Ever since “Welcome to the Dollhouse” put Todd Solondz on the map in 1995, he has been considered a unique provocateur, willing to portray angst-riddled outcasts in a sympathetic light while also highlighting their imperfections.
Last year’s “Life During Wartime” showed Solondz hasn’t lost interest in that beat, revisiting a world he first created with “Happiness.” Now, Solondz has stepped just outside that universe with “Dark Horse,” the story of a lonely collector named Abe (Jordan Gelber) who tries to romance a drug-addled woman (Selma Blair) he meets at a wedding. Both quietly sad and unexpectedly witty, it’s quintessential Solondz — in other words, another divisive work. The director sat down with Indiewire after the movie’s North American premiere in Toronto to discuss how the movie relates to the rest of his career.
Editor’s note: This interview originally ran during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. “Dark Horse” opens in New York this Friday.
Most of your movies have sizable ensembles, but “Dark Horse” is a comparatively small movie about a handful of characters. What accounts for the shift?
I like to think every movie’s a departure. You’re always trying to get at things from another angle, even if they all take place in the same geographical radius.
Would you put “Dark Horse” in the same universe as films like “Happiness” and “Life During Wartime,” which share characters as well as themes?
In some sense. I leave it to others to tell me, but since they’re all in some sense derived from the same geographical origin, which is mythical or metaphorical, it’s a place that I have returned to again and again. With my career, it’s tricky, because there are certain kind of pressures that are exerted on you after developing a certain amount of work with certain kind of baggage. It’s not very different from actors who have certain expectations.
How do you feel about what people expect from your films?
I think it probably works against me. People have certain expectations about where I should go, and it seems inevitable that I’ll disappoint. If you don’t have expectations, you don’t have disappointments.
Another way of looking at it could be that it’s inevitable you’ll surprise people.
You’re always trying to surprise your audience. I think that’s my job. When I go to the movies, I want to be taken somewhere, to feel more alive for those 90 minutes. There’s an experience that transpires and then it’s over. Because the kind of world I explore is so familiar to audiences by this point, there are certain assumptions. Look, it feels fresh to me. In many ways, just because there’s a single protagonist rather than an ensemble doesn’t make it a simpler experience or process. The aims are different.
And yet it’s not hard not to think about certain obvious, if superficial, ways that “Dark Horse” differs from your other films. For example, this is the first one with no overtly sexual material.
Right. When I finished it — and I hadn’t realized this when I was making it — it almost felt like a kind of return to “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” But I was analyzing this afterward. Some people have said that they see this as some kind of send-up of the Judd Apatow genre, but I really didn’t approach in that way, and I wouldn’t be interested in doing that, because a send-up is just that. Good, wonderful, I would work with Judd Apatow. In a sense, I have to come halfway.
By working on a smaller scale?
In spite of the smallness of the scope, I have my ambitions. To take someone so abrasive and unlikable in some many ways and find a way to access that vulnerable, wounded soul, that was my challenge. How do I make believable the connection between Selma Blair’s character and his? They’re in ridiculously different worlds, intellectually and academically. Making that believable was exciting for me. Whether a relationship lasts a week or a decade, it doesn’t nullify it if people drift apart or break up for whatever reason. It’s meaningful that there was something for some duration.
You’re often accused of having contempt for your characters. How do you feel about that accusation?
It’s funny to talk about audiences laughing at the characters versus laughing with the characters, I don’t know how much I can control that, ultimately. Years ago, I put out a quote: “My movies aren’t for everyone, especially those who like them.” Because I remember some college kid coming up to me after a screening and saying, “Man, that was great when that kid raped that girl.” It was like, what do I do? It’s part of a territory I can’t control. There are all different kinds of laughter. When I watch this movie, every time I see Abe walk to his bedroom with the parents watching TV, it’s like (taps chest), it hits me. It’s too sorrowful, let’s say, for me to look at it with levity. When people say I’m going mainstream, but if this is mainstream, I would be happy, because it would be profitable. I should only be so mainstream.
Your work has compared with Alexander Payne, whose “The Descendants” is also playing here in Toronto.
I’m a great admirer of Alexander Payne. I haven’t seen his new movie yet, but I know how people are talking about it. Regardless, he’s very smart and talented. In some sense, it’s a career I think I should never have, because I think the characters I’m most drawn to, there’s a certain marginalization or ostracization that draws me to this kind of material — whether it’s the extreme of a pedophile or Dawn Weiner — they’re always extreme cases. Because I don’t adapt, I feel like I have more ideas. The older you get, it seems like the more ideas you get. There are a lot of books I read where I think they could be great movies. The problem is that my path has its own life and this is what draws me. Others may feel that I should move on.
What I can I say? I’m finding new things. I’m surprising myself. It’s harder with the pressure from high-profile film festivals like Venice and Toronto for a movie to breathe. It has its effects. I know what it’s like when a movie hits, and it’s kind of a binary rule. “Shame” is like the hit movie here. Other movies may be good, but don’t have the “it” factor. I can’t chase after that. I certainly would have a real career if I went and started adapting an existing story.
It’s been reported that you considered directing a “Charlie’s Angels” movie.
There was truth to it. It would have been fun to play with those icons, but a studio head would be fired if they hired me and my movie would make $3 million, not $300 million, because I’m not interested in the kind of movie that is profitable like that.
There was a long gap between “Palindromes” and “Life During Wartime,” but it took less time for you to get “Dark Horse” off the ground. Are you feeling more inspired these days?
It’s just how financing comes together. It came fast for this. It’s not the script writing. It’s the money. I thought it was going to happen two years earlier; it was all set to go and then it didn’t. We live in a country without any subsidies for filmmakers, unlike Canada. If I went to Canada or France, I could have a career. There’s a system to support somebody like me. In the States, how many filmmakers have careers making films outside the studio system? Not many. It’s one thing to strike once, maybe twice. But to continue past that isn’t really feasible.
Then what’s your strategy?
I teach at NYU. I love teaching, thank god, because it gives me security and I have great pleasure doing it. I don’t want to have to work on things that don’t interest me. There was not much calculation to this career. It wasn’t done by design. This is what I write now, and this is what I make. Consequently, you pay a price. It’s just very expensive, so who’s going to put money into me? I’m one of the millions who will talk about how grim this finance situation is. I don’t think it’s cyclical at this point; there’s going to be a shift. Whatever audience I had 10 years ago has shrunken.
But don’t you think you might find new audiences from people who discover your films on DVD?
That’s fine. Everyone tells me I should try to write for HBO, do a TV series. I know it’s the golden age of TV, etcetera. I know, but the problem is I’m drawn to movies as discrete things. I like the big screen, the dark room. I don’t watch movies for pleasure on my computer. That’s homework. I go out to the movies and that’s a great pleasure for me. When I fell in love with movies in college when Betamax was just beginning. You couldn’t have a collection of movies then, the way you had records. While there are obviously so many good things about digital, there was something lost when you no longer had to go to the movie theater.
Did you see the VOD numbers for “Life During Wartime”?
No. My movies, each one has made about half as much as the previous one. “Life During Wartime” averages about half as much as what “Palindromes” made. They just make less and less.