Todd Solondz on his controversial career

Feature by Philip Concannon | 08 Aug 2016

For over two decades, Todd Solondz has wryly explored the lives of middle-class suburbanites trapped by their own melancholy and anxieties. We speak to him about his latest film, Wiener-Dog, and his controversial journey through America's indie film scene

What do filmmakers draw satisfaction from when they look back over their careers? The impact of their films? The awards they have won? The careers they have launched? For Todd Solondz, the answer is somewhat different: “I'm the author of the only studio movie ever to be released with a big red box in it. I take pride in that!” We are discussing his 2001 film Storytelling, in which a rough, interracial sex scene had to be covered up to appease the Motion Picture Association of America, and Solondz recalls this censorship battle with some glee.

“I actually felt bad for the Europeans because they didn't get to see the version with the red box,” he tells The Skinny. “You know, it came out around 9/11 when they were cutting pictures of the World Trade Centre out of movies, and they asked me if I would remove mine. I said I wouldn't but I would put a big red box over that too – but with movies like mine, that costs money and nobody wants to throw more money at removing shots.”

Solondz’s career has been marked by such disputes and provocations. The director, whose film Happiness was dropped by Universal in 1998 for being “morally repugnant”, has frequently touched on subjects like paedophilia, rape, bullying and abortion in his explorations of American suburban life, and the ‘controversial auteur’ label is one he has gotten used to. “I hear it all the time so it doesn't mean much to me,” he says. “It's a sort of reductive term to throw: ‘Oh, that's Todd, he's controversial.’ It's a way of not looking at the movie.”

Solondz doesn’t, however, relish the idea of his films dividing audiences. “There are people who feel that a movie is much more meaningful if it has as many detractors as it does people who like the movie. That means your movie has some substance to it, but I don't feel that way,” he says. “I'd be much happier if everyone liked it. I would! I'm weak. If someone doesn't like it I feel a little sad, and if they like it I feel a little happier. I don't have the strongest fibre, you know. I'm only human.”

Keaton Nigel Cooke in Wiener-Dog

Perhaps more people than usual will like Wiener-Dog. Solondz’s latest film follows a plucky little dachshund as he introduces us to four disparate characters, and the director has cited the lovable 70s doggy movie Benji as a reference point. “There's nothing terribly taboo here,” he says. “I can't think that there's anything seriously taboo.” Before you start planning a family day out to the cinema, however, Solondz has a second thought. “To me the only taboo subject hovering over this movie is death. It's mortality that shadows everything within this movie, so I guess that's controversial.”

Wiener-Dog is, in fact, a piercing contemplation of ageing and mortality, as the hound’s various owners – Keaton Nigel Cooke, Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito and Ellen Burstyn – take us on a journey from childhood innocence, via middle-aged disillusionment, to the loneliness and regret of a person facing the imminent end. There are moments of Solondz’s trademark biting humour throughout the film, but it might ultimately be his most profoundly moving work to date.

Some viewers may suspect that it is his most revealing too, with DeVito’s role as a frustrated screenwriting professor inevitably suggesting an element of self-portraiture by NYU professor Solondz, although he denies any explicit connection. Teaching is a vital outlet for Solondz and he talks enthusiastically about his work with the students there, but it also gives him the freedom to resist taking directing jobs for money between his personal projects. Discounting his 1989 debut Fear, Anxiety & Depression, which he subsequently disowned, Solondz has directed seven features in the 21 years since Welcome to the Dollhouse, which isn’t a bad return for a filmmaker who has remained so uncompromising in the pursuit of his vision.

“I just can't do what Scorsese or Soderbergh do, like one for me and one for them, because I don't want my obituary to be dying on the set of a movie that I didn't really want to direct,” he says. “Movies are too hard to make, so if I'm going to do one I want it to be something I want to do. I feel that if you don't do it for yourself, you really can't please other people – that's the paradox of it.”

In fact, Solondz frequently sounds surprised that he still has a viable filmmaking career at all. “Working outside of the studio system is always a struggle,” he says. “I think I've managed a quasi-career, but in the States it's all market-driven. Here in the UK it seems there is some government financing to some extent, but it just doesn't exist in the US. If I were French I would be making more movies, just as if Claire Denis lived in the US she would have made one movie and then be directing episodes of Sex and the City.”

Television is another alternative route that Solondz quickly dismisses, having no interest in ‘episodics’, as he rather quaintly refers to that medium. “It would really be too horrible for me to direct other people's writing; an episode of House of Cards, and there are a million people who can do it just as well and better. They're not looking for someone who's going to look at it in a different way.”

Greta Gerwig in Wiener-Dog

Despite his admirably resolute independence, Solondz did once have a brief flirtation with franchise filmmaking, as unlikely as that sounds. It’s hard to know what Drew Barrymore saw in his work that made her think he was the perfect director to bring Charlie’s Angels to the screen, but discussions were had before the project went to McG, and the mind boggles at what a Todd Solondz-directed action blockbuster might look like. “I would have loved to have done that!” he insists, “but the problem is that my movie, instead of making $300 million would have made $3 million, so it just never made sense for the studio. I would never have hired me, but it would have been fun to play with those icons.”

So we shouldn’t expect to see Todd Solondz being poached by the Marvel Cinematic Universe anytime soon, then, and we can rest assured that he will continue to follow his own unique path. He has ideas and new scripts ready to go, but right now he’s waiting to see how Wiener-Dog plays with audiences, and hoping it does prove less divisive than his previous films, before deciding what he’ll do next. “It's always about dollars and cents. If your movie is not profitable it makes it more difficult to make your next one, and if your movie loses money then it makes it that much more difficult to get another movie off the ground,” he says. “As everyone knows in Hollywood, the only thing that’s morally repugnant is losing money.”

Wiener-Dog is released 12 Aug by Picturehouse Entertainment