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Director Lisa Cholodenko On Conceiving 'The Kids'

The film The Kids Are All Right stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a couple whose two teenage children have decided to track down their moms' anonymous sperm donor, played by Mark Ruffalo. Director Lisa Cholodenko explains how her own experiences inspired the film.

28:57

Other segments from the episode on July 8, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 8, 2010: Interview with Lisa Cholodenko; Interview with Joel Achenbach; Review of Stephani Finch's album "Cry Tomorrow."

Transcript

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Director Lisa Cholodenko On Conceiving 'The Kids'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new movie "The Kids Are All Right" was directed and co-written by my
guest, Lisa Cholodenko. She also made the films "Laurel Canyon" and
"High Art," which won the National Society of Film Critics Award for
Ally Sheedy's performance and a screenwriting award at Sundance in 1998.

In "The Kids Are All Right," Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a
lesbian couple. Each of the women used the same anonymous sperm donor to
become pregnant. Their children are now teenagers.

At the beginning of the film, after the daughter, Joni, reaches the
legal age at which she's allowed to learn the identity of her genetic
father, she and her brother track down the sperm donor, who is played by
Mark Ruffalo.

After they meet him, each member of the family is changed by him in ways
they could never have predicted. Our film critic, David Edelstein,
described the film as a situation comedy, a superb one, that shakes up
our way of looking at the family.

Let's start with a scene. The mothers are concerned about their son,
Laser, who has been spending a lot of time with a wild male friend and
has grown distant. Thinking that Laser is holding something back from
them, like maybe he's gay, the mothers have a talk with him. Laser is
played by Josh Hutcherson.

(Soundbite of film, "The Kids Are All Right")

Ms. ANNETTE BENING (Actor): (As Nic) Your mom and I sense that there's
some other stuff going on in your life. We just want to be let in.

Mr. JOSH HUTCHERSON (Actor): (As Laser) What do you mean?

Ms. JULIANNE MOORE (Actor): (As Jules) Are you having a relationship
with someone?

Ms. BENING: (As Nic) You can tell us, honey. We would understand and
support you.

Mr. HUTCHERSON: (As Laser) Look, I only met him once.

Ms. BENING: (As Nic) What do you mean once?

Ms. MOORE: (As Jules) Did he find you online?

Ms. BENING: (As Nic) Wait, wait, wait, who did you meet once?

Mr. HUTCHERSON: (As Laser) Paul.

Ms. MOORE: (As Jules) Paul? Who's Paul?

Mr. HUTCHERSON: (As Laser) I met him with Joni.

Ms. MOORE: (As Jules) Why was Joni there?

Mr. HUTCHERSON: (As Laser) She set it up.

Ms. BENING: (As Nic) Forget the setup. Who's Paul?

Mr. HUTCHERSON: (As Laser) Our sperm donor. Did you guys think I was
gay?

Ms. MOORE: (As Jules) No, no way.

Ms. BENING: (As Nic) Well, of course not.

GROSS: That's a scene from "The Kids are All Right." Lisa Cholodenko,
welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you decide to write and direct a movie
about a lesbian couple whose children track down the sperm donor who is
their father?

Ms. LISA CHOLODENKO (Director, "The Kids Are All Right"): I started
writing it about five years ago, and the original idea came on the heels
of my girlfriend and I had just decided to have, or tried to have a
child with an anonymous sperm donor. And we'd gone though, you know, a
lot of conversations about which way to go, do we go with a friend, do
we do this, you know, with this anonymous person, and what does that
mean, and what will that mean for the child-to-be in 18 years, you know,
will he be able to find this gentleman?

So I became very absorbed in these meditations on what's, you know,
what's the life of this child that I hopefully will have. What's it
going to be? And when I sat down to write an original script, I was sort
of consumed with this idea.

And so this sort of template for this family came out without, you know,
it was sort of unmediated. I just started writing, and there they were,
and there they were on the brink of their eldest child turning 18 and
being of age where she, you know, had the prerogative to reach out to
seek the sperm donor and, if he was interested, to have contact with
him.

So it really began there. I had a kind of interesting kismet moment when
I was into the script for about a month, and in walked an old friend
from New York, I was in L.A. at the time, Stuart Blumberg, who, you
know, sat down, and we had a conversation, what are you doing, what are
you doing, and within a half an hour, I learned that he had been a sperm
donor in college.

And Stuart was a screenwriter and writing kind of more commercial studio
movies. And before that breakfast, lunch, dinner, I don't remember what
it was, was over, I had sort of spontaneously asked him if he wanted to
co-write this script with me.

