"I like to manipulate and play with the audience," admits filmmaker Todd Solondz, "but at the same time, I couldn't do this if it didn't have emotional weight for me."
Indeed, from his 1995 breakthrough "Welcome to the Dollhouse" to his latest "Life During Wartime" (which opens next Friday), Solondz's work always rides a fine line between humor and sorrow, seemingly predictable set-ups and profoundly upsetting payoffs. And it's the oscillation between these elements—and the unease that it creates in the viewer—that makes his job exciting. "I presume audiences are smart, so you have to be that much more ahead of them always," he says. "For me, that's part of the play and pleasure of making and going to the movies."
When he first began writing "Life During Wartime," a quasi-sequel to his celebrated 1998 dysfunctional family comedy "Happiness," Solondz says he always intended to radically shift the casting to give him the "freedom to go to new places." This was particularly the case for the actor who would play Allen—who in the original was a sadistic sexual pervert made famous by Philip Seymour Hoffman and now appears in the very first scene of the new film (played by black actor Michael Kenneth Williams).
"I knew that Phil Hoffman's character was not going to be white," explains Solondz, "so when the movie is beginning, it's as if you're watching 'Happiness'—for example, same design and the way it's shot—but one character is different, so the audience thinks they know where it is, and I want them to feel that way so I can then pull the rug away."
Solondz experimented with such nimble casting before: In 2004's "Palindromes," eight different actors, of all ethnicities, shapes and sizes, played the protagonist, which also functioned to both fascinate and destabilize the viewer.
With such fuzzy, multi-layered material difficult to pull off, Solondz is a precise filmmaker, by all accounts, who knows exactly what he wants. "He works through repetition," notes actress Shirley Henderson in the film's press notes, "There was very little discussion; just a few snatched conversations." But the results are stellar: For all of its mordant deadpan, "Life During Wartime" features some of the year's most haunting and memorable performances from actors Allison Janey, Ciarin Hinds, Paul Reubens, Charlotte Rampling and the young Dylan Snyder, who plays a deeply confused boy who learns his absent father is a pedophile and must decide whether to forgive or forget his dad's transgressions.
Because his films are such a delicate balance, Solondz is touchy about the contexts in which his films are seen. Interestingly, he notes critic Todd McCarthy, who wrote a very favorable review of "Life During Wartime" in Variety, saw the movie alone. "I'm not saying it shouldn't be seen with an audience, but that's part of the tricky nature of the experience," says Solondz. "The movie is fraught with ambiguity enough as it is, so the context will invariably color the experience."
Solondz doesn't rehearse much. "The rehearsal for me is always the audition," he says. "That's where I spend a lot of time, because I can have callbacks and because once you hire someone, then you pay for rehearsal." He doesn't improvise and he makes sure his actors stick to the script's lines—"and there's a lot of them," he admits.
"Once, I'll never forget, I had one actress I was furious with," recalls Solondz. "She had this speech, and it was a good speech, and she'd start the first couple lines and then she'd start fumbling, and she'd say, 'I don't know what's going wrong.' And I said, 'maybe you didn't memorize it!' And I had to work with cue cards to get the fucking performance. And everyone would say, 'that was great, how'd you get that?' It's called scissors and paste," he adds. "So I do whatever it takes."
The formal construction of "Life During Wartime" is just as sharp as the acting: The way the bright pastel colors give way to a sickly surrealism; and the cold, empty architectural "expanses, flatness and manicuredness," he notes, of the film's Florida locales (actually shot in Puerto Rico for budgetary reasons) serving as a visual metaphor for the characters' suppression of their pains and problems. ("It's a place where you can go tabula rasa," quips Solondz, "where O.J. went after the murder trial to recreate himself.")
"I never went into thinking I'd make this more surreal," says Solondz. "My M.O. is always restraint, because the script is so charged." Solondz credits the film's look to ace cinematographer Ed Lachman ("Far from Heaven"). "He is an artist," says the writer-director, "and what makes him an artist as a cameraman is his understanding of the paramount importance of story. Like me, he doesn't want the audience to walk out and say, 'visually it was beautiful.' Visual means nothing if it's not in the service of the story."
In addition to the film's mature aesthetics, "Life During Wartime" is also Solondz's most overtly political film, specifically inspired by post-9/11 America. "I'll never forget when [Mayor Rudy Giuliani] spoke and told people to go shopping," he says. "It felt like such an obscenity to me. It was so ugly. The whole populace was so shocked and here was this opportunity for people who wanted to band together and help and do something good. It really stuck with me and fueled me," Solondz continues, "that we live in such a world, a world insulated from the reality of the way in which we're complicit in the perpetuation of war."
If "Life During Wartime" may be Solondz's best film, as suggested by Variety's McCarthy, it was also one of the most difficult to make. Reflecting on the film's fraught production, Solondz laughs heartily. While he acknowledges, "Every movie has all sorts of craziness, all sorts of lunatics, particularly when you're in the independent sector," making "Life During Wartime" was a unique challenge. At one point, the production was actually based in Florida proper and saw its financing fall apart just a couple weeks before shooting. Summing up the situation, Solondz repeats the sentiment that he expressed after the film's Venice premiere: "I wasn't sued, I was never fired, and I survived it. That's my great achievement."
Check out Eric Kohn's examination of Todd Solondz's work here.