Writer/Director Todd Solondz on Dark Horse

“I want to want you,” says the cripplingly depressed Miranda (Selma Blair) to her suitor with excruciating honesty. The coddled, overweight Abe (Jordan Gelber), a compulsive collector who still lives at home with his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken), will take what he can get. “That’s enough for me,” he breathes. In Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, the queasy tale of a 35-year-old man-child who decides to add a wife to his possessions, the writer-director’s dialogue is as sharp as ever, each line an arrow poisoned with sincerity.

Known for colorful, stylized, cynical films including Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Happiness (1998), Storytelling (2001), Palindromes (2004) and the masterful Life During Wartime (2009), Solondz makes movies populated by anti-heroes and -heroines that include bullies, pedophiles, and housewives. He has the ability to zero in on the insecurities, weaknesses and existential loneliness of a Robert Altman-like stable of characters with merciless X-ray vision. Like the stories of John Cheever taken to an uncomfortable extreme, Solondz’s “storytelling” gives the lie to the American dream — and suburban paradise, in particular — exposing the underlying tragedy, comedy, and absurdity at its center.

In this conversation, Solondz discusses the Japanese fan-boy culture that gave rise to Dark Horse, the unlikely filmmaker who inspired his career (you’ll never guess!) and his own unhappy bar mitzvah.

Filmmaker: What first drew you to filmmaking?

Todd Solondz: I went to film school at NYU. The shorts and the films I made there gave me the confidence to think that I could actually make a career at this. When things go well and you have that kind of history, you really latch on to it. I have a weak character in the sense that I need encouragement. I need a sense that people appreciate what I’m doing. I’m not someone who is indifferent to what others think and goes about his business regardless of public opinion.

When I made some of these shorts, I could see that my audience was genuinely responding to the work. I recognized that things clicked; I was not going to let go of that. There was something there. That’s really where I found myself.

When I was younger I wanted to be a musician. I had everything… but talent. I also wrote many plays in college; they were all mercifully unproduced, they were all so terrible. And photography; I loved photography but I just don’t like really touching cameras and technology. I don’t like that.

In fact, in film school I had a really special dispensation: I was the only one who didn’t have to actually shoot anyone’s movie. I was supposed to shoot one of my classmate’s and I just said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t want me behind the camera.” As much as I love and am very attached to the look and composition of what the camera sees, I don’t like the technology of it. I just don’t feel comfortable. It’s always been daunting for me.

Filmmaker: What kind of music did you play?

Solondz: Classical. I learned the cello but piano was the main instrument. To this day, my mother thinks that had I pursued it, I would’ve been the next Horowitz… but she’s a little delusional. That’s something at the genesis of my so-called “career,” if that’s what you’re looking for.

Filmmaker: What compelled you to go to film school in the first place?

Solondz: I grew up in an un-extraordinary middle-class suburban family in Livingston, New Jersey. My family didn’t allow me to see anything other than PG movies growing up. In fact, it wasn’t until high school, when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest came out, that I remember my mom coming home and telling us how she saw such a movie. I said, “Oh, I really want to see this film!” And she said, “No, you’re too young.” And I was 16.

I went to college at the advent of the Betamax. VCRs, nobody had yet. The point is, I moved in with these “film societies,” they were called, and every night you could see a triple-bill of Marx brothers, Godard, and Nick Ray, or some combination.They had all sorts of genres and filmmakers were the auteurs, Hollywood, everything. Prints projected every night. And because I was socially shy and inept, going to the movies in college was a kind of sanctuary and escape. That really was my education in filmmaking. That’s when I really found myself immersed in film as something that might get pursued at some point. I didn’t even have to understand the movies — I just kept watching. I was never really happy in college. I finished college thinking I would never go back to school ever again.

Filmmaker: Where was college?

Solondz: I went to Yale; it’s a wonderful school but I wasn’t really cut out for it. I don’t think I’m as much the academic kind as my family may have thought. I didn’t really flourish or thrive in the way I might have in a more free-spirit, Bennington, Hampshire, art type of school. Who knows? A lot of it’s just luck. But I went to L.A. after college; I worked as a messenger; I wrote a couple of screenplays; I got an agent. That was so exciting — not that anything happened, but to think that I had gotten an agent was such a thrill. I worked as a messenger.

I didn’t ever expect to like Los Angeles. I always wanted to live in New York. If it meant I could never work in film, so be it; I wanted to be in New York. And at that time, film school wasn’t quite so hip as it is today and getting in wasn’t quite so competitive. I called up the film school and I asked what the deadline was. They said, “Today.” If it were to happen today, it’d be over, but back then things were uncertain; so I sent them a script, I got in. In ’83, I began film school.

I remember in my essay for film school I referenced John Sayles and described how I was very much inspired by him. Not that his sensibility had any overlap with mine, but that he could create a career making films on his own, autonomously, out of the studio system, without stars, telling stories that once-upon-a-time may have been of some interest to studios. Andy Warhol, John Waters, Cassavetes — as much as their sensibilities may have been much more inspiring to me artistically, I never felt they were templates that I could use to create an actual career.

My childhood was very ordinary in many ways. My parents knew dentists and accountants and lawyers. My dream one day was to live in New York; it was Oz for me — there would be artists and writers and musicians and so forth. I’m living out my dream, I live in New York!

Filmmaker: Where in New York?

Solondz: I live downtown in the mid-Village. The “Village” Village, near NYU. I’m very fortunate. I’m living that life that I hoped, imagined, and fantasized about as a young person, when I knew I did not want to stay where I was. Look, I didn’t grow up with any hardship, any child abuse, any kind of trauma that is so often dramatized. My first movie experiences — I remember being taken to Radio City Music Hall and seeing Mary Poppins and then, the next year, The Sound of Music. That movie was my favorite thing for years. Without having seen that movie, I wouldn’t have had the Sunshine Singers in Palindromes.

