A typical film from writer-director Todd Solondz will feature bizarre, well-drawn characters, ranging from the dysfunctional to the depraved. He tends to sprinkle his own brand of brutal comedy over serious, often unbearable storylines. Unfortunately this can blur the lines between drama and comedy, misleading some into believing he is a sadist laughing at his own characters. Such a belief cannot be farther from the truth. After all, isn't it braver to dare an audience to relate to a pedophilic family man, a slovenly obscene caller, a murderous maid from El Salvador, and an obese woman who calmly dismembers a would-be rapist than to relate to a generic girl-next-door who gets a makeover and saves the day?
Solondz has said if the audience dismisses these characters as "freaks," then he is not doing his job. The misunderstood filmmaker with a soft spot has ensured that he has lots of love for his "bleeding soul" characters. When you strip down his fifth feature, Palindromes, which he calls his most politically charged and morally complicated film to date, it's all heart. "[Palindromes] is ultimately a love story, just as all my movies have been: stories of unrequited love, forbidden love, self-love. For, really, there is no story worth telling that is not a love story," he has said.
In the opening scene of his new fable-like dramedy, the lead character, Aviva, attends her cousin Dawn Wiener's funeral. Yes, it's the same Dawn Wiener from Solondz's 1996 breakout feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, a film about a viciously bullied, miserable preteen. In Palindromes, Aviva's mother, played with precision by Ellen Barkin, warns her daughter of ending up like her suicidal cousin. Having killed off his most identifiably iconic character, how would the writer-director respond to hurt "Wiener Dog" fans recoiling from the idea of her hopeless fate?
"I wanted Dawn Wiener to appear in Storytelling [his previous feature] and in this movie," Solondz says. "In fact, I begged Heather Matarazzo to reprise the role so we could grow up with her, but she refused. She said she'd never want to play the character again. I had imagined a much more promising life than what ended up happening [for the character], I really did. This was my way to accept this reality that I couldn't bring her back. I had to use that rather as a launching pad to go in a very different direction and explore different kinds of themes with a different kind of character."
His different kind of theme's backdrop became terrible consequences surrounding the abortion debate, and his different kind of character became Aviva, an innocent 12-year-old girl whose only aspiration is to quickly become a mother. Solondz always had a fantasy to cast multiple actors in one role, so, when this film fit the bill, he decided on eight actors to play the part of Aviva, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, whom he calls a "national treasure," Sharon Wilkins, four adolescent girls, one 12-year-old boy, and a 6-year-old girl. "I could've had 80. Any one of us could play an episode of this young girl's life," he says. The ending result makes Aviva seem more universal and the story more poignant.
The one quality that every actor had to possess was a vulnerable, fragile kind of innocence. "Ellen Barkin will tell you that, regardless of whom she was acting with—a Latina, a redhead, or Jennifer Jason Leigh—it was as if it was all the same person," says Solondz. Being the kind of director who always knows instinctively what he wants, he had no trouble securing his actors, except during the numerous open calls for children alongside his longtime casting director Ann Goulder. He needed to find potential Avivas as well as the adorable, disabled kids who serve as an adopted family to pro-life activist Mama Sunshine (played by Debra Monk) in the film.
Because Solondz is notorious for controversial subject matter, he made sure the first-time feature performers' parents were involved, and he spent extra time discussing things beforehand and making them comfortable on-set. He says finding newcomers is not as important to him as finding the right person—experience or no experience. He admits, however, that, "in general, children prefer to listen to a director more than adults do." He calls his casting process "conventional," but because he never has room in the budget for rehearsals or improvising, auditioning becomes a much more crucial step. He sympathizes with actors who find the auditioning process unpleasant, and he urges them to think of it as an opportunity to act.
Solondz knows something about the pressures of acting, having made cameos in films such as In Transit, Married to the Mob, and As Good As It Gets, and he even starred á la Woody Allen in his first short films: Schatt's Last Shot and How I Became a Leading Artistic Figure in New York City's East Village Cultural Landscape, which was featured on Saturday Night Live. The shorts led to three-picture-deal offers from two major studios as well as his first feature, Fear, Anxiety & Depression, in which he also starred. He was so disappointed with the 1989 film and his entire "demoralizing" Hollywood experience that he nearly quit showbiz for good—that is, until years later, when an attorney friend helped him arrange financing for Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Among Solondz's earliest career choices were rabbi, classical musician (piano and cello), and standup comic. He grew up in the same repressed, artless New Jersey suburban setting he writes about in his films. To this day he cites junk pop culture as being the leading influence on his films. "I grew up watching TV like most kids. If I went to the movies, they would be rated G or PG. I wasn't exposed to things like Godard or Truffaut until I got much older." Solondz majored in English at Yale University, where he fell in love with the idea of becoming a filmmaker. Before he attended NYU's Tisch School, he decided to check out a screening of thesis short films from UCLA while on a visit to Los Angeles.
"I watched these movies, and I thought they were all painfully bad," recalls Solondz. "I thought, 'Wow, these students go on to these film careers. If I can't make anything better, then I don't want to be a filmmaker.' So, in that sense, it was a negative role model that gave me the incentive to see if I could do any better as a filmmaker at film school. [Once there], things began clicking in ways they hadn't before. I'd failed at so many other endeavors, and, with film, in some way I was making shorts that elicited a very warm response. When people tell you you're doing good work, that kind of encourages you to think, 'Well, maybe I have some sort of knack for this.'"
Solondz's knack earned his highly original Welcome to the Dollhouse the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, as well as other awards from the Toronto and Berlin International film festivals. His groundbreaking follow-up, Happiness, was originally dropped by Universal, yet it won the International Critics Prize at Cannes in 1998 and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Screenplay. His latest, Palindromes, was recently nominated for the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion. Solondz, who is superstitiously tight-lipped about his upcoming projects, says he has something "mostly written." After casting stellar talent such as Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Camryn Manheim, Dylan Baker, Ben Gazzara, John Goodman, and Barkin—who has since said working with the writer-director was the best experience of her career—is there someone he's still yearning to work with?
"There are so many great actors that I'd love to work with, but if I don't have the right part, it doesn't make any sense," says Solondz. "I don't have the pressure to have a famous person or celebrity doing all of these roles. I just choose who I think will be right. That's one of the nice things about working on movies that cost under a million. I've had great experiences with all of my actors. Well, almost all. I'm just pleased that I've gotten to make the movies that I've made, because I think that it is a nice alternative to what's out there." BSW