If you like your comedies dark or your characters deeply eccentric and emotionally fraught, then chances are you’ve stumbled onto the work of writer/director Todd Solondz. The filmmaker found himself a success straight out of NYU, landing a three-picture deal with 20th Century Fox off of the strength of his student films. However, the lack of control and immense disappointment saddled on Solondz during his first feature Fear, Anxiety, And Depression (a potential subtitle for any of his movies) was enough to send him fleeing from the film industry for six years. He returned with the independently financed high school humiliation comedy Welcome To The Dollhouse, which promptly won awards at Berlin and Sundance. He then achieved infamy with his multi-character masterwork Happiness (which notoriously brought a compassionately and frighteningly written pedophile into his harsh comedy world). The self-conscious Storytelling and experimental semi-sequels Palindromes and Life During Wartime followed, inevitably garnering controversy, critical acclaim, and cult appreciation.
Few comedy directors are as fearless or divisive. Solondz has a special knack for latching onto outcasts and discovering the pain and sorrow of their existence through laughs designed to stick in his audience’s throat. Solondz returned to the Toronto International Film Festival this year with his latest movie Dark Horse, his version of the regressed manchild comedies made popular by the Apatow crowd starring Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair (reprising her role from Storytelling), Mia Farrow, and Christopher Walken. Collider got a chance to sit down with the Solondz during his stay in Toronto to discuss his latest feature, his unique sense of humor, his interest in revisiting former characters, and how his movies can so often be misunderstood. Hit the jump for all the Solondzian goodness.
Collider: I didn’t realize at first that Selma Blair’s character was carried over from Storytelling. I was wondering if the film started with a desire to revisit that character and what the relationship between the two films is for you?
Solondz: Well, I didn’t presume that Selma would be available. I don’t presume that any actor is going to be available. If she weren’t available, someone else would have played the part. But I liked the idea once I knew that she was available. It’s really just for my benefit. It doesn’t really have any impact or relevance I think for the audience when they watch the movie. You don’t need to know anything. This is a character as I saw it who went out into the world with her ambitions, a very academically and intellectually sophisticated young woman, but it didn’t work out. She kind of has a breakdown and comes crashing home to the sanctuary of her family. So that was in my mind what was going on there. It just seemed a nifty sort of idea in my head to connect her to her character in Storytelling.
Do you view this movie as you comment on the sort of glorified manchild comedies that are very successful in Hollywood these days?
Solondz: Well, of course I’m aware of that genre of comedy like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and so forth. But I wanted to get at it from a different angle. I have nothing against those movies and the aim wasn’t to comment on them. However, I recognize that in the process of making this movie that it overlaps with their territory and presents sort of a variation on what’s out there.
Solondz: I think it’s not an uncommon phenomena. In Japan they have a word for it called Otaku, I learned it when I went to Tokyo for press once. They told me it describes young men who still live at home and they have their anime and their comic books and their videogames and computers and so forth. They never leave their room all day. Their mother drops off a tray of food and then picks it up when it’s been consumed. So that stuck in my head. And I have come across so many people who claim they have collections and claim ironically how they know that their collections own them. It is a kind of phenomena that you only find in secular prosperous cultures. You’re not going to find it in rural China or the Sudan. It is a kind of infantilizing and one could argue as a source of distraction that reinforces political structures. But that’s not what motivated me and I’m not an academic or intellectual. I wanted to make a movie that would cost very little money and so I thought I would do a boy-meets-girl story, very simple and something that could be made for 100K. And obviously I expanded from that. I think this is a character that moves me. What I liked is how abrasive and rude and hostile he is. I liked that for all of his abrasive exterior there is a great vulnerability underneath. That he is very much a wounded soul. That’s what moved me. I seldom laugh over the course of this film because so much of it feels so painful. But that’s what drove me here and I’m very happy and pleased with how it turned out.
Solondz: No, he’s basically unknown. He had auditioned for me on my last movie and then I had seen him in a Mike Leigh play in New York and instinctively I had a sense that he would fit so nicely into this character, but I had a lot of pressure on me to consider other “name” actors. Ultimately, fortunately I got to cast who I wanted to cast. The problem with the “name” actors? Nothing their all talented people. The problem was that they were too young, too old, too soft. You know, it’s like yes they could do it, but it would be forcing an actor into a role where they would be unsuitable.
The other casting that really interested me was Christopher Walken because normally even when he’s in comedies the roles always play on the established dark image that he has, whereas this felt like a completely different. So I was wondering what you saw in him that made you think he was right for this?
