Filed Under: Interview
|Life During Wartime director Todd Solondz
Sitting upright, fingers laced together over a bright green button-down, with glasses and All-Stars to match, you wouldn't think director Todd Solondz
is responsible for some of the darkest, most unsettling moments in American cinema. But here he is, the director of such infamous celluloid as Happiness
, smiling and pleasant as can be, even after a full day of interviews.
We chat for a while about the Jersey suburbs and The Art of the Steal
. But mostly, we talk about Solondz's newest movie, Life During Wartime
(which Sam Adams reviewed
in this week's issue). It's a sequel of sorts, loosely following the fates of a number of characters from Happiness
as well as Welcome to the Dollhouse
, and the consequences of the truly messed up shit they've done to themselves and each other. And as we talk, his demeanor starts to make sense. Mr. Solondz isn't a misanthrope. He is not compelled to project his hatred onto all humankind, or even a lowly interviewer. He's just a realist.
: How important do you think it is for the audience to understand the supporting mythos laid out in Happiness
: It's unclear, because I think you certainly don't need to know anything in order to follow the storyline. It requires no prior knowledge of any of my work. And in a certain sense, that's the best way to go in, to know nothing and to surrender to what's put before you
. But if you have seen my earlier work, you have, on the other hand, a certain advantage of the way in which you can connect the dots; they way in which you can see how I've played with the story and the characters, and that can be it's own pleasure. Of course, the danger is that it can make you overly self-conscious so that it makes it more difficult to access emotionally the characters.
: The beginning of Life During Wartime
is almost shot-for-shot the beginning of Happiness,
so it puts Joy in that same position she was in at the beginning of Happiness
. How much do you think she, or even other characters, has changed?
: The design there is to make you feel as if you're watching Happiness
all over again, for those who have seen that film. Very self-consciously so. To set the audience at ease, so that I can then throw them a curve ball or pull the rug away and let them know that this movie isn't going exactly where you might think it's going. And then you can surrender to the movie. Joy, well, it's up to you. I leave it to others
to define how different, how changed or not, these characters are, years later.
: But it seems that the audience can never be fully at ease, given the dark subject matter.
It's not about complacency. In real life it's important to be polite, but when you make movies it's important not to be polite
. You don't want any barriers to get into articulating those things that are so difficult to articulate in real life. Movies have a way of speaking of things that it's very hard to talk about.
: It seems to be a more overtly political movie, and in that sense more motivated. What was behind making Life During Wartime
: Well I think it is very much informed, the writing, by my post-9/11 experiences. I remember after the Twin Towers collapsed, there was a beautiful moment when there was a groundswell of people struggling to say, "How can I help, what can I do?
" And I remember Giuliani responding, "Go shopping
." And it was such a slap in the face, such an obscenity... The subtext there is all about insulating yourself; it's a message of insularity. Then, with the fact that there's no draft and very discrete segments of society are going and waging war, or the disenfranchised are waging it. Coffins are not photographed, and taxes are reduced
; it doesn't matter if we have Obama
, we're very insulated from the experience of what it means to be at war.
And so the movie's suffused with that sense in it's own oblique way. You have Joy who wants to do good, as if good intentions are enough. You have the son, who tells his father he should have cut and run. And of course, little Timmy who talks of his troubles with understanding 9/11. I think it's responsive of these we have these lives insulated from the war at large
, but they're engaged in their own war amongst their intimates and themselves.
: New Jersey's been such a big part of your films in the past, but here it almost seems like a wasteland somewhere the characters are trying to flee.
: Well, I don't spend too much time in New Jersey, but in my movies, it is a metaphorical place
. It doesn't have to be New Jersey, it could easily be a suburb of Ohio or Michigan. And it's how I think most middle-class Americans live... I grew up in the suburbs, so it's only natural that I would be somewhat familiar.
