Friday, October 1, 2010

The Todd Solondz Interview

This was a tough interview for a couple of reasons, which are outlined in the introduction. However, to prepare for the Q&A, I watched "Palindromes" and "Storytelling" over the course of a weekend. Though Solondz is a creative, adventurous filmmaker, you shouldn't cram his movies in like you're watching a "Three Stooges" marathon.

But I digress. It turned out to be a lot of fun. Sorry for the lack of formatting right now. This thing clocks in at around 3,000 words. I'm going to save the italicizing and bolding for another time. Just enjoy.

This interview originally appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission.

I was a bit apprehensive to meet Todd Solondz, despite the publicist's assurances that he was a talkative delight. I've spent the last 31 years happily living in the New Jersey suburbs. Solondz, a Jersey native turned devout New Yorker, has made his reputation as a writer and director (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) by holding up a fun house mirror to those same suburbs, showcasing its hypocrisy and bitterness. His movies are alternately hilarious and shocking and heartbreaking and insightful, but always poker-faced. You remember a Todd Solondz movie, even if you're not quire sure what you've seen.

Solondz's latest, Life During Wartime, is a haunting, moral gut check. His first movie in five years, it's a sequel of sorts to Happiness—it's set 10 years after the bizarre events that befell the Jordan family—but the characters are now played by different actors.

Joy (Shirley Henderson), still meek and clueless, sabotages herself by embracing the misery of others, including her long-dead boyfriend (Paul Reubens); sister Trish (Allison Janney), still reeling from her ex-husband's pedophilia, has relocated to Florida and has fallen for a relentlessly average man (Michael Lerner), which makes her younger son (Dylan Riley Snyder) wary; Trish's tortured ex, Bill Maplewood (Ciarán Hinds), leaves prison hoping to settle the past with his oldest child (Chris Marquette). The third Jordan sister, Helen (Ally Sheedy), is adrift in Hollywood. The movie isn't as in-your-face as Happiness—no money shots, no adults masturbating to teen magazines—but it's a sobering examination of how the past manages to poison the future.

You can see why I was a bit nervous to talk to Solondz. Intense filmmaker. Holds disdain for the place I live. And the publicist says he's been doing interviews all day. Awesome.

Five minutes after meeting Solondz, who's dressed in an aquamarine button-down shirt, turquoise Chuck Taylor sneakers, and his trademark thick glasses, and it's clear my fears were unfounded. Solondz, who was in Philadelphia in late July to promote Life During Wartime, was chatty and dryly funny during our 25-minute interview.

Pete Croatto: It's been about five years since we last saw you. What have you been doing since Palindromes?

Todd Solondz: I would have finished this movie a few years ago had the financing not come together and fallen apart several times. That's why it took so long. But I'm a full-time teacher now at NYU and their graduate school, and I have a lot of fun doing that. I'd rather do that than, I suppose, directing episodes of television. Not that there's not good stuff on TV, I'm just not interested, any more than I'm in a lot of the scripts that are out there. I look at the script, and it's not such a terrible script; it could make $100 million. I'm just not interested…It [filming a script that isn't my own] hasn't happened yet, but I confess I don't spend too much time looking for it. I prioritize my own material. I'm shooting something this fall, so maybe it'll even out. I've been shooting every three years: you write, you shoot, you recover…It's a three-year plan. This one I'm shooting, maybe it'll even out because it took so long to get the last one completed.

PC: That brings me to Life During Wartime. What made you decide to revisit the characters from Happiness, especially 12 years after that movie was first released?

TS: When I finished Happiness I never imagined I would ever revisit the characters or the stories from that movie, but it just shows that my imagination wasn't so fertile because about 10 years later, I guess, I wrote the script, believe me not as a career move. I don't know. I just wrote the first scene, and I liked what I wrote and I think the idea of recasting the movie made it all very interesting for me.

PC: With the new cast was there ever a time when you were directing a scene, let's say with Allison Janney, and said, "That's not how Cynthia Stevenson would have done it"? Was it hard to avoid comparing the actors in this movie to the previous actors?

