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Unflinching and generally grim in their observations of contemporary suburban life, the films of Todd Solondz are rooted in the comedy of discomfort and unwelcome recognition. After making well-received short films as a student at NYU, Solondz directed his first feature, 1989's little-seen Fear, Anxiety & Depression, in which he also starred as a struggling playwright. Frustrated with the film world, Solondz began teaching English to Russian immigrants, but returned in 1995 with Welcome To The Dollhouse. The time off apparently did him good: Fear is a shrill film, but Dollhouse adopts a dry, detached, observational style to portray the travails of a middle-school misfit played by Heather Matarazzo. The director's refusal to peddle easy (or any) answers, or look on the bright side of any given situation, was further evidenced in 1998's Happiness, a miniature magnum opus in which the members of a broad cross-section of humanity fail to make life better for each other. With humor so dark it borders on the imperceptible and a cast of characters that includes a pedophile and a reluctant murderer, Happiness attracted considerable controversy and equally considerable praise. In a similar vein, the new Storytelling finds hapless characters participating in the creative process as subjects, creators, or both at once. The first of the film's two sections takes place in a racially and sexually charged creative-writing course, while the second examines an upper-middle-class household where a teenager named Scooby (Mark Webber) becomes the subject of struggling documentarian Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti). Reflecting on his own process of creation, Solondz spoke recently to The Onion A.V. Club.
b>The Onion: When Storytelling was first announced, New Line called it your "most commercial yet." I take it you weren't responsible for that comment?
Todd Solondz: One can always be optimistic. Certainly if you're the studio head, or the person responsible for putting money into a movie, you have to be optimistic. Making a movie is optimistic. But I am not so optimistic, this is true.
O: I'm trying to think what a commercial film from you would look like.
TS: Yeah, I don't know. None of them have really generated much box office, but anything is possible. It's a mystery to me. Certainly I would never hold it against someone for saying this is my most commercial movie. It's still possible... There are many commercial movies that are quite wonderful. So I'm not prejudiced in this way.
O: Do you feel that those who come to your films are partly drawn by controversy? Do you think that's actually a selling point of your movies?
TS: It's very hard to say. Selling points. On one hand, there are those who like this word "controversy," and if they can exploit it to marketing ends, they'll use that word. But of course, there are many people who just want to go out and be entertained. They want to escape and be distracted, and they are turned off by this word. So it's up to the marketing people to decide if that's really a plus or not.
O: But on some level, it's safe to say that you're a provocateur, right?
TS: Well, I hope in a good sense. I mean, it's certainly not provoking for the sake of provoking. I mean, I think any filmmaker who takes his work seriously... Everyone wants to provoke and move an audience so that it's a different experience from what one is used to. I can't think of any filmmaker who would take that as a minus.
O: Do you think that people who are bothered by your films are working from an excessively narrow definition of comedy?
TS: Um, well...
O: Would you classify your films as comedies?
TS: Yes, I do call them comedies. I do. They just happen to be very sad, painful comedies, very sorrowful. But they are emphatically comedies. It's a tricky thing in my case, talking about my movies. It's tricky because I think some people are even offended at the idea, the notion that I would characterize these films as comedies, because I'm dealing with subject matter that for many people is very sensitive. But on the other hand, the subject matter, it's nothing. I haven't created the subject matter. It's out there on TV every day. I think I'm taking it seriously. If I weren't, well, it'd be a very different affair. I mean, that's why I'm sometimes troubled by people who just see it as a joke. Which is why I've often said my films aren't for everyone, especially people who like them. The films are attacked, of course, for being immoral, cynical, and misanthropic, and I'm painted as a very evil, bitter person. I think if you don't like something, there's no shortage of justification one can find for one's dislike. I feel like I can defend my movies on their own termsthat there is a moral grounding, a moral center. But the difficulty is that it's not made explicit. There are no signposts telling you what to think and how to feel. It's all fraught with ambiguity, and this is what I find, for me, compelling as a filmmaker. But I think I certainly pay a box-office price for indulging in this... in this... ah, call it caprice.
O: Do any of those terms apply, then? Cynical? Misanthropic?
TS: Well, I don't see them this way, but other people do, so one can get into a discussion and on a point-by-point basis determine whether it's a fair judgement. But I don't really think this is the case. I think that in an odd way, I've also been accused of being pessimistic and bleak. Perhaps I am pessimistic, but I don't think that my films entirely are, and I don't ascribe any moral value to it being optimistic or pessimistic. I don't think a happy ending is inherently a bad ending, any more than a sad one is inherently good. There is a right one that is true to the integrity of the material, and one tries to adhere to that. But cynical and misanthropic... I see myself more as a skeptic than a cynicthe difference being, as far as I see it, that a cynic might say, "Oh, your movies will never make any money," and a skeptic might say, "Well, it's always possible. I doubt it, but it's possible."
O: Getting back to the point you were making before, it seems like sometimes your films could have happy endings, but they would have to take place a couple of years after the credits are done rolling.
TS: Well, yes. For some characters, I'm certainly more hopeful than for others. Certainly, Scooby, I think you know... He comes across as something of a husk, as a generic slacker. But when he experiences this terrible humiliation at watching his life unfold before a mocking audience, I think that he will never be the same. I think he'll actually grow up, and I am hopeful for him. Nevertheless, I'm not condoning what Toby has done. But I think, paradoxically, it will actually have been a beneficial experience for him. Obviously, there are others that I'm not so hopeful for.
