He's the master of discomfort. Todd
Solondz loves displaying all the things Americans don't want to talk about -
pedophilia, incest, abortion, rape, basically anything painful and awful.
"That America is out there, and it is high time our popular culture faced
it, wrote film critic David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. "In people like Solondz, Neil
LaBute and Terry
Zwigoff we have a generation (more or less) that simply won't swallow the
white lies anymore. It's up to us, and the system, whether we subvert it by
calling it black humor." Once viewed, few forget his films, but even
fewer know who he really is - although many presume to. His first widely released film, Welcome
to the Dollhouse, [Fear, Anxiety & Depression was his first feature] remains the favorite of many of his fans, for its
spot-on portrayal of suburban junior high school hell, and, while he tries to
never look back to his previous work, he also can't quite let go of some of Dollhouse's
characters in his new film, Palindromes.
Palindromes takes what could have been simply a gimmick of a plot
device - having a series of actors portray the same character - and turns it
into something more revelatory. As with all his films, the film's fated to
divide audiences and critics, for its seemingly nihilistic world view and bleak
humor, and, of course, for making us all feel wholly uncomfortable. Solondz
lives for such moments, and yet he's not the cruel, bitter man you'd expect when
meeting - he may certainly be a bit of a mopey misanthrope, but also one who
worried I wasn't drinking enough juice and when I wore a particularly pained
expression after a response to one of my questions. He cares, he just has a
funny way of showing it.
We met up in San Francisco while he was here for the SF International Film
I remember you once called the directing part of making a film particularly
painful. Do you still find directing that painful?
Really, it's the whole production process. And yeah, it's horrible. Some
people love it, but I'm not one of them.
In the process, do you feel as if you're a different person as a
screenwriter as opposed to as a director?
No, because I write and direct my own material. While I'm writing, I
imagine myself as a director at the same time, and how it's playing, and also
imagine myself as a producer. Even if I'm not the producer, you have to think
that way as a director, always thinking about budget. I had to almost completely
revise the first twenty pages of the script for Palindromes,
because they were originally set in the Caribbean. So I'm a cheap person, and
rewrite to make it affordable, so that I can devise the movie without feeling
like I'm making terrible compromises. It forces you to be resourceful. I know
I'm gonna get a low budget, so if I come up with something that could be costly,
I always have to ask myself: how necessary is this? Is there a cheaper way to
get across the same idea without doing damage to the essence of what I have in
mind. So as you're writing you're always thinking of this as not simply a
writer, but as a director and a producer.
I certainly remember when I went to film school years ago, I devised my
scripts in such a way that the first thing I thought about was, What locations
can I get for free? Then I would never have more than three actors at a time. So
you establish certain rules and there were certain things that you'd avoid
because you knew they'd be too costly and time-consuming. And within those
limitations, you really are only limited by your imagination and test your
resourcefulness in a good way. Look, making movies is all about compromise -
there are just different kinds of compromises when you make movies under a
million, such as this one, or if you make for a hundred million, such as?
other movies. But it's always about compromise.
So as a writer and director, as you're writing each sequence, you're also
wondering how/if it's going to work visually as you're writing?
I'm always thinking about how it's playing and how it's cutting. All
sorts of things that a filmmaker has to think about if he's doing his job.
You mentioned that you originally pictured the first part of Palindromes
being set in the Caribbean - but was the idea of the main character being played
by various actors, black, white, so many types, was that there from the
beginning as well?
Right. Yeah, and the problem is, I have an idea and think, this could be
a fun movie, even a commercial movie, and so could this one - but my hands have
a mind of their own. Which is why I say, you don't choose a story, it chooses
you. I thought: I don't want to do a story about a young girl. I had already
done Welcome to the Dollhouse. Even though she's 13 instead of 11, it was
just too close for me to feel comfortable. Until I came up with this idea about
multiple performers, which sort of freed me up to pursue this wherever it was
going to go. I wouldn't have been able to make this movie, never mind finish
writing it, if I thought it was just going to be one young girl.
Did you also picture, when you were writing it, how each actor's type
would be for each sequence?
No, I didn't know how that would work out, except that I knew it was
going to start with a black girl [playing Aviva] to alert the audience that
something was off. And then get that established with a latino and a redhead and
so forth, and then I could go and push it further. I would have the big woman,
who was my Gulliver so to speak, and then finally, Jennifer
Jason Leigh - this woman of a certain age, you look at that face, and it's a
life lived. It's as if this character has lived a whole life emotionally, for
all the sorrows and pains and so forth. And yet of course, she's still just 13
years old. So certain things I felt I had to aim for, and yet remained open
about how it was all to be filled out. And that's where the casting process came
Because the Jennifer Jason Leigh part to me seemed very specific to that
sequence, whereas it wouldn't have worked earlier.
Right, that I knew was going to be there, a very special case.
Barkin and Jennifer
Jason Leigh in Palindromes
[minor spoiler alert]
There's a segue from Welcome
to the Dollhouse characters at the beginning, at the funeral - was that
something you'd also imagined from the start?
