A social satirist who returned to filmmaking with a vengeance following the studio interference that undermined his first feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989), Todd Solondz has since experienced both ends of the industrial spectrum, flirting with mainstream acceptance when Happiness was funded by a studio sub-division in 1998 and paying for Palindromes out of his own pocket in 2000. While his audience has always been relatively marginal, fledgling filmmakers have certainly been taking notes; it could be argued that the scathing high school humour of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) paved the way for the more widely accepted Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Juno (2007), while Happiness is an early example of the ‘network narrative’ film that has become the format of choice for independent filmmakers seeking to comment on the social-political fabric of their nation.
Yet, while other films that have favoured the multi-stranded structure have contented themselves with the cleverness of their interlocking story-strands and superstar casting coups, Happiness was an unapologetically raw dissection of the underbelly of suburban society, which asked its audience to empathise with such characters as a paedophile and a verbally abusive phone pest. The frankness with which Solondz discussed such sexual themes led Happiness to be slapped with the restrictive NC-17 rating by the American ratings board, but more than 10 years later the director has returned to the scene of the crime with Life during Wartime, a quasi-sequel that integrates the post-09/11 climate into an already volatile mix, with uncomfortably amusing yet unexpectedly melancholy results.
John Berra spoke with Solondz about the reception of his work to date, the realities of ‘independent’ filmmaking, and his subversive approach to the ‘sequel’.
John Berra: Life during Wartime has a melancholy quality that I did not necessarily expect from a follow-up to Happiness. I read that the film was originally titled Forgiveness and I wondered if the title change indicated an intention to engage more directly with the social fabric of the United States and make a more political film.
Todd Solondz: It is certainly a more overtly political film than Happiness and, at the same time, it’s also very oblique in the way that it is political. The original title actually was Life during Wartime, the other title came about when I thought the movie would never be finished and I didn’t want anyone to know what the real title would be.
None of the actors from Happiness return for Life during Wartime. At first, I thought this might have been a way to communicate how these characters have changed and evolved through their experiences, but some of them do not seem to have changed at all.
When you cast the same actors 10 years later, it becomes all about mortality as people get older, and that of course is a very compelling interest, but that wasn’t what I wanted the movie to subliminally communicate. I was more interested in approaching these characters from a different angle and portraying them in a fresh light, and I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I had cast the same people. That’s what made it much more interesting for me. It’s somewhat misleading to call it a ‘sequel’, because it makes people think that the movie is going to have the same kind of character as the earlier film when, as you pointed out, it’s more melancholy. It’s more of a jumping off point than a direct sequel, and more of a quasi-sequel than an actual sequel.
Sequels are usually made by Hollywood studios to follow films that have made obscene amounts of money, but you have made a follow-up to a film that had a comparatively marginal audience.
It’s very un-Hollywood to make a sequel to a movie that makes no money. It goes against the grain. But Life during Wartime is more a variation on the original. I never had the intention of making a sequel, but when you start writing, things come at you unexpectedly and you never end up writing what you plan to write.
Happiness was released at a time when American independent films were receiving a lot of media attention. Based on the controversy that surrounded the film, I was surprised to find that it only grossed $2.7 million in the United States. Was there really an ‘indie’ boom in the late 90s, or do you think it was more of a media myth?
This is a bit of a conversation; how one defines what is ‘independent’ is also something to be questioned. When the movie happened, it was financed by October Films, which was owned by Universal so, in that sense it’s hard to call Happiness an ‘independent film’. I was pleased that it made as much as $2.7 million. The distribution company that had been set up to release it had run out of money, so the movie was playing without any advertising in motion. But say we had a stronger distributor, how much more money could it have made? 10% or 20%? You’re still talking about a movie that’s only making $3.5 million. It’s always instructive when you get very excited about a movie, and all your friends are seeing it; you go and look at the numbers that Variety or the industry sources publish to tell you how much a movie made, and it’s something of an eye-opener. You will see what actually makes a dent at the box office and what does not, and the consequence at this point is that I have a new script but I don’t know if it will get made. It’s not so complicated and it’s not so expensive, but unlike the days of Happiness, the internet and television cover so many channels that it’s much less typical for this audience to go out and pay $12.50 at the box office, or whatever it is in England. That makes things a lot more difficult. You can count on your fingers how many American filmmakers are able to continue operating as ‘independent filmmakers’, making films that are not dependent on big studio corporations. You can make one film, maybe two, but not many can continue. It’s not a system that is able to support the marginal filmmaker. In France, there is a system set up to subsidise and support the national cinema and independent filmmakers, and that applies to other European countries, but there is absolutely nothing similar in America.
In 2007, Premiere listed Happiness among their ‘top 25 most dangerous movies’. It came in at number 19 in-between Gimme Shelter (1970) and Bad Lieutenant (1992). As your work strives for some understanding of individuals that would otherwise be demonised as ‘socially deviant’, do you feel that labels like ‘dangerous’ undermine what you are trying to do?
I didn’t see that article, but if that’s how people remember the film, I just have to take it as a compliment and leave it at that. People will respond to the film no matter what other people say; at the end of the day, if you are sitting alone watching the movie, you will have a unique connection to it. I’m happy if the movie has a life and I can’t control the way people will respond to the film and what they will say about it, but there are certainly a lot worse things to be called than ‘dangerous’.