Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko broke out in 1998 with the film High Art about an ambitious magazine assistant played by Radha Mitchell who begins a relationship with the charismatic and tragic photographer played by Ally Sheedy. The film was a festival darling and won several accolades for the actresses and the filmmaker, who frequently elicits some of the greatest performances of her actors’ careers. In fact, performances, and their nuanced exploration of the behavioral intricacies of interpersonal relationships—the layers of subtext, the irrational flaring up of tempers and sexual heat—are the focus of much of Cholodenko’s work. Case in point, her second feature, Laurel Canyon (2002), lives in the delicate folds of character, and is full of phenomenal turns, from Frances McDormand as a charismatic record producer, to Christian Bale as her stuffy son, Kate Beckinsale as his curious new bride, and Alessandro Nivola as the bandleader who nearly seduces them all. The foursome weave together and tear apart in different groupings and shapes, exploring notions of sexuality, power and control, before reforming, yet again, on a rather romantic note toward the end.
After directing episodes of Six Feet Under and The L Word, Cholodenko went on to make her biggest splash with The Kids Are All Right (2010) with Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a married couple whose two adolescent kids go in search of their biological father, played by Mark Ruffalo. Bening and Ruffalo were nominated for their contrasting, but equally exquisite performances, as a stiff overachiever and a free spirit, respectively. The film also got nominations for Best Picture and for Cholodenko’s screenplay with Stuart Blumberg.
Cholodenko has now again teamed with McDormand in adapting the Pulitzer prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout for a mini series that premiered on HBO Sunday, November 2nd, and concluded on Monday. Again the performances that Cholodenko brings about are glittering, delicate, nuanced and riveting. And the show itself, following McDormand’s titular character, a stuffy school teacher, through a very bleak twenty-odd years, is somehow wonderfully charming and funny despite the grim fittings of the lives it holds. It’s an impressive achievement from a director at the top of her game. Here, I asked her how she pulled it off.