MovieRetriever: How do you think the passage of time impacted the film? How different would it have been if you had made it immediately after Happiness?
TODD SOLONDZ: Well, I wouldn’t have because I wasn’t interested. When I finished Happiness, I never imagined that I would ever revisit these characters or stories. Obviously, my imagination isn’t fertile enough. In fact, ten years later, that’s exactly what I did. It just never would have occurred to me.
MovieRetriever: Do you think you’re a different filmmaker now than you were then?
SOLONDZ: I leave that to others to tell me. Look, I’m changed by my times. This movie is certainly a more politically overt film. When Happiness came out, the big story was Monica Lewinsky. I think this is a post-9/11, post-traumatic-stress-disorder genre movie. This is a film that is more politically overt and I think that that infused the spirit of the writing of it as well. So if I had made it directly after Happiness, you wouldn’t have found any of that.
MovieRetriever: And that was my next question – how much was this being a post-9/11 film consciously approached in the writing or was it merely a background element as it is for so many of us?
SOLONDZ: I was aware. Yes, yes. I remember…I think it was infused with the spirit of remembering the twin towers collapse. I remember there was this beautiful moment when everyone said “How can I help? What can I do?” And I’ll never forget [Rudy] Giuliani said, “Go shopping.” And I thought that was an obscenity, a slap in the face to the dignity of so many. Of course, what he was saying was that it was a way of insulating ourselves from reality as so much…Look, it’s no different now. It doesn’t matter who the President is. We don’t have a draft and so who goes to war but a very discreet segment of society – the disenfranchised. And they wage war. So, it’s such an abstraction for us. Taxes are lowered. Everything is so backwards that it’s not a felt experience in the ways wars traditionally are. I think that if you have a movie that is infused with that spirit in some way – with Joy and all of her good intentions, the son who tells the father he should have cut and run – it’s there but obviously it’s all very oblique.
MovieRetriever: It’s thematically interesting to me that you mention “insulating yourselves” because don’t you think that’s what these characters are doing from reality?
SOLONDZ: I don’t know. I think there’s a self-absorption at play here that the characters are plagued by their own battles. Yes, it’s “life during wartime” at large but it’s also the wars within ourselves as Charlotte Rampling’s character talks about the enemies within…I think that’s more fundamental.
MovieRetriever: When you write, do you do so with the actors in mind? Did you know Charlotte or Paul would play those roles?
SOLONDZ: When I write, I never want to assume anyone would be available or want to do it. Some actors I knew immediately that I wanted and some I figured out later. I do I wanted Allison [Janney] and I knew I wanted Ally Sheedy at the get-go. Those two, I knew I wanted at the beginning. The rest I figured out. I had met Charlotte Rampling at some festival in ’01 and I love her. She’s iconic although not so much in American films. Paul [Reubens] had auditioned for me years ago. With Paul…it’s interesting that sometimes when you cast, you get new meanings. Like Jon Lovitz [who played Paul’s role in Happiness], he’s a wonderful, funny, character actor but he has a whole history that everyone’s aware of. I think it lends an extra layer of pathos and poignancy to what he does. The idea that he can even do this is a revelatory thing to an audience who never imagined this was in him. And, of course, there’s the playful part of me that’s always thinking, well, he’s playing a character who probably even has a Pee-Wee Herman doll at home.
MovieRetriever: So casting to you is a part of, if not direct storytelling, at least thematic importance?
SOLONDZ: Your cast is everything. It really is. I figured out and discovered…Michael Kenneth Williams [who plays Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s role from Happiness] – I hadn’t seen The Wire. I just saw the name Michael Kenneth Williams and he came in and read and “Oooh. He’s very powerful.” He’s not what I was looking for at all but I retooled it and made it fit. And he said, “I just want you to know, I am not funny.” I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
MovieRetriever: How is the setting change important from New Jersey to Florida?
