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Inside the mind of America’s most misanthropic auteur

Todd Solondz’s acidic comedies cut to the core of suburban dysfunction – and with Wiener-Dog, he’s back to his bleakly hilarious best

A camera sweeps majestically over a trail of dog diarrhoea to the strains of “Clair de Lune”. A depressed college professor watches, transfixed, as hot dogs turn on a supermarket display. A narcissistic yoga-mom, persuading to her son that his pet needs neutering, invents a cautionary tale about a female dog that was raped by a dog called ‘Mohammed’. Welcome to the warped world of Wiener-Dog, the latest in a long and spectacularly bleak line of taboo-busting comedies from director Todd Solondz.

If John Waters is the Pope of Trash, then Solondz is, at the very least, a czar of suburban dysfunction, an elder statesman of the unsavoury. You never forget your first encounter with the New Jersey director’s work. Mine came with a copy of his 1998 film, Happiness, rented on the strength of an illustrated cover by Ghost World author Daniel Clowes. Depicting a group of decidedly unhappy-looking characters, the sleeve seemed to hint at the theatre of cruelty contained within: with a cast of creeps and misfits running to paedophile psychiatrists, suicidal suitors and tragically lonely phone sex pests played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film ­– technically a comedy – presented a nightmare world governed entirely by human self-interest, missed connections and plain bad luck. As an awkward adolescent of cynical bent at the time, I naturally took it to be our own.

In Solondz’s distinctly un-Hollywood view of the world, outsiders remain outsiders, and don’t have to be quirky or endearing: in fact, they’re mostly just as awful as everybody else. The next film of his I sought out, Welcome to the Dollhouse, examines the plight of a terminally unpopular schoolgirl called Dawn Wiener, who we leave at the end of the film just as we found her at the beginning, roundly ignored by her classmates and mistreated by her parents. Somehow, all of this is unbearably funny.

But, somewhere along the line, Solondz’s films started succumbing to what we might call ‘Ricky Gervais syndrome’, amping up the shock factor at the expense of the basic human stuff. 2001’s Storytelling was what today’s kids might term #problematic, going out of its way to offend PC sensibilities with some mean-spirited narrative twists, and when Solondz released the even-more wilfully offensive Palindromes in 2004, he seemed bent on a path which few were prepared to follow him down. Happily Wiener-Dog, a sequel of sorts to Welcome to the Dollhouse, looks set to change all that. Boasting a superb cast including Julie Delpy, Ellen Burstyn, Danny DeVito and Greta Gerwig (as a grown-up Dawn Wiener), the film presents a cruelly funny – and sneakily philosophical – series of vignettes united by the presence of a wiener dog.

We sat down to discuss the film with Solondz, an elegant figure who believes that misanthropy begins at home: “I’m very gifted in flaws, I don’t need to look at other people’s. But I suppose that’s why people learn to look at others’ flaws, because it can be a way of making you feel like you’re not the worst person on the planet.”

Hello Todd! Why did you choose to tie your new film together with a dog?

Todd Solondz: I wanted to make a dog movie. I thought about (Robert Bresson’s 1966 film) Au Hasard Balthazar which is structured around somewhat oblique narratives that are also not directly connected. I wrote the first section (of the film) and then I thought about how I had a character called Weiner Dog (the unwanted nickname given to Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Dawn Weiner) and so I brought her back and then that transformed it from just a dog to a dachshund. But the movie’s not really about a dog. The dog is a conceit, it’s a prism through which I can play with and explore other things.

Pets are weird when you think about it. Do you have any?

Todd Solondz: I think our family went through a number of dogs, to see if they could survive our family... But I haven’t had a dog, because it’s just too much responsibility.

So it’s not a moral stance or anything like that?

Todd Solondz: No, I don’t attach a morality in that sense. But it is a curious thing that we call (dogs) ‘domestic’ animals. Just imagine if there were some being superior to humans and we became their pets, it would be a matter of course that they would neuter or spay us. But I guess you really are man’s best friend if you’re still friends after that!

What can you learn about people from their relationships with their pets?

Todd Solondz: The things we project on to our pets, our own particular needs or desires. Having a pet we anthropomorphise to questionable ends, but the movie is not the story of the dog per se, its trials and triumphs. But it’s somehow expressive through these stories in different ways of larger themes in our lives.

There are some funny scenes in the film where a young boy’s parents explain to him the ins and outs of dog ownership, revealing their own prejudices into the bargain. Do you remember any of the lines you were fed by your parents as a kid? 

