Interview: Todd Solondz; writer/director of Life During Wartime

Interview: Todd Solondz; writer/director of Life During Wartime. By Simon Miraudo.

“Now you’re a storyteller you might think you are without responsibility. But in directions, actions and words, cause and effect, you need consistency.”

Belle and Sebastian sing these lines on the title track of their soundtrack to Todd Solondz’s 2001 feature Storytelling; a two-part tale that examines the power authors exert over their characters, fictional or otherwise. The song – peppy as it may sound – seems to chastise Solondz, a filmmaker famous for bringing distasteful personalities to the screen and subjecting them to bleak scenarios. His latest film, Life During Wartime, revisits the set of characters from his 1998 feature Happiness (recast here with different actors), including a paedophile, a phone pervert and three sisters who have experienced, or continue to experience, some kind of emotional trauma. Would it be weird at this point to mention that the film is really funny? I spoke to Mr. Solondz – one of the most divisive, controversial filmmakers in American history – about the relationship he has with his characters, whether he sees himself as an omnipotent puppet-master or mere observer, if he considers his films successful, and his upcoming, supposedly G-rated picture, Dark Horse.

SM: Life During Wartime is a kind-of sequel to Happiness, and to some extent also to Welcome to the Dollhouse and Palindromes, in that it features a number of characters from those earlier films all recast with different actors. Before we discuss Life During Wartime, I’m wondering, what was the first germ of an idea, or the first character, that inspired you to write Happiness back in the 90s?

TS: You know, I don’t know! I don’t remember; it’s so long ago. If you write, and you have a life and history of writing, things are always coming to you, and then they come together. But I don’t know if there’s any particular event that inspired me to do any of this. It just evolved from the process of actually sitting down and putting a pen to paper.

SM: That’s fair enough. Do you remember at all if it was your intention to revisit these characters 10 years down the track?

TS: I definitely never imagined I would revisit these characters. I really thought I was done with it all. But 10 years later, I found myself writing this film. I think knowing that I could recast everybody made it a lot more interesting for me. So that was, I think, part of what led me to pursue it.

SM: So, that was a decision you made while writing the script to recast the characters, as a way of freeing yourself from what came before?

TS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SM: When it came time to casting, were you specifically looking for actors who were completely different to those from Happiness, or characters that echoed those previous performers, or did you simply start fresh?

TS: Well, I was just looking at things from a fresh angle. You can get a different meaning with different actors. I love Dylan Baker for example in Happiness and his performance there, but I wanted someone different for this; someone who had a certain kind of gravitas, a certain kind of, had that kind of a ghost or husk of a dead man walking. I thought I could achieve that in ways with another actor [Ciaran Hinds] that I wouldn’t be able to with Dylan. I love Jon Lovitz, but there is something that I felt would lend a certain pathos and poignancy to the character if it were played by Paul Reubens, who has his own, kind of, let’s say, history that I think the audience is aware of. I didn’t want anyone to remind anyone of Phil Hoffman, so I had to find another way to imbue his character. And, see the thing is, I didn’t want to be bound by some of the constraints that may have been established. I wanted to play loose and free with the material, instead of being bound by that literalism that had been previously. So it made it more interesting for me, and more fresh, and that’s, I suppose, the substance of what’s going on in my head.

SM: Interesting. The character of Joy, played by Jane Adams in Happiness and Shirley Henderson here, is a very sympathetic character. Both films end with her in, I guess, a depressing predicament, particularly Life During Wartime, in which she’s haunted by the ghosts of her former loves. When you’re plotting out this character’s life in the script, is there a part of you that wants to give her the happy ending she deserves, or do you feel as if her destiny is pre-determined? Like you’re unable to give her another ending.

TS: Well, I don’t know about pre-determination here, but I was moved – I am moved – by her plight. A character who the more she wants to do good, the less she succeeds. It’s kind of like the war in Iraq, you know? The President says “We’re going to do good and invade the country”, but the results are a little bit troublesome. I’m moved by her; it’s not a question of rewarding her for her good efforts. I suppose her struggle makes her compelling, but her failures are what moves me.

SM: OK, so you don’t really see yourself as, for lack of a better term, a God-like deity that sets these characters on these paths, but rather, you create them and they go out into the world as they would.

TS: No, in the material I don’t see myself as God. I like it if my friends see me as God. (Laughs) I don’t know. I don’t really see myself that way, partly because I don’t believe in him.

SM: Your film Storytelling to some degree feels like a comment on the struggle between an author or director and the lives of their characters. Do you feel as if you’ll be forever entwined with these characters? Would you revisit them again in another 10 years’ time?

TS: I really don’t have much of a head for mapping out a career. There’s nothing terribly calculated about all this. I just write what I feel like writing about, and see what happens. I have no plans on revisiting anyone. But if I do, I do, and if it’s under a new guise, so be it. I just follow where the pen guides me. I have another movie [Dark Horse] I’m in the middle of cutting right now, with a whole bunch of different characters, so we’ll see where that goes.

SM: I definitely want to ask you about Dark Horse in a moment. First, I wanted to discuss an old plot synopsis I found for Life During Wartime from early-2009, which mentions an ex-con called Kristina. This sequence isn’t in the film anymore, and I was wondering if it was filmed and then cut, or cut from the script before shooting?

TS: It mentions the what?

SM: An ex-con called Kristina.

TS: Oh yeah. I ended up deciding not to incorporate. In all my scripts, I don’t always shoot everything. I often run out of money before I do. I rethink and revise. Nothing ever turns out the way you plan it, but if you’re lucky things turn out better.

SM: How do you quantify a film’s success? Are you able to walk away from a film once it’s in the can and say “OK, I achieved everything I wanted there”, or do you need to see the audience’s reaction, and the kind of conversation it will provoke?

TS: I think for me, making a film, there are two priorities. Two goals, always. The first is to survive the process itself. The second is not to be embarrassed. So, to that extent, I feel I have succeeded. I suppose in the way you love a child for all his flaws, you may have the same affection for the work that you do. I think when I was younger it was hard to see anything good in what I had done. But as I get older I’m able to appreciate something of what I may have achieved.

SM: I must admit, I greatly enjoyed watching Life During Wartime and hearing your “voice”; yours is one of the most unique around. Are there any filmmakers working today that you think are creating unique cinema?

TS: Oh there are so many, really, that I admire. I could go country by country. I like Laurent Cantet in France; I like Mike Leigh in England; I like Matteo Garrone in Italy; there’s Almodovar in Spain. In the States there is Terry Zwigoff, Todd Haynes and Alexander Payne. There are many filmmakers whose work I’m always interested in seeing.

SM: Just before we wrap up, can you tell me a little bit about Dark Horse?

TS: Well, I prefer to talk about movies when they’re finished. All I can say is, it’s a movie that probably could be rated G or PG. It doesn’t have anything controversial in it at all, in terms of what’s being on screen. I guess that makes things easier, just as it doesn’t make things more difficult as people presume, because you have more controversial subject matter. The movie features Mia Farrow, Chris Walken and Selma Blair.

SM: Mr. Solondz, congratulations on Life During Wartime, and we look forward greatly to seeing Dark Horse.

TS: Well thank you so much, it was a pleasure speaking with you.

Life During Wartime has an exclusive two week season at the Perth International Arts Festival from January 3rd to January 16th. Click here for more details. Or, check out our review here.

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