The inspiration behind writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s second feature, “Laurel Canyon,” was twofold. “I grew up in L.A.,” Cholodenko explained during a recent Dallas interview. “I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. As a kid I went through the Canyon a lot to get to the city. I had my own sort of–I don’t know if it was completely articulated in my imagination, but I had sort of a sensibility about the place and a curiosity about it.” Years later, after making her first film, the highly regarded “High Art” (1997), she was reminded of her interest by noticing the cover of Joni Mitchell’s 1970 album “Ladies of the Canyon” one day: “When I looked at that record cover that morning, it brought back all those feelings and memories that I had when I was driving through it. It struck me–I wondered about who was up there and what happened up there.”
The character of Laurel Canyon led to the shape of the script. “It has a history of attracting iconoclastic types, and its proximity to Hollywood makes it a nice sort of enclave,” Cholodenko said. “I think when I first thought maybe I’d write a film about a musical personality, somebody that was somehow part of the music business in Laurel Canyon, I guess I first thought about Joni Mitchell. She had painted that painting on the front of that record album, and she had that sort of early-seventies free spirit…and I thought, well, I’m going to steal a few things I know about Joni Mitchell and put them in this character. And then I let Joni Mitchell go, and just ran with what came out of my imagination.”
The result was a narrative about a young couple–Sam, a recent graduate of Harvard Medical School, and his fiancée Alex–who plan to stay at the Laurel Canyon home owed by his estranged mother Jane: Sam’s doing a California internship at a nearby hospital, Alex needs quiet place to complete her genomics dissertation, and Jane intends to be away for some time. When they arrive at the house, however, they find Jane still in residence–along with a British band led by a young singer with whom Jane is intimately involved, and not merely as his producer. From this situation arose a complicated story of wayward attractions and the seductiveness of the creative life.
Among the ensemble cast, the greatest attention is likely to be generated by Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, who plays the free-spirited Jane. “Fran was the first person to become attached, about a year and a half after I wrote it and was ready to have actors look at it,” Cholodenko recalled. “She read it, and I wasn’t completely sure that I could see her in it. When I thought about her I sort of imagined the character she played in ‘Fargo,’ Marge Gunderson. We met at a restaurant in New York, and she walked in looking pretty much like she does onscreen [in “Laurel Canyon”] and I thought, ‘Wow–the personality is so similar to the personality that I wrote, and you sort of look like that person. How great is that? And you’re Frances McDormand. So yeah, you can do it!’ It was a nice stroke of good luck.” The casting of Christian Bale followed soon after, and later Kate Beckinsale, Natascha McElhone and Alessandro Nivola completed the ensemble.
But another important role had yet to be filled–the house where most of the action occurs. “The house we shot in was actually in Santa Monica,” Cholodenko admitted. “My producer had just bought it, and he was about to tear it down to the beams and do a complete renovation on it. So when we started looking for a house to shoot in, it became evident that it was going to be completely impossible to get a film crew up into these winding, narrow streets in Laurel Canyon. So he said, instead of building a set and really to make it work, why don’t we just make it easy on ourselves and see if we can make this house work and double for a Laurel Canyon house?” To prepare, they made numerous changes in the structure–like converting a garage into a working music studio.
“We spent probably about three weeks in that house,” Cholodenko recalled. “It was a bit like a chamber drama environment, and all these people knew they were making a film with a high level of intimacy, psychological and physical intimacy, in it. They took it upon themselves to really spend time with each other and kind of get cozy with each other. And that made my job really easy. I was sort of nudging people in different directions, but I really did not have to bring an enormous amount of direction to it. It just sort of directed itself.”