GROSS: So that's great. You had both points of view, the lesbian woman
looking for a sperm donor and the former sperm donor.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Exactly, yes. And it was interesting because I had, you
know, been in the world of looking for a sperm donor, but I had never
actually met a sperm donor. So there he was, and he was my friend. I had
known him for many years.

GROSS: So did you subsequently actually find a sperm donor and have a
baby?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: I did, yes, and, you know, that process had begun right
around the time I started the film. We had chosen someone, which was a
long process for me. I had to go through every applicant that ever
existed on this website, and...

GROSS: Is that not bizarre to, like, have auditions for a father?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Oh, my God. Yes, it was psychedelic. I don't know how to
describe what that was, but hence I made a film out of it in some way.

GROSS: So you got the baby and the film.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Yes, I got the baby and the film. So we picked somebody,
and I felt really confident about the guy that we picked. And we have a
four-year-old now, and he's a great kid. He's great.

GROSS: So in the family that you've created for the movie, the teenage
children have drifted away from their parents, and it's very, very
painful for the parents to see that happen. And it's something that I
think happens to so many parents.

In making this movie, did you think any part of that had to do with it
being gay parents? Or did you just see that as being, like, that's what
so many families face, that the teenagers reach an age, and they maybe
get sullen or, you know, annoyed with the parent, that they just want to
be their own people. And in the struggle to become your own person, you
forcibly reject your parents sometimes in ways that you may or may not
feel bad about later in life?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Yeah, I think it was kind of two parts. You know, one
was, we're entering the moment of this family, you know, at a very
decisive point. She's 18, and she can reach out and meet this donor.

And once we decided that that was the decisive point, you know, it made
it easier for us to say, well, what is the moment for each of these
individual characters, knowing that the oldest child is going off to
college, and what is that bringing up for each of them?

So part, I think, of the journey of writing this script was how do we
take something that's so universal to families, you know, or many, many
families face this thing of their children going off to work or going
off to college or moving out of the house, and how does that impact
everybody.

And then also to get into the psychology of each of the characters,
particularly the moms – and I've had a lot of questions about Annette
Bening's character, and why is she so taut, and why is she, you know,
kind of rigid and seemingly on edge all the time?

And, you know, for me, it makes perfect sense. She's really hung up and
stressed out and upset that her baby is leaving, and she's taking it
hard. And it's coming out in the strangest, most unappealing ways until,
you know, toward the end of the film where, you know, she finally kind
of lets her guard down, and you see what she's been keeping at bay, all
that emotion that she's been kind of holding back.

GROSS: So your co-writer on "The Kids Are All Right" was Stuart
Blumberg, and he had been a sperm donor. So you had both sides of the
story here, both sides of the experience. What did he tell you about
being a sperm donor that you found really enlightening, both in terms of
your personal experience as having used a sperm donor but also in terms
of understanding the Mark Ruffalo character, who plays the sperm donor
in the movie?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: A few things. I think at first, I was being very kind of
provocative with him. And I was, like, oh, well, let's, you know, call
your university and see if you have any offspring.

And you know, all of the blood drained out of his face, and I could see,
like, wow, that was something he was horribly afraid to discover. Like,
he wasn't interested in that, or he hadn't prepared himself for a phone
call like that. So I thought that that was interesting, that there would
be this kind of range of reticence and fear, and you know, what did that
all mean. So we sort of chipped away at that reaction.

So that was one piece of, you know, Stuart's experience that I think
that we sort of comported to the Paul character. And then also spending
time with Stuart and trying to figure out, well, who were you, Stuart
at, you know, this younger age. I don't know, it was 19 or 20, who
wanted to donate sperm. And, you know, where was your head when you did
that?

What was your thinking? You know, was it just financial? Was there,
like, a higher kind of calling that you wanted to, you know, help people
who couldn't have children, as Mark Ruffalo tries to tell Josh
Hutcherson's character in the film.

And, you know, he had a lot of different responses to it that I think
informed Mark Ruffalo's character. But one that was interesting was this
idea that there was a real disconnect from being in the moment and being
that age and doing that and what would come to pass 18, 20, 25 years
later.

And I think that's a real marker of youth, that you think kind of
whatever's happening in the moment, there's no sense of, you know, that
there are real ramifications.

GROSS: More like giving blood than giving sperm.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Right.

GROSS: Have you gotten any criticism for casting two straight actors in
the role of the mothers when there's probably a lot of lesbian actresses
looking for good roles?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: People have asked me about it, and I keep coming back
with the same answer. I feel kind of resolute that, you know, people's
domestic lives, their, you know, personal lives, their non-professional
lives are their lives. And their professional lives, in this case, you
know, they're screen actors. That's just a different category. And I
don't feel political about it.

