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Capone chats with writer-director Todd Solondz about latest film DARK HORSE (out on DVD this week)!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

Since awkwardly coming into the spotlight as one of the crowned prices of independent film with 1995's WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, Todd Solondz has been making films for people who aren't afraid to use their brains and test the boundaries of acceptable behavior in his stories and his characters. Is it okay for a director to want his audience to feel sorry for a pedophile? Is it okay for a young boy to feel somewhat rejected that said pedophile doesn't want to violate him? (These are both plot points in Solondz's 1998 film HAPPINESS.

Solondz is also a director who enjoys playing with the definition of "character." Several of the character is HAPPINESS appear in his 2009 work LIFE DURING WARTIME (but played by different actors). While in 2004's PALINDROMES, he has multiple actor playing the same lead character--a 13-year-old girl. Also in that film, the parents of Dawn Wiener from DOLLHOUSE appear as supporting characters. And in Solondz's latest work, DARK HORSE, which is being released on DVD on Tuesday, November 13, Selma Blair reprises her role from STORYTELLING (2001). His is a fascinating universe, and Solondz is constantly looking for the version of the story that will push the most buttons and go beyond previously established boundaries of both film and, more broadly, narrative structure. His film's aren't difficult to follow; they're just different.

DARK HORSE is the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), a mid-30s schlub of man living with his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken, worth the price of admission alone), working for his father, collecting action figures and other toys, and generally avoiding any responsibilities around the home or office. He's also a highly abrasive asshole that would rather yell and complain than actually discuss. But he's also interested in falling in love with Miranda (formerly Vi, played by Blair), and aiming for a life that is somewhat normal. It's an intriguing little film that toys with the idea of what's real and what isn't, and isn't quite satisfied until every viewer is a little bit uncomfortable.

I sat down with Solondz in Chicago last June, the day DARK HORSE opened theatrically in Chicago, but I decided to hold the interview until the eve of the DVD release since I believe the film has more of a shot at getting discovered at this point in its release then in did in the handful of theaters in which it actually played. I found him to be charming beyond words, and a great conversationalist, always curious how others have interpreted his works. Please enjoy my talk with Todd Solondz…

Capone: It’s great to meet you. Before I dive right into the movie I think I would be remiss if I didn’t at least ask you one question about the music cues in this movie, because I don’t think a person or a story has less warranted these sort of affirmation songs like the ones in this particular story. Why did you decide to go that route with the music?

Todd Solondz: From the get go, I knew I wanted a pop sound, a certain kind of adolescent pop sound and I used "American Idol" as a kind of template, like those songs they play over video montages when a contestant gets eliminated. And I thought because this character, he clings to his youth and those kinds of dreams and hopes that accompany that time. I felt the happier the music gets as the movie proceeds, the more poignant and painful the experience becomes.

So it’s both a kind of counterpoint as well as underscoring. It felt right for what I was doing. The music supervisor understood what I was looking for, and so he sifted through lots and lots of songs that I think aspiring musicians put together hoping to make it big in the music world, and that’s where we found these.

Capone: I did look at the credits at the end to see if I recognized any of the names of the artists, and I’m like “Who are these people making this music that I have never heard before?”

TS: But you know, had you told me that some of these songs were hit songs, I would believe it. I can’t tell the difference.

Capone: That’s true. They do fit the template, I guess. I’ve always thought with your films that it was more important to you that we understand these characters than like them in a traditional sense. Is that a true?

TS: Understanding rather than judging is something I would value. I probably wouldn’t want to have lunch with Abe, but I don’t think he would be a companion many people would want to go out and have lunch with, but I am moved by him, and his plight compels me, his struggle, and so it’s not a question of “liking" or "disliking,” but it is an issue I think more of caring.

Capone: Even when he's raging at his parent’s or at his most abrasive, I think there's a quality to him that does make you sympathize with his situation being the less-loved son and still living in his parent’s house. Why are you drawn to characters that are difficult to embrace fully?

TS: For me, it becomes more interesting, this challenge to the audience to take a character--again someone we don’t want to really have lunch with, someone we would rather dismiss--and to have us recognize that even there attension must be paid, that there is a pulse and a heart beating and bleeding. That is more gratifying to me to open one's eyes and heart to those whom we would most readily just dismiss out of hand. It’s not so different, when you think about it, to Bill Maplewood, the pedophile character [from HAPPINESS and LIFE DURING WARTIME], whom we probably don’t want to have lunch with either. But it’s not a question of “Do we like him” or even “Do we sympathize?”, but to recognize that there is also a struggling soul that is a portrait of a person who does in fact have a pulse and a humanity that we would rather not have to accord.

