For over 20 years, Todd Solondz has explored anxiety-riddled characters trapped by melancholic lives.
From “Welcome to the Dollhouse” to “Dark Horse,” Solondz’s unique sense of dark comedy is consistent. Nothing changes on that front with his new movie “Wiener-Dog,” a bizarro statement on the futility of all existence seen through the eyes of an innocent dachshund. The pooch exchanges ownership four times over the course of the anthology film, journeying from an affluent family to grown-up “Dollhouse” figure Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), before landing in the clutches of a disgruntled film professor (Danny DeVito) and finally winding up with a disoriented old woman (Ellen Burstyn).
Outlandish and tragic in equal measures, “Wiener-Dog” distills Solondz’s approach to a series of surreal moments. Purchased by Amazon after its Sundance premiere last week, the movie was financed by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures.
Solondz sat down with Indiewire during the festival to discuss his relationship to his characters, his favorite new movies, and his evolving worldview — which he claims to be less cynical than meets the eye.
What are your expectations for the release?
Expectations? I don’t know…I’m not keeping tabs on anything. I think the movie is accessible and engaging enough to find its audience.
People know what they’re getting into with your kinds of movies. At this point, is there a specific audience in mind that brings a certain awareness of this universe to the table? The title itself is a callback to “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”
Right, but even if you’ve never seen anything I’ve done, I don’t think you’ll be disoriented or confused. It doesn’t require preparation to watch the movie. I think it’s a bonus.
How do you think your audience has evolved over the years?
I think it’s just diminished [laughs]. That’s really the main observation. You know, fewer people go to the movies, so it’s harder for movies to have a life, theatrically.
I assume you weren’t super thrilled for the turnout for “Dark Horse”?
I wasn’t, but I did have a theatrical release, and they did what they could. I have no complaints.
How do you explain the amount of time in between that movie and this one?
It came together and fell apart several times before Megan Ellison got the script, which she did around September 2014. I didn’t know she would respond, so it was a great fortune to have her. That’s when we were really moving forward, finally. There were people that were interested, but it fell apart for different reasons related to financing. So is it possible it still might have happened? Yes, but it might have taken over 10 weeks.
Danny DeVito plays a disgruntled film professor whose students don’t take him seriously. They deride him for making “one shitty movie 20 years ago.” You teach at NYU. “Dollhouse” was 20 years ago. So how much of this guy’s experience is based on your own?
It’s not any particular person. It’s not modeled on any one person.
You can’t relate to anything this guy is going through?
I relate to all my characters. That’s my job, of course. My life is very different from his life. My character is very different from his. But I can relate to his struggle. I think he’s seen as something of a dinosaur. In some sense, time has passed you by — I find that moving, and I find it moving how much I relate to it.
And how about the depiction of these students, who seem entirely disinterested in traditional storytelling?
I teach film sometimes at NYU, and it’s always a greatest challenge to have a student figure out how to tell a story, how to make a nicer story, how to develop a story, how to know when the story is present and when it’s not. And it’s not something that most of them are adept at, so they find a way through this process. And some of them have a knack for it. But certainly I would agree that the character’s story for me is central.
The dog is the connective tissue of the film, but in other ways, each chapter works autonomously as a short film. How did it come together?
I wrote from the beginning through to the end. Once I had the idea of making a movie with the dachshund then I saw what I needed to do.
The dog doesn’t do much…
…Just like a mule doesn’t in “Au Hasard Balthazar.” I’m not trying to do a “Benji” here and have him rescue the children from the kidnappers. But the animal functions in different ways. He serves a different kind of purpose. And that’s for you to “toss” as you like.
Even by your standards, the story here seems more cynical than usual. It’s a very bleak view of life. I was worried for you.
[Laughs] I’ll be fine. I don’t know. I move the legs of my characters and I am not conscious of what the audience might see that I’m blind to. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone how to watch the movie. Experience it as you do. If there’s some particular thing of mine, maybe. Is it possible it’s less that you’re worried for me, and more there’s something present that was always there, but becomes more apparent here?
Or maybe it’s something new. I don’t know. I’m not as self-analytical as you think I am. If I get to make the movie I want to make next, I will shoot it out of order. It’s what I do — there’s no calculation to having a career here. I’m pleased I’ve gotten to have made as many movies as I have and I hope to do it again.