You know, if there was a great actress or actor that availed themselves
to me that was gay, and I felt that they could nail the part as well as
Julianne or Annette, or Mark for that matter, I would have been all for
casting them.

But as it turns out, you know, I wanted recognizable actors. You know, I
was reaching for A-list actors, which I was fortunate to get, and actors
that I personally felt would be convincing and compelling in these parts
not just, you know, simply because they could play gay, and they could,
you know, pretend, but that they had a lot of dimension and kind of take
these roles and transcend the gender identification or the sexuality
identification, whatever it was.

GROSS: You know, I want to say one of the things I really like about
Annette Bening is that I don't think she's had any cosmetic surgery on
her face. And maybe she has, but she looks like she's aging naturally,
and I think it makes her so attractive, you know. I just really respect
so much women who are able to have a career in something like the movies
without having to undergo the knife in order to do it.

And I understand why women do it. I understand the pressures that
they're under, but to say no to that, as I think she has, I think is
really tremendous.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: I hear what you're saying, and I think it's true. I
think it's one of the things that on some level repelled me from other
actors that I may have considered at some point in this process. I felt
like particularly in this family, where I feel like what I want to get
at is how authentic and how real and how relatable these people are that
this is not, you know, one of those Hollywood movies, where people are
going to be, you know, botoxed and pinched.

And these are real people, and what's going to be attractive about them
is that they're soulful and, you know, that they are aging gracefully
and that they are, you know, self-possessed. I think that that's really
the key. I think that implies a person who can embrace themselves and
still feel central and powerful.

GROSS: My guest is Lisa Cholodenko. She directed and co-wrote the new
film "The Kids Are All Right." We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lisa Cholodenko. She
directed and co-wrote the new movie "The Kids Are All Right."

Now, your first feature-length film, "High Art," do you want to give the
two-sentence description of it and spare me having to condense it like
that? Can I make you do it?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: I can try. I haven't pitched it in a while, but it's
about a young woman who's an aspiring magazine editor and finds herself
in Manhattan in kind of in the thick of the art scene. It's set in the
late '90s, and she discovers through a plumbing accident, the neighbors
upstairs, and a woman named in the film, Ally Sheedy, Lucy Berliner,
who's kind of been a very prominent photographer in the New York art
scene and has since kind of fallen into seclusion and is heavily
involved in a drug scene.

GROSS: And is lovers with a German actress named Greta.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: And is lovers with a German – right.

GROSS: Who is played by Patricia Clarkson in what I think was Patricia
Clarkson's first big role, at least that's the first time I saw her.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Yeah, it probably was her first, like, sort of major
featured role. I know she had been in a lot of big films but as very
sort of supporting characters, and she had also done a stint on a
television show, and I don't remember the name.

GROSS: Well, she was so good in this role, I was sure that she was
German, which of course she's not.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: No, she's definitely not.

GROSS: So let me play a scene from "High Art" because I think Patricia
Clarkson and Ally Sheedy give such really good performances that are
really different roles for them.

So in this scene, they're having a fight because Patricia Clarkson has
nearly OD'ed. She was rescued in part by the young editorial assistant,
who wants to get Ally Sheedy into the magazine that the editorial
assistant writes for, and Ally Sheedy clearly is attracted to her. And
Patricia Clarkson is aware of that attraction and very jealous of it.

So here's the scene, and Ally Sheedy talks first.

(Soundbite of film, "High Art")

Ms. ALLY SHEEDY (Actor): (As Lucy Berliner) You don't know when to stop.
You have no limits. You get a really clean bag, and you keep kicking it
back until you go unconscious.

Ms. PATRICIA CLARKSON (Actor): (As Greta) Tell that Syd to stop coming
around. She's a little psycho-phant(ph).

Ms. SHEEDY: (As Lucy) A psycho-phant? What is that? I don't know what
that is.

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Greta) You know what that is. She's a bootlicker, a
parasite.

Ms. SHEEDY: (As Lucy) She saved your (beep) life.

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Greta) Joan(ph) threw me in that tub, and I wasn't
dying anyway.

Ms. SHEEDY: (As Lucy) When I came into that room, you weren't breathing.

Ms. CLARKSON: (As Greta) She (BEEP) me off. You're so wrapped up in her
you can't even see it. She comes in here all cocky and eager. She
doesn't know (BEEP). She's a teenager.

Ms. SHEEDY: (As Lucy) Greta, would you just leave that, please?

GROSS: That's a scene with Patricia Clarkson and Ally Sheedy from the
film "High Art," which was written and directed by my guest, Lisa
Cholodenko, who also made the new movie, "The Kids Are All Right."

