Life During Wartime is Todd Solondz's sequel, of sorts, to Happiness from 1998. That ironically titled film observed the dissatisfactions of three sisters (Joy, Helen and Trish Jordan), and their unhappy clan, in excruciating detail. If you've forgotten its many depressive pleasures, in brief: Joy rejects a man who subsequently commits suicide; Helen, a successful novelist, is pursued by an obscene phone caller; and Trish, who insists she has it all, is married to a pedophile. Dysfunction -- that familiar household god -- bestowed its every blessing on the Jordan family.
The new film is set in the present, approximately a decade later, where we revisit the Jordan sisters, and their extended family. But every actor has been recast, and therefore, essentially reinvented. According to the press release, Solondz said, "It wouldn't have been as interesting to bring back the same cast." And after seeing the first film again, I have to agree. Shirley Henderson shades Joy's vulnerability with touching despair; Ally Sheedy delivers a brilliant monologue, revealing the monstrous ego inside of Helen; and Allison Janney's Trish is no longer just whiny and shrill: she's deeper, more eccentric, and even more uncertain.
Life During Wartime is about a particular family's troubles, but a family that only exists in, and is peculiar to, America. Solondz, the director and screenwriter, has created yet another picture that stares, unforgivingly, at our private, domestic lives. He's delved into the collective unconscious and unearthed more disturbances, displaying them on screen in a pastel-colored world of shopping malls and condominiums, a place he calls Generica.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with the director the day after Life During Wartime screened in San Francisco. I asked him about the sunny climes of Southern Florida, where the movie is set, and began the interview by asking him about the title of the film, and how it related to the lives of the characters.
JE: I'd like to start with a question about the title of your new film, Life During Wartime. Ally Sheedy's character, Helen, is the only character in the film to mention the fact that our country is currently at war.
JE: She makes the only explicit mention of the war, and justifies her self-absorption by referencing it. Her sister, Joy, then uses the title in a song she's written. In the public and private spaces you've created for the set design, you employ pastel colors, with Muzak streaming in. It looks like a country that is anesthetized, longing to be soothed, and ignorant of the wars abroad.
TS: I think the movie is very much informed by what you're talking about, the process of actually writing it. Just for the record there is no Muzak, even though it might seem like there is. There's no Muzak anywhere in the movie.
JE: The instrumental music in the film is either jazz or classical?
TS: Yes. That's right. Or there's some Brazilian. But even so, it's as if there were. Certainly, South Florida is all about pastels. Pinks and turquoises are emblematic: toothpaste colors. Florida for me, that's a place, where California used to be, where one can reinvent and recreate oneself. Tabula rasa. That's where Trish goes to remove the past, and pays the price. It's where O.J. Simpson went after that trial. You often hear the word Generica used to describe the land of malls and condos. It's funny, usually I teach in Singapore in the fall, which is a lot like South Florida, condominiums and shopping malls. And the same climates, and the green. And instead of old Jews, it's Chinese. But that's another conversation... But when I wrote the script, I remember I was still living with that moment after the Twin Towers collapsed, because this is a more politically overt, post-9/11 movie than Happiness. And there was something beautiful that happened in the country with people. After this terrible calamity, atrocity, they said, "What can I do? How can I help?" And it was a unique, a very precious moment in history, where there was that spirit of, "What can we do to come together to help?"
JE: Were you in New York at the time?
TS: I was in Italy doing press. I missed three weeks. I was away the whole time. When I finally came back, most of the smell had already gone away. But that spirit: I was very sensitized to it when I came back. I'll never forget how Giuliani answered (the question "What can I do?") with, "Go shopping." I always felt that was such an obscenity, such a slap in the face of the dignity of this, an insult to the heart and soul and spirit of this beautiful moment. And what does "Go shopping" mean? It means to insulate yourself from the reality. It's this sense of being insulated that I think informs a lot of the spirit of the film. Even to the extent the son says to the father, "You should have cut and run." Or Joy, and her good intentions; as if good intentions are enough. You point out Helen, and the comedy is all about her narcissism, pathological narcissism.
JE: And it looks as if everything in the set design is scrubbed clean, including the characters' emotional lives. There's no place for the mess of them.
TS: Well, not for mess, but that doesn't mean there's no place for emotions. There's a level of repression, a level of suppression. The movie, in a certain sense, is a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder genre film. The fallout. And Trish contending with, how does one contend with the reality that your ex is a pedophile? What is the protocol? But she makes mistakes, and pays a terrible price I think. But it's not without hope. I always think the little boy (Trish's son Timmy), who is on the cusp of manhood, I think so long as he hopes for, yearns for, has the quest for his father, there's something beautiful in that.
JE: Beautiful, and disappointing.
TS: It's heartbreaking. There is a very big difference in having that sense of yearning, and not having it. You have to have someone to love, and someone to look up to, and look forward to. Just because it may be a dream, doesn't make it any less valid.
