Todd Solondz

With his breakthrough 1995 comedy Welcome To The Dollhouse, about a seventh-grader (Heather Matarazzo) coming of age in suburban New Jersey, writer-director Todd Solondz announced himself as a funny, provocative chronicler of human cruelty and angst. After surviving a dust-up with the ratings board and a parent company too skittish to release it, Solondz’s controversial 1998 follow-up, Happiness, opened to great fanfare, using an impressive ensemble cast to examine hot-button issues of rape, pedophilia, and suicide. From there, Solondz turned to formal experiments for his next two features: 2002’s Storytelling splits off into two seemingly unrelated segments, “Fiction” and “Non-fiction,” that deal with high school and college while commenting on the film’s construction, and 2004’s Palindromes follows a 13-year-old girl played by eight different actresses of varying ages, races, and body types. 

Solondz’s latest effort, Life During Wartime, continues his experimental streak. A quasi-sequel to Happiness, the film brings back all the principal characters, but more than a decade later, with an entirely new cast. Some of the actors in Life During Wartime look similar to their Happiness counterparts, especially the sisters: Allison Janney takes over Cynthia Stevenson’s role as the now-ex-wife of a convicted pedophile, Shirley Henderson replaces Jane Adams, and Ally Sheedy stands in for Lara Flynn Boyle. Other changes are more radical, like Ciarán Hinds for Dylan Baker’s pedophile, Michael K. Williams (The Wire’s Omar) for Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Reubens in the Jon Lovitz role. Moving the action from New Jersey to Florida, Solondz reflects on the theme of forgiveness—who gets it, who deserves it, and whether in some cases it’s even possible. He recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the casting changes, why Florida is about starting over, and how most people don’t want a pedophile at the dinner table.

The A.V. Club: People will be coming to Life During Wartime from a range of different perspectives: Some will not have seen Happiness for more than a decade, others will have just re-watched Happiness in preparation for this movie, and still more will not have seen Happiness at all. And all three of those groups will have very different experiences with Life During Wartime. Ideally, how would you like viewers to experience this film? Does it make sense if they haven’t seen Happiness?

Todd Solondz: I think there are many advantages to not knowing any of my prior work. The narrative threads, I think, are totally accessible to anyone who may never have heard of me. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end—I don’t think there’s going to be any confusion there. I think, in fact, there’s a plus and a minus to knowing my prior work, Happiness and so forth. The plus is of course you can see how I play with the characters, the storylines, and the way things play off each other. And the minus is that it makes you a little bit more self-conscious, that you’re not able to enter the movie as it exists and lives and breathes, because you’re so busy making references, connections that you’re not able to release yourself from and take [the film] on your own terms.

AVC: The very first scene in Wartime echoes Happiness, but with key changes in detail. If you’ve seen the first film, it immediately throws you for a loop.

TS: Of course. Of course. It’s devised obviously very deliberately to look as if you’re watching Happiness again, except, “Oh, he’s recast it!” But you don’t even realize only one of the characters is the same. You feel like “Oh, we’re doing Happiness again.” You’ve given a kind of comfort just so that I can of course pull the rug. You always have to be ahead of the audience so that they have to always catch up and know the movie’s not quite going exactly where you think it’s going, or expecting it to be going. So I play with that, and I want the audience to understand also that it’s not a replication of the experience that Happiness was. It’s got its own life. It’s a different quality. A different character.  So I think you’d be disappointed if you expect the same. But I’m not interested in that. The movie takes on its own life, and you have to respect that and be open to it.

AVC: What conclusions did you draw from casting several different actors to play the same character in Palindromes? And how did that apply to the new film?

TS: Well, they were totally different in my head, as far as like the impulses about why I cast eight different people to play Aviva in [Palindromes] vs. the imperative of recasting here. So they came out of different mindsets, but it was very freeing and pleasurable to be able to do what I did in Palindromes, so in that sense, it made me less fearful of playing this way with this movie.

