Jay Talks to Todd Solondz About Dark Characters, Philip Seymour Hoffman & How His Newest Film Was Kind of Inspired by Benji

Todd Solondz

by: Jay Carlson – Editor-in-Chief

It’s probably a tired analogy, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to say it, but films are like food to me. Some are elegant meals crafted by artisan chefs in five star kitchens. Others are fast food binges, empty calories that I eat quickly and easily forget (and sometimes cause extreme indigestion).

Todd Solondz films are an exotic delicacy for me. A Todd Solondz film isn’t a snack. I have to be in exactly the right mental state for a Todd Solondz film. I’m not in that place often, but when I am the payoff is usually worth the wait. His films challenge, both emotionally and mentally and can sometimes be tough to watch.

His newest film, Wiener Dog, cobbles together four stories that are tied together by the titular canine. When he told me below that the film was inspired by Au Hasard Balthazar and Benji, it all made perfect sense. Au Hasard Balthazar, for those unfamiliar, is a 1966 Robert Bresson film that centers on a mistreated donkey and the people around him. It’s an interesting and surprisingly sweet film, but through a Todd Solondz lens.

I was worried leading up to my sit down with Todd Solondz, knowing him only by the films that have challenged and sometimes terrified me. Of course, in meeting him I found him to be a terrific, thoughtful and engaging gentleman. This conversation ranks among my favorites and I found myself wishing for more than the twenty minutes we had scheduled.

I hope you enjoy it.

Jay: Where did the idea for Wiener Dog come from?

Todd Solondz: I wanted to make a dog movie. I had thought about Au Hasard Balthazar and then I thought about Benji and somewhere on the spectrum between those two I thought this movie could lie. I remember watching Bresson’s movie again recently and I think the narratives there are very oblique, a little wobbly even. And that gave me a certain freedom to concoct these four stories the way I did.

Jay: Characters from your previous films tend to pop up in different films. Is this something you plan prior to writing anything or is it a part of the writing process and they sometimes surprise you when they appear?

T.S. Well, both. I never wanted simply to kill Dawn Wiener, as I had in Palindromes. I wanted to give her another possible trajectory. That’s one of the prerogatives and pleasures of being a filmmaker or a fiction writer, you can create different life trajectories for your characters, something that we can’t do, those of us who live in real life. So my movies have played with this notion, having actors come back to reprise or having other actors come to reprise. I get not only the pleasure of creating other lives, but other lives other lives. I think a lot this has crystallized in a scene where Ellen Burstyn looks at all the different possibilities or directions that her life could have taken. So this is something that I’ve played with in my movies a lot.

Jay: Was there ever any consideration about bringing back Heather (Mattarazzo) or Brenden (Sexton III) for the roles that they played in Welcome to the Dollhouse?

T.S. No. Well, Heather had told me years ago, because there was a couple times I thought I would bring her back, that she didn’t want kind of an Antoine Doinel sort of career. She didn’t want to reprise the character, she didn’t want to be identified so strongly with that character. So that kind of freed me to have other actors come in and see what they could bring.

Jay: You’re films often contain characters that explore the dark underbelly of humanity, but rather than paint them as strictly two dimensional, you’ve made fully fleshed out human beings that are more than just their darkness. How do those characters evolve during the writing process? For instance, when writing Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker’s role) in Happiness, do you set out to write a character that’s a pedophile or is it something that happens organically as part of the writing process?

T.S. Nothing’s quite so clear to me when I’m writing. I find who this person is over the course of writing. The idea, even with Dylan Baker’s character, I don’t think I even knew that I was going to create a child molester when I started having him talk. These things just evolve over the course of the process.

Jay: Is there a lot of writing in order to find a character and then having to go back and rewrite to start them off in a place that makes sense to that trajectory?

T.S. I write it and see what happens. I try to see where this story wants to take me and then when it gets to the end I go back and then I can more analytically try to restructure the work and rethink how I’m going to set things up. I write a draft and then I see how I feel about it at that point.

Jay: Do you research when writing your characters or do you just try to come from on honest place with them?

T.S. Well, it depends. Sometimes I have to do a certain amount of research. Sometimes I’ve already read a bunch of material that might be relevant. Sometimes I don’t need to. It just depends.

Jay: I hadn’t watched Welcome to the Dollhouse in a VERY long time, so I watched it again and was surprised and a little shocked by it’s honesty. In viewing it with modern eyes I have to say there were things in there that now gave me pause, things that seem like they might not fly due to how society has changed with increased sensitivity and political correctness. Do you think it’s possible to make and release that film now? 

