According to online biographies, the young Todd Solondz wanted to be a rabbi when he grew up. Like a lot of "facts" on the web, however, this is true only up to a point. "I know that got out there," sighs the New Yorker, "but I was seven years old and at a yeshivah, so I just thought it would be neat to have a beard. That is about the extent of my religious convictions," he laughs.
Instead of immersing himself in the Torah, Solondz earned an English degree at Yale and studied film and television at New York University. Today, he is one of America's most controversial film-makers, specialising in darkly funny and disturbing tales of alienation, familial trauma and suburban angst, often set - like his latest movie, Life During Wartime - within a secular Jewish milieu.
He broke through with 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse, an unblinking black comedy about the trials of a downtrodden Jewish girl called Dawn Wiener. However, it was Happiness, three years later, which really put him on the map - not least because of the controversy stirred-up by the film's apparently sympathetic portrait of a family man who molests his son's school friend during a sleepover.
Despite winning a major prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Happiness was dropped by its original US distributor, October Films, when Universal Pictures and parent company Seagrams forbade the subsidiary to distribute it, citing moral outrage.
Solondz suggests that part of the challenge of his work is that it does not "spell things out" for the audience or give viewers "comforting signals", making his position on his characters, and the queasy issues at play in his films, unclear. He is adamant, though, that he can stand by his material "as not being exploitative and having its own integrity", insisting that there is "a certain moral gravity and moral centre" to what he does.
Nevertheless, there are many who consider him a misanthrope or worse although this is wide of the mark. "I've been called cynical, cruel, mean-spirited, loathsome, vile, it goes on and on," he groans. "But I just can't dwell on these things."
Indeed, Solondz has carried on regardless. Instead of tempering his vision for a more mainstream audience after Happiness, he followed it first with the US censor-ruffling Storytelling, in which he touched on race, sexuality and the very nature of storytelling itself, and then Palindromes, about such hot-button issues as teenage pregnancy, abortion, disability, and, yet again, paedophilia. The latter film cleverly blurred the moral differences between pro-choice and pro-life supporters, accomplishing the subversive feat of making American liberals and conservatives look as ugly at each other.
These films were daring and challenging, but their diminishing box office returns perhaps explain, at least partly, why there has been a five-year gap between Palindromes and Life During Wartime.
Hailed by some critics as Solondz's best work to date, the new film is a "quasi sequel" to Happiness, bringing back several of that film's characters, if not the original actors who played them. These include Bill the paedophile, who emerges from prison after 10 years, and his former wife Trish, who thinks she may have finally found a "normal" partner in new lover Harvey Weiner (Michael Lerner). Meanwhile her youngest son, Timmy, is preparing for his bar mitzvah by working on a speech about what it means to be a man.
So, why return to Happiness now? "I don't know," says Solondz. He claims that he just suddenly found himself re-writing the earlier film's opening scene one day. "Why do you put pen to paper? It's a great mystery. But once I saw what I was doing, I knew I didn't want to do a straight sequel. You always have to feel that you're re-inventing the wheel, because if it doesn't feel fresh to me, it isn't going to feel fresh to anyone."
Solondz has fun with some of the Jewish aspects of his characters in the film. For instance, Trish sets aside the fact that Harvey is neither a looker nor financially well off, because he's pro Israel, and, to her delight, wants to be buried there - despite never having visited the country. Likewise, Harvey supports Bush and McCain because of their positive stance on Israel, though he thinks they are otherwise "idiots".
This is funny but also deadly serious, as Solondz implies that this kind off thinking can blind people to problems much closer to home. This was most starkly illustrated in Storytelling, where members of a family involved in "Jewish philanthropies" end up being gassed in their own home, because, the director says, they are "very oblivious to other kinds of realities".
When I suggest that he often seems vaguely embarrassed by aspects of assimilated Jewish life in his films, Solondz admits that "there's definitely a certain amount of critiquing that goes on." His own mother, who'd come over from the "old world", never felt completely at ease in her adopted home, he recalls, "and if she felt uncomfortable about someone she would often characterise them as the type who might 'Turn you in'." The Holocaust was like "a cloud that permeated my whole youth," he says. "It was certainly not a healthy way [to grow up], but a result of a certain kind of damaged psyche, I think, that was common enough. Is common enough still."
With its references to Israel and barmitzvahs, its temple-like music, and almost rabbinical exploration of the meaning and limits of forgiveness, Life During Wartime is arguably Solondz's most overtly Jewish film to date. Even so, he says that while it may not always have been obvious to his audience, he has always been conscious of which characters might be Jewish in his movies. "But this is a culture, a part of society, that's lapsing from the Jewish faith but also wanting to have the cake and eat it too," he says.
"On the one hand, people say, 'Yes, I'm Jewish and pro-Israel', and at the same time they're getting the nose job and trying to camouflage any signs of Jewishness as best they can."
Which begs the question: does he want to have his cake and eat it too? Does he, like Harvey, for instance, want to be buried in Israel? Solondz smiles.
"I really don't care what they do with my body. If they feed it to the fish it will be good for the fish. Rather the fish eat me than the worms."