With your universe of characters, you’re one of the few non-Hollywood filmmakers in charge of a franchise.
A franchise that no one buys [laughs].
Dawn Wiener resurfaces here, played by Greta Gerwig. How do you explain bringing her back?
I did kill her off in “Palindromes,” but I can give different life possibilities to my characters. She could be a fashion executive in another movie. I don’t have to limit myself in this way. So I like to play with that freedom.
Movie-making is very hard, it takes a lot out of me. Some people relish it. I’m not someone who relishes the process. So it has to be important enough on some level to put yourself through all of this. In some way, it has to be expressive of something that you want to put out there. If what I’m saying is alarming or upsetting or comforting, ultimately, it is not something I control, but it was something that I wanted to do.
Do you think the world has become a worse place since you started making movies?
Oh, I wouldn’t say that, no. I would never say that. For every good thing, there’s a bad thing. Things advance, and then there are certain problems the same year. You move forwards and backwards all the time. You can say how many wonderful things there are and then say, “Oh, my god, the end of the world is happening.” It depends on how you look at it.
I feel very fortunate that my life has worked out so far. But all you can do is make do. You’re depressed, you jump back to winter, it’s horrible, the things you eat…so I don’t have to look very far.
You dance around discussing the themes in too much specific detail, but you have these amazing actors. Most of them have been working for years and in some cases, decades. What’s your approach to directing their performances?
Every actor is different and you figure out what you need to do with each particular actor. There are no rules, it’s just, “How do I get him to walk there, and not trip?” And you don’t want to make the person feel bad. You don’t want to make them question themselves. They’re all puzzles — there’s always problem-solving.
What about just questions of motivation?
If we’re on the same page, it makes it easier. And if we’re not, I have to figure out what can I allow and what I know that I can remove.
I have to imagine that someone like Ellen Burstyn has a very specific way of working with a director.
I only know my experience with her. Look, I’m very fortunate [Laughs]. I’m fortunate that things have worked to make the movie. I’m happy with the movie.
When you say you were worried about me, in what sense? What did you mean? I’m curious what that means.
The movie is fraught with this sense of frustration with the ability to express yourself in a world that seems meaningless. It felt like a more extreme perspective than any other movie you’ve made.
But I would argue that the movie itself is an expression. Which contradicts the sense that I’m unable to express myself in this world. So I don’t see the world as meaningless, it’s what you bring to the world. Right now, this is their home, it’s what meaning you are able to extract. Maybe I appear more cynical than I really am. Maybe.
What movies are you watching these days?
I just saw [Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s] “The Treasure,” which I loved. I loved his “Police, Adjective,” he’s a wonderful director. I saw “Son of Saul,” which was very impressive. It’s kind of like if the Dardennes remade “Weekend at Bernie’s.” But you know it’s impressive, how they were able to cinematically [and] conceptually achieve that.
But you know, there’s always things out there, you just have to look. Sometimes you have to look a little harder. But you live in New York, there’s still lots of options. They said it was like the death of the movie theaters but somehow they still keep grabbing on. I don’t know how. It’s just a different world, but I’m lucky, I love what I do.
You’re not migrating to TV anytime soon, are you?
Maybe I will, I mean, if the right thing comes along. For the right project, at the right time, it’s very possible. I grew up on TV, so I don’t know, we’ll see. I just wouldn’t want to do episodics, as a director-for-hire, because they could get someone more talented and more interesting. They don’t need me for that.
Why do you say that?
There’s nothing special they’d get from me, because what they want is someone who follows the instructions. I’m not interested in that, so it wouldn’t make sense for me. I’m much happier teaching. I almost did something actually, a year or so ago. I was gonna do a short for this anthology film “I Love St. Petersberg” project, like the way they did “I Love Paris.” And that sounded fun — to shoot for a few days in St. Petersburg.
But if I’m going to do something for them, you’re not going to do a travel brochure. They were wooing me, they were after me. So finally I agreed, and in the end, Putin came down — it was not gonna happen. I don’t know what got in their head, that they thought I was going to give them a “come visit St. Petersburg” message? But you know, it would have been fun.
“Wiener-Dog” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. Amazon will distribute it later this year.