Just as his films stand out with no comparison, there is no filmmaker like Todd Solondz. His films cover a wide range of topics, often forcing his audience to tackle taboos in ways that many people might find too uncomfortable. This is especially true with the contents of a strong filmography that encapsulates now seven movies, including Happiness (featuring a young and perverse Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Life During Wartime (a quasi-sequel to Happiness). His newest dark comedy, Dark Horse, about a man in his 30s with a severe case of arrested development, stars Jordan Gelber, Mia Farrow, Selma Blair, Christopher Walken, and Justin Bartha. In person, Solondz is a one-of-a-kind, a very humble artist who is very careful with how he discusses his work. Of the filmmakers I have been lucky enough to interview, the pleasant Solondz remains a special kind of interview, in the best way possible. The last time we talked, he ended the interview with these words: "That’s right, always laugh. It’s much better than jumping out the window."
I had the great privilege of talking to Solondz again for his latest film, Dark Horse, this time covering topics including his relationship with Judd Apatow, his perspective on Youtube filmmakers, and the moment in which the controversial filmmaker knew he was in "trouble."
Dark Horse is now playing in select theaters.
In this film, you brought back Selma Blair's character from 'Storytelling.' You also brought the small character Jiminy, from the "Sunshine Singers" in 'Palindromes' back as well. Where has he been?
I just imagine that he had somehow abandoned the Sunshine Singers and found a life for himself working at Toys "R" Us.
But in the film, considering the blurring of the image, it's technically not a Toys "R" Us ...
Well, it is. Everybody seems to recognize it. I could have put a logo that would have said "Toy Town" over it, but it would have been very phony. It's an empire, there is no libel to it. I felt it was important that the audience know. The interiors for the toy store we shot in Santo Domingo, because there's nothing in this country that would allow us to shoot there. A mom and pop toy store doesn't give the same spirit of the massiveness of a Toys "R" Us.
Would you say you are attached to even your smallest characters, then? Like, all of the members of the Sunshine Band, or is it just Jiminy?
It just happened to work. I would love to bring lots of people back if I had the right role. If everything was the right time at the right place.
Your cameo in as 'As Good As It Gets' ...
How did that happen, and have you had any cameo offers since then?
That's so long ago, it was really just an accident of nature. He just asked me to show up, and I did.
That was good sitting.
I'm told I did. He wanted, as I recall, some improvisation between me and Helen Hunt. He wanted something poetic, and poetry. And I just didn't know what to do for him. Blessedly, it's just very minimal.
Do you have any interest in getting back in front of camera?
No, I don't. And nothing against it, but it's fine the way things are. I like to work with actors.
I've heard that you are a fan of American author Philip Roth ...
I don't mean to single him out. I think the only reason if he's associated with me is he's a chronicler of my father's generation. It has that extra level of interest for me, but there are a million other authors. If Roth has had an influence, I am not conscious of it. I'm not so conscious who are my influences. You can tell me, and make judgments.
Do you ever re-watch your old films?
Not for myself. Not for pleasure. There may have been reasons I have had to. I teach. But I don't think I've actually sat through one of my old movies for a long time. Once you finish it, you move on.
In another interview I read for this film, you said "I am the dark Judd Apatow." Do you ever talk to him about films?
Well, I don't know if I really said "I am the dark Judd Apatow." I know Judd. We have a friendly relationship, and I have a respect for his talents and judgments. But he is in a different sphere and a different business from what I am engaged in. He does The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the so-called man-child movie and his TV shows, and I have my own alternative. We just have different aims. He has a career [pause]. I don't.
You have a career!
I get by. And I'm so glad this came out sooner than previous time-frames from Life During Wartime. It's just how money comes together. I know the next one I'd like to do takes place in Texas. But who knows how long it will take, if I ever get the money.
Have you ever considered doing Kickstarter to raise money for your films?
It's too complicated. If I were young. Paul Schrader told me that he and Bret Easton Ellis are doing a collaboration through Kickstarter. If you're going to make something of a very low budget, which Kickstarter requires, it doesn't exceed a million dollars. But I haven't been focused on movies not quite so budget. This one was two million when it was finished. I don't know if I could have done it for one million.
Would you say that's the hardest part of directing, is raising money?
