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In Features, Issues

THE DIVIDED SELF
For his new film, Palindromes,Todd Solondz cast eight actors in the lead role and then took on both sides of the abortion movement. Good thing he didn’t have to answer to any investors.

BY MATTHEW ROSS

Writer-director Todd Solondz. PHOTO: HENNY GARFUNKEL.

It  was nine years ago that Todd Solondz took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for his second feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse. One of the seminal indies of the late 1990s, the film earned more than $4 million at the box office and made the press-shy writer-director an icon of the indie movement. Solondz, for his part, never embraced the spotlight, resisting media-friendly characterizations of his work and the “geek chic” label that came with it. (Several years later he would refuse even to be photographed.)

In the years since, many of Solondz’s worthy contemporaries — filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, David O. Russell and Darren Aronofsky — have managed to successfully toe the line between artistic expression and commercial success, taking on bigger, arguably more accessible projects and finding champions for their work within the studios or their specialty divisions. Not so with Solondz, who with each subsequent film continues to challenge audience expectations with his forays into the dysfunction, perversion and self-deception of the American middle class.

Financially speaking, Solondz’s career post-Dollhouse hasn’t been easy. His 1998 ensemble comedy Happiness, winner of the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, was dropped by its distributor, Universal, although it still managed to earn nearly $3 million at the box office after its production company, Good Machine, distributed it on its own. Then, in 2002, Solondz returned with Storytelling, an oddly structured yet deeply compelling work about a politically correct college coed’s relationship with her unscrupulous African-American college professor, coupled with a second story about an exploitative documentary filmmaker and his disastrous attempts to make a film about a typical suburban family.

After he found no backers for his next film, Palindromes, Solondz decided to finance the Super 16mm production himself. Not surprisingly, it’s his most aesthetically and politically provocative work to date. The film tells the story of Aviva — played in the film by eight different actors, including Jennifer Jason Leigh — a 13-year-old Jewish girl from Long Island whose only desire is to have a baby. After her liberal parents (Ellen Barkin and Richard Masur) force her to terminate a pregnancy, Aviva goes on the road, where she immediately finds herself involved with a pedophile truck driver (played magnificently by Stephen Adly-Guirgis). She eventually ends up at the house of Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a Christian fundamentalist who splits her time between adopting disabled children and plotting to destroy abortion clinics. What emerges is a deeply philosophical fable of a 21st-century, Red State–Blue State America. The film, which premiered last year at the Telluride Film Festival and has since screened at Venice, Toronto and New York, will be released by Wellspring in April.

Shayna Levine and Stephen Adly-Guirgis in Palindromes. PHOTO: MACALL POLAY.

FILMMAKER: How did the idea for this film come about?

TODD SOLONDZ: It’s funny — I always have these ideas for movies that’ll be very marketable and profitable and commercial and so forth, and I always feel determined to try and make one of these movies. And what happens instead is I find myself writing something that I don’t want to write because I know it’s not going to be any of those things. In a sense, you don’t choose the story; the story chooses you. Certainly there are things that are out there in the world that feed into all of this. I remember reading about some abortionist killer who was captured in Georgia and how his community was very quietly sympathetic to his predicament. There’s the idea of how no matter what you do, what side of the coin you are on — politically, ideologically — that it’s part of human nature to always think that one is doing good, that one is on the right side of things. Even Stalin on his deathbed thought he was a good person.

FILMMAKER: The movie deals in a complicated way with abortion politics. How do you discuss your own views on the subject with regards to the way it’s treated in the film?

SOLONDZ: We’re all burdened by our biases and prejudices and so forth, which is why I try with the balance between Aviva’s and Mama Sunshine’s families to err in favor of the Christian conservative family, because that’s not where I’m from. I want the audience to be able to examine, reassess and reevaluate some of the preconceptions they may have. If I say I’m pro-choice, then the audience can relax; they can say, “It’s okay, he’s pro-choice.” But by not saying that, I hope to make the audience watch this a little more cautiously, make it not quite so easy for them. I’m not there to say, “Yes, you’re right, I’m with you.” That is of no interest for me. I want to force you to examine and assess the moral consequences and dimensions of what it means to take on these positions. And besides that, of course, if I say I’m pro-choice, no one who is pro-life will come see the movie.