Todd Solondz: As a kid you accept everything you’re told as the truth, as the way things are. And then you spend your adulthood unlearning everything you learned so assiduously in your youth, and beginning to understand what you took as just rote truth. That’s the way human nature works.

“I’m not a man of convictions. I’m so consumed by doubt about everything, but I try to appear as if I have convictions to my kids”

Do you think about the things you tell your own kids? About where pets go when they die, for example?

Todd Solondz: Well, my kids’ grandfather died in our apartment, he spent his last week there. We thought that was a good way for the children to understand something of the nature of mortality. You wanna be open but not too open, honest but not too honest – it’s navigating a line of what you think they’re ready to absorb and what they’re not.

Are there times when your kids have asked you things that have made you realise your own convictions are a bit flimsy?

Todd Solondz: I’m not a man of convictions. I’m so consumed by doubt about everything, but I try to appear as if I have convictions to my kids. But I also let them know I’m fallible. I’m happy to point that out as well.

I love the bit where the kid’s dad explains to him how you have to break a dog to your will, because ‘it’s a kind of civilising’. Could that philosophy be applied to parenting in general?

Todd Solondz: Some people might! I don’t know that I would describe myself as someone that takes to the idea of breaking the will. Look, a family is not a democracy, so in a sense you are kind of a despot (as a parent), you have to figure out how to create a structure within which kids can have the freedom to grow up. There are all different ways of being a parent, and I think people like to show off how their way is right and everyone else’s is wrong. But unless you’re an abusive parent I don’t know if kids grow up being anything other than who they are, regardless of how many times you play Monopoly with them.

The film critic J Hobermann wrote that you’re ‘a fatalist who believes that character is destiny’, do you think that’s true?

Todd Solondz: I don’t know, it’s maybe more severe than I intend. Free will I addressed to some extent in Palindromes, it’s a comfort to many of us but I don’t believe in its possibility. I think it’s an illusion, just like people believe in God – these are illusions that we cling to. There is randomness that interferes, perhaps, there is arbitrariness, but every moment that you’ve lived leads to this particular moment. You imagine that this was a choice, but in fact it wasn’t.

So should a character like Nana (Ellen Burstyn), who is literally haunted by the choices she has made during her life, not beat herself up too much about the past?

Todd Solondz: Well, it’s not a question of beating herself up, but there’s a certain sorrow and sense of loss as one is coming to the twilight of one’s life, that haunts this character, (who is) tragically unable to take or give pleasure in the ways that make life worth living.

Could she not have chosen to be a different person, then?

Todd Solondz: She could have, but she didn’t. It’s an illusion that she could have, because then of course she would have been a different person.

What are some of your own traits that you wish you could transcend?

Todd Solondz: I feel I’m very gifted in flaws.

In observing other people’s?

Todd Solondz: No, I have many of my own, I don’t need to look at other people’s. But I suppose that’s why people learn to look at others’ flaws, because it can be a way of making you feel like you’re not the worst person on the planet. But what would I like to transcend? I shouldn’t take a satirical attitude here… It’s funny, when you’re young you don’t have patience and when you get older you still don’t have patience. Maybe when I’m really old I’ll finally develop patience, but I won’t have time for it any more.

There’s a great line in the film where Greta Gerwig’s character asks a group of Mexican hitchhikers how they’re enjoying America, and one of them replies that the country is like a ‘big fat elephant drowning in a sea of despair’. Does that assessment feel pertinent in light of Trump’s fabled wall?

Todd Solondz: It became timely in a way that was unexpected. But that in some sense is what the artist’s job is, to be attuned to the undercurrents that are out there (and produce work that) has an uncanny connection to what’s going on. But I’ve always felt that if Trump is elected then he’s the president we deserve. 

I read somewhere that this is your angriest film to date, would you agree?

Todd Solondz: I don’t see it that way, but I could be wrong. Anger certainly is a fuel, it’s just a question of how you use it. I think it’s always best to hear what an audience has to say about how they experience a film, it really matters very little what I have to say. In fact, anything I say shouldn’t be trusted. I generally get a divided response (to my films) but I thought this time people were really gonna respond and it’s been split, I can never predict these things. It would just be too sad to listen to a director saying, ‘No, no, you’re supposed to like this because of that and feel this.’ I wish that everybody liked what I do. I don’t look to get divided responses, I want everyone to like it and because I’m only human when people say nice things I feel happier, and when they say mean or nasty things I feel sadder. I wish I were impervious to the slings and arrows I am assaulted with, but in the end I make the movie I want to make and hope there are enough people out there that can help sustain this quasi-career that I have.

Wiener-Dog is in cinemas from August 12