LIFE DURING WARTIME
Written & Directed by Todd Solondz
Opens July 23
At the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.
at W. Third St.)
Call 212-924-7771 or visit www.ifccenter.com
Audacious ‘Niche auteur’ Solondz back with sorta-sequel
‘Wartime’ boldly updates 1998’s ‘Happiness’
BY RANIA RICHARDSON
In his new black comedy “Life During Wartime,” independent filmmaker Todd Solondz boldly updates his 1998 film “Happiness” by continuing the heart-wrenching struggles of three sisters and their extended family.
Solondz cast all-new actors for the original characters (the sisters are played by Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, and Shirley Henderson) and moves them to present-day Florida. Through their intersecting stories, the writer/director redefines the concept of family by embracing humanity at its worst — including unspeakable behavior and failings. In doing so, he asks if we should we forgive the ones we love.
It’s not necessary to have seen “Happiness” to follow or appreciate this “quasi-sequel.” The oddball soap opera follows Trish — who is raising her family alone while her ex-husband Bill (just released from prison for child molestation) attempts to reconnect with his children. Her arrogant sister Helen is caught up in the insular world of Hollywood. Third sister Joy sees visions of her former suitor, Andy — who killed himself (in the midst of discovering the sexual transgressions of her criminal husband, Allen).
During a recent conversation held at the Soho Grand Hotel, Solondz discussed his new film as well as his career — which took off when he won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival for “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (his 1995 film on adolescent angst). Dressed in a red plaid shirt, chinos and yellow Converse sneakers, the 50-year-old looks as if he wandered in from a picnic in the New Jersey suburb he skewered in that work. He speaks thoughtfully, with a halting voice that grasps for accuracy and precision.
“My audience is small, a limited group of people with open minds,” says Solondz — apparently at ease with his status as a niche auteur. “It’s because my films are difficult. People don’t know when to laugh and when not to laugh.”
Critics have accused Solondz of being a misanthrope because his daring narratives provoke audiences with stories of sexual misconduct, religious blasphemy, racism and general cruelty. Horrors in such abundance make the stories seem over-the-top and comic. “But life is much harsher than my films. I soften them to make them more accessible.”
These characters don’t censor themselves. Portraying the world through their eyes, Solondz demonstrates a rare compassion that is often overlooked in the hubbub of his controversial subject matter. “I have feelings for my characters and they vary with each one. Bill is someone who my heart goes out to,” he says of the pedophile psychiatrist played by Ciarán Hinds. “I could never forgive anyone who committed the crimes that he had committed, but acknowledge that this is a tragic life. A man with a human pulse moves me.”
The family members struggle to relate, Solondz says. “There are a lot of missed signals. The more Trish tries to connect with her sister Joy, the deeper she digs a hole for herself. Certainly Bill’s son, at college, does struggle to connect with his father. He says, ‘I have no sympathy for you.’ What he doesn’t say and what the audience knows is that he loves his father.”
Casting Paul Reubens as the ghost Andy “brings its own pathos to the role,” Solondz says — referring to the actor behind the kid-friendly Pee-wee Herman character (Reubens was arrested for lewd behavior in an adult theater and later charged with possession of obscene material).
Solondz grew up in Livingston, New Jersey and claims that his characters are not based on real people. “My family is proud of my work,” he says. “The idea that they may have inspired the people in my films is a non-issue.” Now a 27-year resident of Greenwich Village, he is an adjunct professor at both the Manhattan and Singapore campuses of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts — in the same program he attended after his undergraduate studies at Yale.
“Wherever you live is going to affect your creativity. That doesn’t say much for New York in particular. I feel privileged and fortunate to be able to live here, but if I had to leave, it wouldn’t be the end of my creativity,” he says — peering over a green version of the nerdy glasses he’s been wearing for decades, that are now in fashion.
In 1989, right after film school, Solondz had a dalliance with Hollywood and made the comedy “Fear, Anxiety and Depression.” The experience soured his interest in filmmaking due to a clash of his uncompromising vision with the rigid studio system. He then taught English to Russian immigrants until he had the opportunity to make “Welcome to the Dollhouse” — in which a high school student is taunted and threatened. After the success of that film, he made “Happiness” (starring Dylan Baker as Bill and Cynthia Stevenson as Trish Maplewood) — but not before the script made the rounds with a disclaimer warning actors of the potentially career-killing, incendiary topic of pedophilia.
In 2001 he made “Storytelling” — a movie that incited censors to superimpose a red box over a couple during a racially charged sex scene between a writing workshop instructor and his student. Next came 2004’s “Palindromes,” in which eight different actors of different races, ages, and sizes play the protagonist — a 13-year-old who is strong-armed by her mother to have an abortion and then goes on a mission to kill the doctor. Each of his stories is audacious, with a consistently bleak milieu.
“I’m not about to direct someone else’s work because I have so many of my own ideas — and I wouldn’t write a script for anyone else because I’d rather give myself the opportunity to ruin it,” he says, sounding more matter-of-fact than self-deprecating. “I think tapping into the unconscious is the key to creativity. And letting the characters lead the way.”