O: Not to spoil the ambiguity, but is it just that Paul Giamatti's character is a terrible documentarian, or is there really a strong suggestion that, when you're dealing with people's lives, fiction is a safer realm than non-fiction?
TS: Well, I'm not going to say "safer," but certainly they're different kinds of challenges, different techniques and modes of working. But both of them have kind of the same aim. It's getting at a certain kind of truth or meaning, whether fiction is inherently more imaginative and non-fiction is inherently more factual. With Toby, I wanted to create someone who I think would come across very sympathetically, someone you might feel for, someone who isn't slick and entirely cunning. And yet... I think he may have the best of intentions, but that's simply not enough. I don't think he recognizes the full responsibility and consequences of the endeavor he's embarking on. And at the end of the day, it's really hard to say exactly what his sorrow is about. I'll leave it at this.
O: That part of the movie was obviously heavily inspired by American Movie. What were your thoughts on that film?
TS: It was, although I do want to point out that the climactic scene in the screening room was actually most inspired by, if not ripped off of, [Luchino] Visconti's Bellissima. But American Movie... I had already actually written this by the time I saw American Movie, but it very much keyed into some of the ideas and themes that I was addressing here. I saw the film at the Film Forum, which is a kind of cinematheque with a hip, sophisticated young audience, downtown. And I admire Chris Smith, I liked this film, and yet it raised certain troubling issues that connected to what I was doing. You couldn't help bristling or feeling somewhat uncomfortable at the response this movie was soliciting. I mean, you have some hapless, somewhat naïve guys from Wisconsin fumbling through their filmmaking ambitions, and you have a kind of laughter that's being generated at this center of hip, so to speak, here. You have to question, exactly, the nature of that laughter, and what that really means, and to what extent this is really respecting or connecting to Chris Smith's intentions. So I make, of course, reference by casting Mike Schank [one of American Movie's subjects] in this little role.
O: People's connection to that film might be similar to one they have to yours. It's a matter of whether they're predisposed to be sympathetic to this type of character.
TS: I think I experience, very much, a lot of the same thing that Chris Smith has experienced with his film. And I do want to make it clear that I do admire his work. That's why I made that comment earlier, that my films aren't for everyone, especially people who like thempeople who come out and say, "Whoa, man, you never saw such freaks. It was awesome." That's a little bit more troubling than those who just find it immoral and offensive on some other level. People ask me, "Why do you make films about such ugly people?" Well, I don't see them as ugly. I think it's less telling about me than you. Ultimately, what makes my films difficult is that on the one hand, I try to provide the veneer of an entertainment. I do feel this obligation. And yet at the same time, it's not just an entertainment, which often can just be another form of narcissism. I think I make certain demands on the audience, demands to come halfway, to be somewhat open-minded. And I don't always succeed. Not everyone is responsive in ways that are terribly gratifying. I can't really control this. The danger is that I say, "Well, they're not quite all getting it." I just have to accept that they all won't. Nobody gets everything in the way you intend things to be gotten. You just have to accept that as a reality of filmmaking or writing or painting, or what have you.
O: And as Storytelling acknowledges, intention will only get you so far.
TS: This is true. But I'm certainly not going to become didactic and start explaining to people what I mean here and what I mean there, and how they should or should not respond. Because then the joy, the excitement of making the film, well... I mean, there's nothing left.
O: What is the significance of the suburbs to your work?
TS: It's not so much a question of importance, so much as... As a writer, I'm shaped by the suburbs. That is to say, I grew up there. And I think that it would be very different if I grew up in the city or out in the country, and I was deliberately setting stories in the suburbs. But it seems only natural that for me, it's a way to get into certain characters and ideas and thoughts. It, so far, has been a way for me to get at what I want to get at, because that's what I grew up with, and that's what I'm most familiar with. It just seems most natural that that would inform me in this way.
O: Your films make a lot of people angry. Is there any sort of film that makes you angry?
TS: I walk out of films before I get angry. I try to do that, because after paying your $10, you don't want to have to sit through the whole thing and raise your cholesterol or something. If anything, it's when movies that you like are not really celebrated, and movies that you really don't admire are. I think it's that rather than the movie itself. If it's a movie I don't respond to, I do believe that if you're not being paid, if it's not your job, why should you have to sit through it?
O: Do you have any plans to return to acting?
TS: No, no, no. Please no. It is not my ambition. I mean, anything is possible, but it's really not my ambition, and it's just not something I think about.
O: Children have played an important part in your past three films. What is it about child characters that appeals to you?
TS: I've been thinking about this. I do love working with kids. In each of these movies, there's, like, an 11-year-old kid. As a writer, you just try to get into the mind of whatever character you're portraying, and there's something about being that age that I can recall. I think when I was 11, I couldn't quite understand why adults didn't look at me as one of their own, as a peer. I could have intelligent conversations, because I much preferred talking with adults at that age to talking to my peers, who didn't seem to appreciate the things I might have had to say in quite the same way. Of course, why would they be attentive? And then you go into adolescence, and that throws a wrench into everything. You lose that charm you had had with the adults, and everything with your peers is somewhat topsy-turvy. But there seemed to be a kind of clear-sightedness, a kind of precocity that co-existed with that point in life. Children are not "other," as we like to imagine, but I think are meaningful in many ways, when we watch them in films, insofar as they are revelatory as to who we are as adults.
O: And keeping with your skepticism. That's a great age for skepticism, when you're just figuring out how things work and wondering why they have to be that way.
TS: And you think you've got it. You think you've got it all figured out. But then you turn 12 or 13 and all those certainties fall to the wayside.