So what made you think of casting Ally Sheedy and Patricia Clarkson?
Patricia Clarkson was so new to film, and Ally Sheedy was known as this
former teenage star and had kind of dropped out of sight, for the most
part.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: It was one of those things that there was never any kind
of preconception about who could play these parts. I wrote the film when
I was actually still in film school. I was in graduate school, and I was
just, you know, kind of busy writing away, and then when I finally had
the opportunity to make it, I was for the first time thrown into a
casting process. And I had obviously never done that. I was, you know, a
student.

So I was working with a casting director, and people were coming in and
reading for me, and, you know, I read amazing actors, but nobody had
sort of nailed it for me. And the casting director came in one day and
said: You know, I got a call from Ally Sheedy, and she called me
herself, and she wants to fly herself to New York to read for you –
she's in L.A. - and are you open to that?

And I sort of scratched my head, and I said: That seems so weird.
Really? There was a certain part of me that thought, well, that would be
interesting, I mean, she's a known actor, but all I could think of was
"The Breakfast Club." It just seemed weird. And I hadn't really followed
her career or anything since then. And it also seemed like was it going
to take my film in another direction? And, you know, I had a whole host
of anxieties. I mean, making that decision to cast somebody in a lead
role is a big one.

Anyway, I got home that night, and there was a phone call from Ally
herself. She called me and said look, you know, I feel like this is my
life. This is an experience I have gone through, and I feel like you
wrote this for me. And I was like: Well, I'm glad you feel that way. I
didn't, you know, and she said, well, I feel like that, and I'm going to
put myself on a plane, and I'm going to be there, you know, tomorrow, or
whatever.

And she did it. She just hustled to New York, and she walked in, and she
read some scenes to me, and, you know, against sort of my resistance
because I was, I was really predisposed to not casting her, I felt like:
Oh, you do know this. This could have been written for you.

And it was kind of one of those things where it was, like, a stunning
audition. It just, there just wasn't a question for me, I just said
okay, you got it. You got it.

GROSS: Which was the part of the story that she had lived?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: She had been in her younger life involved with a rock
guy, a rock 'n' roll guy, and had developed a dependency on a kind of
heavy sedative. And, you know, her friends were concerned about her, and
there was an intervention, and they sent her to Hazelden. And this is
all documented. I think she wrote about it. And had gone, you know, to
rehab and so felt like, you know, this whole episode of getting
dependent on this drug and then feeling like she'd become a drug addict
and an intervention and then cleaning up and how it had affected her
reputation and whatnot really had stayed with her, and she felt like it
was a really defining thing in her life. So I think she brought that
experience to the role.

GROSS: And what about Patricia Clarkson?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: You know, Patricia, I had no knowledge of Patricia
Clarkson. You know, I looked at her resume and stuff, and I don't think
I had seen her in anything, television or any of the larger features
that she had had supporting roles in.

But I was in a place where we were – we got the financing together, and
everybody's dates were kind of coming due. You know, actors had
committed to certain times, and it's hard to get everybody on the same
page at the same time making a film. And I still hadn't cast that role,
that Greta role.

And I was on the brink of having to cast somebody that I didn't feel was
really right for it, and I was kind of panicking. And I said to the
casting director: You have to pull out all the stops. We have to have,
like, an emergency casting session.

And this fellow, Kerry Barden, who was just so supportive and generous-
spirited and just would go the nine yards said come in tomorrow. I'll
have, you know, people here for you to read.

And I walked in, and Patty Clarkson was sitting there, and she, you
know, read some scenes to me, and my jaw just dropped. I was just
flabbergasted at how awesome she was, qualities that you wouldn't expect
in the same person, you know, or that somebody could merge into the same
character in a performance. And she was so tragic and kind of comic at
the same time. It was stunning, and it wasn't at all what I had written.
I had, like, missed something that was absolutely necessary for that
character to have, and Patty just brought it instinctively.

GROSS: My guest, Lisa Cholodenko, will be back in the second half of the
show. She directed and co-wrote the new film "The Kids Are All Right."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lisa Cholodenko, the
director and co-writer of the new film "The Kids Are All Right,"
starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a lesbian couple who are
the parents of two teenage children who track down the anonymous sperm
donor who is their father. Cholodenko also made the films "High Art" and
"Laurel Canyon."

You started your professional film career working as an editor for John
Singleton on his movie "Boyz n The Hood." How did you get to work on
that movie?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Why, I have to correct you and say I started my career
working as an apprentice editor.

