I'm glad Todd Solondz is still making films, and that there is a place for him in the movie landscape. Even if I don't love every one of his films, I think his voice is a significant one, and when everything comes together, his work can break your heart with the force of a punch from Bruce Lee.
"Life During Wartime," which I reviewed out of Toronto last year, is a sort of summation of his work, a quasi-sequel to both "Welcome To The Dollhouse" and "Happiness," and it seemed like the perfect time to finally chat with him, even if it was a brief conversation:
Drew: It is very nice to speak with you. I’ve been a fan since I saw “Welcome to the Doll House” in theaters.
Todd: Oh, gee. Well, thank you.
Drew: It’s very….it’s…the sequel is so often a place of diminishing returns and sort of an artistic dead end, but you’ve used the idea of follow up films to check back in with characters over time and you’ve done it in such an unusual way. You’ve really built an inner life for these people. What is it that keeps bringing you back to certain characters?
Todd: You know you’re asking kind of a million dollar question. I really don’t know exactly why I do what I do. But I find that there are…I mean when I had done “Happiness” I never imagined I would ever revisit these characters or stories. But I was wrong and I found myself writing the first scene of this movie and 10 years later I liked what I wrote and I said is there more to explore here? And evidently yes, I thought there was more. You know you come at things from another angle. You always want to find something fresh and something that has different meaning—new meaning. And so that’s…and the idea of using the word “sequel” of course is always scary you know? But you just have to ….then you get inspired well, look “The Godfather Part 2” was a pretty good one so it is possible. But I wanted to…I think I wanted to have the freedom to not stick quite so strictly to what …(Things) had been established in “Happiness” and I wanted the freedom to reinvent and recreate while at the same time adhering to a lot of the story that had been presented. And the recasting of course was critical there because that’s…you know…you bring like Paul Reubens for example instead of Jon Lovitz and Jon Lovitz I loved him…wonderful, funny actor/ comedian. Paul Reubens, yes he’s funny but he also has a whole history that he brings to the table that I felt lends a certain pathos—a certain extra poignancy and sorrow to the performance. And also is something that I get to share with the public that I think they’re not aware of what he is capable of as an actor. And then I loved Dylan Baker and what he did for me in “Happiness” but I want to… I wanted…I needed a different kind of actor. Someone with a certain kind of gravitas—heaviness, heft to so to speak who is kind of a spent husk of a soul. A dead man walking.
I liked the idea of bringing in Michael Kenneth Williams, who’s a very powerful actor and I think he said to me actually…he said "Todd but I’m not funny." I told him that "don’t worry in this scene you will be funny." And we rewrote the scene to adapt it for his particular qualities and I’m very, very pleased with (his performance.) The movie starts almost as if you’re watching “Happiness” or right at the very beginning (but with) different actors. You know something’s off and you think you know where you’re going but my job is always to show that things are… pull the rug from beneath. You’re not quite where you think you are. We’re going a little bit different from what you anticipated and always try to be ahead of them.
Drew: It’s interesting to me that there is an optimism that has crept into this movie that it feels like you’re in a different place as an artist. Like you have reached a different place in life and you’re beginning to allow some sense of redemption to creep into these stories about these particular characters. The work that Kieran does in this movie, as he’s….the idea of him trying to rebuild with that family even after destruction he’s so completely dropped into them, is very powerful and it’s a driving notion in our culture, I think western culture especially, we’re almost primed by entertainment to think that we are all allowed a redemption. That we are all allowed our second act and it’s a very, very difficult powerful thing for this character in particular to see.
Todd: Yeah, you know it’s a terribly….for me a very moving story—very tragic. And yet at the same time I was always very careful not to use the word sympathetic in describing my feelings for him because that word had often come up after “Happiness”. It always troubled me. I always found him to be a tragic figure but not really a sympathetic one. And so I had this son in fact say to the father, "I have no sympathy for you." But of course when he says that we also know that he loves his father. And (we're) pulled in these 2 different directions and one that I don’t let him off the hook and yet I want the audience to recognize that as horrible as he may have succumbed he still has a human (heart) and that’s the hard thing that I ask my audience to acknowledge.
