BWW at the Movies: 'The Kids Are All Right'
Despicable Me was this weekend's box office champ in total revenue and audience size, but a much smaller movie posted what may be the most impressive figure in ticket sales. The Kids Are All Right, an independent film that was shot in three weeks and centers on a lesbian family, took in an average of $70,282 at the seven theaters where it opened in limited release. That's more than four times the per-screen average of $16,225 earned by big-budget multiplex filler Despicable Me.
Kids—which was shot on film, not digital video—had opened to rave reviews and instant Oscar talk last Friday, and will go into wider release later this month. The movie did come with some prerelease buzz, thanks to an enthusiastic reception at January's Sundance Film Festival, where Focus Features purchased it for $4.8 million, the highest amount paid for any film in this year's festival.
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as Nic and Jules, a couple with two teenage children fathered by the same anonymous sperm donor. Shortly before she leaves home for college, the 18-year-old daughter, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), is persuaded by her younger brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), to locate the donor—who turns out to be a scruffy, carefree but supremely charming Mark Ruffalo. He cultivates a unique and uniquely fraught relationship with each member of the family—which is already on edge due to the mothers' bickering and the kids' growing pains.
Cholodenko, who'd previously written and directed the movies High Art and Laurel Canyon, cowrote Kids with Stuart Blumberg. Noticeably absent from their new movie: any grandstanding, or commentary even, about same-sex marriage. Noticeably present in the movie: spot-on casting and marvelous performances by all five stars as well as the actors in smaller roles, including Yaya DaCosta as Paul's coworker/lover. The leads work together beautifully as an ensemble—and very convincingly as a family—and give moving, naturalistic performances. Bonus for theater fans: Ruffalo and Bening are both stage veterans and Tony nominees, while Moore and DaCosta were seen recently in Broadway's The Vertical Hour and off-Broadway's The First Breeze of Summer, respectively. And Joni's best friend is played by Zosia Mamet, daughter of David (and actress Linsday Crouse) and granddaughter of playwright Russel Crouse.
BroadwayWorld was on hand for press interviews with some actors and the screenwriters of The Kids Are All Right, conducted in New York City a week before the movie opened. Here are excerpts from those interviews.
What attracted you to this film?
It was always Lisa. I met her at a Women in Film lunch and went over, introduced myself and asked why I hadn't seen the script to High Art. It was like, "Excuse me, but I could have done that job!" Terrible, very actor-y. And we had a meeting, and then Kids came along. But in independent film, it takes forever to get financing, and real life intrudes—she had a baby—so it took 4½ or 5 years [to begin shooting].
There's a strong sense of realism and intimacy to the characters in this movie. How did Lisa work with the actors to draw that out?
It's present in the script. And she's very well-prepared, she has a very relaxed attitude herself. If you look at her movies, you see she's so interested in subtlety and nuance. She doesn't like a broad stroke. She really likes things to play out on people's faces.
How come you and Annette make such a convincing married couple?
What we have going for us is we've both been married for a super-long time, and we both have children. She has four, I have two. The family-unit thing was pretty darn familiar to us. And for the kids as well—Josh and Mia. They were both still living at home.
The two mothers in the movie are about to lose one of their kids when she goes away to college. Is that something you've started thinking about in your own life?
My oldest child is 12½, he's really on the cusp of adolescence. So it's something that you see coming. And it's so poignant. My gosh, it's a lot to handle—for everybody. The whole movie is so poignant because it takes place in the last summer that they're going to have an intact family. And they all know it, and they all have that pressure: How are we going to make this count? You see it in all of them.
How do you reconcile Jules' bad behavior, particularly her firing the gardener just because he knows one of her naughty secrets?
That's what's great: What a selfish, bourgeois pain in the neck she is. It's great to see somebody do that in a film. She's so guilt-ridden, she's scapegoating somebody else. What's wonderful too is she acknowledges it: "I'm so f—-ed up." She doesn't say anything about [how he is affected]. She knows she's doing it as a way to alleviate her own guilt, and then she's aware of it and guilty about that, and then she makes herself conveniently forget it. In life, people have abhorrent behavior. You might think that we're all so sainted and stuff, but get on an airplane sometimes. Watch how people talk to a flight attendant.
There's comedy in this film, and you also just did a stint on the sitcom 30 Rock. Would you like to do more comedy?
The older you get, the less appealing tragedy becomes! [Laughs] That's where I find myself.
What does your character, Paul, have in common with you?
I thought it was a really interesting turn on a kind of American iconoclast figure, this Peter Pan bachelor who lives his life purely for his own pleasure. A lot of us have looked up to people like that, and wanted to be them.... I think I approach life and people with the same kind of attitude as Paul has. He has a fairly open heart, he's not too judgmental of people, he's interested and he's adventuresome. He's got a sense of humor to him that I relate to. I don't have the confidence that he has, I never had the confidence with ladies that he has. I wish that I'd found a sperm bank when I was in my early 20s—think of all the wasted talent!
How do you feel about the outcome for your character?