TS: No, because I wasn't comparing. I didn't tell any of the actors to reference or mimic. The aim was not to replicate, but creating a new work with its own life. And it's different; it's got a different life. I loved Dylan Baker [who portrayed Bill Maplewood in Happiness], but I wanted an actor with gravitas and weight, a kind of dead man walking, ghost-like, spent, shell, a husk of a soul that Ciarán seemed to embody. I couldn't achieve that with Dylan in the same way—he's a different kind of actor. Paul Reubens is very funny like Jon Lovitz, but has a whole history that the audience is aware of that lends an extra layer of pathos and poignancy as part of his performance. And I think it's always nice to show people a side of an actor like Paul Reubens that no one I think imagined he had within him to perform, and there's probably also a playful part of me that wishes to imagine a character who probably has a Pee Wee Herman doll at home.

But I didn't want to evoke Phil Hoffman. I wanted to have something completely different, and when Michael Kenneth Williams came in to read for me…I hadn't known The Wire at the time. I mean he's an astonishing actor, very powerful. So I just retooled it to suit his qualities. He said to me, "I'm not funny." And I said, "Don't worry, I'll take care of it."

PC: You mentioned with Ciarán Hinds's role about he looks worn out and hollow, and that's one thing I noticed about his character and everyone else in that movie. I mean this as complimentary, but everyone looks tired, worn out, that they've been through a lifetime of miseries. They have in a certain way…

TS: [interrupting] Post-traumatic stress disorder genre.

PC: You're not going to find that at Blockbuster, I guess.

TS: I don't know if this will be in the same group as Casualties of War.

PC: That tone in Life During Wartime, is that a reflection of these characters going through these horrific events from 10 years ago, or is it also maybe you getting a little bit older, a little bit mellower? Because compared to let's say, Happiness and Palindromes, this isn't as intense material.

TS: If we had a sought a rating I don't think we would have had trouble getting the R this time. But I don't know, it's possible you're right. I don't know. It's hard for me to say how I've changed as an older person, but of course however I've evolved is reflected in what I do…The movie takes on its own life and I just discover that in the process. It's not a calculated thing. It evolves that way.

PC: In an interview with The Believer from several years ago, you said that whenever you have a new movie coming out, you feel a certain amount of trepidation—I believe the word "shaming" was used—that your baby is out there for the world to see. Do you feel that way with this movie? Are you nervous about the reaction?

TS: Well, certainly at this point I'm not nervous. It's out there. But you're very protective of what you do. These days because of the Internet I never do a test screening, so I didn't test it out on anybody. It's like any filmmaker I suppose feels what he does is very precious to him, and you feel in some way exposed and vulnerable. But I'm happy with the movie; I'm happy with all these movies I've been fortunate to make. I think I only semi-flippantly said that my two aims when I make a movie are 1.) To survive it; and 2.) Not to be embarrassed.

(Note: Though many are familiar with Solondz's work starting with 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse, he actually directed his first feature in 1989. On, he calls the making of Fear, Anxiety and Depression "not a happy experience" and the final product "a disappointment." Solondz told Sigrid Nunez, who interviewed him for The Believer, “I’m asking you, as my friend, don’t rent it, don’t try to see it.”)

PC: Forgiveness is a big part of Life During Wartime, but one thing about the movie that I noticed is that it's about people who can't change their lot in life. Am I off target?

TS: Probably not. That's something of a thread in my work—the intractability of our identities, I suppose. I think that people, Americans in particular, are used to the concept of redemption. That you see a celebrity or a politician do drugs or prostitutes, then he finds God, then he does alcohol, then he finds God, then he apologizes on Leno. It's a cycle, it's very familiar to all of us and it's something that's very embedded in this world, this country. But I'm not interested in redeeming Bill Maplewood. I don't know if there is redemption for him. I don't sympathize with him. Of course, I cannot sympathize with someone who has committed such crimes. He is a tragic figure, tragic in so far as he's a great father who loves his son. Look, the subject of pedophilia is of no inherent interest to me, but as a metaphor for that which is most demonized it's hard to beat, I think. Most Americans would prefer having Osama bin Laden to a pedophile at their dinner table. As a kind of crucible, a kind of test, when we say we love mankind, we embrace humanity, of course those are empty, hollow statements because they're platitudes of abstraction. The question is, what are the limits to embracing, to forgive and to accepting? Because that's the way in which we're defined as humans.

PC: Another common element in your films is the New Jersey suburbs. What made you decide to spare the Garden State this time around, and are you going back there in future films?

TS: In this movie, the myth of Florida is a place where one can recreate, reinvent oneself and erase one's past. It's where O.J. went after the trial. And, of course, it's where Trish goes. It's got a distinctive look of clean lines, the big sky, and the color palette is very fresh…In the next movie, I'm going to be in the tri-state area again. But for me, New Jersey is not so much New Jersey, but again a kind of metaphor for the way the suburbs in which most middle-class Americans live.