: The movie's also fairly self-reflexive in that it's brought together the characters of Happiness
, but at the same time the Welcome to the Dollhouse
mythos. In that sense it has a kind of finality to it. Are you planning on moving on from these characters and stories?
: The next movie I'm doing doesn't incorporate any of these characters, but we'll see... I can't talk about it in abstraction until it's all done, but it incorporates none of these characters.
: I know you've had some trouble with the MPAA before with Happiness
. Did you have any issues with Life During Wartime?
: No, because we never submitted it. There was no need. It's going out unrated. To get a rating costs money
, and we didn't need to spend the money, so it's not playing in theaters where it's really relevant.
: Are you basically giving up on ratings?
: No, it's not that I'm giving up. If they're useful and it makes sense economically, we would get one, but it doesn't right now, so there's no need.
: Who do you want to see this movie? Did you have any specific audience in mind?
: I'd like to say it's an open-minded one
, but it's a certain sensibility some people appreciate. It's difficult because the comedy and the pathos are so entwined, it's such a fine line that I walk. It's hard for people to know sometimes how to respond, but some people do, and I'm appreciative of that.
: I heard that you hate directing. Is that true?
: Well it's not so much that hate directing. I don't think my character's really cut out for it, but I'd rather I fuck it up than someone else
. I think that the price of getting one of my movies made is I have to direct it. If it weren't for issues of time and money, it would be very pleasurable.
: Life During Wartime
is shot on a RED camera. Why did you change over?
: It was more economically feasible, but we embraced it artistically as well. It's really about the cameraman. If you have a cameraman that's an artist
, that's what matters. Ed Lachman
is that, and so we're all very pleased with that.
: How much of the end results of your films are due to budget constraints versus aesthetic choices?
: It's hard to separate the two; you're always making compromise no matter what the budget is
, whether it's 10,000, 10 million, 100 million. You just have to make sure those compromises don't undermine the core values of what have driven you to want to make that film in the first place... I've never had to make a compromise I couldn't live with.
: In Life During Wartime
, Timmy is completely bound up in the notion of becoming a man, which, in the context of the adult characters almost seems like a fool's game. Why do you focus on this so much?
: He's at a juncture in his life, adolescence is about to descend upon him, and it throws into relief certain fundamental and moral issues that are embodied in the way in which the father has lived his life.
: What exactly is the moral core of this movie? Is there one? The children seem to be the only ones searching for any sort of authority.
: ... There is a moral gravity, but it's implicit. It's not a moralistic film in that it's not prescriptive. It's exploratory. People say they love mankind or embrace humanity, but those are abstractions and therefore platitudes without substance or meaning. We are, in fact, as humans, only human insofar as we are defined by our limitations. Of course you have Bill Maplewood who is a pedophile, pedophilia being something I have no inherent interest in, but as a metaphor for that which is most demonized, feared and loathed it's hard to beat. I think most Americans would feel more comfortable with Osama bin Laden at their table than a pedophile
. But it becomes a kind of crucible for the audience to question what they can embrace. What are the limits of what we can accept, embrace, forgive?
: I wanted to ask about Chloe. She's a very quiet character, but she seems to function as a kind of benchmark for innocence against the problems of the adult characters.
: I'm more concerned about her future than her brothers, because she's already medicated. A friend of mine taught a class, and years ago he would have the students on the first day of class say a couple words about themselves. And they'd say, "Hi, my name is Marcy and I love the films of Spielberg, and I hope to make comedies." And he would go around like that. And today when he teaches the course, it would be, "Hi, my name's Marcy, and I'm bipolar, and I take medication
." And so many people do, and there's so little that's understood about the full resonance and impact of this medication.
Chole's the youngest of the Maplewood children, but I have to include everybody in the sequel. I couldn't include just the boy; otherwise I'd have to say she had Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. She grows up, and I enjoy her company
. I think she's very sensitive and sensitized to a lot of the troubles that surround her.
: You mentioned earlier that you have a new movie in the works. Can you tell me about it?
: Just that the title is Dark Horse