Todd Solondz walks through the door of a Cafe on 12th Street in Manhattan, looking, apart from his trademark lemon-yellow converse all stars, like a person in disguise. He wears a floppy khaki sun hat and oversized shades. As he walks through the room, he peels off the sunglasses and replaces them with equally large eyeglasses with thick, retro frames. He yanks off the hat to reveal his hair, which is gray and thinning and bordering on mad scientist. He looks, perhaps, like an oddball character in a Todd Solondz film. The waitress recognizes him and greets him warmly, and he does the same. He's a memorable presence. Appearance aside, he sounds a bit like a Jewish grandmother, his voice comically nasal, his words unhurried and elongated by a childhood in New Jersey, an accent that 30 years in New York City has failed to undo.
Known for being an enfante terrible or "agent provocateur" in American independent cinema for his caustic and hilariously pitch-black comedies, which often feature taboo subjects and cruel, humiliating, arguably misanthropic humor, when we meet at the cafe, the 52-year-old filmmaker has just begun doing press for his latest film, “Dark Horse.” The story follows Abe (played by Broadway actor Jordan Gelber), a man in his mid-30s still living at home with his parents, who meets a woman in similar circumstances and decides to pursue a life with her, at which point the film spirals into the surreal and tragic landscape of Abe's mind. The film shifts away from the kind of disquetingly uncomfortable subject matter – rape, pedophilia, masturbation, abortion – Solondz has become known for featuring in films such as “Palindromes” and “Happiness,” the latter of which was originally rejected by the progressively indie Sundance Film Festival who felt it was too unpleasant.
The departure is a deliberate move on his part, and has been criticized in some early reviews, perhaps by those expecting more of the same. Regardless, “Dark Horse” is still undeniably a Solondz creation, a whip-smart, bleakly humorous funhouse mirror treatment of modern society and the arrested development phenomenon, scored purposefully with schmaltzy, "American Idol"-inspired pop. The night before, at a Q&A following a screening of “Dark Horse” — robustly attended by a parade of independent film peers and admirers, including Paul Schrader, Kelly Reichardt, and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" filmmakers Sean Durkin and Antonio Campos — Solondz called his latest an “alternative” entry into the Apatow-ian man-child genre, inciting giggles from the audience.
Talking to Solondz, his brilliance is quickly apparent. In interviews about his films, when prompted to make some sort of analysis about the meaning of his work, he's fond of giving a sort of verbal shrug, saying “Look, I'm not an academic,” before following through with something about the “infantilization of the modern man” that sounds decidedly erudite. Solondz teaches film at NYU, and it's easy to imagine students rushing to record his words—he's one of those people whose casual discussion of craft is effortlessly mind expanding. He is especially likable for his openness and dry self deprecation, speaking freely about his neuroses and personality flaws. He has referred to himself as “socially maladroit” and considers the experience of being on set and shooting his films to be nightmarish, a constant state of crisis. “I feel like my obituary is going to read 'Mr. Solondz collapsed on the third day of shooting,' ” he joked, unsmiling. Still, he’s praised for being an “actor’s director” with a talent for figuring out exactly what each actor needs from him in order to deliver the best performance within them. He also has a reputation for being exceedingly hands-on. In an interview within the DVD extras for “Life During Wartime,” Shirley Henderson recalls Solondz spending several hours with her in a salon while she was getting her hair done for the part of Joy Jordan, making sure it was just right. She also spoke of the physical proximity he keeps during shooting, joking that if he could be underneath her chair at that moment, he would be.
The controversial content in his work has naturally triggered a fascination for many about the director and his motivations, but for the most part he declines to self analyze. Solondz grew up in a Jewish household within a middle class New Jersey enclave of ranch houses. The second youngest of four kids, he insists that he had a relatively normal childhood. “Every family has its complications, but I don't think mine stood out in any particularly memorable way against any other families in the neighborhood.” Solondz's mother is a musician who attended Juliard before marrying Solondz's father, an MIT graduate. He also considers himself to have been a relatively normal, and certainly untroubled, kid. “I was a pretty easy kid for my parents, I think. Never got into trouble. Didn't make a girl pregnant, didn't become a drug addict. Didn't have car accidents. I went to Yale. I mean, you know, I was basically an easy polite little boy. I don't think I had a bad boy streak in me.”
Although he possesses his father's facility with numbers, Solondz grew up fantasizing about an artistic existence in New York City (“that was Oz for me.”). He wanted to become a musician and practiced piano and cello tirelessly (“I had everything but talent”). He began writing stories at a very young age (“I've been writing since I'm reading,” he often says), penning a novel over the course of three years during elementary school, chapters of which his father's secretary typed up for him each week. He wrote his first play in high school, and went on to pursue an English major at Yale, writing mostly plays, all of which were “remarkably terrible and mercifully unproduced.” After a couple of years in Los Angeles working at a box office and delivering screenplays as a messenger, he left for New York City, knowing it was where he wanted to spend his twenties. Solondz entered film school at NYU (considered, at that time, to be a dubious pursuit) by the skin of his teeth, calling to inquire about the application process on what turned out to be the deadline. He turned in a screenplay that day and was accepted.
Solondz now teaches at that film school, but openly says the program was terrible and mismanaged when he attended. Still, he maintains that he never would have become a filmmaker without the confidence he gained there. “I have a weak character,” he says, “If people had all told me my work had no interest or import, I wouldn't have had it in me to keep at it.” But the response was overwhelmingly positive, so much so that he dropped out to pursue his filmmaking career when things began to happen. “The big coup was I did get an agent, who spoke to me only once or twice and then never picked up another call, but it didn't matter. It just felt good for my spirit to know that for a moment at least there was a casual thought that maybe I was worth representing.”