SOLONDZ: Well, to me, Florida is a mythical place in a sense what California used to be –a place where you can reinvent and escape the past. It’s very flat with big sky. The colors lop off the past. It’s where O.J. went after the trial. That seemed fresh and fertile to me. That said, it’s a fake Florida. We shot in Puerto Rico. I had to find bits and pieces. But I think we did a good job.
MovieRetriever: You did. As someone who’s been to Florida a lot, I had no idea.
SOLONDZ: Got you there. (Laughs.)
MovieRetriever: It feels like Florida.
SOLONDZ: That was the idea.
MovieRetriever: Very flat.
SOLONDZ: The flat, the colors, the open.
MovieRetriever: Which is very different from the first film which feels much more claustrophobic.
SOLONDZ: Yes. The idea is not replicate. A movie finds its own life. If you’re looking for the same experience as Happiness, you’ll be disappointed. It has its own aspirations. It takes on its own life and you have to be open to that. If you haven’t seen any of my work, you don’t need to to see this movie. You can follow the narrative on its own terms and you’ll get out of it what you get out of it. You don’t NEED to know anything. In fact, if you do know my prior work – there’s a plus and a minus to it. The plus is that you can take pleasure in the way I play with certain characters with actor and story changes. But there is a minus in that in can make people more self-conscious – “Oh, who’s that supposed to be?” – instead of just going along for the ride.
MovieRetriever: I’ll admit to having that response.
SOLONDZ: I anticipated that. (Laughs.) That’s why the first scene of the movie is like “Happiness Redux”. It’s just a replication, as if you’re watching the same movie. And the point there was to show, “Look, I know you think you’re watching the same movie although the two actors are different. In fact, one of the characters is not the character you think it is.” So, I can pull the rug and throw you a curveball. And you go, “Oh, OK.” And maybe you can relax now.
MovieRetriever: Why the title change? Was it ever officially called Forgiveness?
SOLONDZ: It was for one week. When I shot it was called Life During Wartime. I wanted it called that but there was a point during post-production when I thought the movie actually wasn’t going to be completed. I thought there wouldn’t be enough money so I changed the title because I didn’t want people to know the real title because I don’t want people to know what they will never see. I just wanted to pretend. I didn’t want to call it. They talk about forgiveness enough. I don’t need to call it that. They get the point.
MovieRetriever: It’s interesting that you don’t want people to know what they will never see because there’s a “theme” of actors being cut out of your movies.
SOLONDZ: Theme!?!? It’s like it’s a failure. That’s a generous way of putting it. Every one of my movies, I cut out…this included…there’s at least one actor that is removed.
MovieRetriever: And you don’t like to reveal them.
SOLONDZ: No. It wouldn’t be fair or nice to the actor. James Van Der Beek [who was notoriously cut from Storytelling] – obviously everyone knows but I’m not even sure he’s the most famous. I’ll leave it at that.
MovieRetriever: It happens all the time but you hinted at something interesting in that I think you want people to focus on what’s THERE.
SOLONDZ: Well, yeah. People submit manuscripts for publication and it’s 1000 pages and when it’s published it’s 350. Does every reader need to read the other 600 pages? That’s part of the process. Some people love to see that stuff on the DVD but [those scenes] are gone. They’re done. THIS is the movie. You write a book. That’s the book. You don’t say “Here’s my first draft, my second…” It’s interesting academically but I’m not interested in that.
MovieRetriever: You’re not interested in being dissected by the academics?
SOLONDZ: Look, they can do what they want but I’m not interested in giving them extra fuel.
MovieRetriever: Aren’t you interested in responses to your films?
SOLONDZ: Of course. But my ideal response is one that is two-pronged. On the one hand, there’s an emotional response to what I put out there and I’ve taken you someplace that’s provoked you in some way and made you feel alive. And it doesn’t mean there’s not an intellectual component but all of these interpretations are interesting because I can learn something – “Ooh, I didn’t think of that.” And that’s all fine and dandy but it’s the immediate visceral response…I go for the cojones. That’s what I want.