GROSS: Oh.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: It was my first experience in the cutting room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHOLODENKO: So I went on to become an assistant editor and worked on
other studio features before heading off to film school. In terms of the
John Singleton experience, I was kind of deciding that I wanted to find
my way into a career in film. And I had a friend that was one of the
producers on that movie and she managed to get me into the cutting room.
It was a kind of seminal experience for me, particularly because I was,
you know, working so closely with this young guy who, you know, he was
24 at the time. He was right out of USC Film School, you know, who not
only had made this major feature film for, I guess at the time, it was
Columbia Pictures but, you know, had been given the money to do so based
on a script that he had written, but also had written something that was
entirely personal about, you know, his community from a very heartfelt
and kind of singular perspective.

And I think in some way that that had a large influence on me. I saw
that, you know, while John Singleton's world and his experiences was
quite different from my own, that it was possible that a person take
their experience, and if you have enough passion and enough stomach for
it, that you can actually get to the point where you can make a film
from it and many people go see it.

GROSS: We're living in a time, now, where coming out is really easy for
some people because things have changed so much; but is really, really
hard for some other people, because depending on where you live and what
your family is like and what your religion is, coming out can be very,
very difficult. You can really sacrifice a lot. Was coming out a big
deal for you or were you able to do it pretty easily?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: You know, I'm in my mid-40s now and I came out when I
was in, I guess, like 11th grade, so I must've been like 17. And so
that's quite a long time ago and, you know, the temperature and the
culture was different and I was young. So it was fraught for me, in the
sense that, you know, I was in high school and there weren't other
people who were gay that I knew, and so I felt different and confused
about that.

But I had a great love affair in high school. You know, let myself have
that love affair and tried to keep it kind of to myself. But I come from
a very talkative and inquisitive, and pretty liberal Jewish family in a
pretty liberal place - Los Angeles - and I sort of was eventually kind
of outed by my mother, who kind of took me aside one day and said, you
know, well, it's obvious to me you're love with this person and, you
know, you're struggling to kind of sort it out. So why don't you go get
some therapy and, you know, feel better about it because I don't want
you to feel bad.

GROSS: Feel about it, not get some therapy and change.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Right. Right. Right. Just, you know, as your Jewish
mother, it's hard to see you struggling. That kind of thing.

GROSS: Did you seek therapy?

Ms. CHOLODENKO: I did. It was great. I was happy to go see my therapist
every week.

GROSS: And that helped...

Ms. CHOLODENKO: You know, it's what year was that? That was, you know,
in the early 80s, and it was just a different time. I'm really glad
that, you know, the culture is changing and that there's so many more
places for young people to, you know, be out and meet other young people
who are out and that there's much better feeling about it and exposure.
And that's when people grapple with their sexuality so, you know, I
think we have to embrace everybody. It wasn't that I wasn't being
embraced, it's just was that it just wasn't a time when people felt like
they could be exposed.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. CHOLODENKO: Well, thanks for having me. It's a pleasure. It's an
honor. Thanks.

GROSS: Lisa Cholodenko directed and co-wrote the new film "The Kids Are
All Right."

Coming up, our antiquated electric grid and how to fix it. We talk with
science journalist Joe Achenbach.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Generating Changes In The Electrical Power Grid

TERRY GROSS, host:

When you turn up the air conditioning or turn on your computer you may
not think much about where the electricity we use comes from, but Joe
Achenbach does.

In the July edition of National Geographic he writes about the problems
with the nation's electric grid, a patchwork of more than 5,000 power
plants connected by 150,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines.
Much of the technology is outdated and the grid is prone to breakdowns.
The massive East Coast blackout of August 2003 is widely remembered, but
smaller more frequent power outages cost the economy about $80 billion a
year. And the clumsy grid we have is unfriendly to renewable energy
resources.

Joe Achenbach is a staff writer for the Washington Post. He's written
five books and has a monthly science column in National Geographic. He
spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Joe Achenbach, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, we all
know there are these power lines all over the country. But most of us
don't know much about the grid. And I think we have the idea. We all
have a local utility company and every month they send us a bill to tell
us how many kilowatt hours we've used. And so we picture them generating
that power from the local dam, or nuclear power plant, or coal fired
power plant and then just zapping that electricity over a relatively,
you know, short distance to our homes. Give us a more accurate picture
of what's happening in the electric grid.

Mr. JOE ACHENBACH (Journalist, Washington Post): Well, it sort of like
there's this great lake of electricity out there that we're taking our
energy from. And the dimensions of the lake are - is a lot bigger than
you'd think. I live in Washington, D.C. and yes, there's a power plant
up the Potomac River a little ways. But my electricity may come from
Pennsylvania or West Virginia, Ohio, because all these generating
stations are pouring into the big lake. And the load centers - the
cities in the electricity world, a load center is what you call a city.
The grid that I'm tapped into goes all the way out to beyond the
Mississippi River and there is not a single grid. There's actually three
different grids in the United States. There's Eastern, Western and Texas
- of all things.