I really wanted Heather
Matarazzo [Dawn from Welcome to the Dollhouse] in the movie, I begged
her for both Storytelling
and Palindromes, and she refused me. [laughs] She said she didn't want to
ever play this character again, and I had to accept that reality. So it was a
way of freeing myself and creating a sort of demarcation: "That was then
and that kind of movie, and this is now, going off in a very different
direction, different characters, different kind of movie." Not to confuse.
So the fact that her character dies at the beginning of the film was your
way of officially never going back there again?
Yeah, I can't go back there, I accept that - it's been made clear, though
this isn't what I had in mind for Dawn Wiener. I was much more hopeful for this
character, I really was, but reality goes a little bit different than what you
had in mind.
How was it for Ellen
Barkin, who plays the mother, playing off all the different "Avivas"?
One thing she said was that it didn't matter whether she was playing to
the Latino or the redhead or Jennifer Jason Leigh - that it was all as if it
were one person. There was a kind of quality that I was extracting or
highlighting from each of these performers, which was a kind of fragility,
vulnerability, an innocence that provided a kind of glue, cohesion, for all of
them. So for Ellen it all fell to a piece for her.
Were you ever tempted to hit Barkin up for money [given she's married to
Revlon head Ron Perelman]?
[Laughs] Tempted? Hmm... Actually, I was very respectful and that subject
never came up.
I was thinking of how, in the current political climate, how hard it must
be to raise funds for a potentially controversial independent film...
Well, look, we live in a country that is the driving force of capitalism,
and if I were a filmmaker that lived in Europe or Canada, I would have a system
set up by the government subsidies to sustain a career like mine. But in this
country, there is no such thing as a safety net. Everything is very much bottom
line, and you can have no illusions about that. That's what it is, for better or
There seems to be a bit of a double-standard regarding reactions your
films sometimes get, for instance, versus the way people react without blinking
an eye to the way TV news or reality shows depict controversial issues.
Yeah, I cannot compete with The Terry Schiavo Show for obscenity and
grotesquerie, you can't get more horrific. The ironies abound - this young woman
whose looks were so important to her, what would be her greatest nightmare but
to be scrutinized around the world, in close-up, looking at her worst! This
young woman who had issues, who didn't want to eat, what could be a greater
nightmare than having the president of the United States saying "You must
eat!" You couldn't have richer material if you're a filmmaker, an artist,
what have you. I always thought that Bush getting re-elected was the best
material for someone of that stripe, for someone like myself.
If Kubrick were
around and he were making the movie of 9/11, he would cast George W Bush as The
President. You couldn't do better.
Obviously there are issues in this film that are going to be perceived as
controversial by some sides of those issues, but you've said that this isn't
really a film about abortion, per se, but...
I should clarify that. Of course it would be disingenuous of me to say
abortion isn't important, it's the elephant in the room, really. What I'm saying
is the movie is not dogmatic, it's not out to advocate a position, it's not out
to tell you you're right, it's good you're "pro-choice" or good you're
"pro-life" for that matter. I prefer to characterize my set position
in this movie as "anti-anti-choice." If "choice" is
something philosophically speaking that one believes even exists. The thing is,
if I say I'm "pro-choice" then everyone in the audience will think,
"Good, it's cool - he's pro-choice so I can enjoy it." I don't want
you to relax, I am provoking, prodding, poking, to get the audience to
re-examine the fuller moral dimension of what this means. Also, if I say I'm
"pro-choice," no one who is pro-life will see the movie.
I mean look, you go see Vera
Leigh's a masterful filmmaker, it's beautifully played and shot, a great
indictment of a patriarchal system, and yet, I wanted to scream - would it be a
crime to get paid for a job well done? Why does she have to be sanctified?
Because in sanctifying this character, the audience becomes martyred, too, and
narcissism seeps in there. There's no questioning or examination of the issue
itself. Or in Maria
Full of Grace - which is a wonderful work, lovely movie - but there's
this one scene, where the pregnant, 17 year old girl sees a sign that says
"Women's Health Services" and I thought, "Oh good." [laughs]
And what does she do? What is the purpose of the scene? It was simply to tell us
that the baby is okay. I just wanted to scream. She stays in America - what's
she going to do? She's 17, pregnant, with no friends, no money, doesn't speak
English. I mean, what can she do? It plays into the old myths of the American
Dream, but it so undercuts so much of the good stuff achieved in that film.
I think you also said that Palindromes is more of a love story...
I always characterize everything I do that way, though. I look at
everything in those terms. There are different kinds of love stories - you go
see Tom Cruise in a racing
movie, it's going to be a love story with a car. But for me it's just a way
of accessing, experiencing it - what does it mean to be 13, and to want to be a
mom, to have a baby, and to imagine that the baby will supply you with
unconditional love that you feel you're not getting elsewhere. This is almost a
quest for the sublime. When she's having sex in that montage at the end, she has
no interest in sex, it's not about sex. For the second Judah in that scene it
may be about sex, and succeeding as a man, but for her it's beyond sex. There's
something transcendent in this moment she's going to become a mom. Even if
biologically she doesn't become one, she may become a sort of Mama Sunshine
character. This need is so defining of her, and there's something beautiful in
her adherence to this ideal.