Capone: I have often said that that particular character is one of the most important ones that I have ever seen portrayed, because by embracing him or even feeling a little sorry for him or understanding his struggle marked an important shift in my film-going life at the time. Look what you made me do.

TS: [laughs] I suppose it’s a kind of test of “What are those limitations of our sympathies, and does it not make us richer if we are able to extend them beyond what we may have supposed?” It says something about who we are.

Capone: When I first started reading about DARK HORSE at Toronto [2011], you were quoted as saying that you were “Judd Apatow’s dark side,” which is funny because I saw an ad in the paper today that had a quote from Judd about the film. I wish I could remember what it said, but it was something along the lines of “Anyone that complains about no originality in movies needs to see this movie.” You weren’t criticizing Judd, I don’t think, when you said that.

TS: No. I don’t even know if I said that. I may have been quoted, but I can’t say that I said that. [laughs]

Capone: (Laughs) But there are a lot of similarities between Abe and…

TS: Well certainly, the movie is very much an alternative, let’s say a counter movie, to THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and movies and TV shows of that ilk--the manchild genre so to speak. But there’s nothing terribly sentimentalized here and nothing terribly comforting in this movie. It’s just not designed with the same aims as popular movies and television shows are. The aims are different, and it’s not in anyway a swipe. I respect Judd Apatow; we're just pursuing different aims.

Capone: Although having Abe be a toy collector seemed pretty much a reference to Steve Carrell THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN.

TS: Yeah, but you know there are so many. I have run into so many people--men, not women--who have collections of box sets and action figures and so forth. It’s a phenomenon that is very much something observable only and exclusively in Western prosperous secular democracies. Even the Japanese have a word for it, “otaku,” to describe this phenomenon. As long as the infantilization of men is as powerful a force as it is, it serves to bolster and leave unchallenged the status quo.

Capone: That was one of the things that made me feel a little bit for Abe’s situation. He has the means and the money to move out of his parents' home. The fact that he’s there is a choice--he’s scared to leave.

TS: Right, well it’s a kind of prison, a kind of death in life really that only comes to life in death. He's stymied and he struggles to escape his condition. When he proposes to Selma, on the one hand, there is that there is a proposal--an effort to be brazen and bold in this way--there is of course something self defeating and self prophetic about it, because on some level I think he knows that she will not say yes. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy tied to his sense of his own failure.

Capone: You have Selma Blair in the movie playing the character she played in STORYTELLING. Did you want to do that because you wanted to work with her again, or had you been thinking about where her character went from that point?

TS: I loved working with Selma the first time and I always wanted to work with her again, and it just seemed handy. I liked the idea, the kind of challenge to myself, “How can I make believable that there would be any connection, even a tenuous connection between these two characters?” That was kind of a challenge to myself that made it interesting, because I do think there is a connection; it’s just a tenuous but very real one, and that made it compelling for me.

Capone: Let’s talk about Jordan [Gelber, who plays Abe], because I do recognize his face mainly from TV, I think. I couldn’t think of any movies.

TS: He hasn’t really done much in the way of movies and I know he’s done some TV commercials, but he really has had the most of his success on the stage in New York. In fact, he had auditioned for me on my last movie, and I saw him in a play of Mike Leigh’s in New York called TWO THOUSAND YEARS, and after that, I felt immediately that he would be most suitable for the part, I just didn’t know that I would be about to cast a non-celebrity in the role. I have nothing against celebrities at all; I just didn’t know of one that would be so appropriate, and he fit this like a glove.

Capone: There had to have been some pressure from somebody about maybe putting in a more familiar face in that role.

TS: Yeah, but I was able to provide other celebrities in the cast, so…

Capone: He's just so full of this wonderful rage for most of the movie, but also I feel like the angrier he gets the more pathetic I see him. I don’t mean that as a criticism. What was it you saw in him?

TS: It’s hard to articulate that, but he himself if you spoke to him would tell you that he felt naturally he already is like 70 percent this character. So there was very little I had to explain to him; he spoke the idiom and the rhythm of this character. I have to say, there's more improvisation in this movie than I’ve had in any of my others, and he and Chris Walken, both of them, I was able to play a little bit with that.

Capone: While we are rounding out the cast here, let’s talk about the parents. You can’t help but just cringe when Mia Farrow is just getting this verbal abuse heaped on her from Abe, and she just takes it like a champ. That must have been exciting to have her.