I mean, what do you do when your 13-year-old daughter comes home pregnant and wants to keep the baby? It’s a crisis, a nightmare. How does one handle such a situation? And this is part of what fuels this story, of what for me is the saddest of all my comedies — which I describe as sad comedies. It’s really for me the most heartbreaking because it is essentially a story of a young girl just on a quest for love. What does it mean if you’re a 13-year-old and you want to have a baby? It’s not the baby itself that you want, but rather what the baby symbolizes, which is a kind of unconditional love that you feel you’re not getting from your family or friends or whatnot.

FILMMAKER: The idea of free will versus predestination is one of the philosophical issues that you touch on in this movie. There’s that scene at the end in which Mark Wiener gives quite an articulate but also deeply pessimistic, even cynical analysis of that idea. Not only are we trapped by our own genetics physically and biologically, he says, but also perhaps in terms of our personality and intellect, in terms of our ability to change.

HOW THEY DID IT
Format
Super 16mm.
Camera
Arriflex 16SR3.
Film Stocks
Kodak Vision2 500T 7218 and Vision 250D 7246.
Editing System
Final Cut Pro.
Color Correction
Negative scanned at 2K resolution on Cineon Film Scanner, FX on DuArt Digital, output to 35mm via Arrilaser 2K Film Recorder. Traditional film color-timing during blow-up. All color correction performed at DuArt in New York.
SOLONDZ: I don’t really see him as a cynic, but I certainly can see he’s a little bit grimmer and bleaker than I am in certain ways. But I agree with most of what he says: that the idea of free will is something of an illusion or a vanity. But this inability to change in some sense can be freeing. It can be liberating to accept one’s failings, flaws and limits. That can be a good thing. Of course, Mark is suffering the trauma of having been falsely accused of being a pedophile, so I’m sympathetic to him there. I think that if you’ve been very successful in life, people tend to believe that it was through hard work and because you made the right decisions, whereas those who haven’t been quite so successful tend to see things as just a series of bad luck. We like to believe that we have a choice, but in fact we don’t. It’s all a result of all of the experiences and DNA that have combined with randomness to create an inevitable result. The idea of the clean slate, that one can wipe out one’s past and start all over again, is a dangerous illusion. But when you go to the movies, you are generally asked to identify with an attractive protagonist who says and does the right thing, and perhaps even behaves heroically at the end, so that by having made this identification with this protagonist you’ll have this wonderful kind of narcissistic high. When you watch one of my movies, there is no narcissism, because you are asked to connect with people who are very flawed and fail in many ways. The point of [doing this] isn’t to tell you that you are bad or that people are bad, but to try and get to a certain truth about who we are.

And so my movies function in a very different way. I mean, narcissism and selfdeception are not bad things — they’re something that we all need. Without them we’d jump out the window. My movies are kind of a response to my understanding of this dynamic and how this plays itself out.

FILMMAKER: One of the criticisms that have been leveled at you in the past is that you’re cruel towards your characters. Does that criticism bother you?

SOLONDZ: Of course there’s a satirical thrust to what I do. I don’t see that as a bad thing. There’s often a kind of exploration of cruelty, but I don’t see myself as cruel. But there’s no point in quarreling about this. I love these characters, I like spending time with them, and if I didn’t I wouldn’t put myself through this. At the Sunshine house for example, it’s all very frivolous and fun, and then of course there’s a satirical element to it. But you also love these disabled kids. Some people will take umbrage with [the scene] and say, “How can you laugh if there are children with disabilities?” But it’s not at their expense. If it were at their expense, it would be an obscenity. My argument is that it’s a kind of condescension to not be able to laugh just because the children have disabilities. To me they’re just children, period. I didn’t divide them into those with disabilities and those without. To me, in fact, the most moving moment of the whole film productionwise was when they were performing these musical numbers, numbers that they took such pride and joy in performing. And of course at the same time you step back and you say, “Oh my God, what are they singing?” But that’s part of the dynamic, the friction that is emblematic of what I do. Do I laugh, do I not laugh? If I laugh, what am I laughing at? But the joke is certainly not at the expense of kids with disabilities. There’s no logic that’s accessible to me that could account for that sort of response.

FILMMAKER: Why do you think the response to your work has been so vicious at times?

