By Craig Phillips
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?
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