DAVIES: So there literally are three different grids that aren't
connected and don't share a power among each other.

Mr. ACHENBACH: They're connected very slightly, but by and large,
they're three independent grids. And within one of these grids there are
these regional transmission groups that might cover; you know, 10, 12
states. So, for example, I'm linked here in D.C. to the PJM
Interconnection, which is -I actually got a chance to visit the
headquarters in a bunker in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania.

You drive down a lonely country road and then suddenly you come to this
heavily fortified building surrounded with high security fences. And you
go and then you sign in, you sign and you go down an elevator and
there's a bunker there and all these big flashing lights, just like that
old movie "War Games." You know, it's and actually it is a Cold War
artifact. This bunker it was built to withstand a nuclear missile strike
but that's where they run one of the major transmission networks in the
Eastern grid.

DAVIES: Now is their any national authority which governs the grid or
are there four or five regional grids or hundreds of smaller ones? How
are these things governed and interconnected?

Mr. ACHENBACH: The states individually control the transmission lines,
which is something that the power companies were bending my ear about.
They would like it if the federal government exerted more authority and
took some of the power away from the states to decide about whether or
not you could have a transmission line, you know, across a particular
state, because they look at the country differently than we look at it.

They don't see the state lines. They see okay, the load centers are over
here in the East. The generating stations, you know, the power stations,
you know, burning massive amounts of coal, or along the Ohio River
Valley, or West Virginia or so on, they want to get that electricity
from West to East and it can be irritating to have to go through the
permitting process of every county and every state government.

One company was telling me that they spent 18 years building a new power
line, but only 18 months of actual construction. It was 16 and a half
years of getting the permission to do it.

DAVIES: Now you write in this, actually, I think you quote another
expert as saying that the grid is mostly built on 1960's technology.
What does that mean? What's its significance?

Mr. ACHENBACH: Well, it's just, you know, some of it dates back many,
many decades and the goal - what people would like to do - is create a
smart grid. A grid that's not just electricity going down a line or a
wire that has no information coming back. Those power lines that go to
your house, they're not like, you know, broad band cable or something.
You know, there's no data going on that. And the power company typically
does not know how much electricity I'm using, unless they send a meter
reader to come and look at a meter on the side of my house.

You know, when are we going to bring this into the 21st century? So the
goal is to come up with smart meters that actually transmit information
back to the utility company so the companies would actually know who is
using power when and ultimately you might have a system in which you
could control both the supply of electricity, but also the demand of it.
You could demand management.

DAVIES: So a lot of us have these meters that have these little dials
and don't do anything but measure how much we're using. If we had
smarter meters and a smarter grid, how would that help? How would that
allow us to more efficiently manage our energy?

Mr. ACHENBACH: Well, for example, when it's really hot like it is today,
the power companies have to start up with these low efficiency auxiliary
generating plants. And essentially, electricity cost more on really hot
days like this. See right now it's all about supply. It's all about just
generate more power and try to meet the demand. If you can actually
manage the demand then you wouldn't have to necessarily run those
auxiliary power plants that are very low efficiency.

The idea of a smart grid is one that - the term is thrown around, but
the gist of it also is that right the system is vulnerable to blackouts
because people have to literally throw a switch or figure out where the
power is going any given moment. It's not nearly as automated as it
needs to be. It needs to go up by a factor of 10 or a factor of 100 to
be more automated so that the grid will sense when there is too much or
too little power on one of the lines. That's what happened in 2003 with
the black out in New York is you had a set of cascading failures that
began in Ohio.

First you had a power plant that goes out and ceases to generate
electricity and then a whole bunch of electricity starts pouring into
North Eastern Ohio, overheats some of these 345 kilovolt transmission
lines, which beginning to sag, because when these lines get hot they
sag. They made contact with trees, they shorted out. Suddenly you have
all this electricity with no place to go. And eventually, you had
several hundred power plants shutdown and 50 million people were
suddenly without electricity.

And New York City, for example, it took a day and a half to get it back
online. So you have a system there that's not really robust. It doesn't
really sort of meet our modern standards of technology.

DAVIES: Let's go back to something we were talking about a moment ago.
We all have heard that in the hottest days of summers and sometimes when
there's a particularly bitterly cold day in winter, the power companies
are concerned about these peak usage moments at which the system might
be over-stressed. And I guess what we can infer from that is that the
grid doesn't store much power. It pretty much generates what is needed
at the moment, I guess which is why if we're all using too much at the
same time we create a stress that a smarter grid might not experience,
right?

