Marching To His Own Awkward Drumbeat
He could almost be the odd cousin of Woody Allen. A middle aged neurotic Jewish intellectual arthouse film director, consumed by life's existential questions. But rather than answering them with pretty plots and cute characters, Solondz prefers to approach film through his uniquely off-kilter view of the world and distinctive dark humour.
Yes, Todd Solondz movies often provoke an unsettling feeling, but sometimes we must confront that which is disturbing and awkward, though we spend most of our lives numbing ourselves to these sensations. Solondz is the first to admit that his films “aren’t for everyone”. Rape, paedophilia and suicide are just some of the controversial themes he explores. His Wikipedia page states that he investigates the “dark underbelly of middle class American suburbia.” That underbelly remains a circuit board for the globe, not just America, because no matter where we live, we are all subject to desires, to the dark recesses of our mind, and to the sad comedies of life.
With his latest film, Weiner-Dog, Solondz has once again navigated his way through the tyrannical machine that is Hollywood, and come out the other side with another fantastic 90 minute indie opus. What on the outside looks like a cute and melancholy comedy witnessed through the eyes of a 9-inch-high Daschund, is probably his most provocative film yet.
I want to get something out of the way quite quickly. Are you a fan of promoting your movies, doing interviews, talking about yourself?
Well I have to look at it this way, I’m fortunate that anyone wants to talk to me. I always try to remember that this is a part of my job and my responsibility. The hope is that this will help me get my next movie financed, so it wouldn’t make sense for me not to be doing it.
Sounds very professional.
I do my best.
You had an orthodox Jewish upbringing, in high school you were also marginalised, surrounded by people who were very focused on how wealthy families are. How did that upbringing influence your view on the world?
Well whatever upbringing you have, it ends up influencing you as an adult. I did go to an orthodox Yeshivah but only for three years. I think I got too religious for the family so they pulled me out. Now of course I am a devout atheist, but all of these experiences colour the way in which I take in the world. I went to several different schools and each one had its own particular contribution to my understating of the way in which we operate as people.
You kind of break down that fourth wall as an artist. You teach at NYU and you are open about your lack of confidence in getting another film made. It all sounds very unglamorous. Has Hollywood dented your confidence?
I’ve never felt that I’ve been treated unfairly by Hollywood per se or by this business. In fact I’ve gotten to make a number of movies and retain creative autonomy in terms of making the cut that I’ve wanted to make. Even on this last one, we had a situation where I had a scene with Brie Larson. She was perfectly fine but I didn’t think I needed the scene. I felt it was superfluous and even though we all knew she was going to be the next Academy Award winning actress I was very grateful that the studio did not insist on me keeping the scene in the movie. I think they took a hit for that. I couldn’t have had a more supportive producer.
"I don’t know if they’re in awe of me. Some of them are very familiar with my work and some of them it seems have just briefly looked me up. "
On teaching his students at NYU
Yes, teaching is an unglamorous job, but what can I say? I love teaching and I love the students, I have wonderful colleagues, I have a great time, it’s a pleasure and a great distraction. It’s the opposite of filmmaking, which is all stress. Of course the school is profoundly incompetent and corrupt, and it’s opened my eyes to the way in which academia operates. I’m happy to bite the hand that feeds me.
What do you tell your students to instil confidence about entering such a complicated industry such as filmmaking? Are the kids in awe of you?
I don’t know that I instil confidence and I don’t know that I should. The work that one produces is what can instil confidence, not anything that I say. I do help them to develop their own sense of self as artists and encourage that, and I share with them my understanding of the way in which not only films are made artistically, but the reality of what it means to be a filmmaker outside of a studio system. So I just play it straight. I don’t know if they’re in awe of me. Some of them are very familiar with my work and some of them it seems have just briefly looked me up. They aren’t young though. This is graduate school so many of them are in their thirties.
You recently said in an interview that you enjoyed the documentary film Weiner, about the disgraced politician Anthony Weiner. I found that an intriguing thing for you to like and not just because of the title parallels. It strikes me that reality really is stranger than fiction in some ways and an inspiration for you.
Well it’s always a challenge for a filmmaker to compete with the reality that people are confronted with in the media. The story of Anthony Weiner is sort of about hubris and is both sad and funny. And very telling about the way in which politics and the personal intersect.
I feel like innocence plays a big role in your films. The bending of innocence and torment of naivety. You recently said that you don’t want to demonize, because it’s a slippery slope leading to a sort of demonizing vacuum. Would I be correct in saying that a lot of your work has to do with the passage of innocence?
The films only become controversial once you put a human face on what others prefer to demonize, but what could be more innocent than a dog? It’s hard to see a dog in a negative way, because we’re always projecting innocence and purity onto a dog. We often fill them like a vessel with our hopes and dreams, allusions and so on, but it has its own inner life that is inaccessible, just as we are inaccessible to each other and ourselves. We are so limited in our understanding of each other. But certainly when I have a child in a film they can be inquisitive and wonder about certain things that we as adults take for granted. It becomes a kind of portal in accessing, questioning and re-examining certain things that we take for granted.