Growth is painful, and he gets spanked [as a consequence of his behavior]. But I like to think that he's going to have a relationship with his kids. You go from the beginning of the movie—that guy doesn't have to beg a woman for anything, and would never do it—to begging Julie to stay with him, and begging his daughter to forgive him, and even that look to his son is begging for some connection. I think that's a big change for him.
What was it like making The Kids Are All Right at the same time you were working on your directorial debut, Sympathy for Delicious—and having both screened at Sundance?
I directed my film [and] was in post when I got the call for this. It didn't look like it was going to work out with my schedule. It was literally shooting when I had to deliver my movie. I'd been away from my family, it was a tough year, and I needed a break. So it looked like it wasn't going to happen, which was really heartbreaking for me. My wife was texting Julie: "What's up with that movie?...Mark loves that movie....What's going on with it?" And she [responded]: "The part's open—would he do it?" "He won't talk about anything else!" So it came together. I was still editing [Sympathy] when we shot it. But I only ended up working about seven days on this. It was a wild ride at Sundance. My movie opened to some really mean-spirited reviews, which eventually turned around, but the first round was very painful. This movie was such a huge success immediately out of the gate, and then my movie taking a Special Jury Prize at Sundance—it turned out to be this incredibly drastic swing between elation and depression throughout.
Do you have friends with gay parents that you spoke to in preparing for this role?
No, but my two best friends are both gay, so I've been raised with gay rights and equal rights as one of my biggest morals in my family. I had two uncles who unfortunately passed away of AIDS before I was born, and my mom was super-super-close to them, so it's a very poignant thing in my life.
What do you make of Laser's relationship with Paul and how it changes over the course of the film?
I think Laser ends up having the most accurate read of Paul—in the beginning, when he says, "He's a little into himself." It turns out to be so true. I also think Laser has certain expectations about what Paul is going to be like—some sort of manly man—and he sees this guy who's an organic Silver Lake, California, type.
What about Laser's friend Clay, who's kind of a jerk?
Well, first of all, I think any guy has to have males around him in his life. The way I justified Laser and Clay being friends is: They've been friends for a while; when they first met, Clay was a good kid, they had a lot in common. Then maybe Clay started going down this other path, and Laser—not really knowing any better—went down the path with him, just being a loyal friend. When Paul comes around, and Paul becomes a friend more so than a dad, he sees a different type of guy.
Did Lisa ever tell you why your character was named Laser?
I just found out like two days ago where it came from. Stuart and Lisa both separately knew the same person named Laser, and they figured Laser would be a good name for my character. Joni got an awesome name based on Joni Mitchell, and I got Laser just because.
What did you learn from Lisa that you hadn't gotten from other directors?
Lisa just has a great energy about her. Up until I worked with her, directing to me was based on who gave the best words for direction. But she has this super-creative, warm energy about her, and that helps an actor a lot. Also, I think it takes a great director to allow an actor to do what he wants and to have the confidence in the script and the performance that it's going to give them what they want.
There's no definition of drama or comedy in this film. It's kind of like, life is the genre. I think it's very rich because of that. Even in the most tragic situations in life, there's sometimes funny moments. The script really captures that; the dialogue Lisa and Stuart wrote is so real.
You've been making movies since you were 10. Do you ever get bored on set?
I love bonding with the crew. Ever since I was a little kid, anytime I had a break I had to go to school. I always wanted to just be on set and be with everybody and relax and enjoy it. I've always been into learning what the grips do, what the camera guys do, what the electricians do. If I'm not working on set, you'll probably find me in the camera truck, or hanging out with the crew talking about different films, how things work and stuff like that.
What's your take on Tanya, the woman you portray?
She reminds me of women I know: a free spirit, a traveler but still grounded—and confident. I was attracted to her, but also really attracted to the whole script. Even before knowing everyone that was involved, I could tell that it was something that I hadn't seen before.
What's at the heart of her relationship with Paul?
I wasn't asking too much of him. Because I worked for him, I wouldn't jeopardize either my job or our friendship by demanding too much as "his woman." We just kept it casual, 'cause that's what he's comfortable with. I think she wasn't surprised [when Paul reconsiders their affair] because ever since he dropped the news on her that the kids contacted him, even though you don't see it on film, I imagine that every day that he hung out with them, he would come back to work that night and she would notice the change in his behavior, the change in how he related to her.
Most of your scenes are with Mark. Tell us about working with him.
He's an extremely generous actor. If we did multiple takes of something, it was always different, because we were always communicating. And a complete gentleman as well, which is nice when you have to do an intimate scene.
What's the main thing you're taking away from this film?
I don't know if it was so much the experience of making it, or now feeling the excitement, feeling that people are finally ready for a film like this...that people are receptive to it. Hearing from people that they'd go into the theater thinking "this film about lesbians," but immediately they forgot that this was a family with two mothers, and they were sucked into the story and seeing these characters are human. That's really refreshing, and it's just wonderful to be part of a project that is exciting and different and has an impact.
You've done some modeling in addition to acting. Is it easy to move from one to the other?