PC: Why are the suburbs so ripe for satire and parody?

TS: Well, in a certain sense I might say they're not because they've been done to death at this point. But what's interesting is examining, exploring their seduction. I grew up in the suburbs so it seems natural that it informs the way in which I look at the world and experience it, and then I have certainly a deeper, more immediate understanding of the suburbs than I would if I'd grown up in the city. If I'd grown up in the city, it's probably more likely my movies would be urban.

PC: But you've lived in the city for quite a while now, and you've said publicly that you love New York City, and you love the streets and the scene…

TS: I do, I do.

PC: What I'm curious about is why haven't you focused on New York more?

TS: I don't know. These things aren't so calculated. Why do you put pen to paper, and why do you tell this story and not that story?…You listen to whatever it is within you that impels you to write this story and nothing else.

PC: Is it as hard for you to write and direct your films as it is for some people to watch them?

TS: The physical act of directing is very stressful and difficult, but the content isn't what makes it more difficult, it's just the ordeal of the stress of the budget constraints that makes it stressful. The content, no. When you say it's difficult for people to sit through, I don't know how to respond to that. I mean, it takes a certain sensibility to respond to what I do. Certainly this film is fairly tactful, I think. There's nothing terribly unseemly, I think.

PC: To me, it's a character study about a group of very dysfunctional people trying to come to terms with their lives. But I watched Palindromes [whose young heroine, played by seven different actors, embarks on a misguided journey to get pregnant] with my fiancée, who hasn't seen any of your movies, and she didn't quite know how to respond to what was onscreen.

TS: Right, right. I don't know what to say. Some people have such an immediate visceral response, plus or minus. Others seem to be a bit at sea and others are more dispassionate. I don't know how to account for it. I think it's really sensibility. My movies, I think traditionally in the United States, almost half the box office revenue comes from one theater in New York. So it must be rooted somewhere in that sensibility.

PC: Going back to Life During Wartime, how come you keep using different actors in your films?

TS: It's not a rule, but I do like working with different people, discovering different actors. I mean, there are so many people I want to work with, I'll never get to work with all the actors I want to work with. And there are a lot of actors I've worked with that I'd love to work with again. It's just worked out that way.

PC: Who would you like to work with next?

TS: Oh, we'll see. I can't talk about that. We're casting it right now, as I speak.

PC: That's Dark Horse, correct?

TS: Yes.

PC: I know that you're very mum about your upcoming projects, but is there anything about the movie that you can tell our readers?

TS: We had actually considered shooting in Pennsylvania, but then the tax money dried up or something so it became less favorable to filmmakers. Otherwise, we might have been shooting here.

PC: Are you looking at New York, New Jersey, Connecticut?

TS: Actually, New York State has a tax incentive, so I think that's where we'll be.

PC: Some may find it surprising that it's still hard for you to get funding for your movies after all these years, even after the critical success you've enjoyed.

TS: It is—what can I say? Somehow I've gotten the financing and, knock wood, it won't fall apart this time so quickly. I'm very lucky that I like teaching.

PC: What do you do at New York University?

TS: It's a graduate program. I teach the spring in New York, and for six weeks I teach in Singapore, where they have a kind of satellite campus. I look at young people's work and I give them my thoughts, I share what I can with them. It's such a hard thing to be an aspiring filmmaker, so I'm very sympathetic.

PC: Has working with these young directors inspired you in any way?

TS: Um, no. [both laugh]

PC: Why not?

TS: I don't know. Why not? Why yes? What inspires me is the work itself. When you put pen to paper, that's when you discover. It doesn't mean that my teaching won't in some way inform what I do. I'm not aware or conscious of it.

PC: Speaking of the writing process, you mentioned before that the script for Life During Wartime took shape on its own. Is that your typical writing process, to just let things roll?

TS: It's a mixture of, I suppose, calculation and at the same time instinct. It's a creative process, it's very instinctive, but then as you revise it, you use more of the intellectual part of your head and you try to reshape it.

PC: One thing I've always been curious about is how critics define your works as funny or hilarious. Do you consider yourself to be a funny screenwriter, a funny director?

TS: [Playful] I don't know that I've made you laugh. I leave it to others. It's always a red flag if someone tells you, "I'm really funny."

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