Filmmaker Todd Solondz has said repeatedly that his films aren’t for everyone, especially for people who like them. His 1998 film Happiness is one of my favorite movies, so he’s talking about people like me. Few films have made me laugh so conflictedly as that dark-with-goopy-white-stains ensemble comedy about its characters’ troubled searches for love, with its notorious subplot about a loving father who rapes his son’s sleepover party. Its jokes, of which there are at once many and none, are told straightforwardly, yet are emotionally anything but. Their endless layers of irony, compassion, distance, and sincerity should feel slippery, but instead construct a remarkably sturdy humanist worldview and no-nonsense aesthetic.
Since then, Solondz’s work has been harder to pin down, experimenting with adding narrative indirectness and formal trickery to his trademark controversial subject matter with mixed reactions from critics and audiences. He even willingly attempted to dismantle the crystalline Happiness with 2010’s Life During Wartime, a “sequel” that shared the original’s characters (played by different actors) but abandoned its style and humor.
Solondz’s new film Dark Horse is, in some ways, a return to the narrative simplicity of Happiness and the earlier Welcome to the Dollhouse. But here, the biggest shock is that there’s no shocking subject matter at all. Replacing his trademark taboos is something most moviegoers are all too familiar with: an aging, slacker of a manchild who lives with his parents and shirks responsibility. Also, there are a lot of really bad pop songs. Needless to say, it’s the best thing to come out of Judd Apatow’s rise in popularity.
How do you see Dark Horse in relation to your other films?
Well, I don’t know. I generally leave it to others to make these judgments. But I think this one I suppose one can connect to Welcome to the Dollhouse insofar as it’s devoid of some of the more controversial subject matter that my other films have addressed. Instead of a dollhouse, it’s like a little toyhouse. So, I don’t have much in the way of calculation in the way my career has taken shape. I just do one film at a time and see what I feel like doing and do it. So it’s not so much design as where I find myself at any particular moment, and at this point I wanted to make this one.
What drew you to Abe’s character? The film focuses a lot on him, whereas your other films usually have more of an ensemble-type cast.
Right, some of them are, although Dollhouse is not. This one, I went into it wanting to do something on a smaller scale. I started writing it wanting to do a boy-meets-girl story, and this is what evolved. The manchild genre is very popular today in movies and television. I supposed you could say my film is a kind of alternative to the Judd Apatow 40-Year-Old Virgin type of movie. I think for me, it deals with the character who couldn’t deal with the passage of time and its irretrievability, with change. It’s infused with a certain kind of hope, and in a way, that makes it the saddest of my comedies.
Yeah, I thought it was one of your sadder films. It’s very sympathetic to Abe, and that, in part, is what makes it so difficult to watch sometimes. And despite that sympathy, it’s pretty brutal towards him by the end of the film.
Yeah, you know, he’s a very abrasive character, very off-putting in many ways, and few people would probably want to go out to dinner with him. And he’s the kind of character the audience probably would want to dismiss. But what interests me is, in some sense, exploring the limits of our sympathies — to what extent can we connect with someone who we would rather reduce to the unlikeable. So, in some sense, I supposed you could say just like Bill Maplewood, the pedophile character [from Happiness], we probably don’t want to have dinner with either. The movie becomes a kind of test of for exploring and examining what the limits of one’s sympathies might be. But I don’t want him to be quite so easy to write off.
It’s easy enough if you’re demonizing, because demonizing is just a way of dehumanizing someone.
Right. He definitely isn’t. Is experimenting with your audience’s reactions something that you’re interested in generally?
Yeah, I think that’s always much more interesting to me. People, often they say, how does the character grow and evolve, and he may or he may not. But what’s more significant, of course, is the way in which the audience reevaluates their understanding of the character that they’re watching. That’s where it gets interesting. Certainly when I go to see films, I want to feel provoked and moved in these ways.
And what films provoke you?
The last I can tell you, this year the movies I most enjoyed were Kid with a Bike and A Separation. And then, of course, they’re both movies that want the audience to evaluate and reevaluate one’s perceptions, moral and otherwise.
Your most famous quote about your work is probably, “My films aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them.” For me, feeling the kinds of internal conflicts about what I found funny or what I found tragic and about my relationship to your films’ characters, was one of the defining responses to watching your films, especially up through Palindromes. Yet watching your last two films, Life During Wartime and now Dark Horse, I felt more clear about where I stood and, perhaps, where you meant for the audience to stand. Was that intentional or did I just grow up?
Well, I don’t know! I evolve so much! But my movies, I think they are all fraught with a certain amount of ambiguity, which often leaves people unclear about when to laugh, whether to laugh, what kind of laughter is being evoked. Laughter in and of itself is a unitary force; there are all kinds of laughter with many different meanings.
That quote you refer to came as a response to a young man who came up to me after seeing Happiness and telling me how much he loved the film, really enjoyed it, especially that one scene where the kid was raped, which he said was hilarious. So, I knew I was in trouble with that kind of response, but it seems somewhat beyond my control. It’s a hard line to navigate because I don’t want to be didactic and dictatorial, and yet at the same time, I certainly am not comforted by such a response, either.