SOLONDZ: Well, I can’t account for people’s ability or inability to respond to what I do. All I can say is my movies require a certain kind of open-mindedness, and sometimes a liberal mind is not always an open one.

FILMMAKER: Formally you take some new risks in this movie. Whereas Storytelling was structurally quite experimental, this film finds its experimentation in having several different actors play Aviva.

GO BACK AND WATCH...
CRIMINAL LOVERS: François Ozon’s 1999 drama borrowed the fairy tale genre to explore adult themes of violence and sexuality.
THE DOCTOR’S DREAM: Ken Jacobs created a filmic palindrome of sorts with this 1978 experimental short, in which he reedited a 1950’s TV melodrama, The Doctor, so that it literally folds in on itself.
KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS: Robert Hamer’s 1949 Ealing Studio black comedy experiments with casting too, having Alec Guinness play all eight murder victims.
SOLONDZ: I may be the first to put it front and center, but Buñuel did this in his last movie, That Obscure Object of Desire. My feeling has always been that an audience can accept all sorts of rules as long as you stick to them. They might be a little confused at first. “Wait, she’s a black child, she’s Latina, she’s a redhead — what’s going on?” But they get the hang of it. Also, it’s always been a fantasy of mine that when you have three actors up for a part and they all have wonderful qualities, you wish you could combine them all into one. Well, I got to do that here. And you can bring all sorts of nuance and color to this character by having all these different people play the part. The hope was that the cumulative effect emotionally would be more powerful than had it been just one person. She begins as a small little black girl, then later when she’s a big black woman — the idea was of Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians there, sort of keying into the storybook fairy-tale aspect of the movie — and then when you see Jennifer Jason Leigh’s face at the end, you see a face that’s lived a life, like in the fairy tales where the character goes away and comes back at the end of the day as an old man. And yet she’s still just a 13-year-old girl. I was trying to extract this quality of innocence, of fragility, vulnerability, from my characters, so that’s what I focused on for each of the actors playing the parts. That’s the glue or cohesion for all of them.

FILMMAKER: What was the making of this film like in comparison to your other films?

SOLONDZ: Well, I put some of my own money into this [laughs], a lot of my own money, almost all of it, just to get the thing rolling. Everyone said, “Oh, you’ll have no trouble,” but nobody wanted to finance it. It’s not very encouraging for independent filmmakers, but that’s what happens I suppose when you’re dealing with a number of factors that make it difficult to raise money. Thank God that we sold the movie and I’ll be okay. I’ll break even.

FILMMAKER: You said there were some factors. What were they?

SOLONDZ: The marketplace is so unclear to me. In Europe, for example, there’s something about the TV market bottoming out — I don’t even know what that means. And they’re not interested in “American independent filmmakers” the way they once were. And the climate being what it is, this material was deemed a little too problematic for distributors to want to really deal with, because everyone could tell from the beginning that this was not going to be an R-rated movie. Once you have children in a movie with delicate subject matter, it’s just a little scary for anyone who’s connected with any sort of corporation.

FILMMAKER: Outside of the financing, did you go about making this film in a different kind of way?

SOLONDZ: No. The plus about doing it this way is you certainly don’t need approval from anyone — you just do what you want. If you want a star, you’ll get a star. If you don’t want a star, you don’t get a star. You are only limited by the fact that you don’t have money, you know? We had a lot of favors, a lot of kindness, that removed a lot of the stress.

FILMMAKER: I’ve heard that you never do rehearsals and that on the set you do very little directing of the actors.

SOLONDZ: It’s more like maintenance, so to speak. Sometimes I just have to remind them of a few things. With every actor it’s different. Everyone has different needs. Some need more hand-holding or more attention and others want to be left alone. I’ll do whatever is necessary to get what I need, but it’s true, you don’t have the time. I mean, when can you find time for rehearsal? The rehearsal is the audition — that’s where I get it done. And then when they’re on a set, I just pray that they know their lines.

FILMMAKER: The film has played at a number of top festivals already. What has the response been like so far?

SOLONDZ: It’s unpredictable. I’ve had people who say it’s the best movie I’ve made and others say it’s the worst movie I’ve made. I can’t really attach too much meaning to that. But I can say I take as much pride in this as I have taken pride in anything else I’ve done as a filmmaker.

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