JE: You were talking about Trish, and how she makes mistakes after her marriage is destroyed, and how she fails to regain composure afterwards. Shirley Henderson aches with misery as Joy, and is another example of someone whose intimate relationships have all failed. Have you seen the film An Angel at My Table by Jane Campion?
TS: I did see it years ago.
JE: Kerry Fox, as the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, brought a comparable level of vulnerability to the screen. And yet, despite the many tragedies in Frame's life, at the end, she finds her voice in writing, in art. That's not something you find in Life During Wartime or Happiness. There is no way for your characters to redeem themselves. Do you feel that redemption is a false concept?
TS: I don't see it quite that way. I don't think that. For me, there are intangibles. There is a kind of connection or hope that, for me, serve as a kind of redemption. And yet at the same time, I'm not sure that redemption is always merited. We live in a society, where public figures all the time...a politician gets caught with prostitutes or with drugs, or sex scandals, and so forth. Then they find God, and they're re-elected and redeemed. Or movie stars, the same sort of things. People say it's over for Mel Gibson, but I don't know in this country. He may have played it out one too many times. But it's not a myth. There is a kind of will towards redemption in this country, that certain people, they fall from grace, and the public wants to see them come back no matter what. And others: Mel Gibson may be one who has overplayed that hand.
JE: But what if we're just talking about ordinary people. You depict ordinary lives.
TS: The point I'm getting at here, even with Bill Maplewood (Ciarian Hinds) and what he's done, I don't know that there is or needs to be redemption for him. I believe there is solace he finds in seeing that his son will not share the same fate. But that's not the same thing as redemption. But I don't feel the need to give him that.
JE: What about Joy?
TS: I think that Joy, at the end, the last we see of her is in her dream. She's lost these two people in her life who have killed themselves over her. But for me I sense there is hope. Her husband says, or she has him say (in the dream), "An eye for an eye, then comes forgiveness." It's a very harsh thing to say. There's the Hebrew prayer, Avinu Malkeinu: it's about forgiveness, and really it's God who is in the position, ultimately, to offer that. I think that this is something that we struggle with, to what extent we are capable of accepting others' flaws and failings. There is validity and a meaning to be found no matter what horrors you've lived through. I think most people are not artists and find it in ways that I think are less tangible. And those ways have to do with the hope that there will be someone with whom they can connect. For many people it may be God, it may be someone intimate in their lives.
JE: Often in ensemble films with a diverse cast, not all of the actors read as if they're acting in the same movie. In your films, everybody appears to be in the same fictional world you've created. How do you get everybody on the same page? Do you meet with the cast as a whole before shooting?
TS: It's a result of the text. And a result of me being there and knowing what I want to evoke from each scene. It would be something of a waste of time to have them all meet each other because they don't know what they're looking for. And it's not something that I'm going to explain to anyone. I wouldn't see anything to be gained from that. I have to know what I'm looking for, and that's what I extract. I have a sense of what I want and what I need and what I can get from an actor.
JE: While you're filming, you're able to keep in mind...
TS: You have to keep everything in mind. It's a puzzle. A lot of the work, in terms of performance, is achieved once you've cast the person. And then it's modifying. Sometimes I have to step in a little bit more, than at other times. But once I've cast a person, and especially since 90% of my actors audition for me, that's the rehearsal.
JE: There was a noticeable difference in the camera work between Happiness and Life During Wartime: you used a tighter frame, which reduced the presence of street scenes and the noise of crowds.
TS: It's hard to separate the writing from the directing. As you write, you're imagining how things will play. Every movie also takes on its own life. As you find locations, as you cast and so forth. You find yourself discovering that it's a little bit different, maybe, than what you'd imagined. You're always in pursuit of finding, what is this thing that I have wrought? And when people ask me, did it turn out the way you anticipated? It never does. But if you're lucky, it turns out better. It's a constant quest. Why did I put pen to paper? And what is going on here, and what is this life? It takes on its own life. You have to respect it. As much as there's a level of guidance, there's also a level of impotence in the process of making it. You plan, you may have lots of plans and so forth, but a movie, a story, it follows a certain plan and resists it at the same time. As I say, it takes on its own life. You see that and discover it as you go through the process.
JE: One scene never happens in either movie: a confrontation between Trish and Bill after she finds out he's a pedophile. Did you ever write a scene for them?
TS: Dramatically speaking, I didn't feel the need for it. In Happiness, it was more his story. If the love life, if his relationship, if what was afflicting and tormenting him, had much more to do with her, then that would have been dramatized, but it wasn't about her. In Life During Wartime, Allison Janney's part is much richer, and yet it's not about... It's all oblique. I didn't feel the need. They're on separate trajectories, let's say, and I didn't see anything that would ever be gained from bringing them together. It didn't seem to make sense. His quest had to do with the son. Everything was about the son. With Allison, it's about her creating a new life, and trying to build from that, and tragically failing. Making irrevocable mistakes. But that never would have occurred to me as dramatically useful.