I thought it was to your credit that the Mama Sunshine character - even
though there were disturbing things about her and that family, that she was
depicted three dimensionally as far as how much she cared about the children.
That's the complicated thing. When she says, "There's nothing I
won't do to protect these children!" - regardless of what you think of her
religious or political ideology, you can't help but respect the integrity of her
mission. There's certainly nothing more virtuous, the highest form of
motherhood, really, to take in the abandoned, unwanted, discarded children, and
create this sanctuary for them that's almost a kind of paradise. So for all the
frivolity and satire that takes place there at the breakfast table, there is a
kind of underlying pathos that in a sense any one of these children could have
been her [Aviva's] child. That her mother had warned her might be blind or brain
damaged or missing a limb, and there they all are. It rubs up against all the
levity, this underlying pathos and poignancy. A better example of this dynamic
of all that I do, is when the Sunshine singers are singing and dancing, and they
take such great pride and joy in this performance, such profound delight, that
I'm moved by that - but then you step back and think, "My god, what are
they singing?" And it's this convergence of two opposing impulses that
creates a kind of friction that is found throughout what I do. For me, that's
the dramatic charge, that makes people say, "Should I laugh? Should I not
laugh?" Or, "What am I laughing at?"
That scene is a great example of that line you almost cross - they're so
earnest, it's sweet what they're doing and yet it's hard not to laugh. And then
hard not to feel bad that you're laughing.
As long as you're not laughing at the expense of these characters,
everything is fair play. Certainly there could be no obscenity greater than
laughing at a disabled child, that would be cruelty, but it's difficult for
people to look at these children. Some people feel that, if they didn't have
disabilities then it would be okay - so you're saying that it's okay for them to
dance and sing provided they have no disabilities? But that just disenfranchises
them - why should they not be allowed to sing, to partake in the frivolity and
the satire just as any other kids? To me they're just children, I didn't divide
into those with and without.
Did you always picture the film ending where and how it ends?
I don't remember how I get anywhere. I'm always amazed I get to the end,
that I survive. There are two goals: One is to survive a movie, and the second
is you hope you can avoid humiliation. [laughs] And those are the two goals I
always set for myself.
Do you have people poke and prod into your own personal childhood just
because your films often have childhood themes?
People might. I don't know what they'll find. I don't know who these
people are, and why they would even spend so much energy or time investigating
my personal life. It is kind of a creepy thought. But I don't flatter myself
that I'm that compelling of a character. There are many other people they can
get much more juicy material from.
Religion plays a role in this film, obviously - does your own religious
upbringing affect your work at all?
I didn't come from a religious family, and now I'm a devout atheist.
Although people are constantly asking me about how I wanted to become a rabbi,
just because in some interview years ago I was joking that when I was five, I
was sent to a Yeshiva and said I wanted to become a rabbi because I wanted a
beard. That was the extent of my vocation. My parents quickly took me out of
that school. But it's got a life on the internet, there are many things like
that out there, truths, untruths, mis- and disinformation, but we all know that
this is the internet.
Would people be surprised to know a commercial film that you'd gone into
see in a movie theater - do you feel like you have to wear a trenchcoat and
glasses to see Meet
the Fockers or something?
No, I go see all sorts of movies all the time, just as I am. In fact, I
very seldom go to any sort of premiere or opening or any special screening. I
don't like to go to those - I like going the way people normally like going to
see movies, I prefer to pay my ten dollars. I have a life like anyone else!
I remember Woody Allen once said he doesn't like to revisit, rewatch, his
films after he's done with them. Once they're done, they're done. Do you go back
and watch your past work?
No. I mean sometimes I might be channel surfing, find one of mine, and
say, "Oh, look at that" - but then you keep surfing. You've seen your
movies a zillion times. I don't really think about them. You move on. Always
I was just wondering if your perspective changes over time on any of them
Not really. As I say, just move on. I'd rather, I don't know, I'm just
not interested enough in examining what I did ten years ago and what made me do
something. I know what went through my mind. Look, it's true you can reevaluate,
but I don't have to see the movie in some sense to make certain
Of your films, I think Storytelling might be the most underrated.
Why do you think that film was basically ignored?
I don't know. I'm very proud of the work. It's a mystery to me. I put
something out there - but to me the greater mystery is why people like anything
I do, that I have any audience at all. I'm grateful for it, and don't take
anything for granted. I'm as proud of this movie as anything else I've done.
Certain things inevitably will be more popular than other things. People do like to say all sorts of
horrible things about me and that's unfortunate. Tell me I'm a vile, loathsome,
etc., sort of person. I don't really see myself that way and it is painful to
know that people are writing those sorts of things about you. But I know,
fortunately, it's counterbalanced by very kind, generous, wonderful things
people say. I can't really think about it. It just becomes white noise.
So people make personal assumptions about you based purely on your work?
You know as well as I do, who knows what goes through people's heads. I
touch buttons, apparently, I touch nerves that make people say very mean things
about me. But it's all part of what it is for me to be a filmmaker.