Paul Reubens in Todd Solondz' film "Life During Wartime." (Images courtesy IFC films)
Director and screenwriter Todd Solondz says he was a little surprised when he found himself writing about people who originally appeared in his 1998 movie "Happiness,"
"I never imagined I would revisit those characters or storylines," he says on the phone from New York. "But that just goes to show my imagination wasn't fertile enough, because in fact, about 10 years later I found myself just writing the first scene of this movie which involves some of these characters."
"Happiness" explored the troubles of three middle class New Jersey families. Actually troubles is a weak word to describe the tale of child abuse, betrayal, and other sordid goings-on. A decade later Solondz decided there was more material to mine and explore.
The result is "Life During Wartime," a disturbing but compelling film which looks at how the characters have developed and changed (or not,) in the ensuing years. It opens in the Twin Cities this weekend.
Solondz (left) recast the characters, drawing in a host of very fine actors for the roles, ranging from Charlotte Rampling, Alison Janney and Ciaran Hinds to Michael Kenneth Williams and Paul Reubens,
All of the characters are flawed people, but with good traits. Some of them have behaved despicably towards people they love. Solondz' question is whether they can forgive and forget.
Central to this is Bill (Hinds) who is in prison for sexually abusing a family member. Solondz says pedophilia serves as a metaphor for all that is demonized, feared and loathed.
"It's hard to beat," he says. "I think most Americans would feel more comfortable having Osama bin Laden at their dinner table than a convicted pedophile, so it becomes a kind of crucible, a test in some sense for those of us in questioning the extent when we say we embrace humanity and love mankind, to say what extent are we capable? What are those limits? Because to be human, of course, is to recognize and to be defined by those limitations. It's a kind of moral exploration."
And Solondz' exploration does a remarkable job of drawing in the audience. The film is filled with twists, turns, and revelations. . As the multi-part story spins out we see each character in very different lights. Not everything is as it first seems - although a lot is. Everyone has much to forgive - and much for which to be forgiven.
Solondz says the situations he deals with in "Life During Wartime" may be unpleasant, but they are constantly in the media, so he thinks audience members are well aware of the issues. Looking for new ways to explore those questions in an accessible drama.is what interests Solondz.
"When I go to the movies, I do want to be provoked and engaged in fresh ways. That's what I look for. In a sense the movies can make you feel a little more alive for those 90 minutes, because they have the power to articulate things that remain unspoken even amongst our intimates."
He admits casting Paul Reubens in the film brought an added element given the actors much publicized fall from grace after an indecency arrest.
"You are not just aware of the talent, but also the so-called baggage that everybody comes with," he says.
"With Paul Reubens, he had read for me years ago for something else. And what I liked here was first of all being able to share with audiences some of what he is able to do as an actor which I don't think anyone had ever imagined. But beyond that his whole history lends a certain poignancy and pathos, and sorrow to his performance, which I think would be absent from most other comedic actors of his stature."
"They financed the film so I am very fortunate that during very difficult economic times they were able to pay for this movie," Solondz says. "Because I really don't think it would have been financed otherwise."
"Life During Wartime" has done well on the festival circuit, taking the award for best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival where it was also nominated for the best film.
When asked what he hopes people will take away from the film Solondz responds this way:
"I suppose in some sense with movies there is always one message that comes loud and clear to anyone who feels very responsive to a film, and that's 'you are not alone.'"
What great depth and richness. I can hardly wait to partake of the film. Oh to start again, as a visual artist who loves to poke and prod, film is the premier vehicle.