You know, these things connect. As a child, I watched hours of television. I think I was intravenously connected to it. But I remember — Dark Shadows was a Gothic soap opera, a vampire soap opera that was on every day at 4:30 p.m, and I would rush home from school to see it. I had to see it in secret because my mom was afraid that I would get nightmares. You see this as an adult and it’s unwatchable, but as a nine-year-old, when you’re a child, it’s a wonderful thing.

They’re always making these very ornate, complicated, technologically fancy pictures for children. But what they forget is that children like to fill in the spaces. They don’t need it to be so expensive and fancy. It’s the parents who need that. The children, you just give them cardboard and sets that are very amateurish and they can transform it. A lot of people forget that they have that gift. A lot of the charm of the movies for children is lost because there’s so much money spent to outdo the effects of what was done the last time. It seems a little bit in vain.

You know, Dark Horse is the first movie I’ve worked on without a child. I think that’s a more significant fact, in a sense, than the fact there’s no weird depraved sexual offender in the story. The character is something of a grown-up. A semi-grown up child.

When I cast children in some of these movies, people say, “How did you get them?” The questions, the moral dimensions of this, are very difficult and complicated. I actually have children and, God-willing, they won’t pursue acting. If they want to be actors, good luck; it’s such a difficult career.

But would I let my child be in one of these movies? It depends. I’d have to see who my child is at that age. But I certainly wouldn’t allow him to go do an ad for The Gap, or anything where they’re basically shills for some sort of product. But, depending on the child, and if there’s a value or meaning that could be had for the child… my issue would not be with the material but just the nature of him being an actor at all. It’s so difficult growing up. I think that getting so much attention when you’re young makes it even more difficult.

Filmmaker: How would you describe your writing process, particularly regarding dialogue?

Solondz: You invest yourself. You become a kind of an actor. You pretend you’re her and then you pretend you’re him and you try to be true to the needs to each character. If it sounds too clever, though, then it won’t feel true and no one will laugh.

I’ve been writing since I’ve been reading. I started with fiction very early on. There’s something within me that has a beginning, middle, and an end; I have this bend towards narrative. When I write, it’s not, “Ahh, what do I write today?” Everything is in some sort of embryonic state — or some state of development — over the course of one’s life. It takes six weeks or 30 years. It takes years and years, accruing a certain amount of experience, and then somehow I fall into a story or discover a story I didn’t know I had within me. In other words, there was no inciting incident that happened that compelled me to tell this story.

But when I visited Tokyo a few years ago for press, they explained a phenomenon called “otaku.” It’s almost always men — young men and some not so young — who live in their bedrooms with their video games and comic books and action figures. They spend all of their days there. Their mothers leave trays of food outside the door and pick them up when the food has been consumed. I learned about it in Japan, but it can be found in any culture that has a certain level of prosperity and secularism.

You don’t own those [comic book] collections, they own you. I have acquaintances who tell me, “Yeah, I know it’s out of control, but I just need to buy it to complete my box set collection.” Even said ironically, acknowledging that it is pathology, doesn’t let you off the hook. What is that consumption telling us — not just about that person but about the world that we live in? A kind of infantilization is present; some of it perhaps deliberately. These formations and collections are ultimately null and void in meaning; they tend to provide emotional salve to certain psychic needs. The greater the collection, the deeper the trouble, the pain.

I found this to be moving. The idea of a very abrasive, hostile, rude — and maybe even repellent — character… I was intrigued by the idea of finding a window into what lay beneath the vulnerability; the wounded soul of this character. Then the idea of him clinging to his youth, trying in vain to hold on as he sinks deeper into middle age was also something I felt I could connect with emotionally. There’s comedy there, but there’s a pathos that moved me and compelled me to pursue this.

You know, parents can have two children: one goes on to have a functioning, successful career and the other — why is it that he can’t find any footing in life? I think it’s common enough that people can relate to it. You can explain things away to a certain extent, but ultimately it’s a mystery.

Filmmaker: You mentioned that one of the criteria you thought for such an inclination would be secularism. I found it interesting that in this film, the family is Jewish.

Solondz: It’s a Jewish family. I don’t make much of it, but I don’t hide it. It’s just there. If it were a Catholic family, there would be a different set of accoutrements, or signs, around that family. I’m curious just what meaning is to be had from that. Alright, they’re Jewish; what’s that supposed to say either about Jewish-American families, or about Judaism?

Earlier today, someone described Chris Walken’s character as “very Jewish.” I said, “What makes him very Jewish?” He said, “The way he’s dressed; somewhat comical and the bright colors…” and I said, “Well, what makes it Jewish?”

Obviously I’m reflecting a certain socio-economic swath. It seems Mia Farrow’s character would dress him, get him a Ralph Lauren polo with khakis for the nice weekend visits. That’s how he is comfortable dressing at that point of his life. I’m curious these comments and what people are exactly saying when they say, “Oh, that’s very Jewish,” because I don’t quite understand it. If he’s giving, if the son works for his father, is that particularly a Jewish thing? I don’t get that.

Filmmaker: Was your family religious growing up?

Solondz: I am Jewish. I mean, I’m a devout atheist, but I had a bar mitzvah. Being thirteen wasn’t a happy time for me so the bar mitzvah really wasn’t a happy experience. I enjoyed my brother’s bar mitzvah, though. It was a great pleasure at that point of my life. When I was nine, I could enjoy it. You dance, you have fun with everyone, you run around. You’re at of the center of attention.