It's all hard. I hope; I never presume that there will be another movie in my career. My career has been very consistent, a very smooth decline with each movie making about half as its predecessor. Since my box office continues to decline with each movie, it's hard to presume you'll get financing for your next.
There were certainly people who saw 'Life During Wartime' - and congrats on getting that film onto Criterion as soon as it was released.
Those are honors - but if it helps me get another movie made, that's what matters.
Is there a scene in 'Dark Horse' that you find particularly funny? Is there something that really applies to your humor?
There are a lot of things that I think are funny. I think it's funny when there's a scene where the in-laws meet each other, and it's one-shot. Chris [Walken] is very nice in that scene.
You did a Q&A last night, and you mentioned movies from your childhood, which include 'The Sound of Music' and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.' I was curious as to how, if at all, those influenced how you crafted your characters?
I mentioned those because without The Sound of Music, perhaps the Sunshine Singers would not have happened without the Von Trapp family. It is informed by that childlike memory. Good movies, bad movies, it doesn't matter. It's about what resonates with you personally. It's not about the "Ten Best Movies of the Year," or the decade, or the century. What movies resonate with you, what has a certain meaning for you? You may not even understand why or how, but it sticks with you. But those are things that matter.
When you make your own films, are you making something that resonates with you; are you not thinking too much about an audience that thinks they know what to expect from you?
Yeah. The dream, the hope, is that if it's something that excites you as well, maybe it will for other people as well.
Especially now with so many films that have gained following, how conscious are you of your fans when you are writing?
My quote "fans"?
People like me, people who see all your movies, and many other people who want to talk to you.
I can't please everybody, I don't try to please everybody. It's just a recipe for disaster. I try to please myself. What is it that moves me, that compels me? I find it funny, I find it sad, I find it charged, it has a life. That is what I pursue, and hope others will respond.
I saw 'Happiness' a couple years ago in a college auditorium, where Harold Ramis was there to be defend your film in a debate. The film played off with a lot of shock laughter, and the laughs were so big that I couldn't hear the last line of the film. Is there a limit where people can miss the bigger picture of the movie if you take something like 'Happiness' as pure black comedy? Does it bother you that people would take it in such a form and literally miss parts of the movie?
I don't have control over these things. I fortunately have any audience. As I said years before, Happiness years ago, and this young man came up to me. He was all enthused and excited, he loved the film. He said, "When that kid got raped, it was hilarious." I knew I was in trouble. And ever since then, I've always said that my films aren't for everyone. Especially people who like them. I can't account, or control or dictate the way people will respond to my movies if I want to retain this sense of ambiguity.
There's a scene in 'Dark Horse' where Jordan Gelber's character goes on Youtube to get some information, and the scene really brings into question what we are getting from such a big site.
The great thing about Youtube if you're an aspiring filmmaker is that it pushes you. There are so many entertaining or interesting provocative works that are on Youtube. You have to compete with them, the bar has been raised. You have to do something that is going to stick out. That should be a sort of incentive to craft what they are going to do. "I better do something more impressive."
Do you think if you were of the Youtube generation, do you think you would be a part of that competition? It's certainly overwhelming.
If I were a young aspiring filmmaker ... I don't know all the ins and outs of the internet, what you can do. As long as you love what you are doing, you are moved and compelled by the work you invest yourself in, I don't think you can go wrong.
Nicely said. That's beautiful.
Well, I can't tell how much you are mocking me.
No, no, I'm not. It was very nice. It was very poignant, especially with you and your own films. It really matters to have your own expression. Quick Questions with Todd Solondz Last time we talked about other movies, you said you hadn't seen 'Inception' but that it looked too complicated. Did you end up seeing the film?
Yeah. But it was too complicated. I'm not really the right audience for this. I've seen The Matrix, and couldn't follow that either. But then, people can't follow me, so. We're all even.
What was the last movie you saw in theaters?
I can tell you the movies I most liked this year. A Separation and The Kid with a Bike.
Do you watch films for pleasure?
I hope I do.
Well, you're a busy guy.
I don't have a life. I like to go to the movies. I don't like to watch movies on my TV or on the computer. But for pleasure, I like to go out.
I don't know. It depends. We have fruit here, so if you like. I'll say ... passion fruit.