Todd Solondz Talks Life During Wartime

The critically acclaimed independent director discusses his latest film

Director Todd Solondz is best known to audiences for making dark, thought-provoking, socially conscious, satirical independent films such as Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. Now the director returns to the genre he knows so well with his latest film, Life During Wartime opening on July 23rd, which is not exactly a sequel to his previous films but does center around many of the same characters that are featured in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, with different actors playing those roles. We recently had a chance to speak with director Todd Solondz about his new film, its connection to his past films, the cast and what's next for the talented director. Here is what he had to say:

To begin with, could you talk about your new film, "Life During Wartime" and it's relationship to your past films, "Happiness" and "Welcome To The Dollhouse?" Is it a direct sequel to "Happiness" or just a continuation of some of the themes that you have touched on before in your other movies?

Todd Solondz: Sure, the movie contains many of the characters and the storylines that have been established in the movie Happiness. It includes a couple characters from Welcome to the Dollhouse and other characters that existed in none of my prior work. All of the characters have been recast from earlier work. So you have Michael K. Williams playing the Philip Seymour Hoffman part, Paul Reubens is Jon Lovitz, Ally Sheedy as Lara Flynn Boyle, Allison Janney as Cynthia Stevenson and so forth. I wanted to have the freedom with this recasting to get a new stage of meeting and color and examine this from another perspective. It gives it new life and to be able to play some of these storylines in ways that I couldn't if I had some sort of literalness of what I'd established in the earlier work.

So what kind of fresh perspective were the "new" actors able to bring to these established characters?

Todd Solondz: Well for example, Jon Lovitz is a very funny, comedic actor and Paul Reubens in his own way as well. What I liked about Paul Reubens in this movie is, of course Paul also has a whole history that people are aware of that lends an extra poignancy and sorrow in the performance. Ciarán Hinds who plays Dylan Baker's part acts with a great amount of weight, of gravitas. He's kind of a shell, a husk of a stencil of a dead man walking. I'm able to achieve things that would be different if I had Dylan Baker. Of course Michael K. Williams is far as you can get from Philip Seymour Hoffman. No one will think, "Oh it's like Philip Seymour Hoffman" if I didn't want anyone to evoke him and of course the story gets to take on a different color because of the cast. We wrote it accordingly. So it allows me a lot of freedom to play with the story instead of having to stick to things that already preexisted.

So I had so much fun with all of them. They are all great. They are so generous and courageous. They're all my favorites. It's like when you listen to a piece of music you fall in love with. You can't imagine any piece of music being any better and that's the way it is with this cast. I felt that way about the cast of Happiness too.

What is it about these characters that has forced you to gravitate back to them time after time?

Todd Solondz: Well you know it's always a mystery to me. Look, I never imagined I would write any sequel to Happiness. I never imagined I'd ever revisit these characters and stories, but I was wrong! I lacked the imagination and the foresights. Ten years later I found myself writing the first scene of the movie, I liked what I had written and I said, "Is there a movie here? Is there stuff to explore that I haven't already explored?" I felt that the answer was yes. This is very much a post 9/11 movie. It's a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder genre kind of film. With different kinds of themes and a tone that perhaps is a little more melancholy than acid.

Could you talk about the meaning behind the title of the film?

Todd Solondz: Well of course we of live during war. We have the global reality of wartime but it relates of course to the war that exists amongst our intimates within ourselves. I have a song composed to this that is sung in the film such as "Happiness" was a song that was sung in that film.

Looking forward, now that you've finished this trilogy of films, what do you think will be the ultimate legacy of "Welcome To The Dollhouse," "Happiness" and "Life During Wartime?"

Todd Solondz: Well legacy, I don't like to think to ... it's too suggestive of like going; you know getting buried or something. I mean my life's not quite over. I'd like to imagine I'd make another movie. Look, when I go to the movies I like to be provoked, I like to get stimulated. I like to have a good time. I like to laugh. I like to have fun. I like to be moved. That's what I look for in a movie and that's all I can hope for that my movies can do that as well.

Finally, are you still planning on making the film "Dark Horse?" Is that going to be your next film?

Todd Solondz: Yes, I'm casting now as we speak and plan to shoot this fall.