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Todd Solondz’s Latest War

Todd Solondz’s Latest War (photo)

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“Exploitative,” “mean-spirited” and “misanthropic” are just three of the many severe adjectives that tend to pepper discussions about the acidic work of Todd Solondz. The New Jersey-born indie filmmaker arrived on the scene in 1995 with the bitterly funny “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” courted critical accolades and controversy with 1998’s sharp-fanged “Happiness,” and further established, with 2001’s “Storytelling” and 2004’s “Palindromes,” his status as one of American cinema’s most idiosyncratic voices.

This week, he returns to theaters with “Life During Wartime,” a featured selection at 2009’s New York Film Festival which revisits the characters of “Happiness” using an all-new cast. The film’s less a true follow-up than a quasi-sequel in which Solondz, employing a more melancholy, elegiac tone, twists and bends his familiar characters in new and unexpected ways. It’s a meditation on man’s capacity for change and forgiveness, defined by the director’s trademark blend of the caustic and the compassionate. I got a chance to talk with him about the reasons behind using new actors for established roles, the difficulty of getting movies like his funded in the current economic climate, and why O.J. Simpson fled to Florida.

Like “Palindromes,” “Life During Wartime” features different actors playing characters already established by other performers in “Happiness.” What drove this casting device?

Recasting the movie gave me the freedom to not be so beholden to the literalness of what had been established earlier. I could take more liberties in playing with the storylines, and find new meanings and shading and colorings with what different actors could bring.

For example, Paul Reubens, like Jon Lovitz, I love. He’s a very funny actor, but he also has a kind of history that the audience is well aware of, and that lends a certain pathos and poignancy, a sorrow to his performance that I don’t think would otherwise be possible. Also, it was exciting for me to be able to share with an audience what Paul Reubens is even capable of doing. I think that it may surprise people, what he’s capable of.

07212010_LifeDuringWartime2.jpgThen, for example, I love Dylan Baker [who played the pedophilic role of Bill in “Happiness”], but I wanted a certain kind of gravitas, a heaviness that Ciarán Hinds seems to embody. This sort of husk of a shell of a spent soul, that’s kind of a dead man walking, ghost-like, that I don’t think I could have achieved in the same way with Dylan.

I wanted someone who would also not evoke Philip Seymour Hoffman, and so I found Michael Kenneth Williams, and I could get kind of a variation on that story, and it would be fresh for the audience as well. So it gave me all sorts of liberties to play and explore things that I don’t think I would have been capable of had I kept the actors the same.

Was it difficult to re-envision these characters in both a conceptual and visual way?

Everything’s a challenge — it has to be, if it’s to be fresh or interesting. But that’s why I love casting, the idea of finding what would be interesting — what I don’t want, what I want to keep the same, what I want to be able to change. So that’s all part of the pleasure of the process.

At the outset, what was it that you wanted to further explore, or elaborate upon, with these characters?

After I had finished “Happiness,” I never imagined that I would ever revisit these characters or storylines. I had no interest at all. And yet ten years later, I found myself writing the first scene of the movie, and I paused. I liked what I had written, and I wondered if there was a movie here, and was there stuff I could further explore. I thought about it obviously, and felt there was. This was a more politically overt film, a post-9/11 film. It just goes to show that my imagination is just not as fertile as I like to think it is.

07212010_LifeDuringWartime3.jpgIn a pseudo-sequel project like this, how worried are you about repeating yourself? And how do you guard against that?

You have to keep it fresh for yourself, and hope that if it’s fresh for you, it’ll be fresh for others. Like the first scene of the movie, I like the audience to actually think, “Oh, he’s doing a kind of almost remake of ‘Happiness’ with different actors.” And just as they’re getting comfortable with how they think the scene is playing itself out, you pull the rug from under them. You throw them a curveball. And you have to do that, because audiences are smart and you have to be ahead of them. That’s my pleasure — when I go to the movies, I want the filmmaker to be much smarter than me.

Were you ever concerned that, by recasting these familiar characters, and thus directly calling attention to their inherent artificiality, you might reduce them to something less than fully developed humans?

Gosh, you’re so meta! You know, it’s tricky. It’s a very interesting phenomenon, because the movie does stand alone. You don’t have to have seen any of my prior work to follow the narrative here, and take it on its own terms. That said, I almost wonder… there’s a plus and a minus to knowing “Happiness,” and having seen it.

On the one hand, if you know “Happiness,” you can take pleasure in the way this movie subverts some of the characters and storylines that have been established earlier. But on the other hand, it can also make you more self-conscious of the ways in which things are being subverted.

I like to look at the film on its own terms, and that’s ultimately what it is — it’s its own movie, with its own life, and I think it has a very different feel from “Happiness.” It’s a more mournful film, and perhaps a less acid one.

07212010_lifeduringwartime1.jpgGiven the somewhat notorious reputation of “Happiness,” how hard was it to get the greenlight for a follow-up?

It took a long time to get this movie rolling. I was ready to shoot this a few years ago, but the financing fell apart, it came together, it fell apart. Ultimately, it’s about the economics of things rather than the subject matter or anything like that. It had, as a double-edged sword, the fact that it was a quasi-sequel — the advantage of familiarity, but then the stigma of that particular familiarity. So I think that kind of evened out there.

But it costs money to make these movies, and it’s certainly much grimmer today, much grimmer than ever before, it seems, to get a project like this together.

You’re obviously known for New Jersey stories. What drew you to shift some of “Life During Wartime”‘s action to Florida?

To me, South Florida, where it takes place, is a land where people like to go for a kind of tabula rasa, to reinvent and recreate their lives and erase the past. That’s where O.J. went after the trial. And I felt that lent itself perfectly to Trish, who goes there to forget the past, but of course is doomed by her failure to acknowledge the past, and how tragic the outcome is for how the ghosts of the past don’t let go of you.

Considering what happens to the characters in the film, do you think change is possible? Or does it depend on one’s capacity for introspection?

Change — it’s always happening, and not happening.

“Life During Wartime” opens in New York, Los Angeles and will be available on VOD on July 23rd.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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