“The Price of Making a Movie is That I Have to Direct It”: Todd Solondz on Happiness
Todd Solondz’s indelible Happiness was released 25 years ago today. Filmmaker is reposting here its interview with Solondz, the cover story of our Fall 1998 issue. — Editor
Winner of the Critic’s Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Todd Solondz’s startling new Happiness is not only one of the most challenging and invigorating independent films of the year, it’s also, by virtue of the strange politics of its release, a talking point for prognosticators everywhere concerned with the co-option of indie-film attitude by corporate-controlled majors and mini-majors.
Ambitiously weaving five separate tales of modern alienation, romantic woe, and shocking transgression into a merciless critique of American lifestyles, Happiness balances compassion and irony, sweetness and repulsion, intelligence and gross-out humor. Following the extended family created by three sisters and their various friends, relatives, and lovers, the film is disturbingly entertaining. With spare precision, Solondz constructs and then rips open his characters, creating stories from what we can only imagine goes on behind closed doors.
Of course, earlier this year October Films, the film’s financier and distributor, dropped Happiness from its release slate after its corporate parent, Universal, objected to one of the film’s storylines — the tale of a pedophile drawn to his son’s school friends. Good Machine Releasing, the distributor formed by Good Machine, along with Killer Films Happiness‘s production company, picked up the reins, hired a distribution team, and is now planning a fall release. (Ironically, Good Machine recently moved its own overhead deal from Fox to Universal.) Whatever the politics of the film’s distribution — and there’s no doubt that these widely publicized events have given Happiness major buzz in the mainstream media — Solondz’s film represents the best meanings of the overused term “independent film.”
Filmmaker: One thing that’s remarkable about Happiness is the deftness with which it weaves together so many different storylines. Coming off of Welcome to the Dollhouse, did you intend from the beginning to do something this complex?
Todd Solondz: I had a bunch of different story ideas, and I couldn’t make up my mind which one I wanted to make a movie about. I wasn’t willing to do one over the other, so I figured out a way to combine them, hoping that they would cohere and play off each other.
Filmmaker: At what point did you realize that the film was becoming a meditation on the family in middle-class America?
Solondz: I wasn’t initially thinking about a family per se. In fact, the whole idea of three sisters was something that was contrived to thread the different storylines together. Originally there were no sisters, and everything was very discreet. The thematic connections were of much more concern to me. But I think the process of writing is a process of discovery. And it’s not until you actually finish the movie that it fully dawns on you what it’s really about.
Filmmaker: So you didn’t initially intend to explore issues concerning the family in America?
Solondz: No. But, I do think we live in a country in which alienation is more acutely felt than anywhere else in the world, and I think that, to a large degree, this is related to the sense of family that exists here. The family unit is not as tight as it is in Europe or certainly in the rest of the world. My friends will say, “I come from a close family. My sister lives in L.A., my brother in Boston, and my parents, if they are still married, live in Arizona.” And they feel they are a close family! You have to question what that closeness really is about when it is the daily fabric of your life that defines what your life is about, not Thanksgiving and Christmas.
To a certain extent, the film is about emotional disconnection. It’s a film about desire, which in our culture is something of an impediment. And, on the simplest level, these are just four or five love stories. The film tells the story of people who try to reach out and connect — reach out and touch someone, so to speak. A lot of extreme stuff goes on in the movie, but if the audience watches it and says, “Oh, look at those freaks,” I will have failed. The idea is for the audience to come half way. In the same way that the characters are struggling to connect with each other, there’s a connection that can be made between the audience and these characters. These are not freaks — when we go to the supermarket or the dry cleaner, these are people with lives who walk right by us.
Filmmaker: There is that degree of empathy in your films, but you also use humor in a way that often undercuts our sympathy for your characters’ emotional pain. You’ll throw in a joke or a funny music cue that prompts us to laugh.
Solondz: I’m very invested emotionally in these characters, and yet at the same time I have a kind of ironic detachment that enables me to laugh. I mean, I am moved by what I find funny, and vice versa. So it is hard for me to detach them, these two currents. And I think the movie would be unbearable if it were not funny.
Filmmaker: To some extent, your film explores that classic question — how much repression is a good thing?