That said, be mindful, to someone who’s never seen any of my work, it’s just a movie with actors. So it’s only those who of course know the earlier work that will see something is afoot, so to speak. But I don’t want to intellectualize. I can say that Paul Reubens, like Jon Lovitz [in Happiness], is a funny, comedic person, but when you get to recast, you get to bring in another color and another shade or different piece of meaning. With Paul, for example, he’s got a whole personal history that I think lends another layer of pathos, of poignancy to his scenes. And I think it was also exciting to be able to share with an audience what no one knew existed within Paul, to be able to perform like this. It is very beautiful, I think. And then of course there’s the playful aspect of the idea that he’s playing a character who probably in fact has his own Pee-wee Herman doll at home. [Laughs.]

So all of that brings something fresh that I couldn’t quite achieve if I had gone through the trouble to organize all of these other actors to work again. Like Dylan Baker. I love Dylan Baker also, but I was looking for a different quality here, a certain kind of gravitas. A certain weight of this dead man walking ghost-like, this spent, shell-husk of a soul, what-have-you, that I felt an actor of Ciarán’s stature possesses. I couldn’t achieve [that] in the same way with Dylan. I didn’t want anyone to evoke Philip Seymour Hoffman, either. And I don’t think that’s an issue here. I didn’t actually know The Wire when I cast [Michael K. Williams]. He just walked in. And I didn’t even know who he was. I just saw a name I had never heard of. But he read and he was very powerful. And it’s not who I imagined at all initially in this part. So I retooled it a little bit to make it work for him, and I remember he said to me when we first started working, he said “But Todd, you know, I’m not funny.” And I said “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of that.”

AVC: You do have actors like Shirley Henderson, Ally Sheedy, and Allison Janney, who very much seem like they could be older versions of the actresses in the first film. Then there are these breaks like Michael K. Williams and Ciarán Hinds. Can you talk about your rationale in casting these sort of contrasts?

TS: What’s my rationale? You know, I work instinctively. It’s not as calculated as it may seem. I look for those who felt fresh. Even with Ally Sheedy, the character is like 20 years older instead of 10 years older. I play loose. I don’t care about that stuff. But I just thought they’d be great. I wanted Ally from the beginning. I just always wanted to have her play this part. There aren’t many people who can be funny and dramatically real at the same time in this way. I just knew who I wanted.

AVC: One of the lessons of Palindromes is that there’s a continuity to characters that transcends the people playing them.

TS: Right. Look, there are certain qualities that I’m always trying to extract or evoke for a particular character. They’re not trying to mimic anyone. I didn’t say “Go study the movie.” I never talked about Happiness during the shoot [for Life During Wartime], and it never came up. But it’s inevitable in the course of the process as I talk about what I’m looking for, that it’s going to feel like a piece of what has previously been done, but obviously shaded in a different way, let’s say.

AVC: Your work is strongly associated with New Jersey, but this movie brings you to Florida. Why the change, and how did the location figure into the tone of movie?

TS: For me, New Jersey is kind of a mythical place. It’s emblematic of a certain aspect of American life. Florida is the same way. It’s where people go to recreate, to reinvent themselves. It’s what California used to be. I think Florida is still a place to erase the past, which is how Trish’s [Allison Janney’s] story comes about there. It’s where OJ went after the trial to start afresh. And it has a very singular look. Its flatness and the colors, these pastels and so forth. Which dovetailed nicely with what Trish was about. Ironically, we didn’t shoot there. [Laughs.] We had to fake it in Puerto Rico. And you would think Puerto Rico would look just like it. But it looks nothing like Florida. It was very tricky to go and find those little bits and pieces of Puerto Rico that we could turn into Florida.

AVC: In the case of OJ and Trish, the whole notion of a fresh start is kind of illusory, too. Going to Florida doesn’t mean that these things didn’t happen to Trish and her family, or that OJ Simpson didn’t do what he did.

