Todd Solondz is a polarizing filmmaker. Some people – like me – really appreciate his tar black looks at suburban worlds populated by weirdos, losers and pedophiles. Others find his work to be repugnant and ugly. But even his detractors have to agree that Solondz – who first broke out during the indie movie boom with Welcome to the Dollhouse – has beaten his own peculiar path as an auteur.
His latest movie, Life During Wartime, is a sort of sequel to Happiness – the film that launched Dylan Baker as a sympathetic pedophile and had Phillip Seymour Hoffman sticking pictures to the wall using his own semen. But in Life During Wartime Solondz has ditched the original actors and brought in new folks like Allison Janney and Ciaran Hinds (playing the pedophile) and Shirley Henderson, while moving the action from suburban Jersey to suburban Florida.
I interviewed Solondz previously for his very strange, very impressive Palindromes, and he hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. Talking to Solondz could be vital to understanding Solondz’ films – after a few minutes with him you become aware that he’s incapable of hating his characters since so many of them are him. Todd Solondz is a character in a Todd Solondz movie.
Life During Wartime is playing now in Los Angeles and opening soon at art houses near you.
With Life During Wartime you seem to have continued what you started with Palindromes, with the fluidity of characters and who is playing them. You even have a shout out to I’m Not There in this film, which does the same thing. What attracts you to that?
I think the ideas are different from what I was pursuing in Palindromes. Here I wanted the freedom that recasting could provide me, which I wouldn’t have were I to use the same actors. The freedom to find new shades, colors, meanings, that I wouldn’t be able to find otherwise. The freedom to change. It’s not beholden to the visceralness of what had been established in the past. There would be more room for play. This movie is a more politically overt film, it’s a post-9/11 film and at times it’s a post-internet age film. It’s a different time. I think the film is informed by that.
When you’re doing the recasting are you looking to reflect on or echo the original casting? I’m thinking very specifically of recasting the Jon Lovitz role with Paul Reubens.
What’s interesting about Paul is that he’s a funny sort of character, but Paul also has a whole history that audiences are very cognizant of that I think lends itself to a poignancy or sorrow or pathos that one wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve. Moreover, Paul had read for me years before and I felt that I could get something out of him that no one else had seen before. And then there’s the fact that Paul is playing a character who probably has a Pee Wee doll at home.
You’re making films that are playing to big city audiences at arthouses, but I feel like you have a real finger on the suburban pulse. Even the little moments like at the end of Life During Wartime when the kid is walking home from the bar mitzvah and he passes through the parking lot of the Pizza Hut/Taco Bell – that’s the landscape of Middle America right now. How close do you feel to that world?
It’s what I grew up in. I’m informed by that. When I grew up my dream was to live in New York; it was like Oz. I’m living that dream. One of the working titles I had for Welcome to the Dollhouse was Escape from New Jersey. It took me time to actually embrace what shaped me and accept that and understand it fully.
Your career has stretched out over a number years. You come back with a sequel – or a reflection on or echo of – Happiness, but this film feels gentler than Happiness.
I leave it to others to determine these things. It has its own life, and it’s not designed to replicate the experience of Happiness. I think it’s probably a more mournful film, and probably less acid. As I say it has its own life, and maybe gentler is the right word.
With that less acid aspect, is that a reflection of you getting older and making peace with things?
Possibly. I don’t know ‘make peace.’ Knock wood, I don’t have terminal cancer yet. But a movie takes on its own life and you discover it over the course of making it. It’s not a calculated thing, where I’m going to make a gentler movie. It evolves in a way, and it could be a reflection of where I am in my life right now, but I don’t know.
There’s a criticism that you get a lot, which I actually find baffling, which is that you’re a misanthrope, or that you don’t like these characters in your movies. I watch your movies and I don’t feel that way.
I think it has a lot to do with sensibility and I think it has a lot to do with one’s orientation, socially speaking. How one has experienced life, the privilege or lack of privilege one has had… Look, I don’t quarrel. There’s no point. I just think it’s a little reductive to say it’s misanthropic. Let’s say they’re right – okay, it’s misanthropic, but to me it’s more interesting than that. I don’t want to have to defend myself because it’s somewhat pointless; when people like something they overlook the flaws, and when they don’t all they see are the flaws.
