“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.
Then, 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.
In 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.
Given 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.