Solondz: Well you know, it’s funny because look, he has a certain quality that is very recognizable and sticks out. He said that he wanted to play in his words, “a human being.” I liked the idea of transforming him into a more naturalistic character. So instead of the rock n’ roll hair it’s very conservative with a toupee, the eyes change, everything is very muted. So for me it was very fresh to see him do something where he’s so muted, let’s say and playing an ordinary person. So he was very open to that and likewise in a different way, Mia Farrow I knew I always wanted for her softness, her gentleness, as a kind of springboard for her son in the movie. She told me she’s retired but because her son was a big admirer of my movies she agreed to do it without reading the script. I was very lucky that Mia, who was a total delight to work with, was open to doing this.
Do you think of your movies as comedies or consider yourself as someone who writes jokes?
Solondz: Yeah, I wouldn’t say there are any jokes. I don’t really tell jokes and I’m not a good audience for them. But I like to joke around, play and have fun. The movies in their own way are comedies, it’s just that they are sorrowful comedies. They are very sad and for me very moving. So it’s that marriage between the comedy and the pathos that defines so much of what I do. That excites me, the challenge of navigating that line. I think for many people it’s a difficult line and so I have a divided audience consistently over my career. I hear “it’s too funny in an inappropriate way” or “it’s too sad and should be funnier.” I don’t know. I can’t please everybody and I don’t try to. If I can please myself that’s enough. For the rest, I just hope for the best.
Since that line is so delicate, does it frustrate you when people laugh when it’s inappropriate or are shocked when they should be laughing?
Solondz: Well, it’s beyond my control. 8 years ago after Storytelling came out, I said that my movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them. When I said that I think it was motivated by an experience I had with a college kid who came up to me after a screening of Happiness. He loved the movie and was a little drunk I suppose, he said “I loved it, it was great and when he raped that kid it was hilarious.” I knew I was in trouble. I don’t know what to say. It reminds me of a story Buck Henry [writer of The Graduate and To Die For] told. He used to write for Get Smart in the 60s and they had an episode where there was a villain with a missing arm on which hung a lot of jokes. The episode was very funny and everyone loved it, but then he got a letter from a woman who said, “How could you write that? There’s nothing funny about it, my son doesn’t have an arm.” So, no matter what you do, once you start attempting any sort of humor about the subjects I’m often interested in, it’s a delicate and risky enterprise. That just comes with the territory.
I’ve enjoyed the way that you’ve been revisiting characters from your previous movies, so I was wondering that since you weren’t able to complete your first film Fear, Anxiety, And Depression in the way that you wanted, do you have any desire to revisit those characters or that world to try and finally get across when you had initially hoped?
Solondz: No, I don’t want to see that movie again. It was a painful demoralizing experience, so I prefer not to dwell on that. But there is one other character in this movie, the customer service rep whose name in Jiminy and he actually in my head is one of the Sunshine Singers in Palindromes, in fact he’s the same actor. And my sense is that he left that family, found his way into the outer world and got a job at Toys R Us. That seems right.
So is maintaining this little universe you’ve created something that you’re finding more intriguing as you go on?
Solondz: It’s worked out that way, but look I can’t presume that I’ll even make another movie. I don’t know…well, actually I do know what I’d like to do next, but I’m not optimistic about its commercial viability. I do one movie at a time. I didn’t imagine going into this. I didn’t have a grand scheme of some sort of Balzacian tapestry. I just do one movie at a time and they build on each other in some way, for me and I see where it takes me. There are a lot of ideas I have that I think would be very marketable and commercial, but they’re not as compelling to me as the ones that are unmarketable, uncommercial, and unprofitable.
Since your movies are so well-observed and based in almost mundane reality, do you think the time off between the first movie and Welcome To The Dollhouse helped you as a writer, having that time to not think about movies for a while and just observe?
Solondz: No, I think success is a lot more healthy than failure. I didn’t know that I would ever come back to film and I think I came back in some sense to redeem myself so that the first movie wouldn’t have the last word. It was a very, very hard thing to lift myself up and pursue a career after that experience. Some may find that after you fail that gives you a greater incentive to prove yourself, but I feel that it’s always a risk to put yourself out there. Every time you try to make another movie, you never know what will come of it. I can’t say it ever gets easier, but it is in it’s own way gratifying. I think that because no one movie that you make ever quite satisfies you, you’re always feeling, “Next time I can get it right.” And I think that fuels my ambition to pursue yet another movie.