Todd Solondz Interview

Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse Director Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz is one of the film world’s most off-beat writer/directors. He is the only filmmaker Chris Neumer has ever spoken with who professes an utter disdain for his line of work. “Some people love the process of making a film,” Solondz states in his near trademarked, high-pitched voice, “I just don’t happen to be one of them.” Neumer investigates.

by Chris Neumer

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CHRIS NEUMER: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. It’s much appreciated. I had just wanted to talk to you about your latest project.

TODD SOLONDZ: Well, sure. Here I am.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’ve been an admirer of yours since Welcome to the Dollhouse. I haven’t seen the film prior to that, Fear, Anxiety and Depression, but what was going on in your life between that and Welcome to the Dollhouse?

TODD SOLONDZ: I was just pursuing a different career. I ended up coming back around to film.

CHRIS NEUMER: What was that career?

TODD SOLONDZ: Career is perhaps the wrong word, I was teaching for a bit.

CHRIS NEUMER: Any particulars?

TODD SOLONDZ: It was adult education.

CHRIS NEUMER: That had to have helped out when you were making Happiness.

TODD SOLONDZ: Yes.

CHRIS NEUMER: You just decided to come back to film?

TODD SOLONDZ: I thought I should–I had such a horrible experience on that first movie that I suppose I ultimately thought I that it shouldn’t have the last word. That somewhat inspired me to go to the trouble of trying to make another movie.

CHRIS NEUMER: So that bad experience actually motivated you to do a second?

TODD SOLONDZ: I think, in part, this is true.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s interesting, you don’t often hear about that twist on life. It’s also interesting to consider that since you’ve come back to filmmaking, in the span of three films, you’ve managed to create your own brand of cinema. Is it as hard to do as it seems?

TODD SOLONDZ: It’s not like I try to be offbeat or try to be controversial. I happen to have a particular sensibility that I suppose fastens it in some ways that are deemed controversial by some. But you can’t do anything but express your own way of seeing things.

CHRIS NEUMER: How would you describe your own approach then?

TODD SOLONDZ: My approach? It’s really a question of discipline, you just have to sit down and do it. I’ve been writing since I was a kid so it’s not a new thing for me, but I suppose if I’m writing a screenplay I’m imagining how I would direct it and what I will see and so forth. That gives you some sense of how I go about it.

CHRIS NEUMER: Is there a particular aspect of the material that appeals to you? The interaction between the male and female characters? The difference of opinions between generations?

TODD SOLONDZ: That’s hard to articulate. I mean you write something for reasons that may be mysterious or elusive.  The things feel alive and a little charged there on the page.  You want to see this up on the screen, so you pursue it and try to understand what you’re writing. It’s all a process of discovery ultimately, the process of filmmaking. What you imagine that you are writing about, you find to be a little different as you go through the process of completing the work.

CHRIS NEUMER: A lot of times it seems like you are daring your audiences to laugh at the material. I take the bait and have a lot of fun with it, but other people call me a sick bastard because of this.

TODD SOLONDZ: It’s not a question of daring. If I’m writing it, I have a kind of ambivalent response to what I do. These are all comedies but they’re also terribly sad, sorrowful, painful comedies. I am somewhat split on one hand, I may be moved by something but at the same time I may find it funny. I think this is part of what I find compelling, this sort of mixture of ways of responding to dramatic material.

CHRIS NEUMER: Delving in the humor a little, in dealing with Storytelling, I found the Creative Writing class scenes particularly funny, precisely because they were so very accurate. It seemed like a barely perceptible heightened reality was there.

TODD SOLONDZ: Thank you. It is something of a comedy there. Of course it’s all very dicey. I mean everything is fraught with ambiguity here.  Exactly who is exploiting whom and the relationships that are set up are never as–you can’t grasp it quite as readily as you might initially hope to do.

CHRIS NEUMER: Are there any moments in Storytelling that strike you as being overtly funny?

TODD SOLONDZ: At this point, I’m very happy that it’s over. It’s such a horrible, arduous process, making a movie. You have to understand that I’ve seen [Storytelling] a thousand times, and then you finish it and you don’t have any interest in watching it any more. What puts a smile on my face? I don’t know. Does it have to be from one of my movies?

