With his 1998 film Happiness and 2001 follow up Storytelling, acerbic indie auteur Todd Solondz shattered the out layer of the indiesphere. Now, 10 years and two films on, he returns to his distinctively savage style of suburban spotlighting in Life During Wartime, a part remake/part sequel up to his seminal late '90s masterpiece. Ever the provocateur, Solondz speaks candidly to LWLies about the struggles of creating personal, socially austere cinema.
LWLies: What was the idea behind Life During Wartime?
Solondz: Well I hadn’t planned to do any sort of sequel, somehow it just started happening.
How do you mean?
Well I guess I had the idea, but never thought it would really come to anything. But then I started thinking about the possibility of being able to recast all these characters and bring different colour and shade and meaning to the story. I think sequels can be a little bit misleading for an audience, so I wanted to do something a bit different and not just turn the page but leap into a new chapter.
The film has been described as a part-sequel/part-remake. Would you agree with that?
Well on the one hand you could say it is but on the other hand it’s a very different kind of movie. I think it’s a much more sorrowful film, it’s not really a comedy, so in a sense it’s a remake but with a different structure and tone. It’s an examination, one might say, of a kind of post-traumatic stress that these characters are plague by. Not to be too glib, but it’s the dramatisation of these traumas that separates the film from my other work.
And the recast – was that something you had a complete vision of from the outset?
I wanted to try different actors in different roles and I had a bit of fun with that; bringing in Michael Kenneth Williams for Phillip Seymour Hoffman, etc. But it wasn’t really an apparition or anything; it just came together as I started to imagine how the character might have developed from Happiness. There are some casting changes that aren’t so different though, but it’s all relevant really because each actor was chosen for their ability rather than their appearance. I like to play with these things and find different sparks in each of the characters. You never know what you’re going to come out with and that’s part of the pleasure of making a film like this.
Did you ever feel like you were taking a gamble on any of the characters?
Not so much, but I can see why people might think so.
Paris Hilton was reportedly involved at an early stage…
In an earlier version of the film I had a cameo that I felt might work for her but for various reasons it never really worked out that way. She’s someone I would like to work with though at some stage. I’ll write a part for her again, maybe.
You’ve been noticeably quiet in recent years. Do you find it hard to keep testing yourself as a filmmaker?
I don’t know whether I want to test myself really, but I’ve certainly got to a point where I’m keen to look at my work and my career from another angle. I suppose you could see it as being quiet, but if that’s how long it takes for me to be really inspired or interested in a character or a story then I’m happy to wait it out. It's about finding inspiration from everyday life.
The thing with your films tends to be though; it's everyday life, but not as audiences know it. How much do you consider your audience and their reactions to your films?
Well, it’s my job as a director to think about my audience. Do I think about my audiences reactions? Of course! As a director you’re always imagining how what you’re doing will be received and you want people to understand your motives. It’s not until I sit down with a pen and paper that I discover what it is I want to say and who I want to address with a certain story. It’s an ongoing question that I have to pose myself: who am I talking to?
Do you see your audience changing in that sense? Are you concerned about changing with them?
Not really because I feel like I have a certain niche that I enjoy working in. The hardest thing is not inspiration, it's realisation, and sadly that has a lot to do with finances. But then it's a similar story with any independent filmmaker.