For over 20 years, filmmaker Todd Solondz has confronted audiences and what they hold true with brutal satires of human interaction and the politeness that convolutes it. His subject matter has probed, often with a sense of humor, taboos like child abuse, rape, and exploitation. His 1998 movie Happiness offered a glimpse into the interior lives of a pedophile and an obscene phone caller. He has also challenged the truths we hold about filmmaking—by now his cinematic universe is connected tenuously via partial sequels, alternate lives for his characters, and multiple actors’ interpretations of the same characters. It’s gotten twisty: A quarter of his latest movie, Wiener-Dog, is a sideways sequel to his 1995 breakthrough Welcome to the Dollhouse, imagining the adult life of Dawn Wiener, the Dollhouse protagonist that he previously killed off in 2004's Palindromes. In Wiener-Dog, Dawn is played not by Heather Matarazzo, who made that role iconic, but by Greta Gerwig—Solondz says Matarazzo’s lack of interest in ever reprising the role “freed” him.
The update on Dawn is but one of four stories in Wiener-Dog’s anthology. Its vignettes are linked by a female dachshund, who changes hands with each story. Each owner is progressively older, each grapples with mortality, and often, the same modes of human communication that obviously mystify and beguile Solondz.
I spoke to the writer-director about his career and how Wiener-Dog fits into his vision earlier this week by phone. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Gawker: Reading your reviews, it seems that people bring a disproportionate amount of expectation to your work. Being that Wiener-Dog is a follow-up of sorts to the beloved Welcome to the Dollhouse, how has it been dealing with the reactions this time around?
Todd Solondz: My movies are expressive of a certain sensibility. I like to play, and sometimes my audience doesn’t want to play with me. Sometimes they do. I can’t complain. I can be disappointed if someone doesn’t like what I’m doing or doesn’t appreciate or understand what I’m trying to achieve, but I don’t have control over the responses people have. It’s part of the price one pays for not doing movies that are, strictly speaking, entertainment in the way that the studio system [defines it]. But people still do watch my movies, I guess. I hope they show up, yes...
One thing that rings less true than ever to me, maybe it’s because I’m older than ever, is the idea that you’re misanthropic. That makes no sense to me. What I see in your movies is a love of humanity and a disdain for the bullshit that comes with it, or the bullshit that is perpetuated by humanity.
I think in part it’s just much easier to throw some catchall than to really investigate exactly what’s going on. The movies are all fraught with ambiguity. It’s reductive to just say, “He’s cynical and misanthropic,” because that’s beside the point. It’s just not interesting. [My movies ask] a certain amount of the audience and not everyone wants to take that on. But if the movies didn’t have an emotional heft to them, I wouldn’t put myself through the ordeal of making them.
Is my interpretation correct, though: You have more of a disdain for bullshit than humanity itself?
I’d rather not say I’m disdainful, but let’s say I like to poke a little bit and have some fun with some of the illusions that we live with about ourselves and others.
Twenty some years after Welcome to the Dollhouse, moviemaking is less adventurous. There are fewer people who have the space to challenge what we think about ourselves and the ways in which we openly do so, because I think people are scared and people care so much about money.
This is a market-driven business. That’s why it’s much harder for movies outside of the studio system to get made, because the market is much smaller, certainly the theatrical market. Most young people, they don’t go to the movies. They see the movie in some other format. That’s just the reality of the way technology has evolved and had an impact on movies.
Has it gotten harder for you to express yourself or remain true to your vision?
I don’t think it’s affected the way in which I approach my work aesthetically, but I’m responsive pragmatically to the marketplace. My budgets are modest. They have to be modest because the market can’t make a bigger budget movie sustainable. But it doesn’t have an impact on the kind of work that I want to do.
From your fraught history with the movie industry—Happiness being dropped by Universal, various brands refusing product placement in your films, the MPAA effectively censoring Storytelling—have you ever gotten a sense of vindication? That perhaps you’re feared and considered dangerous precisely because you’re saying what isn’t being said and that what you’re saying is correct?
You’re speaking very kindly about me, but I don’t feel so much besieged... Look, I look at every assault on me as an opportunity to come up with a creative solution and to engage and respond in this playing field in a way that enables me to stay true to what I want to say and do. I never felt defeated by any of this. Perhaps there’s even a part of me that relishes the fight, so to speak.
