Todd Solondz's expanding universe of film stories includes Fear, Anxiety & Depression, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling, Palindromes, and Life During Wartime. His latest, Dark Horse, recalls Welcome to the Dollhouse in its focus on one socially troubled character, in this case a thirty-five-year-old man suffering from "Peter Pan Syndrome." Solondz sat down with me, to discuss the film, in an auditorium of the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco.
Groucho: You grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey...and one feels, in watching Dark Horse, that to some degree you're still working through, I guess, your feelings about suburbia. Is that accurate?
Todd Solondz: Well, I think the suburbs as they exist and the suburbs as they are described in the films are two different places. It's always a place, ultimately, of the imagination, once it's projected in a film. And it can be taken quite too literally—
Groucho: Subjective suburbs.
Todd Solondz: Yeah, of course, of course. It's a sensibility which is reflected and expressed. And so it takes on its own life.
Groucho: How did you develop that projected sensibility of the suburbs, then...?
TS: I don't know. I mean, you grow up. And you're shaped and informed by living in a certain world. And I know growing up I did always dream that one day I could live in the city. I always pined for the life of New York. And so in that sense I suppose you could say I'm living out my dream 'cause I do live in New York City today. So I wasn't terribly, and I've never been terribly, nostalgic personally for that place that I—the world that I grew up in. But of course I don't see it as having caused me any terrible damage either.
G: So you don't conversely have an axe to grind, either: no nostalgia but no particular hostility?
TS: Not that I'm conscious of.
G: Okay. It seems the kernel of this film actually came when you were in Tokyo—is that right?
TS: No, I was in Tokyo only once in my life, and that was in '05, doing some press. So I think that's probably—I think you may have been misinformed there. I wrote this—there were a couple of things that were in my mind. One is I wanted to make a movie devoid of any of these controversial subject-matter issues and taboos and so forth that characterized so much of the work that I'd done previously. I need to feel free of all that. And then I wanted to approach it very conventionally as a boy-meets-girl story. And from that, this is what surfaced.
G: When you say that there was some conscious avoidance of that tricky territory that you've become known for, that doesn't necessarily mean that you sought it out to begin with, though, right?
TS: No, it's—these things in some sense you don't seek out; they seek you. I don't know. It worked out that way; it wasn't by calculation or design. It was hardly really a career enhancer. But I found that it had a much bigger impact than I had imagined. And so I felt at this point I needed to remove myself from that.
G: In recent years particularly, perhaps, you've taken on more and more experimental narratives. And I wonder if you apply any forethought to applying an unconventional narrative technique, or is it just coming out of your writing process, unexpectedly leading you to those?
TS: Personally, I never really would characterize it as experimental in any formal sense. They're all very linear, the narratives of my films, very acccessible, that I find, I think, an eleven-year-old could follow the actual thread without being too confused. Nevertheless, this film weaves in a kind of fantasy life as the movie progresses, and one that I found most compelling because ultimately that's the emotional heart of the film. But it's something that was part and parcel of the script as I wrote it, from beginning to end. It's not something that was imposed at any later point.
G: It sort of paints the strain of a nervous breakdown, I suppose: the way the film develops.
TS: Well, I think, yeah, in the way that the character is somewhat unanchored, I think the audience may find itself somewhat unanchored as well. But what matters, ultimately, is the inner logic of these scenes: that they cohere and that the emotional trajectory retain its force.
G: Now there's a couple of things at the outset of the film that bring out this dance point, which I thought was interesting. There's the dance sequence at the very beginning, where they're sort of intimidatingly good, both from the perspective of the hero of the film—or the anti-hero—and the audience. And then the logo type is in the style of Fame. Can you talk a little bit about—I mean, I don't know if that was something you—?
TS: I hadn't thought of Fame. It was really just a direct reference to the pendant that he wears around his neck, the piece of bling that he's been given. The high spirits that begin the movie are supposed to be, in some sense, a representation of youthful frivolity and joy. And this is a character who is clinging to his youth and suffers from its irretrievability—the hopes and dreams of his youth. And so it's something of a torment for him.
G: And he's deluded...it is out his grasp.
TS: Well, he struggles with that reality.
G: The music in the film is conspicuously upbeat, or "pop"-py, by design. I guess that's part of an element of satire, perhaps. It certainly has a specific effect on the audience relative to how we go through what the character is going through, But also there's a satirical element there, right, of what Mahmoud talks about?