CHRIS NEUMER: While the question was originally stated like that, no, it doesn’t have to be.

TODD SOLONDZ: I’m enjoying talking to you, I’m smiling as I chat with you.

CHRIS NEUMER: Great response.

TODD SOLONDZ: It’s also nice to be surprised to discover that you’re smiling. Certainly there’s nothing more unpleasant than forcing a smile and imposing it on them when it’s not naturally generated.

CHRIS NEUMER: Ah, yes, the plastic smile of the cheerleaders.

TODD SOLONDZ: I think people really appreciate it when you are smiling in a genuine way providing it’s not at their expense.

CHRIS NEUMER: Funny you’re talking about real emotions because that strikes me as something that your films are chalked full of. There are all sorts of tension and feelings that you’re just not going to have in other films.

TODD SOLONDZ: Movies have different functions and different goals. Some of them are just designed to be amusement park rides and that’s fine and dandy, but that’s not what drives me to go through the fuss of making a movie. I do feel an obligation to provide a certain kind of entertainment… but if you’re looking solely for entertainment, I think it’s the wrong place to go because there are no heroes and villains in my movies–it is all fraught with ambiguity–I don’t put sign posts out there telling people how to think and feel.  As such, it’s hard to get a sense of their moral bearings, so to speak. This puts certain demands on the audience. But this is what I find compelling and my audience is very small, but I’m appreciative that I even have one.

CHRIS NEUMER: What particular demands are put on your audience?

TODD SOLONDZ: You brought up the issue of laughing: one has to question the nature of one’s laughter and what one is laughing about and whether one is moved or not. What will one care for and why? My characters are all flawed, flawed people, so many times people will not be as readily eager to identify with characters who may be, on one hand, somewhat sympathetic, but don’t always behave in the most sympathetic way.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s seems almost like a Catch-22 situation. You’ve always gotten very good performances out of your actors, but it seems like you get these good performances because of the inherently flawed nature of the characters they are portraying. But at the same time, it seems like that very real material is minimizing your audience.

TODD SOLONDZ: I can’t really think how big my audience is, I really have no idea. You have to understand that I love these movies.  I’m not looking to make so much money. I never anticipated such huge audiences. So I never experience the stress of trying to please a large audience. I just try to please myself and I hope other people respond in kind.

CHRIS NEUMER: And yet still, you find the process to be incredibly tough and arduous.

TODD SOLONDZ: Yes. That doesn’t change no matter what the budget is. There are terrible pressures and stress that are a part and parcel with the process of filmmaking and I think certain people are much better constructed than I am in adapting to this role. Some people love the process, I just don’t happen to be one of them.

CHRIS NEUMER: Has it gotten any better since the first film? I’m beginning to feel bad for enjoying the fruits of this harsh labor.

TODD SOLONDZ: It’s never gets better. Really, each time it’s horrible in a different way.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s a very telling quote. When you say that though, I have to ask, how was making Storytelling horrible?

TODD SOLONDZ: Certainly there is always a certain amount of money–when there is money involved and people are investing their money, there is a certain pressure to please the people.

CHRIS NEUMER: This was funded by New Line, correct?

TODD SOLONDZ: Yes, this was funded by New Line. And your ideas may not always be in lines with the financiers’ ideas. So even though I may get the cut that I want and ultimately do what I want, it’s not without a certain amount of unpleasantness. There are also terrible economic constraints. The nature of directing is one of compromise. One has to accept that you don’t have absolute control and this is, in part, because you never have enough money, no matter what the budget is.

CHRIS NEUMER: Never enough time, never enough money, those are the core truths of directing aren’t they?

TODD SOLONDZ: It doesn’t matter the budget.

CHRIS NEUMER: When you’re talking about difficulties, I’m surprised you didn’t instantly jump to the controversy surrounding the sex scene between Selma Blair and Robert Wisdom.