Mr. ACHENBACH: One of the dreams is to find a way to park electrify. I
mean right now it's hard to store it. I mean one thing you can do is you
can pump water uphill at night when there's low demand for electricity,
you can pump the water up to the top of the hill and that effectively
works as a battery because then the next day during the day time when
there's a lot of demand, the water flows back down the hill and turns
into turbine.

But in general, they don't have batteries for electricity, like anything
like what you would want to be able to store it in great quantity. I
think the city of Fairbanks, Alaska has a big battery the size of a
football field. I think that sets the record right now.

DAVIES: Seriously? The size of a football field?

Mr. ACHENBACH: I have not been there. That is what I am told. The dream
someday is when we all have electric cars that the cars collectively can
act as a kind of a battery - a storage battery for electricity, because
we'll be all plugged into the grid. And when there's a real need for it,
they can actually pull electricity out of the parked cars.

You know, I think, you know, right now, how many electric cars are
there? Not very many. And so our energy future is going to - there's no
single magic bullet for it. But one piece of it is you have to have a
better grid, a grid that can control the flow of electricity much better
than the one we have right now, which is essentially the old model from
60-70 years ago, which is just crank up a big coal-powered plant and
pump it into that lake, and that's it.

It's a very simple system. Now, when I went to the PJM Interconnect,
keeping it all calibrated is not simple. I mean, it's, you know, you
have to try to keep the supply and demand exactly balanced so you don't
wind up with a situation where you have too much juice on the lines, and
that can damage sensitive equipment and computers and things like that.
And you don't want it to dip too much, either.

DAVIES: If we had smarter meters - not ones that just measured how much
we were using, but ones which actually transmitted data back to the
utility company - and a smarter electric grid, how would it be
different? How would we use electricity differently? How would they
supply it differently? How would we manage peak electric demand
differently?

Mr. ACHENBACH: Well, you'd be able to use electricity when electricity's
cheaper - off peak hours. You'd be able to generate your own electricity
from your car battery, if you have your own electric car, for example.
Or you could - your rooftop solar panel or your windmill in your
backyard, and you'd be able to essentially be able to be a producer, as
well as a consumer of electricity. And you'd have more information at
your fingertips about, you know, how much electricity am I using? How
efficient am I being, you know, from day to day, week to week?

I mean, right now, you have this sort of dumb meter on the side of the
house that someone comes by and reads it, which is, you know, it's not
really a 21st century technology.

DAVIES: So right now, I don't know any better than to run my dishwasher
when everybody else has their air conditioners on and so the power
companies, which can't store much power, puts up all their old cranky
auxiliary stuff, and that's much more expensive to produce. If all this
data was flowing back between me and the electric company, it would -
what? They would give me different rates per kilowatt hour depending on
the time of day? Or I would have a display telling me what it's...

Mr. ACHENBACH: Yeah. They might say, you know, right now, it's 20 cents
an hour. Maybe you want to wait till it drops to five cents and hour.
They might say, you know, because of all of the air conditioners that
are running right now, because it's so hot outside, that we are charging
X amount for electricity. If you wait three hours, when the sun starts
to go down, we will drop that rate in half.

And you can - you're empowered to make a decision based on the real cost
of electricity, because you're right. When they have to really crank the
electricity at the peak level, they bring on these really inefficient -
typically coal-powered - plants that - they're the opposite of being,
you know, a green energy source. So it's a win-win situation. You can
save money, and it's environmentally a better way to go.

DAVIES: We have all these power companies, many of them are investor-
owned. They have, you know, shareholders they have to pay attention to
in their bottom lines. Others of(ph) them are public. But they're
regulated, generally, on a state-by-state basis. And you have this
national impetus to upgrade the grid to make it smarter, but every
decision has to be reviewed by state regulators.

In fact, there was recently one, I believe, in Maryland, where even
though a Baltimore utility had gotten a big grant from the Department of
Energy to put in smart meters, the state regulators looked at it and
said, eh, we're not sure that this investment is worth it. Is there a
national effort to kind of bring some order here and establish a real
sense of priority saying, you know, it's important for all of us that we
make these improvements?

Mr. ACHENBACH: I would say that this is all something that - the Obama
administration's looking at this. The Congress is looking at it. But it
remains sort of the local, state-regulated system. The grid is something
that's been kind of cobbled together over time. It's ungainly. It's not
pretty. But somehow, it works. It's a little bit (unintelligible), but
there, kind of gradually evolved. If you had to start it all over again,
you wouldn't build it this way necessarily, but it's been 130 years in
the making, and it's not going to suddenly be just erased overnight.

I mean, the future of the grid is going to be similar to what we've seen
in the past, which is add a little bit here, add a little bit there.
Lots of different players get to make a decision. And no, Dave, it's not
going to be just, you know, the federal government come in and say this
is how we're going to do it. It's going to be much more of a community-
by-community decision.

