Lisa Cholodenko has long been a well-respected director with her film The Kids Are Alright garnering four Oscar noms and Laurel Canyon seeing its stars Alessandro Nivola and Frances McDormand nominated for Spirit Awards. Cholodenko has dipped in and out of both TV and film throughout her career, directing episodes of Six Feet Under, The L Word, Hung and The Slap. Now, with HBO’s limited series Olive Kitteridge, Choldenko’s star has risen even higher, with the show having so far seen its lead, Frances McDormand, with a SAG and Cholodenko a DGA award. McDormand, Bill Murray and Cholodenko also collected Critics Choice Awards and now Kitteridge is up for a total of 13 Emmys among cast and crew.

It was originally McDormand who brought Cholodenko to the project, “Fran had optioned that book years before and had called me to see if I wanted to adapt it, and it was right after I finished The Kids are All Right, and I said I love this book and I wouldn’t know how to adapt it, so I can’t, but please, please come back to me if it ever happens. Then one day I got a call from HBO and they said, ‘hey, you know what? Fran McDormand has this script.’ I got to see it, and the minute I read it, which is how I felt about the book, like, it was Frances. I just heard her voice.”

McDormand and Cholodenko were a great match for Kitteridge, since, Cholodenko says, “having worked with her (on Laurel Canyon) I just kind of know her in a very dynamic way–kind of, you know, I know what she could pull out.”

Was Cholodenko surprised by the resulting slew of awards and noms?

“Some people,” she says, “have a different kind of innate confidence. I’m a skeptic at heart. I’m really critical of my own work. I felt really inspired when we were making it. HBO was incredibly gracious and let me spend more time in the cutting room than they, I think, typically would with a miniseries. So, they let me sort of approach it like a feature, which meant that I could refine it to the point where I think it really excelled. To me, you can’t do it unless you have that kind of time in the cutting room. So, that was like a gift. At the end of the day when we saw it all put together I was coughing about the cutting and the storytelling. There was a moment where I was alone and I watched the first episode and I…this is so out of character, but in my mind I heard myself say, ‘wow, I think that’s brilliant.’ You know, it’s weird. Like, you don’t usually say it or feel it about your own work, but I was, like, there’s something brilliant about that. Like, it just felt like it was elevated in a way that I didn’t even know was happening, and it was so gratifying. Yeah. A moment like that is kind of everything.”

Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge
“The minute I read it, it was Frances. I just heard her voice,” Cholodenko says of McDormand, pictured with Richard Jenkins
Photograph by JoJo Whilden

Cholodenko has often been known for also writing the work she directs, but in the case of Kitteridge, she came in cold to Jane Anderson’s (Emmy-nominated) adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Pullitzer-winning novel. Was it tough to jump into something she had no part of writing in a new format – the limited series?

Jane’s a wonderful writer,” she says, “and the adaptation was beautiful. It was an easy read, and it was layered and it was beautiful. Everybody in my world who read it was, like, ‘oh, yeah, you have to do this,’ and being that I knew Fran and knew what she was going to bring to it, it really helped bridge the gap, but with that said, you know, I had to kind of find a different way in. So I talked to the author of the book a few times and really kind of explored the characters. I read the script a lot and then I went back to the book and I really just tried to get to the root of the character.”

One long ongoing project has been an attempt to make The Kids Are Alright into an HBO series–an idea which left Cholodenko feeling “torn.” She says, “I mean, I knew it would be a great show. I was very eager to see it kind of go on. I loved it and I had been with it for so long, and then at the same time I was sort of yearning to kind of do something else after having to deal with it for so long. So, I wrote a draft that I really loved and showed it to Annette Bening who really loved it, but was committed to other things and wasn’t sure she could commit to a long series. It was a funny time. Mark Ruffalo was doing a big action movie, I think. He had just come off of getting an Oscar nomination so I knew that he was completely consumed for a couple years. I just sort of had this feeling of, it’s not the right time, but let’s circle back to this. Let’s not let go.”

Does she think it will still happen?

“Who knows, you know? Maybe it’s them. Maybe it’s somebody else. Maybe it’s a whole new show.”