meaning moms would have worked without the wit and the edge.”
The new version picked up key backing from Gilbert Films and Mandalay Vision -- only to hit that second roadblock when the completion-bond company hit the brakes in summer 2009.
A month before production was scheduled to begin, Overture Films offered the filmmakers a distribution guarantee, plus a small advance. It was a tempting offer, but producers had promised its lead cast profit participation on the backend and needed the financial upside of a big payday down the road. So the producers decided to be as lean as possible in shooting the film and shoulder the risk that a buyer would turn up at Sundance.
In July 2009, Moore agreed to shoot in Los Angeles, and the cast and crew set up shop in Echo Park for the 23-day shoot.
Despite Moore’s attachment to the role, she and Cholodenko hadn’t talked much about her character, Jules, who sacrifices her career to raise the kids but still has a tinge of curiosity about what else life has to offer.
“I take all my information from the script,” Moore says. “If it’s not in the script, I don’t usually ask questions because I like to figure it out myself.” Co-star Ruffalo had already done so: He showed up to the set on a motorcycle, completely in character. “Living in Hollywood, I’ve seen these types of people,” he says. “They live by their own rules, and that’s what makes them so compelling. At the same time, it’s slightly tragic.”
So was the shooting schedule. With just three weeks to film, several scenes -- including an arc about Nic’s pressures as a doctor -- had to be cut. “Any scene that didn’t have two or more members of the family had to be put on the chopping block,” Levy-Hinte says.
Later, that eased the editing process, as almost every scene remained in the finished product. When producers looked at the first cut in October 2009, a sense of relief permeated the room: The movie’s richly drawn portrait of a modern family hit all the right notes.
Audiences felt the same way. When the movie premiered at Sundance in January, it drew gales of laughter -- and a bidding war between Focus Features and Summit Entertainment.
Years earlier, Focus CEO James Schamus had passed; now, he felt he’d made a huge mistake. After an all-night negotiating session in Utah, he repaired his error: Focus paid slightly less than $5 million for domestic rights.
Schamus decided to release the film in the summer in a classic case of counterprogramming against the warm-weather blockbusters. He created a marketing plan that would reach out to core art house and gay audiences and expand further upon its word-of-mouth. Schamus realized the quality of the film and critical buzz would do the heavy lifting but knew it would be wise to underplay the comedy in marketing so as to give audiences some unexpected enjoyment in the theater.
“When we first looked at the script, we had a complete failure to believe this would work,” Schamus recalls. “But in the end, Lisa pulled off a miracle and created a wonderfully honest and extraordinarily funny story. That’s why it worked so well.”
THE L WORKS: A sampling of lesbian-themed movie hits of the past 30 years
1. Fried Freen Tomatoes (1991) -- $82.4M
2. The Hours (2002) -- $41.7M
3. Monster (2003) -- $34.5M
4. Chasing Amy (1997) -- $12M
5. Boys Don't Cry (2000) -- $11.6M
6. Kissing Jessica Stein (2002) -- $7.1M
7. The Hunger (1983) -- $6M
8. Personal Best (1982) -- $5.7M