DAVIES: Well, Joe Achenbach, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ACHENBACH: Great, Dave. Thank you.

GROSS: Joe Achenbach spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
Achenbach's article on fixing the electric grid is in the July edition
of the National Geographic. You'll find a link to it on our website,
freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find a visualization of the U.S.
energy grid.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album by Stephanie Finch, who's
best-known for her backup work with her husband Chuck Prophet's band,
the Mission Express.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Stephanie Finch: The Power Of Simplicity

TERRY GROSS, host:

Until now, Stephanie Finch has been known primarily for her backup work
with the band the Mission Express, fronted by her husband, the guitarist
and producer Chuck Prophet. But with her new album "Cry Tomorrow" and
her own backup band called The Company Men, rock critic Ken Tucker says
Finch has coming into her own.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Back Out Now")

Ms. STEPHANIE FINCH (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) I never told you
that I love you so, never looked(ph) out of a windowsill. A Valentine
riff never sink her ship. Baby, they never will. Don't back out now. No.
No. No. Don't back out now. No. No, no more.

KEN TUCKER: Stephanie Finch sings in a high, plaintive register that can
sound both pleading and firm, sarcastic and wry. It's a voice of
knowingness, from which innocence has been stripped away to reveal a
performer who knows what she wants from herself and from other people.
Many of Finch's songs - she wrote six of the 10 on this album - are
guided as much by keyboard and guitar riffs as by her singing. This song
uses a simple, insistent guitar hook that recalls The Velvet Underground
or Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers. It has the power of simplicity on
"Tina Goodbye."

(Soundbite of song, "Tina Goodbye")

Ms. FINCH: (Singing) Looked down in my room, on the wall painted power
blue. This guy was sad on the corner with cover me mad(ph). Tina, she
really knows how to say goodbye. Tina, she's said roll while we take a
cry. It's a statue. (unintelligible) So why? Why? Why? Tina, why'd you
leave me behind?

TUCKER: Chuck Prophet produced this album with Finch. They happen to be
married. Prophet, who used to be in the band Green on Red and is part of
Finch's group The Company Men. He's produced first-rate albums for
singer-songwriters various as Alejandro Escovedo and Kelly Willis.

On Finch's album "Cry Tomorrow," she covers a song that Prophet wrote
for Escovedo called "Sensitive Boys." Escovedo sang the song
plaintively, as though sensitivity was a burden. Finch takes the song
and makes it a sharp-eyed, tough-minded critique of boys who fancy
themselves to be sensitive.

(Soundbite of song, "Sensitive Boys")

Ms. FINCH: (Singing) Sensitive Boys in sensitive clothes. Sensitive
words, wrapped up in sensitive poems. Big dreamy eyes, long French
sleeves, shivering in the cold light of the New York City heat.
Sensitive boys, here they come.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Here they come. Watch them run.

TUCKER: Another superb song covered by Finch on this album is "Count the
Days 1-2-3-4-5-6-7," written and recorded in the 1960s by the brother-
and-sister soul act Charlie and Inez Foxx. Finch and Prophet rearrange
the song, slowing it down and turning it into something else entirely.
Where Charlie and Inez Foxx sang "Count the Days" as a proclamation of
romantic freedom, Stephanie Finch turns the tune into more of a threat -
a threat that says you'll be counting the days after I leave you. You
will suffer when I'm gone. And it's all the more effectively devastating
when sung in such a hauntingly matter-of-fact manner.

(Soundbite of song, "Count the Days 1-2-3-4-5-6-7")

Ms. FINCH: (Singing) If you don't believe I'm leaving, count the days
I'm gone. If you don't believe I'm leaving, count the days I'm gone.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.

Ms. FINCH: (Singing) I gave you my heart, you gave me hurt. I gave you
sugar, you gave me dirt. You said that I wouldn't have the nerve to
leave, and if I did, I'd be the one to grieve. Well, if you don't
believe I'm leaving, count the days I'm gone.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) 1-2-3-4-5-6-7.

Ms. FINCH: (Singing) If you don't believe I'm leaving, count the days
I'm gone.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) 1-2-3-4-5-6-7.

TUCKER: There's a nice avoidance of singer-songwriter confessionalism
throughout "Cry Tomorrow." And the album title is apt: Stephanie Finch
may cry tomorrow, but right now, she's going to lay it all out for you,
the good and the bad stuff that precedes any crying. And besides, who
says she's the one who's going to be the one in tears when she gets
finished with you?

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He
reviewed "Cry Tomorrow" from Stephanie Finch and The Company Men. You
can hear several tracks from the album on our website, freshair.npr.org,
where you can also download podcasts of our show.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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