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December 10th, 2009 · No Comments

Laurel Canyon, 2003 poster Laurel Canyon DVD

Laurel Canyon (2003)
Written by Lisa Cholodenko
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Produced by Antidote Films/ Kuleshov Productions
MPAA rating: “R for sexuality, language and drug use”
Running time: 103 minutes

Should I Care?
Watching Lisa Cholodenko’s sophomore film the year it was released, I didn’t care much for it. Laurel Canyon never picks up the gauntlet thrown down by Pulp Fiction, L.A. Confidential or Boogie Nights, the modern day standard bearers of pop culture soaked decadence in the City of Angels. In a bummer, the characters actually seem intelligent and reasonably well-intentioned enough to keep from selling their souls to the devil. But what the movie lacks in visceral thrills it makes up for in a kind of finely honed reserve, recalling Five Easy Pieces or Shampoo, two ‘70s classics Cholodenko and her collaborators seem to be channeling here. Laurel Canyon is much better than generally given credit for at the time, a well crafted and strongly performed drama. This is one movie where the devil is definitely in the details.

The chief reason to see Laurel Canyon is Frances McDormand playing a record producer willing to own up to her failings while everyone around her traffics in bullshit. This includes her son, played by Christian Bale, before his earnestness as a master thespian got a bit ridiculous. Here, Bale’s scenes opposite McDormand are tense and poignant and ring true. Natascha McElhone and Alessandro Nivola — lonesome presences in the movies these days — are both insatiably watchable in supporting roles. Tip toeing away from exploitation, Cholodenko still delivers one of the most intensely erotic scenes between two clothed actors I’ve seen. Cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Catherine Hardwicke lend Laurel Canyon an exquisitely detailed look, one that needs a second viewing to appreciate.

Laurel Canyon, 2003, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale

So, What’s This About?
Leaving their lives in the Ivy League to begin promising careers in Los Angeles, Sam (Christian Bale) is to start a residency in psychiatry at a mental hospital, while his fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale) is finishing her Ph.D in genomics. They land at the Laurel Canyon enclave of Sam’s mother Jane Bentley (Frances McDormand), a record producer with a history of soured relationships, including the one with her son. Sam was under the impression that she’d vacated to her beach house in Malibu, but arrives to discover his uninhibited mom smoking a bong with four British pop rockers. Not only is Jane still at work on their album, she’s shacked up with the band’s charismatic frontman (Alessandro Nivola), a singer/songwriter her son’s age.

While Sam rejects the free wheeling environment he was raised and doesn’t approve of his mother’s choices, Alex loses interest in her dissertation and sits in on the band’s recording sessions, smoking some weed with Jane and being solicited for her musical opinion. Instead of looking for a house to rent, Alex begins spending more time with Jane and is drawn into that world. Meanwhile, an Israeli colleague named Sara (Natascha McElhone) starts giving Sam rides to work. His controlled, decisive nature attracts her, but Sam refuses to indulge his physical urges for his fellow psychiatrist. Realizing how distanced he’s become from his girlfriend, Sam heads to the band’s record release party at the Chateau Marmont. There, he finds out how deep his girlfriend has fallen into his mother’s orbit.

Laurel Canyon, 2003, Frances McDormand, Christian Bale

Who Made It?
Lisa Cholodenko grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Exposed to the experimental film program at San Francisco State as an undergrad, she lucked into a job as a post-production assistant on Boyz N the Hood and worked as an assistant editor on Used People. Cholodenko was accepted into the graduate film program at Columbia University, where director Milos Forman became one of her mentors. She wrote, produced and directed two acclaimed short films — Souvenir (1994) and dinner party (1997) — that dealt with the fractured love lives of female couples. Her feature film writing and directing debut High Art earned Cholodenko the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and revitalized the career of Patricia Clarkson, who co-starred with Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell.