Solondz: I think a movie like this can only come out of a society with a repressive culture. And there is nothing in the movie that isn’t in the tabloids or the daytime talk shows. The difference is that in the tabloids and talk shows there is a moralistic voice saying, “This is wrong.” But this is always undercut when they go to the close-up. There’s a titillating, freak-show aspect to it. It’s both moralistic and exploitative.
I just don’t underestimate the intelligence of my audience. I believe that they don’t have to be told that rape is wrong. The film does have a moral center; there is a moral anchoring. It’s just that there’s nothing didactic about it. I’m not preaching. I’m interested not so much in judging or punishing, but in understanding and figuring out these things.
Filmmaker: Everyone I know who has worked with you on a film says the same thing: “He knows what he wants.” I think every producer wants that quality in a director. You don’t want the director struggling to figure out what to shoot or how to stage a scene while 40 crew people are standing around. But within the world of low-budget production, does that clarity of purpose become a hindrance? Because, of course, there are obviously times when you can’t get what you want due to limited time or budget.
Solondz: That’s a hard thing for a director to gauge. You’re told, “You can have A or B, but you can’t have A and B.” But as a director, you want A and B! I don’t want people to say at the end of the day, “You know, it was a great production. We got it in on budget!” I don’t care if we get it in on budget. If we go over budget that’s fine with me if I get what I want. The question is, can you go over budget? And those things are always so mysterious.
Filmmaker: In studio films, sometimes there’s an expectation that you’ll go over budget, but in independent films there often is a finite amount of money raised.
Solondz: Well, this had a fixed budget from October Films. Bingham Ray and company saw a rough cut early on because we needed more money for post, and he gave us more. Things can happen. I was told, ” You can’t afford to go shoot in Florida. Todd, if you want Florida, you are going to lose this.” And I grabbed Florida, and in the end I got that as well. Because once you say you’ll drop something, it’s lost forever. So basically you just try and get as much as you can. It’s not about greed. It’s a conviction you have about what’s important. And sometimes you can be wrong, but I’d rather be wrong than the producers be wrong.
Filmmaker: How much of these production problems do you try to figure out early in pre-production?
Solondz: You try to figure out as much as you can. Going into it, did I think it was a realistic shooting schedule? No. Did I say it was very unrealistic? Yes. But that was the way I had to go into it. I’m glad I made the decisions I made because had I just yielded at that time, I would have dropped characters and scenes. And I could have done that and made it a lot easier for people, myself included. Because, believe me, I hate production. So as much as I’m trying to get an extra day of shooting, it’s just an extra day of hell I’m asking for myself. But it takes experience to gauge when it’s an absolute “no” instead of a “probably no.”
Filmmaker: How do you tell the difference?
Solondz: It’s just an instinct about the people you’re working with. You have to read everything. Everyone wants to be right, everyone is vulnerable to being wrong, and no one wants to be blamed. I’m not interested in blaming anyone. I’m just interested in getting the script up there in the way that I want. And that makes production much more difficult. We had an extremely arduous shoot. I had a great crew, and I really got on well with everyone, but it was horrible — we had days that went to 20 hours. This is just not fair, and yet when it’s your movie, you just keep pushing. My job is not to manage the crew or appease the producers. My job is to make as good a movie as I can. Obviously, I bear some responsibility for what is going on, but the point isn’t to make everyone happy. Sometimes, in fact, it is truly impossible, and then you have to come up with another way of making things work. You rewrite or restage or redesign something to accommodate the fact that you have certain economic pressures.
Filmmaker: Has your attitude towards production changed from your first film to this one, your third?
Solondz: No, that’s how I feel. And I don’t enjoy it, I really don’t. The price of making a movie is that I have to direct it, and I don’t get pleasure from that.
Filmmaker: What do you dislike most about production?
Solondz: Everything from the first day of shooting until the end. Every single day more and more compromises have to be made. All those shots you planned — “Sorry, Todd, you can’t have it all, because the sun is going to set and the location does not exist tomorrow.” Being up against that stress every day gives me no pleasure. I don’t get any high or thrill from having all this so-called power. It does nothing for me or my ego. It’s great working with people I like, but everyone’s under such tremendous strain. Ideally, if we had a budget that was bigger, we could breathe a little more easily. There would still be stress, but I think it could be a little more manageable.
Filmmaker: What is the most important thing for you to have during production, what element of the set or the atmosphere?
