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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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