At the previous night's Q&A at the Apple store in Soho, Solondz described his films as being “fraught with ambiguity,” saying that, for better or worse, they are a reflection of his sensibilities. “Laughter is not this monolithic force,” he said, reminding the small crowd in attendance that there are different kinds of laughter, and that it can occur in unexpected places, and that that's OK. “The pathos and the comedy are inextricably intertwined…I just find that there's great hilarity when terrible things happen.”
He emphasizes that his writing process is an instinctive, not intellectual one, and that it doesn't involve any conscious calculation. Characters come to him, he says, as though he's performing a séance. “They talk through you. You channel. And you can channel certain elements of people you know intimately, or not, people you just met—you never know. Things just enter one’s consciousness and for some reason have a certain meaning or resonance for you that is very useful for what you've embarked on.” The meanings and significance within the stories he tells, within the characters he invents and the actions he creates for them, often don't reveal themselves until much later, and sometimes not until after a movie has been made. “You discover that the film has meanings other than what you had in mind that you were conscious of. And it exposes something of one's unconscious. Even when you're talking about the film after the fact, Suddenly you connect certain dots that weren't possible at the get go. You call yourself a director, but really I find myself more in pursuit.”
Much of the humor and brilliance in Solondz's films stems from the specificity of his characters and the amount of detail with which their appearances, and even environments, are curated. The nameplate necklace Abe wears tangled in his chest hair speaks volumes – simultaneously reflecting a child's inclination to flout items featuring his own name, and a New Jersey douchebag's inclination to display that kind of jewelry, a signifier of wealth—yet the necklace's feminine-leaning font points, perhaps, to the deep, wounded sensitivity that sits just below his obnoxious posturing and unfounded confidence (which begins to crumble as the possibility of growing up becomes more real). This and other subtle details, like his ringtone — a piece of poppy, lite-radio, female-sung chorus one would not usually associate with a large, balding, 30-something man who wears bling and drives a yellow Humvee – appear repeatedly and build an atmosphere of constant humor. But it breaks your heart a little too — these touches, in their specificity, birth a real and identifiable character. We've all known an Abe, or at least seen him, noticed him as we've gone about our own lives, just as we've all known or seen a Dawn Weiner (the uber-awkward and widely despised pre-teen protagonist from “Welcome To The Dollhouse”) or a Joy Jordan (the naive and hapless waif from “Happiness” whose goodness repeatedly leads to her ill treatment by others). These are types, less common than those we're used to seeing in movies, and far more authentic-feeling for the painstaking detail with which they've been drawn.
Although Solondz reigns over the black comedy corner of the independent film world, he considers himself to be a commercial director. It's his treatment of his subjects, he explains, that falls beyond the parameters of the mainstream. He emphasizes that, for all the social and political commentary inherent in his work, at the end of the day it is meant to be entertainment, and he keeps his characters and narratives accessible enough that an 11-year-old would be able to understand what's happening. “They might have a lot of questions about the social, sexual, political ramifications and so forth, but they would be able to follow the story.”
He is most compelled by the inner lives of his characters, and he likes to challenge his audience by giving certain characters qualities that border on monstrous. “I don't like making it so easy to like the characters. The idea there is it's a kind of test, a kind of challenge to the audience to see if they can engage in these characters notwithstanding their abrasiveness and off-putting nature and still be able to cross that line to a kind of empathy or connection emotionally with them—that, for me, is very exciting. As I say, I don't think a lot of people would want to have lunch with Abe Worthheimer or Bill Maplewood [the pedophile from “Happiness”], but it's about recognizing that there's a human pulse there, that one has to think twice before writing them off.”
Critics of Solondz have noted a softening of his body of work in recent years, some proclaiming “Dark Horse,” despite its inherent societal criticisms and healthy dose of bleak humor, is downright toothless. But perhaps hitting that kind of trademark level of shock time after time becomes tiresome. And Solondz is a family man now, father to a three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter (both of whom are named after young characters in Hanna Barbera cartoons about conventional families)—something he says he hadn't expected to happen at this stage in his life, a kind of unexpected blessing. During our interview, Solondz is hesitant to talk about his children with a tape recorder present. They're good, he says, and he wants them to stay that way. Perhaps the defanging of his recent work is no coincidence.
Solondz is sometimes troubled by the effects his work has had on people. He is fond of saying that his movies are not for everyone, and especially not for some of the people who end up loving them. He's recounted in several interviews an experience he had after screening “Happiness” at the Telluride Film Festival, when “a young gentleman came up to me, excited about the film. He said, 'Man that was so great, it was hilarious, I loved it, when that kid got raped it was hilarious!' And I knew I was in trouble.”
He's less concerned with the opposite sort of reaction, of those who saw “Happiness” at age twelve and considered themselves permanently damaged by it. “I don't think movies have that power to screw you up,” he said at another Q&A. “You're already screwed up.” He recalled wanting desperately to watch “Dark Shadows” as a child, and urging his mother, who forbade him to watch the show for fear that it would cause nightmares, to leave the house to run errands so he could sneak in an episode. “What my mom didn't understand is that it's real life that gives you nightmares.”
"Dark Horse" is now playing in limited release.