Interview: Todd Solondz Examines How to Survive ‘Life During Wartime’

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CHICAGO – With his unique and sometimes divisive career, writer/director Todd Solondz is something of a controversial figure in the world of independent cinema. Some people love him, others hate him, and very few fall in the middle. His new film, “Life During Wartime,” is unlikely to change his polarizing reputation.

As Solondz says, “I go for the cojones. That’s what I want.” A filmmaker who has never been shy of any subject matter tells me, “My ideal response is one that is two-pronged. On the one hand, there’s an emotional response to what I put out there and I’ve taken you someplace that’s provoked you in some way and made you feel alive. And it doesn’t mean there’s not an intellectual component but all of these interpretations are interesting because I can learn something – “Ooh, I didn’t think of that.” And that’s all fine and dandy but it’s the immediate visceral response.”

This time, the response will be to a drama that continues the story of the characters of Todd Solondz’s most-acclaimed film, “Happiness,” only with new actors, a new setting, and a new focus. The emotional shrapnel of the action of the first film has left many of the characters devastated and wandering the flat land of Florida trying to restart their lives.

Ciaran Hinds, Life During Wartime
Ciaran Hinds, Life During Wartime
Photo credit: IFC Films

As Solondz says, “When I finished Happiness, I never imagined that I would ever revisit these characters or stories. Obviously, my imagination isn’t fertile enough. In fact, ten years later, that’s exactly what I did. It just never would have occurred to me.

The film plays out in the shadow of a world at war not merely in the title but through the theme of forgiveness (which was once, briefly, even the title of the movie). It’s not an overtly “post-9/11 film” but it is undeniably a part of the fabric of the story.

Paul Reubens, Joy Henderson, Life During Wartime
Paul Reubens, Joy Henderson, Life During Wartime
Photo credit: IFC Films

“I remember…I think it was infused with the spirit of remembering the twin towers collapse,” Todd Solondz says. “I remember there was this beautiful moment when everyone said “How can I help? What can I do?” And I’ll never forget [Rudy] Giuliani said, “Go shopping.” And I thought that was an obscenity, a slap in the face to the dignity of so many. Of course, what he was saying was that it was a way of insulating ourselves from reality as so much…Look, it’s no different now. It doesn’t matter who the President is. We don’t have a draft and so who goes to war but a very discreet segment of society – the disenfranchised. And they wage war. So, it’s such an abstraction for us. Taxes are lowered. Everything is so backwards that it’s not a felt experience in the ways wars traditionally are. I think that if you have a movie that is infused with that spirit in some way – with Joy and all of her good intentions, the son who tells the father he should have cut and run – it’s there but obviously it’s all very oblique.”

Solondz uses the broad background of life during wartime to tell intimate stories about people at war within themselves — “I think there’s a self-absorption at play here that the characters are plagued by their own battles. Yes, it’s “life during wartime” at large but it’s also the wars within ourselves as Charlotte Rampling’s character talks about the enemies within…I think that’s more fundamental.”

With a spectacular cast that includes Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney, Ciaran Hinds, Ally Sheedy, Chris Marquette, Michael Kenneth Williams, Charlotte Rampling, and Paul Reubens (yes, Pee-Wee Herman), “Life During Wartime” features an unusually-assembled ensemble that not every filmmaker would have even considered.

Todd Solondz
Todd Solondz
Photo credit: IFC Films

Solondz says, “When I write, I never want to assume anyone would be available or want to do it. Some actors I knew immediately that I wanted and some I figured out later. I do I wanted Allison [Janney] and I knew I wanted Ally Sheedy at the get-go. Those two, I knew I wanted at the beginning. The rest I figured out. I had met Charlotte Rampling at some festival in ’01 and I love her. She’s iconic although not so much in American films. Paul [Reubens] had auditioned for me years ago. With Paul…it’s interesting that sometimes when you cast, you get new meanings. Like Jon Lovitz [who played Paul’s role in Happiness], he’s a wonderful, funny, character actor but he has a whole history that everyone’s aware of. I think it lends an extra layer of pathos and poignancy to what he does. The idea that he can even do this is a revelatory thing to an audience who never imagined this was in him. And, of course, there’s the playful part of me that’s always thinking, well, he’s playing a character who probably even has a Pee-Wee Herman doll at home.”

The parallels between “Happiness” and “Life During Wartime” are clearly intentional but Solondz points out, “The idea is not to replicate. A movie finds its own life. If you’re looking for the same experience as Happiness, you’ll be disappointed. It has its own aspirations. It takes on its own life and you have to be open to that. If you haven’t seen any of my work, you don’t need to to see this movie. You can follow the narrative on its own terms and you’ll get out of it what you get out of it. You don’t NEED to know anything. In fact, if you do know my prior work – there’s a plus and a minus to it. The plus is that you can take pleasure in the way I play with certain characters with actor and story changes. But there is a minus in that in can make people more self-conscious – “Oh, who’s that supposed to be?” – instead of just going along for the ride.”

When the subject of changed titles and cut scenes comes up, Solondz has an interesting response to the idea that we always need to see or know the process —
“People submit manuscripts for publication and it’s 1000 pages and when it’s published it’s 350. Does every reader need to read the other 600 pages? That’s part of the process. Some people love to see that stuff on the DVD but [those scenes] are gone. They’re done. THIS is the movie. You write a book. That’s the book. You don’t say “Here’s my first draft, my second…” It’s interesting academically but I’m not interested in that.”

Michael Kenneth Williams, Life During Wartime
Michael Kenneth Williams, Life During Wartime
Photo credit: IFC Films

The fascinating conversation ended with an exchange about the accusation that Solondz is a misanthropic director who doesn’t particularly like his own actors and his response may surprise you:

“Well, look, if you react and you hate the movie, what’s to quarrel? I’m not there to try and convince you or to change your mind. I accept that. You can hate it. I’m sorry you sat through the whole thing. If I hated it, I would have walked out. I can’t control how people are going to respond. My movies are a very fine line that I navigate between the comedy and the pathos. They’re not for everyone. That’s OK. What movie is? But misanthropic? Let’s say for argument’s sake, all right, I’m a misanthrope. How illuminating is that? It’s reductive. It lets you off the hook. It’s facile and disengages you from some of the moral issues put out there. Look, pedophilia in and of itself I have no interest in. But as a metaphor for that which is most demonized and most ostracized, I don’t think you could top it. I think if you ask any American, they’d much rather have Osama Bin Laden at their dinner table than a pedophile. Even though they may already have had pedophiles at the table and just not known it. It becomes a kind of test, a crucible. People say, “I love humanity,” but what does that mean? Humanity’s abstract. It has no real substance. We are all defined by our limitations. To what extent can we open ourselves up to that which is most-demonized; that which is most-“other.” Can we embrace everyone “except”? Except what? What are those lines? And what does it say about us? It’s complicated. Some may point to a director and say “This guy’s a humanist director,” but in real life you’d never know it.”

“Life During Wartime” stars Shirley Henderson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Dylan Riley Snyder, Ciaran Hinds, Paul Reubens, Charlotte Rampling, Ally Sheedy, and Chris Marquette. It was written and directed by Todd Solondz and is rated R. It is playing in some markets now and opening more tomorrow, August 6th, 2010. content director Brian Tallerico

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