Todd Solondz: Indie Comedy’s Dark Horse

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Todd Solondz is not Judd Apatow.

This comes up several times in the conversation, although to be fair, the director of this month’s Dark Horse, as well as indie classics like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, isn’t exactly slamming the Knocked Up director when he says it. But it’s clear that Solondz feels a bit puzzled as to where he might fit in the brave new Apatow-ized world of comedy. Especially when, in Dark Horse, he’s treading some ground usually associated with Apatow.

“It’s kind of a portrait of a young, 30-somethingish man who I think people would describe as something of a manchild,” he says. “A kind of arrested development kind of character than you might see in a Judd Apatow movie. A lot of people have compared it to Apatow and I think if he does the 40-Year-Old Virgin, this is a kind of alternative to that sort of thing.

“I mean my movies have different aims and fewer constraints from those that Apatow has to work with,” he continues, “because of course his movies have to please a lot more people because his movies cost a lot more. But I try to please myself first and I just hope that there are other people who enjoy what I do. So this is a comedy but it’s infused with a certain sort of melancholy, because it really has to do with the passage of time.”

The passage of time is a subject that has special appeal to him right now. He’s not old (52), but he’s certainly not the wunderkid that burst onto the indie scene at 30. “Oh absolutely,” he agrees, “I’m not young. I’m almost a senior citizen. So the irretrievability of youth, the way with which we cling to that time, and how hard it is to let go of it, these are subjects that certainly move me in ways that wouldn’t if I was 20 years younger.”

The irretrievability of youth is not generally the topic of many big-budget films, of course. But some filmmakers, like Whit Stillman, have found that John Huston was right that less money usually equals better film. “I’ve always worked with a low-budget framework,” Solondz muses, “just as Whit has. They’re different levels of low-budget, but you’re always left feeling up against a wall with budget constraints. I mean, even James Cameron could barely get Titanic on screen for $200 million. I can’t imagine all the stress he was under to try to get it on screen for just $200 million. So it doesn’t matter in some sense, the actual number of the budget. There is always a terrible stress involved in the nature of the beast.”

Despite the low budget, Solondz was able to assemble an impressive cast—Christopher Walken, Mia Farrow, and Selma Blair. “I was very fortunate and happy to have these fantastic actors be a part of the film,” he says, “and to be enthusiastic about it. Mia told me she was retired, and in fact she hadn’t even read the script. But her son Roman was a big fan of my work and pressed her to take the part. And she was a total delight. I’ve worked with Selma before, and her part is in fact a kind of sequel to the part she did in [my 2001 film] Storytelling. But Chris—I think the thing about Chris is he was very happy to do the part because he was happy, in his words, to play a human being. He’s so accustomed to being called to play these larger-than-life oddballs. And this is in fact quite the contrary. He’s just a very middle-class kind of guy.”

With that cast, Solondz was able to take a rather unorthodox approach to the idea of rehearsal. It’s a process he’s gone through before. “Traditionally what I’ve done is audition actors and the audition functions as the rehearsal,” he explains. “I mean, if I need more rehearsal I’ll get a callback. Because once you get an actor and you begin rehearsing, rehearsing costs money and we never have money for rehearsing. So it’s all done in the audition. And I do think to the extent that my actors come across very authentic and believable, it is really about casting the right actor in the right part at the right time.”

He’s also got an unusual perspective on how a viewer should experience a film. Most directors rhapsodize about the communal experience of seeing a film, but Solondz thinks going solo is underrated. “In some sense, when you go to a movie with someone, once someone accompanies you, the experience is always somewhat diluted, I find. Because there is always a level of compromise in the way in which you experience the film, because you have someone with you and the way you gage the film is based on the other person’s reactions. I think it’s really fine if you go to a movie alone, that you really have your most authentic experience then. I mean, I love the communal experience, but it’s something of a paradox. If you watch alone in that communal experience it’s very different from being with one or more companions when you go and watch a movie.”