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Past Article

Todd Solondz: The Master of Misanthropy Returns
By Craig Phillips
May 6, 2005 - 2:47 PM PDT

"You don't choose a story, it chooses you."

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 Festival.

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 in.

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.

Ellen 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 for worse.

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 Drake. Mike 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! [laughs]

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 moving on.

I was just wondering if your perspective changes over time on any of them looking back?

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 connections.

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.

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"You don't choose a story, it chooses you."

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Craig Phillips
GreenCine editor Craig Phillips holds a Master's from the California College of the Arts, and is working on a book of short stories. He has also written numerous articles for the Web and several screenplays, one of which is currently attached to an indie director and is in the casting stage. He has his own blog, too, and knows the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow.

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