Todd Solondz has knack of making audiences squirm uncomfortably in their seat as he puts children and sexuality in the same arena. A quiet, unassuming man, his brilliance as a filmmaker comes from eliciting tormenting winces from what is not explicitly shown on the screen, rather than playing for cheap shocks.
His latest film, Dark Horse, is a tragic love story focussing on spoilt man-child Abe who, in his 30s, still lives with his parents, obsesses over the unreachable Miranda (Selma Blair) and his collection of toy figures as he tortures his parents, Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken as an adorable elderly couple.
Dazed Digital: Is there anything self-referential in the title?
Todd Solondz: I don’t see myself as a dark horse, but I suppose it wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe what quasi-career I have as a dark horse because I would never bet on myself, the idea that I would have any sort of career seems most improbable. I always presume every movie’s my last because I’ve been losing so much money for so many people for so long. It’s hard to know how long it can continue.
DD: It was great to have Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken, was it easy to get them on board?
Todd Solondz: I knew from the go I wanted Mia, I knew it was a long shot because she’s involved so much in the Sudan and so forth. We met and she told me she’s retired from acting and she hadn’t read the script, but her son Ronan was a great admirer of my work and said, ‘mum, you’ve got to do this.’ She really was a delight. She’s naturally beautiful, she’s one of those few actresses, at least in the states, who hasn’t had any work done; she’s luminous.
Chris wanted to play a human being, something he felt he wasn’t often offered the opportunity to do much of. So he was really open to me grooming him differently. I made him more conservative and changed his eyes; it was all about bringing him down because his face is so powerful.
DD: When Abe walks in the house, are the parents watching Seinfeld?
Todd Solondz: Yes, well it’s sort of fake Seinfeld because I couldn’t afford to licence the show, so I got the actors from the TV show to come into the studio and record lines that I wrote. The character Abe is kind of the tragic counter life to George Costanza in Seinfeld, who also lives with his parents.
DD: In Dark Horse it seems like you’ve reversed the boundary between childhood and adulthood that you examine in other films.
Todd Solondz: This man-child genre is very popular not just from Judd Apatow, but from television shows. I just have an alternative approach, which is not terribly sentimental.
DD: Is it quite a pertinent character?
Todd Solondz: Well, the infantilisation of men is always good for insuring the maintenance of the status quo, the more one’s distracted with toy action figures and video games and so forth, the more the power system and its structure go unthreatened.
DD: So, that’s a political subtext to Dark Horse?
Todd Solondz: I sound just too pompous right now, it’s embarrassing. You led me on and I fell into your trap!
DD: Do you ever see your films as pessimistic?
Todd Solondz: I don’t see them like that, but it’s also kind of meaningless. Certain people will walk out and say that’s so bleak, other people will feel on the contrary quite inspirited by the experience, so it really is up to sensibility, everything’s about context. Is it good to be optimistic? Well that really depends. Was it good for the Jews on their way to the gas chambers to feel optimistic? Would that be a good thing?
DD: Your early films have a kind of fairytale feel that’s vanished.
Todd Solondz: I leave it to others to categorise what I do. Each time I attack my subject form various angles. If there are hedgehogs and foxes, I’m more of a hedgehog; the burrower.
DD: You’re a hedgehog?!
Todd Solondz: This is going to sound pompous again. Isaiah Berlin wrote about 100 years ago about the fox and the hedgehog. Certain directors work in all sorts of genres, and then there are other kinds of directors who focus in on one part of the world and focus in on that more thoroughly. That’s me.
Dark Horse is out today