TS: Well, the idea is this is a kind of American Idol soundtrack of adolescence pop that embodies so much of his own yearnings. And so as the movie progresses, while it remains very upbeat and cheerful, it only underscores the internal pain and sorrow that he suffers.
G: Are you at ease working with actors? How do you work with them?
TS: Well, each actor's different. And so you have to find a way of working with each actor in a way that will bring out the best from that person. And they often have different needs: some need hand-holding, some need to be left alone, and I accommodate in any way that is needed, just in order to get what I need up there on screen.
G: Well, that you even recognize that and serve that need speaks highly of—the actors speak highly of you, obviously. What's Christopher Walken's process like, for example?
TS: Well, he wanted to play, in his words, a human being. And so he embraced this very—for him, it was a very unusual kind of choice because he was playing someone very ordinary, a middle-class small-business owner. So he was very open to letting me change his hair and his eyes and dress him uncharacteristically in this very restrained way, let's say. Because his face already is so powerful and so iconic, as it is. It's all about a kind of restraint.
G: Yeah, his thousand-yard glare in the movie: it's so potent. You rewrite, to some degree, after casting is secured and maybe even during production, is that right? Does that ever trouble actors: those who might find that difficult, how do you troubleshoot that?
TS: Well, it's just—these are minor revisions, as needed. Depending on locations, depending on the actor, and what happens. You have to be a little bit fluid; you can't be so rigid with what your script is. It's always a work-in-progress, even up through the stage of the editing, where one may want to still make revisions.
G: Mia Farrow told you that she was retired from acting, but ultimately agreed to do the film. Did you get a sense from her that she's back in the habit after doing your film, or that she'll recede back into semi-retirement?
TS: I don't know that she'll act in any more movies. She might; I don't know. I take her at her word. It was because of her son that she did the movie—who said—
G: An enthusiast of your work.
TS: Yeah, exactly. So I don't know—it's possible that she herself is wrong, but that's—I didn't think she was saying it for affect. I think she meant what she said. We'll just have to see.
G: Speaking of retirement, you told your producer during Life During Wartime that that would be your last film...why did you feel that at the time?
TS: Well, I was wrong, but I always presume each movie is my last because my movies have made less and less money as the years go by, each one making about half as much as its predecessor. So it seems like a long shot every time that I'll actually get financing again. I'd like to make another movie; I wrote this script that takes place in Texas, but will I get the money? Who knows? It's always unknowable.
G: Not to pain you, but I'm curious: what was it about that film that turned the screws on you a bit, that made you feel like you weren't sure you wanted to make another film?
TS: No, I think I like the idea of making another film, but it's always very stressful: every production. And some maybe more stress—I think actually with age, the stress isn't, I think, maybe as terrible as it was in the beginning. But, y'know, it's always a nightmare.
G: (Laughs.) I assume it's one of those things, too, where while you're doing it, it feels like a nightmare, but once you stop, you're itching to do it again.
TS: Well, I don't—I'm never in a rush. But I think if I don't have something in motion...if I'm not writing something, I'm not gonna—I think I won't feel so good about myself. So I get a script done fast enough, but the money may take a long time.
G: I read in one of the interviews—you lamented the state of kids' films, that they 're sort of hyperactive in trying to reach out and kind of rattle kids instead of trusting them to meet the film with their imagination. And I'm just curious if you would ever think about making a children's film, 'cause that would be interesting.
TS: Well, I think—the problem is that they're not really children's films anymore; they're what they call family films, because the films can be more profitable if the parent sit with them as well.
G: Four-quadrant movies...
TS: I'm sorry?
G: Four-quadrant movies, as they call them, right? Like adults and kids—
TS: Oh. Yeah. So if they get the parents coming in, it'll be profitable, and the parents are only going to come if there are elements that will satisfy them. And I don't have any ambition to make a movie aimed at children, but if one occurs to me—well, we'll see.
G: I was astonished to read you were considered for, or considered doing, a Charlie's Angels picture at one point. I wonder how that came about: was it Drew Barrymore who suggested you?
TS: I don't remember how it came up, but the idea of playing with those icons of popular culture was intriguing. And we talked about it, Drew and I. And she was very excited, but, look, if I had been the head of the studio, I wouldn't have hired me, either, because their movie made three-hundred million, mine would have made three. So it really wouldn't have made any sense.
G: Yeah, but it would have made a fascinating (laughs) thing to have out in the world, I'm sure...thank you very much; it's been interesting.
TS: Oh, thank you. A pleasure. Good luck with it.