You’ve worked with a lot of actors who are well-known and who I think are very impressive. But you also work with relatively unknown actors, like Jordan Gelber, Dark Horse’s lead. In either case, the performances seem really precise, with regards to each character and each film’s tone. Could you tell me a little about your process of selecting and working with actors?
Well, it’s really conventional, I think. Jordan Gelber had read for me before. I liked him and then I saw him in a play of Mike Leigh’s in New York called 2000 Years and he seemed, when I saw it, that performance, he just seemed suitable to the part that I think I was writing. Maybe I had already finished writing it, I don’t remember. There really weren’t any celebrities or stars I thought were so suitable, so I was very fortunate that I was able to cast the movie with him, and then, of course, I provided some better-known actors, as well, in supporting roles.
And what about your decision to have Selma Blair’s character from Storytelling reappear in Dark Horse?
I loved working with Selma back on Storytelling, and when I was writing this film, it just, it came to mind the idea of updating her character from that to 10 years later. The idea that two such people could have any possible connection was a kind of a challenge to myself: how can I make that believable? And I think there is a connection, a very tenuous one, but a very real one. And that was very exciting for me. So yes, some characters may recur — in fact, the character at the cash register at Toys”R”Us, his name’s Jiminy, which is the name of the oldest of the Sunshine singers from Palindromes.
Do you think about characters from your older films a lot? This is the third film to revisit—
Yeah! In the process of writing, things occur to me, or in the process of casting, things occur to me. I didn’t think of having Tyler Maynard play Jiminy from Palindromes initially for the customer sales part at all — it occurred to me at a certain point during the casting that that would be a neat idea.
In Life During Wartime, did that happen the same way? Or were that film’s repeated characters a different process?
In that movie, I mean, I had to try to cast these characters from a different angle, as some way to mine different kinds of meaning. There’s a Bill Maplewood character who I had Dylan Baker play initially in Happiness, and I loved him, but the kind of gravitas that I was looking for in Wartime I felt would better be evoked by a different kind of actor, a different actor, and so I got Ciarán Hinds. It’s not that one is bad or wrong, but that there are certain things you can do with certain actors that you can’t do with others, — it just doesn’t resonate in quite the same way. Like the idea of bringing Paul Ruebens into it, who obviously has a certain kind of baggage, let’s say, that resonates in a way that I found somewhat poignant. So it depends on the ideas that get sparked as I’m going about the process.
Thinking about Life During Wartime, I think about the kid who came up to you and told you he liked the child rape in—
That was after Happiness that he said that.
For me, [Dark Horse] deals with the character who couldn’t deal with the passage of time and its irretrievability, with change. It’s infused with a certain kind of hope, and in a way, that makes it the saddest of my comedies.
Right. So, thinking about reworking some of the ways you portray characters from Happiness seems like an interesting kind of response to that kind of thing.
I think in part I was also troubled that people would say they felt — and I know it’s just semantics — that they felt the characters to be sympathetic, it’s not really what I had in mind. I certainly would never have sympathy for a man who had raped my child, nor do I mean to evoke that kind of sympathy. Rather, I make the distinction here that it’s about recognizing that even in such a character who is tormented, and monstrously so as Bill Maplewood is, that there is a human toll, that this is, in fact, a human being, and that might be something that not everyone always wants to hear. It’s much more comforting to be able to demonize, but in fact, that’s what makes us human is that we are able to recognize all that others struggle with in order to be human, too.
That seems like something you don’t see so often in movies. At least with some kinds of characters who have certain kinds of faults, those faults simply define them.
Yeah. It’s easy enough if you’re demonizing, because demonizing is just a way of dehumanizing someone.
I have a question about Happiness that’s self-indulgent. I have a long-running argument with a friend of mine about the final discussion between Bill Maplewood and his son. My friend says that when Mr. Maplewood says — when his son asks him — that he would not have sex with him but would instead go masturbate, my friend thinks he says that because he’s trying to say that his son isn’t good looking enough to have sex with. I always interpreted it to be that Mr. Maplewood was expressing an interesting kind of love for his son and an unwillingness to hurt him despite his illness.
Yeah, I mean, for me, what makes him tragic is that in fact he is a great father to his son; he’s a father who loves his son, and that’s what brings a tragic direction to the character. It did not occur to me, I must confess, that he refrained from molesting his son because he wasn’t, as you put it, attractive enough. But perhaps your friend has a point that I’m not quite aware of.
Hmm. Do you feel like creating such controversial material so early in your career has boxed you in at all and made audiences expect an overly specific thing from a Todd Solondz film?
They may. The latest film may, in some sense, disappoint those who are looking for something terribly shocking insofar as there’s no shocking subject matter. But you know, I look at myself as someone very fortunate who’s been able to make the movies he’s wanted to make in a climate that doesn’t often support this kind of filmmaking. So, I hope I can continue to make films, but who knows? I cannot please everyone and there’s no point in trying to please everybody. I have to please myself first, and I put something out there that has meaning to myself, and I hope that it will connect to others.
So what do you think is next after Dark Horse?
Well, I wrote the script. It takes place in Texas, but my producer’s trying to figure out how it’s going to be possible, so we’ll see!
Well, I hope it works out.
Thank you! Good luck with your article!