Editor Amy Duddleston was cutting High Art with Cholodenko when she brought in Joni Mitchell’s 1970 LP “Ladies of the Canyon”. Inspired by what the songwriter’s life might have been like in that place and time, Cholodenko wrote a script, hoping to jump into her next film quickly. Reteaming with High Art producers Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and Susan Stover, the project took four years to get cast and financed. The director ultimately met Frances McDormand — game for a role that called for nudity — and once the Oscar winner was cast, Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale became interested. Levy-Hinte raised roughly $5 million in financing and was able to accommodate McDormand’s family schedule as well as the Cannes Film Festival, with Laurel Canyon finished in time to screen at the Director’s Fortnight in May 2002.

Laurel Canyon, 2003, Christian Bale, Natascha McElhone

How’d They Do It?
Lisa Cholodenko elaborated on the origin of her sophomore feature film. “I think the first germ of the story came when I was finishing up High Art. I was in the editing room in New York with my editor Amy Duddleston. We’d been cutting for a long time and to keep our energy up we took a lot of breaks and listened to a lot of music. One morning, Amy brought in the Joni Mitchell record ‘Ladies of the Canyon’. I hadn’t heard that record in a long time. We listened to it beginning to end. I was looking at the cover — a painting that Joni Mitchell did of a hillside up in Laurel Canyon where she lived at the time. We started spinning a yarn about people who lived up there: what their lives were like, what Joni Mitchell’s life must have been like.”

She continued, “Laurel Canyon is a strange island in the middle of Los Angeles: it’s a kind of time warp wedged between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. It has its own history and morality and culture that’s distinctive from anywhere else in L.A. It has a kind of hippie quality and it also has a timeless quality. It has a lawless quality to it as well, which seems to change each decade. Rumor has it was an outpost for Hollywood players to conduct their clandestine affairs and in the ‘60s and ‘70s it had the rock ‘n roll drug culture which gave way to a more seedy hard drug/ porno culture — the Boogie Nights era. Then recently there was a resurgence of the younger movie industry and nouveau music culture. I think it’s always been attractive to people who are less conventional or are interested in being identified with a culture that is less conventional.”

Laurel Canyon, 2003, Alessandro Nivola, Lou Barlow

Cholodenko hoped to get her second feature off the ground as soon as possible. That process took four years. She recalled, “And I’d say those four years were about half of the writing stage. I’m a slow writer and I’m a detailed writer and I had to work in between drafts, I guess. I went and directed some television and did other rewrite jobs and whatever. So it was about two and a half years later and we were ready to try to get this film made and October Films — who originally had the movie, was developing it before it had become USA Films — and by the time that we were sort of ready to get it rolling, USA not only in trouble and soon to become Focus Features, but decided to put it in turnaround. They wanted to do much, you know, sort of broader and bigger films.”

After USA Films officially lost interest in the summer of 2001, the prospect of Laurel Canyon being produced was looking unlikely. “Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and Susan Stover and I, we were moving on from High Art to sort of create an environment we had created on High Art, which was done independently and anyway, we realized that was how we were going to have to go and around that time, there was supposed to be a strike in the industry, a writers strike and an actors strike. So not only were we kind of at a stalemate with sort of getting studio money to make this movie, but we were figuring we’d kind of missed the window of opportunity because everyone was shutting down and there was no cast that was going to work because they were going to strike and the rest of it, so it was a pretty dark season with Laurel Canyon for a while.”

Laurel Canyon, 2003, Alessandro Nivola, Kate Beckinsale, Frances McDormand

Fortunately, the threatened 2001 actors strike never materialized. Then, the Academy Award winning Best Actress of Fargo read Cholodenko’s script and wanted to meet her. Frances McDormand recalled at the time, “I had this general idea that I wanted to do nudity. I’m 45 years old. A couple of years ago I decided, ‘All right, it’s time.’ I wasn’t really interested in that when I was 25. But now that I’m 45, I’m kind of pleased with myself.” She added, “There’s nothing wrong with middle-aged people expressing their sexuality on film. Lisa wrote a great part for a 45-year-old woman. It’s not because I get to be nude in a swimming pool, but because she’s an interesting person. Lisa was really conscientious in making her three-dimensional.” Once McDormand came aboard, other actors suddenly got interested.

