NYFF 2001: Todd Solondz Recounts His "Storytelling"
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 10.01.01) -- There may be no better critic of the work of filmmaker Todd Solondz than Todd Solondz himself. At a press conference during the 39th New York Film Festival for his latest film, "Storytelling" (which had its U.S. premiere over the weekend) the writer-director of both "Happiness" and "Welcome to the Dollhouse" spoke to an audience of journalists and critics about the complexities -- and some would say difficulties -- in his work with brave clarity.
"I think the questions are all legitimate: 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," commented Solondz. "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.)
At the press conference, Solondz was also enjoying himself, as he related the now familiar tale of the 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). Responding to criticism for his use of the red box, Solondz said, "I think I've been characterized as something of a loser recently for having to have a red box, but on the contrary, for me, it was quite a victory, because I can't think of any studio with a film that will be released with a big Soviet-type red box." (Fine Line will release the movie in early 2002). "I may have been a loser in many other ways," Solondz said, receiving applause and laughter from the crowd, "but in this, I felt like a victor."
A question about whether Solondz actually likes his characters gave some insight into the director's strategies. "The difficulty that arises from my work is that it's hard for people to know just how I feel," he said. "My sympathies are often switching from one character to another. Perhaps I fully endorse characters that you think I wouldn't, or vice versa." One character, for example, Scooby, initially comes across as a "slacker stereotype," explained Solondz, but his intention is to "seduce the audience into looking at him in these sorts of conventional ways and to turn it around at the end."
Of his intriguing two-part structure, Solondz cited inspirations such as "Carnal Knowledge" and "Full Metal Jacket," two films that he described as having "prologues with longer sequels." "I wanted to come up with a movie in two parts," he explained, "but after I wrote the first part, I had no interest in writing the sequel. I decided that I liked the idea of trying to come at the same ideas from a completely different angle, different characters and different stories, so it resembled some sort of two-paneled painting. There would be certain connections," he continued, "and if you don't see the connections, then you just have two short films, which I think is okay."
Solondz was deliberately vague about the many changes the film has gone through since before and after the film's Cannes premiere last May. He indicated that a 2-minute epilogue was cut from the film entirely, as was James Van Der Beek's character, who originally appeared in the first half. As to rumors of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" star Heather Matarazzo's presence in the film, Solondz said she was never shot, citing slyly, "creative differences."
Specific to "Storytelling," more than any of Solondz's previous work, is a healthy amount of self-criticism. In the first part of the film, titled "Fiction," a class of creative writing students offers anything but constructive criticism to each other, and in the second part, "Non-fiction," a documentary filmmaker ends up exploiting and manipulating his subjects. "It is intentional and I do embrace it," Solondz explained when asked about the film's overriding self-reflexiveness. "These scenes, of course, operate on one level within the narrative, but also, I am being somewhat playful," he admitted.
One of Solondz's "playful" additions was casting Mike Schank of "American Movie" fame in "Non-fiction." Solondz explained his reactions to Chris Smith's documentary, which featured the guitar-playing Schank alongside aspiring director Mark Borchardt, "I find it very moving and very sad, and also very troubling, because there was a great deal of laughter. But there were all kinds of laughter, and laughter in and of itself, isn't necessarily a good thing," Solondz said. "It just made me question certain realties about the nature of documentary filmmaking."
Solondz also recalled his own experience as a subject: when certain members of the media latched on to the success of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" with dubious portraits of the filmmaker and his cast. "Many people were very kind and supportive," Solondz related, "and some of those very same people wrote pieces about myself and Heather Matarazzo that were incredibly insulting."
During the press conference, there was only one mention of the recent devastation that struck New York City: one journalist asked Solondz whether he thought his movie would have been different if made after Sept. 11. Solondz smartly sidestepped the question. "I feel uncomfortable mixing up a discussion of my film with a discussion of the tragedy," he said. "All I can say is that certainly one of the great things about a country like this one is that I'm able to critique it."