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Todd Solondz. Photo © Francisco Roman

Todd Solondz Interview

4 June 2016 Nick Chen

By glancing at its Disney-ish plot hook and cartoonish poster, Wiener-Dog could be mistaken for a sweet family trip to the cinema. The cute sausage-shaped mutt of the title spreads joy from owner to owner, and its tour of American suburbia is aided by an all-star indie ensemble. But then you notice the name of Todd Solondz, and it hits you: this is a dog movie where the pet obsession is death.

Solondz and Sundance go back to 1996 when he won the Grand Jury Prize for Welcome to the Dollhouse, a coming-of-ager that’s mean-spirited, gloomy and downright hilarious. Its 12-year-old protagonist, Dawn Wiener, is cruelly nicknamed Wiener-Dog at school, and in Wiener-Dog she returns in adult form, except this time she’s played by Greta Gerwig.

If you know anything about Solondz, it’ll be no surprise that Dawn is still an outsider, silently wishing she could fit in. Then again, fans of his other films – such as Storytelling, Life During Wartime and the ironically titled Happiness – might do a spit-take at the premise: four separate stories connected by man’s best friend. “I wanted to do a dog movie,” he explains. “It just seems like a nice entry point, to connect it with the dachshunds, knowing that I had already established a character who was called Wiener-Dog.”

In fact, Solondz revisited the character of Dawn when he killed her off in 2004 with Palindromes.“That’s one of my prerogatives and pleasures as a creator of movies, that I can chart them in as many different ways as I’d like. In one case, she died young, and in another, she had a more romantic path.”

Heather Matarazzi, the original actress who played Dawn in 1996, turned down the role reprisal in Palindromes in case it tampered with the iconography. Solondz isn’t so bothered. “It’s just a character to me. It’s just a movie. I don’t know about legacy. I write what I feel like writing. If Heather doesn’t want to play the character again, that’s fine. I’m not dependent on any particular actor. I always make sure of that.”

That said, the human side of the cast he did gather is a checklist of Sundance royalty. In addition to Gerwig, there’s Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Kieran Culkin, Connor Long, Bridget Brown, Danny DeVito, Zosia Mamet and Ellen Burstyn. When they joined Solondz on stage at the January version of Sundance, Gerwig announced, “I feel this is why people go to film festivals, to see stuff like this… I feel overwhelmed by emotion by how much I loved it. It’s one of my proudest things.” The performers are clearly in awe of the cult director. Did any of them turn up with preconceived notions of how to behave on a Todd Solondz movie?

“Not that I’m aware of. They’re actors. They have parts and lines. I’m grateful if they know their lines. I don’t take it for granted. But look, if you get the right actors and the right parts at the right time, they make you look like a better writer and a better director than you really are.”

As for the dog aspect, Solondz reckons the film is somewhere between Au Hasard Balthazar and Benji. It’s hard to tell if he’s serious. After all, a mischievous streak runs throughout his films. On Wiener-Dog, the cinematography by Edward Lachman (Carol, The Virgin Suicides) at one point lingers on close-ups of dog diarrhoea. At the press screening, certain plot elements drew violent gasps, laughs and sounds of disgust, sometimes at the same time. The ambiguity of his cynical humour makes it hard to know how to feel, but you certainly feel something.

In person too, Solondz is playful, albeit in how he dodges questions. Danny DeVito plays a pessimistic screenwriter who teaches at film school. Solondz happens to run classes at NYU. Is it autobiographical in any way? “I don’t think any of my students would see me that way.” What about the glasses? “That’s a very tenuous link on which to hang.” His next film? “I’m working on it.” Have his interests changed since breaking onto the scene with Welcome to the Dollhouse? “I don’t know; I’m not as self-analytical as that.” Does he have a favourite vignette? “I’m pleased with them all.”

One thing he does want to make clear is that it’s not just about a dog. “We could go back to Jack London. It’s not a unique concept. But mine is different. It’s a conceit. I don’t have the ambition to tell the story of the struggles, the trials, the tribulations and the triumphs of the dog. That would be Lassie. I don’t have that interest. It’s just a prism through which I can explore and play with the subjects and themes of these characters.”

At the film’s core is a preoccupation with mortality, or rather, sticking it out until the bitter end. Culkin’s character, Brandon, is also from Welcome to the Dollhouse, and his road trip with Dawn in Wiener-Dog is considered by Solondz to be his most romantic moment. A hitchhiker they pick up retorts, “It’s so sad and lonely and depressing in America. Like a big fat elephant drowning in a sea of despair.” That may be Solondz’s world, but no one gives up without a fight.

As a director, he too has maintained his idiosyncrasies, his provocations and his bleak sense of humour when some audiences perhaps haven’t been brave enough to be tested. On a relevant note, he ends the interview with a summary of directing. “Once you start making a movie, you just hope two things: one, you hope you won’t embarrass yourself; the second, you just hope you’ll survive.”

Wiener-Dog is playing this year’s Sundance Film Festival: London today, 4th June at Picturehouse Central. More information can be found online.

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