TS: No, no, of course. But that’s part of Trish’s tragedy here. It’s that she doesn’t properly acknowledge or embrace or accept her past, or doesn’t know how to handle it properly, and everything falls apart, consequently. She tries to rebuild there and find a new kind of happiness and life with this very decent Michael Lerner character. But it’s just a little sad. In Trish’s defense, few people are fraught with the kind of dilemma she has. How do you handle such a situation? Your ex-spouse is in jail doing time for this crime. How do you handle it? What do you tell your children? How many of us would handle it properly? How many of us would flub it, you know? So you have to go a little bit easy on her.

AVC: Life During Wartime reprises some of those awkward heart-to-heart conversations between a child and his parent. In Happiness, it was Bill talking about ejaculation with his son; in Wartime, it’s Trish and her son talking about Bill’s pedophilia. Bill is more honest than Trish and more candid in their conversations. Does that make him a better father than she is a mother?

TS: I think he really tries to connect with his son and tries to help his son in a way that I think flusters the mother. She tries as well. She’s not as adept. But, you know, in [Bill’s] case, it’s a kind of conversation that in some sense I would have loved to have had with my own father. That would never have been possible. And in another sense, I think maybe the conversation with Trish is something I could have imagined with my mother. Not this literal conversation, but the idea of talking about these sorts of events and matters. I don’t want to say she’s less honest. I just will say, you know, she has a harder time figuring out how to guide her son and help her son. It’s not easy, and she’s a woman who’s been terrorized by her past. So I don’t think it’s so much about honesty as she’s grasping at straws. “How do I guide him when I myself am lost?”

AVC: You’ve always sort of bristled at the notion that Happiness was sympathetic to Bill, the pedophile. Was Life During Wartime an opportunity to clarify your feelings?

TS: Yeah. I always saw him as a tragic character as opposed to a sympathetic one. I just really wanted to make that clarification. That’s why I have the son [in Life During Wartime] say, “I have no sympathy for you.” And I don’t for anyone who would commit such a crime. But when the son says that, of course, we all know the painful thing is that he loves his father, yearns for his father. Is there redemption for him? No. I don’t see that, but Bill goes away with some solace knowing his son’s okay. He won’t have the same fate that Bill suffered. And I think to be able to recognize that he is a man with a pulse, a human pulse, is the difficult thing to acknowledge. I don’t ask more, really, than that.

The great irony is that I have no real interest in pedophilia, so to speak. But as a metaphor, that is most demonized, ostracized, feared and loathed… I mean, I don’t know how to top that. I think most Americans would rather have Osama bin Laden at their table than a pedophile. Even though they may have had pedophiles at their table and not known it. So the movies are very grounded in a moral investigation, exploration. We say we embrace humanity, but what does that mean? We are all defined by our limits, so to what extent can we embrace all this? Because we all contain within ourselves equally the capacity for kindness, as much as for cruelty or evil. And the best of us are able to suppress those baser impulses, instincts. That’s as the title suggests, that’s the war within. 

AVC: The title suggests something else too, which is the insularity of these people. Because we are a nation at war. 

TS: Yes. You could have every movie released during the last 10 years be called Life During Wartime, because it literally is life during wartime being expressed. You just call it Opus 46, Opus 47. But, yes, it’s a much more politically overt film than Happiness. It’s a post-9/11 film. That infused the spirit of the writing of the film. I remember after the towers collapsed, there was this beautiful moment where all the people united in their desire to—and in a very earnest way—to say “How can I help? What can I do?” It was a very precious moment. And I’ll always remember how Rudy Giuliani responded: “Go shopping.” And to say that was such a slap in the face of the dignity, I think, of so many of us. It was such an obscenity. “Go shopping” is a way to insulate yourself. Look, there’s no draft. Who’s fighting? Well, if you’re in a particular discreet segment of society, of the disenfranchised—they’re the ones waging war. I live in the little islands of Manhattan. I’m very insulated from this, as many people are in many parts of the country. That’s why the coffins… we don’t want to photograph, and all that stuff. We won’t know those stories. And it doesn’t matter that we’ve got Obama. I don’t see how any of that’s changed anything as far as this is concerned. So we can have all of these intellectual discussions and smart insights, but there’s nothing felt. None of these senators’ kids are going off. Being drafted, I mean. The war infused the spirit of the writing of the script.

