Catching Up With Todd Solondz


By Barry Walters

Like his movies, Todd Solondz is lovable because he is so quietly extreme. To understand the man behind such acclaimed indie films as Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and its current sequel-of-sorts, Life During Wartime, one should know that the Newark-born, Greenwich Village'based writer/director wavers between being very Jewish and being very, very, very Jewish -- as in Zero Mostel playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof Jewish. He's the Hebrew equivalent of the queen who in his relaxed moments would set off even your mother's gaydar, and when feeling excitable lets loose a wrists-flailing string of "Marys," "Girlfriends," and "Miss Things." To help navigate this vacillation, I've marked his moments of hyper-Semitism as such.

The other crucial thing you should know about Solondz if you don't already is that his films are as smart about emotions as they are extraordinarily funny, which is really saying something. And although they're usually not explicitly about gay life, they ring truer to gay experience than most actual gay films. Like the gay directors of yesteryear who translated their difference into particularly adept renderings of women's stories, this exceptionally ethnic guy thoroughly understands us. To better comprehend how he knows what he knows, Out shared a San Francisco hotel room couch with the filmmaker on the eve of Life During Wartime's opening.

Out: You go to places that other filmmakers don't go and bring laughter out of situations that others can't, and that's an amazing achievement.
Todd Solondz (As Zero): I take it all as a compliment. I don't tire of a compliment. That is a good thing, so thank you, thank you!

In general, how would you like your audience to relate to your characters? Identify with them? Sympathize with them?
There's a mixture of elements going on at any point in the film. Some of them I think are more open to an emotional connection than others. With some, there's more of a satire going on. So it shifts from time to time. There are all kinds of laughter.

You put audience members in a place where what is funny and what isn't funny is constantly shifting.
The movies have a kind of moral gravity, a moral center. And even the act of laughing becomes a moral dilemma. And I think that's part and parcel of movies like mine where the comedy and the pathos are so inexplicably intertwined, where subject matter that is so delicate and intimate is explored in a serious way.

Are you sometimes surprised at what people will laugh at?
I can't really control everyone's response, nor do I try to. Obviously, there's sort of a manipulation, but it's a very fine line that I'm navigating. When I first screened Happiness years ago, a college kid came up to me afterward. He was a little drunk, and he told me how he just loved the movie. 'Man, when that kid got raped, that was hilarious.' And I knew I was in trouble. I'd been playing with fire, and so that's why afterward I said that my movies aren't for everyone, especially for people who like them. If you watch the movie alone, then you have one experience, but if you watch it with an audience, then the laughter creates certain crosscurrents between the screen and people laughing and you, and that can effect -- for better or worse -- one's response to the film.

Do you take into account gay viewers?
First I have to please myself. But I've always instinctively felt that the gay audience would respond to my work -- after I first learned that there was anyone responding. So much is about feeling marginalized and having outsider status and the failure to become accepted and so forth, and how that can shape and either empower or distort one's view of the world. Look, I actually have no particular interest in pedophilia, but as a metaphor for what is most demonized and most ostracized and loathed and feared, it speaks close to me, to what I want to express. I'm always actually grateful that I haven't been attacked by the gay audience because they have enough attacks as it is. Everyone just assumes that a gay teacher is going to rape a child, when in fact -- as gays and others who are informed certainly know -- most pedophiles are in fact heterosexual. But I think a lot of the humor is accessible to the gay audience.