T.S. I don’t know. There are always taboos and culture’s always in flux and shifting what’s acceptable and what’s not and so forth. I think the writer or filmmaker is responsive to that reality and tries always to bring an authenticity to their characters and story. Should Dawn go and meet this boy after he threatened to rape her? No, but does it make sense, do I believe she would do that? Yes. It’s not about agreeing with these characters, my movies are not prescriptive. But they’re exploring some of the ironies, the pathos, the comedy and so forth of the way we connect with each other.

Jay: Do you ever watch your films with audiences and watch the audience react in a way that you didn’t intend. Maybe a scene that you thought was a straight piece of comedy gets a nervous laugh, or something like that?

T.S. There are all kinds of audiences and all kinds of laughter. I think I said before I made Storytelling, my movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them. I said that because I can’t control the way an audience is going to respond but sometimes the laughter is, and I think we’re all sensitive to the different kinds of laughter that we hear, laughter that we can respond to, that can make us laugh and then there’s other kinds of laughter that we want to separate ourselves from that in some way makes us feel complicit in a way we don’t want to feel. I remember years ago I had a screening of Happiness in Telluride and a young man, he must have been college age, he came up to me and he said he LOVED the movie and he said, “That scene where the kid got raped, that was hilarious.” And I knew when I heard that that this was going to be difficult.

Jay: At any and every part of the filmmaking process are you considering an audience or are you just considering what your own sensibilities are for the film you’re making?

T.S. Well I have to be true to who I am and I have to figure out a way that can connect with my audience. So that’s a line I’m always navigating. In simple terms I have to please myself and please others. But I can’t please others at the expense of pleasing myself. There has to be a kind of push and pull to come together so that so it doesn’t become some solipsistic exercise.

Jay: Have you ever written something that you look at and think, “I may have to soften this a bit to make it palatable for an audience?”

T.S. I think I’m always pulling my punches. I’m always softening things to make it more accessible with every movie. Real life is much harsher than anything I put out there. You just have to open the paper any day of the week. There’s all sorts of atrocities and all sorts of terrible things that people say and do that can make you just throw up your hands. So I try to find that balance. Look, I can’t please everyone and I don’t try to please everyone. But I try to be true to the material and hope that those with an open mind can have access to what I’m trying to speak about.

Jay: Is there a topic that even you wouldn’t touch?

T.S. Well, if there’s a topic I don’t really know much about I’d have to do a lot of research, but nothing comes to mind as, “Oh, you can never make a movie about this.”

Jay: Have you ever had trouble casting an actor that you really wanted for a role based on the material? I ask because I’m curious whether an actor would look at playing a character that is flawed or difficult to identify with, and not want to take the role based on being associated with that specific character or if they’re more attracted to the role by virtue of the fact that it gives them a challenge and isn’t the typical sort of part they’d have the opportunity to play?

T.S. So you’re asking if there are actors who shy away from my material?

Jay: Yes. Or certain roles in your films.

T.S. Because of the types of associations they are fearful will burden them in their career?

Jay: Exactly.

T.S. I’m sure that happens and some people with some parts Nobody wanted. Nobody wanted to play Dylan Baker’s part (in Happiness). Nobody with a career, that’s for sure. There was a lot of pressure to get a name actor, but nobody with a name would touch it. On the other hand, the Phil Hoffman part, and he was unknown at the time, everybody wanted to play that. Everybody said, “That’s me” and would fly in and read for me. Why one is so attractive and one why another part is not, is always kind of a conundrum. But I’ve always managed to find actors who I think are right.

Jay: What was it like working with Phil? You said his part in Happiness garnered a lot of interest. Was there something special that jumped out to you about him?

T.S. I didn’t like him at his first audition so much. I mean, I liked him enough to call him back. And I figured out in the callback how I could get what I wanted from him, which I didn’t figure out at the first audition. I loved working with him. He really put himself out there in a way that showed that he knew he was making a leap of faith in me as his director that he would feel good about this character because there’s a lot of sordidness, shame and so forth. He was certainly prepared. I didn’t have to worry about lines with him, whereas there are many actors that it has been an issue.

Jay: Is there any thought about what you’d like to do for your next film?

T.S. Yeah, I have a couple things I’d like to do, but I don’t know where the money will come from yet.

Jay: Are there scripts already?

T.S. Yeah, Yeah. I’ve got finished stuff. I just don’t have… We’re working on it.

Jay: Thank you so much, Todd. I hope the success of Wiener Dog is able to make it all happen.


Check out Todd Solondz’s latest film, Wiener Dog, in theaters Friday, June 24th.


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