Solondz: A good lunch. Good meals. No, the most important is to have people who are supportive of me. And I felt for all the economic stress, that people were supportive of me on this film. That was a great feeling.
Filmmaker: What about in terms of working with the actors? This movie depends on subtle performances by actors whom you’re willing to follow into some very dark places. How do you go about casting and then working with them on their characters?
Solondz: You go through this process of casting, of seeing and talking to the actors, of reading with them — whatever your technique is of getting to know these people — and you make a leap of faith. You just go on instinct. And you could be wrong. It happens all the time. And if you are lucky and have a lot of money, you recast in the middle of the movie. Woody Allen has done that more than once.
Filmmaker: Do you rehearse a lot with your actors?
Solondz: No. I just felt that when I met them and they read, that it clicked. I didn’t feel I needed any more.
Filmmaker: What was it about Dylan Baker that sort of sold you for that part? He’s a silent character in some ways.
Solondz: He is a great actor. And people don’t know him. That is one of the appealing things about discovering someone, particularly for a role like this, where you want a sort of benign, faceless, guy next door, someone you might trust. A guy you can sympathize with. Because he is not a monster. He is a great father struggling with a monster within, and that distinction is key to that part of the movie. He transgresses. And if there is redemption for him — and I say “if” — it is in the honesty and love he has for his older son, before whom he cannot but tell the truth.
Filmmaker: That redemption certainly doesn’t save him from punishment.
Solondz: No, but I don’t think that’s contradictory. And, as I said, it’s an “if” — I did not say there was redemption.
Filmmaker: The film has a coda at the end, and all the other characters are there. His punishment is that he’s removed from the narrative.
Solondz: But he’s very present in that scene, even though he isn’t there.
Filmmaker: What about that shot of Ben Gazarra pouring salt on his food in that scene? Earlier in the film, the doctor told him to lay off the salt. Now, you can read this shot in two ways, and it goes back to that discussion about repression versus personal freedom. On one hand, he’s got a death wish going on; it’s a subtle way of committing suicide. On the other, he’s saying, “Screw the doctor, I’m going to live my life.”
Solondz: I’m more optimistic about some characters than others in terms of their fate. Here is a guy whom you could almost look at like a patriarch, who did try to escape a kind of dead end in his life, and, in the end, is left with emptiness and resignation. But with the Florida scenes, it was very important to me to give a context to everything, so it was not a movie about a bunch of perverts — there is a certain malaise that seeps through all the stories. It doesn’t have to be as extreme as the [story involving the pedophile], which is the heaviest manifestation. But there is a kind of malaise, a lack of connection that is kind of an illness, and that is there to be explored and understood.
For me, Happiness isn’t even about sexuality — the sex is very much used as a device, a motive to propel and also explore and understand the themes I have spoken of. Because pedophilia is something I, in fact, know very little about beyond what any casual reader of papers and magazines does. I didn’t do any research for this movie.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about your work with Maryse Alberti and the production designer Therese DePrez? Because there are a lot of really drab color schemes in the film, but certain moments of color really jump out.
Solondz: The key word was restraint. The film is about the actors, it’s not a showpiece for any of the craft people’s departments. For example, we wanted the suburban home in Maplewood to not be tacky or kitchy or a joke. There is nothing more distasteful to me than glibly disparaging the suburbs. I have been guilty of disparaging them, but I think it’s boring, because what is interesting about the suburbs is what’s appealing, what’s seductive about them.
Filmmaker: What do you think is missing right now from the independent movies that are made?
Solondz: Well, there are never enough entertaining movies.
Filmmaker: How important is that concept of entertainment to you in terms of your own work?
Solondz: The whole thing about entertainment is that it implies that there’s “it” and there’s “you,” and “it” is there to provide a certain amount of pleasure. I feel I need that pleasure no matter how serious or esoteric the film. I mean, Alexander Sokurov — I am moved by the beauty of his films, and I am also entertained. As long as I am somewhat stimulated, there can be an entertainment level to it. But there’s entertainment, and then there is engagement. And ideally both can happen. When I saw There’s Something About Mary, it was very entertaining and also very engaging. I felt it was a very heartfelt movie, much more personal and meaningful than many so-called independent movies. So you find it where you can.
Editor’s Note: Distribution and production company details have been corrected since this piece’s original publication.