Todd Solondz: There may be a line I shouldnt cross I dont know where it is | The Knowledge Dynasty

Todd Solondz: There may be a line I shouldnt cross I dont know where it is

The writer-director has mined the darkest of subjects from stalking to rape to paedophilia. In Wiener-Dog he turns his attention to dachshunds and death

In an unlikely turret right at the top of a cinema in Piccadilly, the film director Todd Solondz and I, practically knee to knee, are discussing dog ownership. Does he have one? No. He wrinkles his nose, on which are perched his trademark jam jar-thick spectacles. I mean, I might if someone else would walk it for me. But if I have to walk it and pick up after it Imagine its really cold out, and its New Years morning, and your dog needs to go. His voice, already quite high, rises a notch. I just dont want that!

Solondzs new film, Wiener-Dog, comprises four short stories about love and death, all of which are linked together, like beads on a string, by a dachshund; halfway through, this animal also stars in a jokey intermission in which it jauntily (or annoyingly, depending on how you feel about tiny dogs) travels the world.

So where did the dog in the film come from? I dont know, Solondz says, dreamily. Its a cute little dog, the dachshund, and that cuteness was attractive for my purposes. The movie is not really about the dog, its trials and triumphs: that would be Lassie. This dog is more a filter through which I explore things like mortality.

What about the suggestion that dog owners are not, as some of them may like to believe, any more caring than the rest of us? Given the sheer meanness of some of the films characters, this seems to me to be one of its major themes. He nods. Look, when a dog is violated, its the greatest transgression possible for many people. You could bludgeon babies and not get so shocked a response. People project a kind of innocence on to these cute little creatures, as if they dont have their own desires and wills, as if theyre happy to be spayed, or otherwise reduced.

Watch the trailer for Wiener-Dog

Aware, perhaps, that dachshund lovers the world over are about to make him their hate-figure, he titters. This species, I learned, is bred to look cute at the expense of other aspects of its wellbeing. Thats one of the reasons why it is so deficient in intelligence. We had a number of them playing the part, and the one thing they all had in common was their stupidity. They were so stupid! When we said stay, they did not stay, and when we said sit, they did not sit. It was horrible! The patience you needed. You had a whole crew waiting and waiting just for the dog to lift its head: Look up, look up, look up, look up! But maybe the dogs were just sadistic. The one in the first story wasnt the sweetest, you know. It even bit the little boy.

Solondz, the acclaimed director of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, makes unusual, divisive and often highly prescient movies. Rape, stalking, incest, paedophilia: no subject is for him untouchable, or, apparently, for the big name actors who seemingly line up to star in them. Wiener-Dog, in which, among other things, a sadistic mother tells her small son a vicious story about a rape, is no exception. Among its cast are Julie Delpy (the spiteful mother), Ellen Burstyn (a sour old woman), Greta Gerwig (playing, it seems, an adult version of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse), and Danny de Vito, as a disillusioned professor of screenwriting at a New York university. How hard is it to bag such stars? He shrugs. If they say yes, its easy. If they say no, its not.

As for De Vitos role as Dave Schmerz, whose cynicism and exasperation lead him to put poor little Wiener-Dog to dastardly use, this seems how to put this? quite daring, given that since 2009, Solondz has taught film at New York University. What, I wonder, is his department head going to make of his using Schmerz as his proxy to rubbish film studies? Solondz, though, clearly couldnt care less. NYU. It is an evil empire. Im in awe of how incompetent and corrupt the administration is. But that said, I love teaching there. I love the students. Its the opposite of making a movie. I cant take any of the credit, or any of the blame, for the students work.

Greta
Greta Gerwig in Wiener-Dog. Photograph: Annapurna Pictures

Long ago, after he completed his English literature degree at Yale, Solondz enrolled at NYUs graduate film school himself. He dropped out after two years. I didnt like production, he says. Working crews: it was too horrible. If youre not a director, working on a movie is incredibly boring. And if you are a director? Its incredibly boring, and stressful. Its a nightmare.

So why do it? Its the price I pay to get the movies made. I direct not so much because I want to direct but because I dont want someone else to screw up my material. There is something gratifying in writing the script, in finding a story thats important enough that you want to put yourself through that ordeal. And I love the casting process, the editing, the music. Its just production I hate. All I ever think while Im doing it is: why did I ever leave my apartment? He emits a strangled cry. I was so happy at home!