You’re provoking a response to a degree that most directors don’t dream of.
When I go to the movies, I like to be provoked and taken places I hadn’t been or thought about in quite the way I’m used to. And so that’s what I try to provide for my audiences.
Watching Wiener-Dog reminded me of a quote that’s been widely attributed to Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” The dog is a cipher for people’s projections and its varying treatment by its different owners says way more about them than the dog. Am I right about what you were going for?
I think that’s all fair. It’s very complicated in some sense that if you have a pet, a dog, it can be a vessel that one fills with one’s illusions or yearnings or hopes and so forth. That oftentimes has very little to do with the actual dog itself. It’s hard to see a dog in its own dogness. We’re so anthropocentric, it’s hard not to anthropomorphize. I think that when people see an animal harmed, it’s something that’s emblematic of the purity of innocence. Nothing can rival a little dachshund in its cuteness, and in fact, as you are probably aware, people have a harder time with that than harm befalling humans.
[There was a video here]
[Wiener-Dog] is a life story, basically, of the dog, although as I say it’s not really about a dog itself as a character. It’s more a conceit. For me, the movie is about mortality, and how that hovers and shadows each of these stories and characters.
So it’s fair to say that share your over-the-top art-world character Fantasy’s impetus—of his art he says, “I’m interested in mortality.”
Who is not interested? It’s something we all live with and are defined by all life long.
Very deliberately, the first two stories in Wiener-Dog are linked in terms of the dog changing hands, but the movie’s last two stories do not explain how the dog came to be owned by the protagonists. Why?
I had initially explained how [Danny DeVito’s character] got his dog, but then I dropped it. I just didn’t care. I felt it didn’t matter how he got the dog at that point. It was just the idea I felt the audience could accept that the dog is just on a quest for a home, as the lyrics to the interlude explain. It’s not the how. You can fill in the blank as it goes from owner to owner.
Just as you “have some fun with some of the illusions that we live with about ourselves,” in the movie you challenge your own template that you’ve set forth up until that point.
I just don’t want to be constrained, let’s say, by details of things that don’t interest me so much. What matters to me is the stories of these characters and the way in which the dog, in some way, connects them to confronting mortality.
And that resistance to constraint is a part of your larger universe. Palindromes (2004) was a sort of follow-up to Welcome to the Dollhouse, and here you have constructed an alternate reality where Dawn Wiener didn’t kill herself.
Yeah, after I made Palindromes, even back then, I had hoped one day that I could have the opportunity to bring her back, to offer a kind of counter-narrative, one that would be much sunnier than what befell her in Palindromes. So this was an opportunity for that.
From what I understand, Heather Matarazzo not wanting to reprise that role is why you killed Dawn off in Palindromes. Is that true?
I don’t know if that’s why, but I think she freed me in some sense. She didn’t want to be an Antoine Doinel, so I could have other actors play these roles. I get to create as a filmmaker other lives and now I could create other lives’ other lives by having not only actors reprise but other actors reprise. The idea of possible alternate lives and meanings that accrue from those different possibilities is something that’s always drawn me—the idea of how we all in real life have but one life, but in movies more is possible. This is crystallized, I think, when Ellen Burstyn sees all of the possible lives she could have had [in Wiener-Dog’s final story].
[There was a video here]
So even though Heather said that years ago, did you say, “Hey, just in case you’re interested, Dawn Wiener is coming back to the screen”? Or did you just leave it?
Did I want Heather? No. Initially, I think back before Palindromes, even in Storytelling, I had toyed with Heather coming and reprising the part, but it wasn’t going to work out and as I said, that freed me up and I think filtered into the way I approached Life During Wartime [the 2009 sequel to Happiness, in which all of the returning characters are played by new actors]. It was very freeing.
This movie is similar in tone and theme to your previous work. Do you distinguish in your head between keeping true to yourself and your style versus repeating yourself?
I suppose with every movie you try to make things fresh. You know the Isaiah Berlin essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”? I’m more the hedgehog than the fox. It’s not better or worse, but for me there’s always more stuff to mine as opposed to the kind of filmmaker who likes to float from genre to genre. As long as it feels fresh to me, I hope it will to others as well.
Are you happy?
I’m happy that I got to make the movie. I’m happy with the movie. I’m happy it’s coming out, that it was bought. I’ll be even happier if I get money for my next movie.
Wiener-Dog is in select theaters Friday.