AVC: You once described the shooting process as “assaultive and nightmarish and horrible.” Why is that, and has it gotten any better for you?

TS: Well, no, shooting is always like that. But I think being a little bit older, maybe, God willing, I’m a little thicker-skinned to where I’m a little more stoical about it now. But look, I totally can see on my obituary, “Mr. Solondz collapsed the third day of shooting.” You know? If it weren’t for time and money, it would be such a joy. But unfortunately that’s what it primarily is about. They call you “director,” but it really should be “economic manager.” Because everything is “Well, we can do another take here, but then you’re gonna lose that shot over there.” Or “The sun’s going down, sorry, you’re outta luck. We can’t afford to.” You know? And meanwhile, how do you get the performer’s performance? I’m thinking the whole time all about “How can I get my day done?” And my performances are primarily a result of casting the right people at the right time in the right parts. And then I do little modifications.

AVC: So what is the part of the process that you enjoy, then?

TS: Look, why do I do this? I don’t know. What makes me put pen to paper? You know, that’s the million-dollar question. I’ve been writing since I’ve been reading. It’s not a question I think that’s even meant to be answered, but it’s something you always seek to discover the answer to. And the process of filmmaking is one of discovery, and self-discovery at that. Pleasure… it’s not exactly what I would call fun, but it’s absorbing. Casting is great fun, except for the business of it. I love the casting process. I love the editing process. I love working with the music. And even prep is very exciting. But once you get there and the clock is ticking, all it is is stress.

AVC: You ask your actors to do pretty difficult things sometimes. What kind of environment do you have to create, or what kind of relationship do you have in order to make that work?

TS: You try to make them comfortable so they can do what they’re best at, and make them shine. You always want to make an actor shine. I’m of the mind that there’s no one—you, your mother, anyone, that if in the right place at the right time in the right context, couldn’t shine in a movie. And so if it means, “Oh, I have to make them uncomfortable,” then whatever it takes to get what I need up onscreen. It’s all in the service of the story. I don’t have a formula. Every time an actor wants me to hold their hand, I hold their hand. If they say, “Stay,” I say “Okay, respect.” You know? “I’m right over here.” A kid, if I need to give a line-reading, I’ll start acting out the part for the kid and just mimic the kid. You know? Whatever it takes.

AVC: Is that often how you handle the kids in the film? Because they don’t have that wealth of experience.

TS: Well, it really depends.  Going back to Dollhouse, for example, Heather [Matarazzo] was already a gifted actress. With her, I just modified little bits like an adult. With her little sister, who was six months in America from the Ukraine, I was worried about her accent on top of everything else. I would have to get right next to her and just “Say it like I do,” and act it out, and she’d repeat. Because she was 8 years old and wasn’t innately an actress in the way Heather was.

AVC: What’s next for you? 

TS: I’m casting and prepping something right now. We’re supposed to start shooting in October, so unless it all falls apart, that’s that. It’s called Dark Horse. And I think it’s the first time CAA [Creative Artists Agency] liked my script, because there’s no child molestation, rape, or masturbation in it. So I said, “Oh my God! Why didn’t I do this years ago?” [Laughs.] But that’s about as far as I think I can go.

AVC: Without those elements, it’s a commercial juggernaut.

TS: It’s such a juggernaut. A juggernaut to doom. I don’t know. Don’t get hopeful there. Don’t get too hopeful.