After a highly unpleasant first-time experience, director and writer Todd Solondz vowed never to make another film.
Fortunately for the world’s cinephiles, his resolve abated and five years later, Solondz returned to filmmaking determined to make his movie, his way. The result was “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995), which he wrote, directed and produced.
Solondz’s six feature-length films (or seven – he prefers audiences disregard his first movie) include “Happiness” (1998), winner of the International Critics Prize at Cannes, and “Storytelling” (2001), which made the New York Times’ top-10 list.
“Life During Wartime” (2009), an unorthodox sequel to “Happiness” in which he cast very different actors in the same roles, mixes up race and even gender. “Life During Wartime” would go on to win a Best Screenplay award at the 2009 Venice Film Festival.
Indie Movies spoke to Solondz earlier this month spoke at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.
See “Dark Horse” trailer HERE.
Some interesting casting choices were made in “Dark Horse” (2011). Did you envision Cristopher Walken and Mia Farrow in the roles of Abe’s (Jordan Gelber) parents?
Solondz: I never write with an actor in mind. I finish the script and then I see who’s interested and available.
Mia is someone I always thought would be a great fit for the movie. I thought she was a bit of long shot because I knew she was very involved in Sudan and had turned down a lot of projects.
We did meet and she told me she was retired from acting and hadn’t even read the script, but her son Ronan was a big admirer of my work and implored her, “Mom, you have to do the movie!” She was a total delight to work with.
Chris (Walken), he wanted , in his words, “to play a human being,” and I think he was very open and embraced the transforming of himself into someone a lot more conservative and ordinary than he normally plays.
Of course, I gave him a toupee and changed his eyes. It was really about a kind of restraint because his face is always very powerful and iconic.
How did you decide on Christopher Walken?
Solondz: Someone like Chris Walken, you don’t want him to do the kind of things you’ve seen him do so many times. When it comes to an actor like that, you always want to try to get a slightly different angle because audiences are so familiar with so much of the work they’ve done.
What was the budget for “Dark Horse”?
Solondz: Two Million – it was adequate to our needs.
How do you think money affects creativity in the filmmaking process? Would a hundred million dollar budget give you more or less freedom to realize your vision?
Solondz: Well, I’ll really never know because I’ll never get that kind of a budget. It’s never been my ambition to have an inordinate amount of money for a budget. I just don’t think in those terms.
No matter what your budget is, it’s never enough. There’s always a great amount of stress on just managing to get the movie in, as James Cameron did on “Titanic” (1997). He just managed to get it made for $200 million, but I can understand – I’m sure that’s true – that certainly the studio was quaking and anxious and lot was riding on that and it could have very easily become a failure. No matter what the budget is, it’s always stressful for the director; you’re always comprising no matter how much the budget is. It’s just the nature of compromise and movies.
Some critics compare your film to your previous work, suggesting “Dark Horse” is somehow diminished because it doesn’t contain the transgressive plot elements they have come to expect.
Do you ever feel pressure to live up to a brand, to the expectations of your fans or film critics by outdoing yourself?
Solondz: I think the only real pressure is to make a movie that I’m pleased with, a movie that moves me, that has value for me, and then hope that others respond. But I never presume that there’s ever an audience, that people maybe liked one movie will like a another. People always have had ambivalent responses to what I do. You can’t let that cramp what your creative process is about.
So you just block that out?
Solendz: You have to. You have to if you’re going to be productive.
Recently after screening some of your previous work I was reminded of an underground filmmaker I hadn’t thought about in years: George Kuchar. I felt a certain sensibility in his humor and tone that reminds me of your work. It was nice to see him remembered during this year’s Oscar telecast after he passed away in 2011.
I later discovered that you cited him as one of your influences.
Solondz: I saw him first when I was in college, George Kuchar’s shorts. I loved what I saw and I was fortunate to meet him about 10 years ago, we’d had a correspondence.
He was, at that time, very inspiring to me – who was wondering, could I actually make a movie? There is, of course, a link from him to Warhol and Morrissey and John Waters, I suppose. I leave it to others to make connections, but certainly he was someone that struck me at an important time before I was even making films and gave me an inkling of the notion that maybe I could do this also.
You once said if you couldn’t be a filmmaker you would have liked to have been a musician. What kind of music did you want to perform?
Solondz: I studied classical music. I always would have liked to have become a musician but I never had the talent. I love classical music – all concert music. It would be good to have a talent, to be so versatile.
Soldonz: I wrote the next script. It takes place in Texas. It’s really a question of finding the financing. That’s being figured out right now.
Anything else you can say about it?
Soldonz: Not really. You don’t want to jinx yourself. Everything’s too unknowable right now.
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