Many of the characters in Todd Solondz’s movie Life During Wartime were seen in his acclaimed film Happiness. But you won’t see the same performers playing the roles.
Once again the scenario spotlights the Jordan family as they attempt to find their places in an unpredictable world. Joy (Shirley Henderson) discovers her husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) isn’t over his sexual affliction, and she runs away to seek solace and guidance from her mother and sisters.
Her sister Trish (Allison Janney) is rebuilding her life after learning her psychiatrist husband, Bill (Ciaran Hinds), was sexually abusing young boys. And her other sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) feels victimized by both her family and her Hollywood success.
I spoke with Todd Solondz, a truly unique filmmaker, about his newest venture.
This is a sequel to your movie Happiness, but you’ve chosen to use an entirely different cast.
Ten years have passed between the events of Happiness and Life During Wartime, but I prefer not to be beholden to the literalness of time or circumstance.
I like to tweak things, get at stuff from a fresh angle. For example, some characters have aged five years, some twenty years. Some histories have been altered. I have allowed race not to be something set in stone. It’s a completely different cast. It’s more fun and interesting that way.
Why was it more interesting to replace all the actors instead of bringing the original cast back to reprise their roles?
I wanted certain freedoms that you can have by recasting, because if you recast, you can rewrite and reshape the storyline in different ways that you can’t if you use the same actors. And you can get different meanings that you couldn’t otherwise.
When you use the same actors, there’s always a very powerful subliminal message of mortality that I think gets transmitted and it’s very affecting, but that’s not what I was pursuing here.
I wanted to be able to play more with story and make adjustments. For example, I love Jon Lovitz, a very funny guy, but Paul Reubens is also a funny character. He has a whole history that the audience is conscious of that brings a level of pathos or sorrow, a poignancy that you couldn’t otherwise achieve.
I loved Dylan Baker, but in this story I wanted someone who had a certain kind of gravitas of this spent shell of a soul, this dead man walking, a ghost like character that I don’t think I could achieve in quite the same way with Dylan that Ciaran Hinds could give me.
When Michael Kenneth Williams came in, I wanted someone who wouldn’t in any way evoke Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I certainly have that. He wasn’t what I had in mind initially, but he surprised me. I hadn’t known The Wire, and he came and read and I saw how powerful he was and I adapted it so the part could fit his qualities a little bit more.
Some of these actors said that they had seen the first film and some were not aware of it. Did you find with the actors who had seen their counterparts that their performance tried to emulate them?
No, I never even talked about the old movie. I just never made reference to it. I never encouraged any mimicry. That would be uninteresting for me. It was about them finding and building their own new lives.
How did you find Shirley Henderson, had you seen her in something?
I saw her in Intermission and then I auditioned her in London and I loved her. I wanted to work with her and I didn’t know if it were possible. Almost everybody auditioned. Ninety percent of my actors have always done that for me, and that’s how I come to an understanding of what they’re capable of or not. That’s my rehearsal.
She called your direction magical, whereas Michael called it brutal – how do you see yourself as a director?
Every actor is different. Some actors need their hand to be held, some actors say, ‘No, stay away.’ Everyone has different needs, and my job is to figure out what is going to be the best strategy to get my actor to service the movie in the best way. And I guess I was magical with Shirley and brutal with Michael Kenneth Williams. I love them both. I’m not self-conscious in the sense of analyzing how I work.
Dylan Riley Snyder is a wonderful child actor.
Because the material is always so delicate, a lot of kids who might also be good are eliminated because of the material. But somehow I always manage to find a kid with parents who can embrace this material. I have a kid, and if my kid wanted to act I wouldn’t have qualms about the material itself. I think they all take pride and a sense of dignity in what they’re doing on screen, and that bears some value from that experience.
Was it was hard to combine humor with dark situations, and what makes you want to present stories like that?
I see them as sad comedies, very sorrowful, mournful, heartbreaking comedies. The subject matter itself is out there in the tabloids and the media every day, it’s not new in that sense. I just try to explore it in a serious fashion and my own peculiar way to get at the inner lives of these characters. Comedy and pathos are so intertwined, it’s all fraught with ambiguity and it’s a very fine line that I’m walking.
In 10 years would you revisit this family again?
I can’t imagine that. But I didn’t imagine I would ever revisit the characters from Happiness, so obviously my imagination isn’t as fertile as I would like to think it is.