TODD SOLONDZ: Well, what happened there was: I knew that I had a scene that was going to be a little tricky, so, from the get-go, I put in the contract the ability to put beeps and boxes where necessary in order to procure an R rating. New Line won’t release anything stronger than an R. I felt strongly about his because I didn’t want anyone to remove anything, I didn’t want anyone to cut anything from the film. Part of the philosophy here of work is: If an audience doesn’t see what a director intended, they can’t know what they never saw. You can’t know what a director intended. This way if there’s a big red box or a beep, they can’t see it, but they’ll know what the director had intended. This is a case in which the movie was finished and we had to get it approved by the ratings board. First, we started with a smaller red box and it got bigger until it was approved by the ratings people, but the studio was not pleased with the big red box.  They made that very clear to me–”Over my dead body,” was what I recall them saying about there being a big red box in this movie–but I got my way.  I do take pride in the fact that I think I have the first studio movie with a big red box in it. It was ultimately a good thing that I put it in the contract that I could use this.

CHRIS NEUMER: I find it amazing that you had enough foresight to do that. And frankly, it’s rather interesting that New Line agreed to it in the first place if they knew they’d have problems with that clause if you instituted it.

TODD SOLONDZ: I think they may have thought that no director would really want to actively these devices. In my case it happened to work out as I hoped. I think on the DVD you’ll press a button and you’ll have the box or you won’t, you’ll have that option. So the family can watch with the box or without the box if the adults decide.

CHRIS NEUMER: Or the kids can watch the uncensored version when their parents are out.

TODD SOLONDZ: That’s up to them and the responsibility of the parents. It’s only really an issue for this country. I knew it would only be an issue in the states.

CHRIS NEUMER: And lord knows you had similar rating problems with Happiness.

TODD SOLONDZ: We didn’t have any problems with it in terms of theatrically–I didn’t need to put any big red boxes on it because it wasn’t a studio that was releasing it, it was independently released, so it never had any problems getting shown anywhere. But when it went to video, there was pressure, they wanted me to cut things to get an R rating and I wouldn’t cut anything. I offered to use the red boxes and beeps, [but they didn’t want it].  Consequently, you can’t get it at Blockbuster or Hollywood Video; you can only get it at independent video stores. And so a lot of money was lost because I wouldn’t compromise on that point. But I’ve always felt about using these boxes and beeps in order to protect the integrity of the film. As I say, if you don’t have those beeps and bars, something can be cut out and then no one knows what you intended.

CHRIS NEUMER: Integrity? You don’t hear many directors using that word in the mainstream media these days.

TODD SOLONDZ: Well, the thing is that it’s unfortunate that Blockbuster has such a stranglehold on the market because we lost a good deal of money because I wouldn’t cut the movie for Blockbuster.

CHRIS NEUMER: Are you ever amazed by the reaction of the American public or corporations to your films?

TODD SOLONDZ: I don’t know. At this point, starting with Welcome to the Dollhouse, half of the people would walk out saying, “That was hilarious,” and the second half would be angry at the first half, asking “How can you laugh? This is so sad and painful.” All I can say is that for me, it’s both at the same time. Depending on where you’re coming from will dictate your response to the work at hand.

CHRIS NEUMER: People call me sick for enjoying the material so.

TODD SOLONDZ: I don’t see it as a sign of illness, it’s just a question of sensibility.

CHRIS NEUMER: One thing I found interesting in Storytelling was the films structure. There’ve been a lot of movies being released lately that seem to have two different plot strands and they change half way through the movie, or the director pulls the rug out from under you as the film ends. You just think, “Why was I taken here?” But with your film, it didn’t seem to matter that you had these two distinct and separate story lines because the tone of each was exactly the same.

TODD SOLONDZ: One’s fiction, one’s non-fiction and I think the connections are not narrative related.  There are thematic overtones that bind these two into what I conceived of as a sort of two panel painting. For some the connections might seem oblique or elusive, but there are very much of a piece for me.

CHRIS NEUMER: You had said earlier, “Who’s exploiting whom?” and it seems like that question is the one being asked throughout.

TODD SOLONDZ: There you have it. I wasn’t interested in making–initially I thought of making a movie in two parts that would be narratively related, but after I wrote the first part first–with each movie you make you want to try out different kinds of structure and attack things from a place you haven’t been before and so, I think in some sense, that inspired the shape of this movie.

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