Happiness the Movie

Production Notes
Writer/director Todd Solondz describes his new film "Happiness" as "a series of intertwining love stories, stories of connections missed and made between people, how people always struggle to make a connection, and to what degree they succeed or don't."

Written in the fall of 1996, "Happiness" follows a complex storyline woven through the lives of almost a dozen central characters. Because it does not focus on a single protagonist, says producer Ted Hope, the screenplay evolved into a much more ambitious undertaking than Solondz' earlier film, the acclaimed "Welcome to the Dollhouse."

The two films, however, have several elements in common.

For one, both were set and filmed in the American suburbs ó New Jersey, specifically, where Solondz grew up, with additional scenes for "Happiness" shot in Boca Raton, Florida.

Both also explore the "demonic side of our nature," in Solondz' words, although some of the subject matter in the new film is "more disturbing, more taboo, than in "Dollhouse.'" Suburbia is an environment he is drawn to less for the underlying darkness, which many filmmakers have looked at in recent years, than for the chance to "honestly examine the appeal of living in this kind of world," he says, "how it pulls on us and perhaps pushes us away."


The Director's Vision
Finally, both works are unmistakably true to the Solondz vision, which Hope characterizes as "comedic tragedy. Todd knows how to maintain that fine balance between heartbreak and humor. You're often unsure whether to laugh or cry."

Solondz himself agrees that "it's hard to separate what I find funny from what I'm moved by. These are the two currents at work in me: There's a humor in some things that, at the same time, are disturbing and sadden us.... These characters are interesting not because they're ëdysfunctional,' but because they have real problems, crushing hardships, moral dilemmas, and so forth, and yet they somehow still manage to get up in the morning."

Producer Christine Vachon says it is precisely the risky nature of Solondz' vision that attracted her to "Happiness." "The projects I take on have something provocative about them that excites me," says Vachon. "Any time a film stirs up discussion and makes people think about the status quo, I think it's good. So when I saw ëWelcome to the Dollhouse,' I knew that it was one of the few independent films I wished I had produced. Todd has a take on the world that is very special. So I met with him to let him know I wanted to work together. He did not disappoint at all."

Casting
Casting, says Vachon, is critical to Solondz, and for this film it was "a very meticulous process. I think it paid off," she continues. "All his choices were stellar. That's crucial since this is a very performance-driven film."

Solondz looked for actors who could "bring authenticity to their performances," he says. Jane Adams (Joy), for instance, he describes as having "a wonderfully soft, appealing quality that was very appropriate for the part, something almost naive she can project. Lara Flynn Boyle (Helen) is attractive and sexy, as everyone knows, but not until I met her did I realize how funny she is, in ways that haven't yet been exploited on screen, and I wanted that acid quality for her role. And it's a real gift to have an actor like Cynthia Stevenson (Trish) who doesn't work at being funny, but who's just naturally that way while also being credible in a realistic portrayal of what otherwise could be a June Cleaver caricature."

The director also cites Dylan Baker (Bill) for "being a very brave actor. He brings true genius to his performance of a character who's very disturbing and unsympathetic, yet whom he manages to make sympathetic."

Although many actors tried to land the role of Allen, Solondz chose Philip Seymour Hoffman because "he was so real, so in the moment that the decision was a real no-brainer, as they say. And I wanted my lead characters to be played by people not overly familiar so audiences would buy into this fictional reality I'm setting up," he says.

On the other hand, he also supplied "certain flourishes" with actors like Jon Lovitz (Andy), Marla Maples (Ann Chambeau) and, in larger roles, Ben Gazzara (Lenny), Elizabeth Ashley (Diane) and Louise Lasser (Mona). "I wanted to exploit qualities of theirs in unexpected ways," Solondz explains. "For instance, teaming up the legendary 'Cassavetian' actor Ben Gazzara with another legend, Elizabeth Ashley, as well as with the inimitable Louise Lasser made for a very sad, moving and funny sequence."

Provocative Material
Hope notes that "some of the material in this film is extremely provocative, even taboo." But in the hands of Solondz and his unusually gifted team of actors, he adds, "you recognize the humanity in even the characters who transgress forbidden boundaries, you can see their humanness despite what they may be doing."

Since the critical and commercial success of "Welcome to the Dollhouse," Solondz was able to stretch beyond the meager production budget of that first, privately funded film, enjoying both a "much more experienced production team," he says, "and the lack of doubt that the film was going to be finished. Add to that the two great indie moguls here in New York (Vachon and Hope), who were completely supportive and made my job so much more manageable and pleasurable, and I'm a pretty lucky guy."

The Director's Vision about Happiness the movie
Happiness the movie is unmistakably true to the Solondz vision, which Hope characterizes as "comedic tragedy. Todd knows how to maintain that fine balance between heartbreak and humor. You're often unsure whether to laugh or cry."

Solondz himself agrees that "it's hard to separate what I find funny from what I'm moved by. These are the two currents at work in me: There's a humor in some things that, at the same time, are disturbing and sadden us.... These characters are interesting not because they're ëdysfunctional,' but because they have real problems, crushing hardships, moral dilemmas, and so forth, and yet they somehow still manage to get up in the morning."

Producer Christine Vachon says it is precisely the risky nature of Solondz' vision that attracted her to "Happiness." "The projects I take on have something provocative about them that excites me," says Vachon. "Any time a film stirs up discussion and makes people think about the status quo, I think it's good. So when I saw Welcome to the Dollhouse,' I knew that it was one of the few related Adult Movies independent films I wished I had produced. Todd has a take on the world that is very special. So I met with him to let him know I wanted to work together. He did not disappoint at all."