Christian Bale appraised his collaboration with Lisa Cholodenko by stating, “The story seemed to be so highly personal to her. From working with Lisa, I know she has a great deal going on internally — always — even if she doesn’t think she’s communicating it. I found her face to be very easily readable, and I found myself kind of looking at her rather than listening to her. I would imagine that her real enjoyment comes through the writing of a film. I think she’s really more interested in the whole emotional side of it. You get some directors who fall in love with the whole technical side of it and the physical staging of things, but she is definitely someone whose first love is the whole emotional side of what’s happening.” With a cast finally coming together, producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s Antidote Films was able to raise around $5 million in financing.

Laurel Canyon, 2003, Natascha McElhone

Director of photography Wally Pfister — heavily in demand after shooting Memento and Insomnia for Christopher Nolan — signed up to work with Lisa Cholodenko on Laurel Canyon. He recalled, “From the outset, Lisa and I had a common language that we wanted to use in the storytelling of this film. It was based in par on films of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, by great filmmakers like Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. Not so much in the look of the films, but more in the tone and spirit of the storytelling.” Cholodenko confessed, “The big inspiration for this film was The Graduate. And another film I adore is Five Easy Pieces. Those are two classic films of young-person-on-existential-journey to deal with family, and the trappings of expectation, and sort out their identity on their own terms, and those kinds of things.”

Jeffrey Levy-Hinte owned a property in Santa Monica Canyon designed by architect Richard Neutra that he was planning to tear down and restore to its original architecture; production designer Catherine Hardwicke helped transform the location into Jane’s house. In the search for the music Jane would been working on, music supervisor Karyn Rachtman and Cholodenko settled on two songs written by Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse: “Someday I Will Treat You Good” and “Shade & Honey”. Alessandro Nivola lent his vocals to the tunes, while Lou Barlow, Imaad Wasif and Russ Pollard of Folk Implosion were cast as his bandmates. Production was scheduled to accommodate Frances McDormand, who lives in New York with husband Joel Coen and their (at that time) 8-year-old son. Laurel Canyon was finished in time for it to screen in the Director’s Fortnight of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

Laurel Canyon, 2003, Frances McDormand

While the filmmakers beat the clock getting Laurel Canyon finished, critics praised the film’s star and little else. J. Hoberman, The Village Voice: “The spectacle of pretty people floating languidly across the screen notwithstanding, Laurel Canyon is short on conviction and long on contrivance. McDormand, however, has a ball.” Manohla Dargis, The Los Angeles Times: “There wasn’t a moment in the film that I didn’t enjoy, but neither was there anything that got my mind or heart racing. Cholodenko is clearly talented but it’s less clear whether she’s afraid to push harder or whether this is as far as she can go.” Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: “Not a successful movie — it’s too stilted and pre-programmed to come alive — but in the center of it McDormand occupies a place for her character and makes that place into a brilliant movie of its own.”

Following a screening at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Sony Pictures Classics acquired domestic distribution rights to Laurel Canyon. A month later, Good Machine picked up international rights, but when the film opened March 2003 in the United States, it would tally only $3.6 million at the box office, adding $748,847 overseas. Cholodenko found the reaction very familiar. “What I find with High Art is people tell me they enjoy it a lot on the second and third viewing and I think with this film it’s sort of the same. There’s a lot of detail and I think it’s fun to go back and discover it after you’ve already seen the film, you’d be able to focus on different characters doing the different plotlines and stuff like that. The detailey stuff. That’s what I like in films. I’m kind of a detailey person.”

Laurel Canyon, 2003, Frances McDormand, Christian Bale

Where’d You Get All of This?
Laurel Canyon – Press Kit

“Lisa Cholodenko” By Jennifer M. Wood. MovieMaker, 21 March 2003

“Interview with Lisa Cholodenko” By Marty Mapes. Movie Habit, 3 April 2003

“Lady of the Canyon” By Steve Bloom. High Times, 4 April 2003

Laurel Canyon. DVD audio commentary with Lisa Cholodenko. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (2003)

“Cinematography Serves the Story” By Jennifer M. Wood. MovieMaker, 3 February 2007

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Coming of age · Mother/son relationship · Music · Psychoanalysis

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