I actually don't think it's a natural transition. I've tried to model to support my acting career—I was unsuccessful at it. Still, I met a lot of models who were like, "Hey, I want to act. Can I come take classes with you? Can you help me out?" I felt like I was at a loss for advice because I think it's a very difficult transition. I've been taking classes since I was a kid, so it's not something I take lightly, and I think I resented it a little bit when people were like, "Yeah! What's the big deal to start acting?" The kinds of roles that I'm looking for are a little meatier. I know what I look like, so I know maybe I won't get to do as much character work. But I definitely take the job seriously.
This film had a long gestation period. When did you and Lisa start working on it?
We met up in the spring of '04. We talked about how she was trying to write a script about two moms with kids from a sperm donor, and I said that I was a sperm donor in college and always wondered "What would happen if...?" And at that moment we said maybe we should try to do this together. I think it was in the fall of '04, we started outlining, and that winter we started writing.
The script's strength seems to be in what's not said, and how well developed the characters are even if there's not necessarily a lot of plot per se. Was that the intention?
It's certainly not very plotty. It's very much a subtext-y movie. There are markers in the story—there are plot points—and around that, we felt we wanted to explore sort of the unconscious of people's behavior. That was actually the thing that moved the story forward. For instance, Jules unconsciously takes this job with Paul, they both unconsciously feed off of each other's energy, and there's an unconscious intimacy—they have a kid together—so there's all this stuff operating under the surface that we're sort of playing around purposefully, to show how so much of the action is unconscious. That was a very deliberate decision. The whole arc of the movie for us is about getting conscious.
Balancing comedy and drama can prove to be difficult. If you go too far out in one extreme, it's hard to come back. You have to make both tones believable in the same universe. The other hard thing was giving each character their day in court. We showed their strengths and weaknesses, we showed why they were redeemable, why they were angry-making, why they were—basically—human. And to balance all five takes a lot of juggling.
Are there any similarities between this movie and the studio pictures you wrote, Keeping the Faith and The Girl Next Door?
One thing that's the same in each is that there's an outsider who comes in and shakes up a world—whether it's Jenna Elfman shaking up Edward Norton's, or Elisha Cuthbert shaking up the kid's world as a porn star, or Mark Ruffalo coming in and shaking it up. I'm very fascinated by transitional times that are catalyzed by the outside.
Did it take some adjusting to go from making a studio film to an indie?
The independent world is built around writer-directors like Lisa. The reason I think Lisa and I have survived our writing marriage is because we both recognize what we get from the other, and she's very generous about that. I've never been treated as well as I'm treated by Focus. And that's the payback for getting paid basically nothing for five years' work, as opposed to getting paid a lot of money [from a studio]. I try to do in my mainstream movies what I do here, but I have to tone it down a little bit. What I was allowed to do here—and why I wanted to work with Lisa, in this environment, where the stakes were so low—was to have the freedom. I didn't want to hear any more can'ts, where I would write these scenes and then people would say, "You can't have that. You can't show this, can't show that."
What do you want audiences to take away from The Kids Are All Right?
We worked really hard to make it apolitical, to subvert the politic of it. We really tried hard to make a film that was about the value of family, and not just in a soapboxy way but in, like, you know what? It's messy and it gets broken and you can glue it back together, and if there's a will and a commitment, then there's a way to muscle through difficult time—in long-term marriages and between family members.
You had your first child while developing the script. Did that have an effect on the film?
Yeah. It's good that I had the kid in there, because it definitely informed how I could understand these moms. I think that all the tensions that come up between the moms in some way are inflected by or have to do with the children. I could really identify with that. For anybody who has kids, a lot of the tensions that happen in a marriage are because of this over-involvement and love and concern about the kids. It's a complicated dance.
And did it help having Julianne remain attached to the film, even as it took several years to come to fruition?
It was great. At times where I felt "We're never going to crack it...it's not where I want it to be...it's not this, it's not that," knowing that she was checking in with me periodically and holding her ground was very motivating and inspiring.
What kind of director are you?
I am mean. I come in with a cattle prod, and I humiliate. [Laughs] No, I'm kind of the opposite. We worked on the script for a very long time, so I felt like the material was really there, and they got it. I could feel it. That makes my job as a director a lot easier, and I know that's not always the case. Once I felt I'd cast the right people and the script was in the right spot and I had pulled together the right people to technically work on the film, I really hung back. I felt very confident. There was not a lot of time to walk off the set and have a big analysis, or rethink things, or scrap a location or whatever. We shot in 23 days.
Did this project change you at all as a director?
One thing I learned is that if you're going to write an original script, it makes a better film and it's worth it to keep working on it till you feel like it's alive. It's a weird thing to say, because I was being supported by my partner and it was grueling and I felt insecure a lot of the time, but in the end, had I not done that, I don't think the film would resonate nearly as well as it resonates with people. It's something that I knew from other experiences, but it proved itself again.
Photos of Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Hutcherson, Yaya DaCosta, Mark Ruffalo with Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska from The Kids Are All Right by Suzanne Tenner/Focus Features. Photo of Lisa Cholodenko by Jason Merritt/Getty Images North America. Homepage photo by Suzanne Tenner/Focus Features.