Have you watched your films with audiences and been surprised by the reactions? Do people laugh at things you didn’t expect them to laugh at, or didn’t want them to laugh at?
There’s all kinds of laughter. Laughter is a tricky thing. My movies are vulnerable to the crosscurrents of laughter from the audience you watch it with, and I think that sometimes effects the experience – sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But it’s a dangerous thing. Years ago I screened Happiness at I think Telluride and a college kid came up to me after, he loved the movie, he said it was awesome and he loved it when those kids got raped. I knew I was in trouble. That’s what I said after that movie my movies aren’t for everyone – especially people who like them. It’s a very tricky line I’m navigating, and it’s all fraught with ambiguity. I have to accept the fact that I can’t control the response I’m going to get.
Buck Henry talks about writing an episode of Get Smart where the villain had one arm, and there were a lot of gags about that. He got a phone call or a letter from a woman who said how could you write such an episode, I didn’t find it funny at all, my son is missing an arm. I don’t even think it’s because her son is missing an arm, I think it’s a question of sensibility. Another kid who is missing an arm might embrace the humor.
As much as he could.
Yes. There you go. I didn’t do that. It’s hard to resist.
As a post-9/11 movie this is about the state of panic that we’ve lived in since then. In a way that’s almost redundant because you have this pedophile character, and we’re in a state of panic about pedophiles all the time. People I’ve talked to about this movie and Happiness will sometimes say ‘I don’t want to watch any movie with a pedophile.’ Is a pedophile even scarier than Osama bin Laden?
Yeah, I think so. The whole thing about pedophilia is that I don’t have any inherent interest in it but rather in how it functions as a metaphor for that which is most demonized, most ostracized, most feared and loathed. It’s a crucible of what we’re capable of accepting when we say we love all mankind. When we say we love humanity it’s an abstraction, it doesn’t mean anything. To what extent… look, if you have a set of parents who have a child who is raped and murdered, if they’re of a certain religious persuasion they may forgive the criminal. Another set of parents the same thing happens and they have a different philosophical mindset, they may say we want this guy hanging by his testicles. Those are both valid responses, as far as I’m concerned. My movies are not restrictive. But it is a kind of exploration of our limits.
You have set up our own movie universe. Even the Weiner family shows up in Life During Wartime. Why do you keep coming back to these characters?
I don’t know that I keep coming back, but they came back this time. It feels right. Instinctively. I didn’t bring everyone back from Happiness, and only a couple from Dollhouse, and there are other characters who didn’t appear in anything I’ve done. I take what I think will be useful in the service of the greater whole.
You don’t make a big deal out of it. Welcome to the Dollhouse is probably your most widely seen film –
In this country.
But you don’t make a big deal out of bringing in characters from that.
I accept that it’s all part of the universe I’ve devised.
Are you going to be bringing characters back again?
The next movie is called Dark Horse, and I think it’s the first time CAA has liked my script, and I realize it’s because it has no child molestation, rape or masturbation in it. But I don’t have any characters that are recurring. They’re all new characters. I have no rules about it. I just follow where my instincts take me. I never planned on doing any sort of sequel, and I never imagined I would do one. But it just shows you my imagination isn’t as fertile as I think it is.
Is it hard for you to get projects off the ground?
Of course it is! I would have had this one finished years ago if I could have gotten the financing off the ground. It came together and fell apart several times. But look, I’m shooting something this fall..
The financing stuff makes sense, but I’m assuming it’s easier to get actors…
It’s all hard. Everything’s hard. Not an aspect is easy.
Do you regret that? Do you say man if I just made one that the agents understood it would make my life easier?
It wouldn’t make my life easier to make something I wouldn’t want to make. It would make me miserable to make something I don’t want to make. My agent sends me scripts and I look and they’re perfectly fine and I can see that this one will make $100 million, but the problem is that I’m not interested. I much prefer teaching. I teach full time, that gives me a lot of pleasure and I have fun doing that. If the money comes to make a movie, that’s great. I actually feel incredibly lucky that I’ve gotten to make as much as I’ve made, that I’ve actually gotten these movies to screen. I’m happy for what I’ve been able to do.