Solondz, who is 56, grew up in New Jersey. His father had his own building business, his mother stayed at home. It was a 40-minute drive to the city, but it was another world entirely. It may as well have been Oz. My dream was to one day live in New York, so Im living that now [he shares his Manhattan apartment with his wife, and two young children]. What can I tell you? It was a very classical, middle-class, suburban sort of life. I wasnt a cinephile then. I wasnt allowed to see anything that wasnt a childrens movie, and in the suburbs you cant get around without a car, so that was it. I remember one day, my mom went to see One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest with one of my older siblings. I said I really wanted to see it too, and she said: no, youre too young. I was 16! So, I saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Sound of Music, but no Truffaut, no Godard, no serious cinema at all.

Philip
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Lara Flynn Boyle in Happiness. Photograph: Allstar/Trimark/Sportsphoto

It was big deal to land a place at Yale, though he says now that if hed had the courage, he would have dropped out there, too: I wasnt even a big reader! Nevertheless, it was the university, with its many film societies, that gave him his cinema education: I was socially very shy, so those societies were a kind of sanctuary for me.

After college, he wrote a couple of scripts they were very juvenile and went to LA, where he got himself an agent. But of course, nothing happened, and I didnt want to live in LA, so I applied to NYU, and that was the first time I had enjoyed school since I was a child. I mean, I think the school was kind of a rip-off, and a joke. I couldnt take any of it seriously. But in another sense, so many things clicked there. I did become something of an it person at NYU.

The shorts he made as a student caused a stir, and after they were screened in LA it was only 24 hours before he was standing in the office of the president of 20th Century Fox. Both it and Columbia wanted to sign him up for a three-picture deal. It was kind of heady. But it was also the lowest point in my life. The only thing I liked about these deals was telling people I had these deals. I was questioning everything and it was hard though which of my classmates was going to give me any sympathy for that? The upshot was that I ended up making an ill-begotten and ill-conceived movie [Fear, Anxiety & Depression, in which a young Stanley Tucci appeared], and then I just walked away. It was a real humiliation. I thought that was it. I was 29, or thereabouts.

For the next few years, he taught English as a second language to Russian immigrants in New York, and was truly happy. I was freed from everything. I had no ambition. When the students asked me what I really did, I said: Computers. But then I began to wonder: will I be happy doing this when Im 40 or 50? And I didnt want that first movie to have the last word. So I made Welcome to the Dollhouse.

That film, which was released in 1995, was about a bespectacled, friendless girl who is bullied at school. It went on to win the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance film festival. I had no expectations of it, says Solondz. When I got a fax from the Toronto film festival telling me it had been accepted, I thought it was a prank. I mean, this wasnt paranoia. Id showed it to some sales people, and they didnt even finish watching it. Anyway, that changed everything. Ive had creative control ever since.

He followed it three years later with Happiness, in which one of the male characters drugs and rapes his sons school friend. What made it controversial was that I was putting a human face on a monster. After Dollhouse, you see, every door was open, and so I wanted to take advantage of that and do something I could never do otherwise. Did he have to screw up his courage, though? I still remember the intense silence in the cinema when I saw it. Yes, I guess so. But its like that every time. Youre always hoping you wont embarrass yourself.

Is financing his films getting harder? His namesake and near contemporary, Todd Haynes, complained to me last year that it was scarcely any easier for him than when he started. Well, its always been hard, and I accept that. Im not angry about it, though I feel like Ive only been able to survive this long by the skin of my teeth. Its luck, and its tenacity. If your movie is profitable, that makes it less difficult to do the next one, but we all know everything can change on a dime. Im always vulnerable. I certainly make movies less frequently than I would if money were not an issue.

His backers dont, he insists, put him under pressure to make his films more upbeat though for all its suburban bleakness, the picaresque Wiener-Dog seems to me to be far sunnier than some of his pictures. Whatever the American critics say the word caustic has been used jokes lurk in every scene. There may be a line I should not cross, but if there is, I dont know where it is, he says. This is instinctive for me. Sweet and acid: I want both. Smiling, he presses his palms to his thighs. If Im going to use a big truck to crush a tiny little dog Well, Im really going to do it. Because life is crushing.

Wiener-Dog is out on 12 August

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jul/24/todd-solondz-interview-wiener-dog

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