Drew: I think in this movie everybody in this movie is carrying ghosts with them. And in the case of Shirley Henderson it’s literally we see the ghosts she carries with her but it seems like everybody in this film is haunted by the past. And there just comes a point as an adult where you realize there’s really no way to wash it all off you. It’s whatever you are, whatever you’ve done, that’s what you carry with you now for the rest of your life. And I think this movie is one of the first that I’ve ever seen that deals with reaching that point in your life where you accept this is my baggage, this is what I’ve earned and now I’m just going to have to move forward with it and find a way to cope with everything. And I think the only way you could really feel the weight of that is by returning to characters that we’ve seen before in something like “Happiness”.
Todd: Well, you’ve hit the nail on the head very much that these are…I don’t believe in ghosts in the literal sense, but I do in terms of a psychological manifestation of ones inner life and desires, emotions and so forth. And the past is a lot simple and it’s something that is a part of us and haunts us and it’s one of the ideas of behind shooting in Florida which was in my head a kind of place where you could go (escape.) The illusion where you go there and recreate and reinvent your life. That’s where O.J. went, you know, after his …that’s where O.J. went after he got off the hook in California. But of course the denial…the failure to not recognize the power of the past, you know, only results in tragedy for Allison Janney, you know? The struggle to escape of course is what dooms her.
Drew: You also talk about the fact that Paul…and I think this ties directly into the theme of your movie…Paul carries some sort of baggage with him now as a performer. I just recently when with my family and I took my 5-year old and my wife and we went and saw Paul when he did the Pee-Wee Herman show here in L.A. And I am of the opinion that I don’t care what Paul did. As a performer, I think he’s a brilliant performer. I think the characters he’s created are timeless and I don’t think they’ve been dented at all by Paul’s personal issues in the past. And I’m happy to expose my son to Paul’s work because I think it is brilliant and amazing and timeless. But I know other people might not have had that same reaction. I love that you allowed him the chance to do this type of work because I do think he has an enormous sadness that has been rarely tapped on-screen. Can you talk about your experience of approaching him to do this and then also him embracing this part and what it was that you asked of him?
Todd: Well, he had read for me about 10 years ago for another movie and so I had some sense of what he was capable of as an actor. And I’d always loved his…Pee Wee and like you’re describing it. You know Paul Reubens had the misfortune of having this terrible limelight pointed at him but there are so many of us, so many people that under….all sorts of things that people do if people knew…you know…would be in trouble. And I (have) some terrible sorrow for what happened to Paul Reubens and it’s just so, so sad what he had to go through, but for this movie….you know…so I never talked about this with him I mean we just talked about it as a part that he had to be willing to commit himself emotionally to go places that he hadn’t gone in his work before and we’re both really had no regrets about that.
Drew: I love the faces that you picked for your films. I think it’s one of the aesthetic things about your movies that I love the most. And in film after film it’s these amazing combinations of faces. I think Shirley Henderson, you talk about timeless, it’s interesting that Paul has made a career out of playing an adolescent essentially and Shirley as recently as what, 5-6 years ago was playing a teenager in the Harry Potter films. And Shirley’s no teenager. It’s just fascinating the way that she has this little girl thing that is so close to the surface. She always strikes me as a very particular performer and somebody that brings a lot to the table. How was she as a collaborator?
Todd: Shirley is kind of a marvel. I love her. I loved working with her. All of my actors were a total joy. It was…I was so blessed and fortunate to work with all of those. Listen, I have a girl telling me I have to sort of get off, but I don’t know how…what…..
Drew: That’s perfectly understandable, Todd. I really appreciate you taking the time this morning. And sir, I wish you well with this one and with everything in the future.
Todd: Okay. Sorry for this but thank you very much and I appreciate everything you said. Thank you.
Drew: Take care, Todd.
"Life During Wartime" is open now in NY, and will be rolling out in limited release.
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