Exclusive: Life During Wartime Writer/Director Todd Solondz

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For a man whose entire body of work could be labeled as unconventional, Todd Solondz continues to dodge the norm with his latest approach to the idea of a film sequel. Recasting his acclaimed 1998 indie hit Happiness, Solondz takes another look at his characters without any regard to limitations that might have been imposed by any physical attributes.

Darkly, darkly comic, Life During Wartime features a diverse cast that includes Ally Sheedy, Allison Janney, Paul Reubens, and Michael Kenneth Williams, among many others.

Solondz spoke exclusively with ComingSoon.net about the new film and what it meant for him to go back, bringing a multi-layered story about how the past has a way of never fully letting go.

CS: Was “Life During Wartime” originally planned as a sequel to “Happiness”?
Todd Solondz:
Well, when I had finished “Happiness,” I had never imagined I would ever do any sort of sequel with these characters or these stories. But my imagination wasn’t so fertile. It was about ten years later that I wrote the first scene of this movie and I liked what I had written. I said, “Is there a movie here? Is there stuff to explore that I haven’t already gone over and taken care of?” And I felt, yes. With then the knowledge that I could recast the whole movie with different actors playing all these parts, lending new kinds of color, shape, meaning to the stories, I was freed from the constraints of what had already been established. I could go places. Make actors much older or not so much older. That made it much more exciting, also.

CS: You had experimented with that in “Palindromes.”
Solondz:
Well, that’s different. The concept there was very different, which was a whole number of actors playing a single part. It was a kind of conceit that was particular to that film. Here, you don’t have to have seen any of my work. You can see this movie and it’s still completely accessible as a narrative. You don’t have to question anything about recasting and so forth.

CS: I did notice that, in one of the scenes, a character has a poster for Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” which also featured multiple actors in a single role.
Solondz:
A lot of attention was brought to that. That’s probably the most surprising thing, when I think about it. First of all, we could clear it. There was so little we could clear. Second of all, it was the kind of movie that I felt this character would respond to as a kind of alternative college kid. Yes, I knew how it was reference vis a vis “Palindromes,” but that playfulness seemed okay. I didn’t want it to distract from the drama that was taking place.

CS: Tell me about going into the casting. Were you looking to find any specific traits that might carry over?
Solondz:
Well, different actors bring different qualities with them. Paul Reubens, like Jon Lovitz, I love both of them, are both comedians and both are very amusing. But with Paul he also has this whole history that the audience is very aware of that, I think, lends a real poignancy and pathos to the performance. On top of that, I don’t think audiences were aware or knew what Paul Reubens can do as an actor. It was very exciting getting to share that. Then, of course, there’s the playful part of me as well that is playing a character that probably has his own Pee Wee Herman doll at home.

CS: Speaking of playful, “Life During Wartime” feels much more, for lack of a better word, fun, than your previous films. In “Happiness,” you’re sort of laughing because you’re uncomfortable and you don’t know what else to do and, in this, you’re laughing despite it all.
Solondz:
The movie takes its own life. It’s not trying to replicate the experience of “Happiness.” It is a comedy, but it is, perhaps, less acid and more mournful, actually, in some way. People have described it as a little gentler. It’s a more politically overt film. Post 9/11 is a different time in which this movie lives. I think in the writing of it, it was very much informed by that experience. Of that time when so many people were reaching out to say, “What can I do? How can I help?” It was a unique moment. A very precious one. I felt it was squandered by Guilliani when he said to just continue shopping. It was such an obscenity. It was a slap to the face to the earnesty of so many people. We live in such an insulated world where, yes, it’s life during wartime, but you’d never know it. Because there is no draft. It is very discreet. It’s limited sections of society that go off to war or are disenfranchised. That’s, I think, is what the Ally Sheedy character points out at a certain point in the film. Of course, the title refers to the wars amongst our intimates and within ourselves.