"When people ask me who my audience is, I’m always just grateful I have an audience."
Todd Solondz on his popularity
Would you entertain a bizarre notion here that perhaps some of the symbolism or metaphors that go into the film could even go above your head? That you yourself don’t fully get your own movies?
Yes, I don’t presume to understand everything I do. I may not have as full of an understanding of what I have done as perhaps others do. I think movies have to have their own life, rather than just being about you. A movie is its own world with its own set of meanings, and they call you a director as if you’re directing the movie in the sense of leading it along, but I always feel somehow in the opposite role, where I’m in pursuit. I think I know what I’ve done but it takes on its own life and I’m just trying to catch up with it, trying to find and distil what it is I have brought. So when people ask me if the movie has turned out the way that I planned it, I always say, “no, it never does, but if I’m lucky it turns out better.”
There’s no gratuitous violence, or profanity in Weiner-Dog, but I think it might be your most provocative film. You poke and prod at your audience but in a very gentle way.
Yeah my movies are not for everyone. But what movie is for everyone? In some sense I invite an audience to play along with me, and not everyone wants to play. My movies have always been fraught with ambiguity and ambivalence and this is why half the audience may find it very funny and the other half may say to the first half, “how can you laugh? This is so sad.” I have this set piece where I have a tracking shot of what the dog leaves on the curb, and I think if I’d left it for six or eight seconds it might have just been a joke, I mean there is obviously a certain comedy there, but for me it turns into something poignant when juxtaposed by the music. With that juxtaposition of the ordinary and the sublime it becomes poignant in the larger context of the impending mortality of the dog. Because that is the subject of the film, mortality. The dog is just a metaphor. But it’s open to different kinds of interpretation. When people ask me who my audience is, I’m always just grateful I have an audience. It’s a limited one, but one that is open to engaging in this way to what I’m putting out there.
The current political climate in America is probably the most hostile and bizarre that the country has gone through, at least in my life time and maybe yours. Has it elicited any kind of creative response or inspired you in any way in your work?
It’s hard not to be affected by the chaotic and fractured world that we all live in. Just as you had your Brexit drama which is still playing itself out, we have our own drama here. It’s all a question of how you filter it and what you can take from it that you can try to illuminate in some way. Instead of just adding to the noise you must try to extract some meaning.
Have you extracted any meaning from it? Has it informed you artistically in any way?
Of course. It’s funny, the scene in which the Mexicans are picked up, I think that becomes a wonderful counter narrative to what one hears in the political media. So I think in ways, sometimes direct but more often than not opaque, my work becomes a kind of refracted prism-like expression of the times in which we live.
You mentioned in an interview a long time ago that as a young man people would shout abuse at you on the street. I find that really shocking. Was that after you gained some notoriety for Welcome to the Doll House?
Let me clarify. It’s true that when I was young, before I had made Welcome to the Doll House and I was just a normal person, people would sometimes, for whatever peculiar reason, pick me out and say things that were mocking. But after I had that success it actually stopped and people would instead come up to me and say very nice things. So in that sense success has made tangible changes and improvements to the way in which I am going out on the street.
"It’s hard not to be affected by the chaos and fractured world that we all live in. Just as you had your Brexit drama which is still playing itself out, we have our own drama here. It’s all a question of how you filter it."
The bizarre socio-political climate in the U.S. right now
You mean since you’ve become more popular? What does that say about society?
Well some people really don’t like what I do, but they don’t come up to me and assault me. They have a certain tact and that says something good about human nature.
You certainly don’t romanticise the experience of making movies. You’ve mentioned a number of times how much displeasure you take in whole filmmaking process. Some directors find an absolute pleasure in the experience, so why does it illicit so much frustration for you?
It’s a personality issue I think. There are certain directors like Ang Lee who never feel more alive than when they’re on set and surrounded by hundreds or crew and cast. I don’t have that personality. I don’t get a pleasure or a thrill out of having so many people working on a movie. For me it’s all just stress. Every day is an ordeal for me in ways that for others is a pleasure. But there are many directors who are similar to me in that sense. The problem is that I write these scripts and as I write I imagine the way in which they’re going to be directed, what the camera sees and the way in which it will play out, so it doesn’t make sense to get another director. I think I’m the only one equipped to do the job. I don’t have any regrets because I am very gratified by the work when I’m done. It means a lot to me to see that it has had an effect on others in a good way. But what can I say, I wish it were more pleasurable, but that’s my reality.
What do you think of someone like Woody Allen and his superhuman work rate, the amount of movies he has made and is still making at aged 80?
I think everyone is in awe of the way in which he manages to make a movie every year. I can’t think of anyone else in the world of cinema today who is quite so prolific. He has a system in place that can support that output, but it is also a testament to a kind of character that has a certain kind of obsession with telling stories. I read somewhere that for him it’s very much an escape, and it makes you wonder about the source of that need for such escape. But I can certainly empathise. I would be making more movies if financing them wasn’t such an issue, and they are a wonderful distraction from reality. Even though they are their own ordeal.