INTERVIEW: The "Sad Comedy"; Solondz Discusses "Storytelling"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 01.25.02) -- There may be no better critic of the work of filmmaker Todd Solondz than Todd Solondz himself. "I think the questions are all legitimate," commented Solondz at a press conference for the New York Film Festival last September. "Are you being cruel or is this a depiction of cruelty? Are you being condescending or are you respecting the integrity of these characters? Are you being exploitive? I think these are all illegitimate questions and I do feel like I can defend myself. But of course, I am having a good time."
Indeed, Solondz is having a maliciously good time in "Storytelling": a two-part film that looks at the power plays between teacher and student; filmmaker and subject, as well as exposing just about every hypocrisy in American life (no single issue escapes Solondz's script, with lacerating insights into our expectations surrounding race, class, and sexuality.) Solondz has already related the now familiar tale of a large red box that covers a scene in which a teacher has sex with one of his students (see indieWIRE's story, "The Scarlet Box: Solondz Alters 'Storytelling' to Secure R Rating" http://www.indiewire.com/film/biz/biz_010724_briefs.html).
The scene is one of many controversial elements in Solondz's latest potentially inflammatory and witty work. Anthony Kaufman spoke with Solondz last year about politics, the red box, plot and comedy. Fine Line releases "Storytelling" today.
indieWIRE: First, about this red box that's been talked about so much here in indieWIRE and elsewhere. Do you think it politicizes the film in a way you never intended?
Todd Solondz: I knew when I was going to work with New Line that I should anticipate using a box, so I was prepared to make that political statement. This is something I've always been prepared to do, as long as the audience is aware of what it's not allowed to see. That's how I feel "politically" about that. I know that this red box is kind of funny. A couple of people thought it was deliberate, that it was always designed to be a red box, and I said, "no, this is only for this country." It was a big victory. The studio did not want it. I can take pride in being the only studio movie in history where there's a red box in the middle of it. Ironically, they call me an independent filmmaker, but I got my money from New Line and my last one was Universal. Call me a sell out, but I'm appreciative. I know this stuff isn't for everyone, but not even Spielberg's movies are for everyone."
iW: How do you feel about your films being called political?
Solondz: Whether or not you acknowledge it or perceive it, it's there. And certainly, the awareness only gets heightened when I go abroad, where everything becomes a socio-political critique.
iW: Do you think of your audience when making your films?
Solondz: I have said, "My movies are not for everybody, especially for those people who like them." When I say that, I mean I take my work seriously. For some people, my movie is a joke and they love that joke and embrace it as a joke. For me, that's unfortunate. That's kind of one extreme, just as another extreme is that I'm the most evil, misanthropic person on the planet. It's just a troubling situation, because ideally the audience respects or understands the gravity of what you're dealing with. And there is that audience too. I just have to accept that some other people who follow my work don't approach it in that way.
iW: Do you consider yourself a mischievous filmmaker?
Solondz: Sure, that sounds fair enough. But the only problem with that is it implies a certain childishness, an immaturity. I would say I'm mischeivous if that means it's connected to something more child-like, where the slate goes clean and we're made a little innocent, so that we can re-learn what we already know.
iW: There has been much attention given to what is not in the film. Can you talk about the circumstances surrounding the many cuts and versions?
Solondz: On my DVDs, there's the movie and that's it. There's no commentary or missing scenes or missing things. At the end of the day, there is just the movie. If people want to write stories about what's not in the movie, go ahead. I'm not going to stop anyone. If you write a novel that's 1000 pages, but you cut it down to 250 readable ones; people never clamor after those 750 discarded pages. There's something a little voyeuristically vivisectionist about it. . . . I can't control it and I'm not going to try to control it. All we can do is talk about the movie as it exists.
iW: Why did the film go through so many changes?
Solondz: It happened with "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Happiness" and this one. It's just that people weren't following me around on those other two movies. I wish I were the kind of writer who wrote scripts that were closer to the final film, but so far, at least, it's all a process. Shooting is a process and editing is kind of a rewriting process. Ideally, it would be easier on me if I just got it right the first time, if it worked exactly as I planned it, but I haven't been fortunate in that way.
My movies are not plot oriented, so it's a lot trickier. Ultimately, there becomes a lot of stuff that is not necessary, story-wise; therefore, you don't need the scene where the gun doesn't go off, or the missing letter, and so forth, so it's much looser in that sense. What's important to understand is that there are things that I love that are not in the movie. Things that don't fit the puzzle that I've put together here. And so I just lose it. I'm just trying to make a movie that works on its own, that has a trajectory. It has its own rhythms and spacing that I have to find.
iW: Your films seem to be ruthless black comedies that ride this line between funny and devastating. How do you manage that balance?
Solondz: First of all, I would never use the words 'black comedy,' because I think it implies a coldness and a heartlessness that I don't feel my movies are about. I call them sad comedies, comedies that some people might not find funny, at all, and others might find to have too much humor. When something is funny, there is something revelatory, there is something forbidden. You feel you're questioning and getting at a truth that underlies a taboo. My self-analysis is pretty lame, but I think there's something in my work that if it didn't ring true to life, true to reality, it wouldn't have that affect.