CS: It was originally titled “Forgiveness”?
Solondz:
No, it was originally called “Life During Wartime” but, for one week, when I thought the movie wouldn’t be finished, it was called “Forgiveness” because I didn’t want anyone to know what the real title would be in case it didn’t get finished. But it was finished and so I could give it the real title. But if I was going to call it “Forgiveness,” the title song would be “Forgiveness.” But I wrote in the song “Life During Wartime” before we shot the film in order to have it sung during the film because that was to be the title.

CS: Tell me about working with music. Do you listen to songs when you write?
Solondz:
No, I don’t listen to anything when I write. I love music and, if I had the talent, I would be a musician. But that’s the one thing I’m missing.

CS: How did the cast come together. Who was the first person you went after who signed on?
Solondz:
I don’t even remember. It was such a cockamamie process. I don’t remember who came first.

CS: Paul Ruebens has a number of scenes as a ghost. How did you decide to go that semi-fanciful route?
Solondz:
Well, with ghosts I don’t really believe in them in any literal sense but, as a psychological manifestation of, I think, the internal lives of these characters and the emotional desires and fears and so forth, it was a very effective way to dramatize the way in which the past haunts our present lives and how it doesn’t let go of us.

CS: Do you find that that is the case with the characters? That they’ve been in your head all this time since “Happiness”?
Solondz:
Well, I don’t know if I would take it quite so literally. Possibly, you’re right. But, as I said, I didn’t have any plans to do a sequel and then it happened. There was nothing calculated about it.

CS: Do you go back and revisit your films often?
Solondz:
No, no. I know few filmmakers do. I don’t know how, if you’ve seen your movie a thousand times in the cutting room, you would want to punish yourself. You see it a couple times now and then. It’s nice to see it with an audience. But that’s enough. You move on.

CS: Your next film, you’ve said, is called Dark Horse and it’s a little more family friendly than some of your previous films?
Solondz:
That’s because, very flipply, I talked about how there’s no child molestation, no rape, no masturbation. So I suppose that’s the radical move. We’ll see. I shoot this fall and I hope for the best.

CS: Can you talk about the plot at all?
Solondz:
Let’s see what happens and I’ll talk about it once I figure it out.

CS: What if someone came to you and wanted you to direct the biggest blockbuster of the summer. Is that something that is interesting to you at all?
Solondz:
Well, I don’t look at things as the “biggest blockbuster” quote unquote. If I fell in love with a script and it happened to be something that would be very profitable, then yes, I would be open. But I end up prioritizing the stuff that I write and the stuff that I write isn’t quite so blockbustery.

CS: Do you jot down ideas and sort of leave them gestating for long periods?
Solondz:
I have a couple of things that I put down to maybe try and unlock or find a key to sometime later. Different things. None of them terribly marketable, I think.

CS: Do you have a dream project that you haven’t found that key to yet?
Solondz:
Every project is a dream project. Every one that you make. You just can’t believe that they really got made. They’re all dreams and I feel very fortunate that someone invested their money.

CS: You shot this one digitally with the RED camera. How did you decide to go that route?
Solondz:
Well, I worked with Ed Lachman, the cinematographer and he did such beautiful work. There are difficulties — challenges, let’s say — with the RED and there are advantages, too. Economically, though, it made a lot of sense.

CS: Do you think you’d do it again in the future?
Solondz:
Well it depends on the project and the budget. But, if you have the right cinematographer, that’s what matters more than whether it’s RED or 35.

CS: Back to the notion of switching actors for a single character, one of the most famous examples is “That Obscure Object of Desire.” Is that something that you looked at at all either before this or “Palindromes”?
Solondz:
Well, I certainly know the film but I think that Bunuel’s aims there were very different than what I am doing here. It’s just different as much as Todd Haynes’ movie was different from what I’m doing.

CS: Who are the directors that influence you?
Solondz:
I leave that for you to determine who, in fact, was most influential. Who I stole most effectively from. But, hey, I think Todd Haynes is interesting. I think Gus Van Sant is interesting. Terry Zwigoff. It’s a long list.

Life During Wartime is now playing at select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

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