TS: I really wanted her and I just thought it was such a long shot, because she’s so involved in the Sudan and so forth, and when we met, she told me that she had retired from acting and she hadn’t read the script. But her son Ronan was a huge admirer of my work, and he said “Mom, you’ve got to do this movie, please.” So she did it. So that’s how that happened, and she was a total delight, total pleasure to work with. Chris, his story as it was put to me was that he wanted to play a "human being," since he’s often cast in such… I don’t know what you call it.

Capone: Exaggerated human beings almost.

TS: Sure. So I took advantage. I liked the idea of getting rid of his rock and roll hair and I gave him this toupee, changed his eyes and just muted him, because his face is already so iconic and powerful. It was about restraining him to make him feel like a middle-class suburban dad, and he was very open to it.

Capone: It’s almost a polar opposite of what he’s known for. I heard you say to the last interviewer that with this film you were deliberately trying to stay away from some of the more controversial things that some of your other films might tackle. But upon watching it initially, I felt like, “Wow, this is very assessable. I could take my mother to see this movie, and she would probably be okay with it." Was that a deliberate and conscious effort?

TS: Yeah, I felt I needed to step away from a lot of that troubling subject matter and I wanted to do a character piece with a boy meets girl story. That’s really where it started and a low-budget work, so that’s really what was something of the impetus.

Capone: Why did you want to step away from that kind of material? Were you just tired of it?

TS: I felt a little overburdened with the response and that I was too encumbered with a certain weight and gravitas that I needed a release from. It doesn’t mean I take this any less seriously, what I’m doing, but I didn’t want the superficial aspects of taboo material to get in the way, As it is, some people say “Oh, this is like lightweight Solondz. It’s so soft. He’s softened up.” The response is all over the place, because even the blurbs on the poster where one is like “brutally funny” and the other is “so gentle.” Which is it? I don’t know, you tell me. [laughs]

Capone: I certainly wouldn’t say it’s soft by any stretch, but it does feel slightly more inviting. Your mission isn’t always to make people feel uncomfortable.

TS: I like that. It’s not that I want to discomfort, so to speak, for the sake of discomforting, but when I go to the movies, I do like to be challenged, to be provoked, to experience things in a different way, to be moved in a unexpected surprising ways. So that’s what I aspire to. It’s certainly not to make one uncomfortable.

Capone: You talked about these sort of preconceived notions that people have of your films and of you. Do you wish that writers would come up with some new material about you?

TS: Some writers are more creative than others, but I suppose I should just be lucky that people think I’m worth writing about at all. I can complain, but what’s the point?

Capone: I think the most controversial thing you do in the movie is attack Toys R Us's customer service.

TS: Well I don’t want to say it’s an attack. I will not say it’s an attack, because as it is, we didn’t have permission to shoot there.

Capone: I saw the blurred logo.

TS: We stole that shot and we had to go to the Dominican Republic to find an interior that could function as the interior of Toys R Us, because there’s no rival to the empire of Toys R Us. If I had written “Toy Town” everyone would know that’s fake and phony. The audience should know what they are not allowed to see.

Capone: Yeah, the last question I wanted to ask was about Abe’s monologue about how horrible people are. I’m wondering if you had a chance to see Bobcat Goldwait’s new film GOD BLESS AMERICA.

TS: No. I'd like to.

Capone: His lead character has a similar take on human beings.

TS: I feel [Abe's] so-called philosophy is very cynical and very juvenile at the same time, and the movie aims to undermine that philosophy. Certainly that’s what the whole ending is about, that in fact there are people that do care.

Capone: It was really great to meet you. Thank you so much.

TS: It was a real pleasure. Thank you.

-- Steve Prokopy
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Readers Talkback
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  • Nov. 12, 2012, 1:38 p.m. CST

    Will check this out, but Life During Wartime felt pointless

    by Detective_Fingerling

    There wasn't anything that made me want to keep watching that story.

  • Nov. 12, 2012, 4:20 p.m. CST

    thanks for letting me know it's on dvd this week

    by mick vance

    this site should do something like a weekly dvd column. i bet that would be awesome...

  • Nov. 12, 2012, 4:25 p.m. CST

    Hobbit news!! Neil Finn's Song of the Lonely Mountain! HERE!

    by Seph_J

  • Nov. 12, 2012, 6:08 p.m. CST

    I see what you did there, coolhandjuke, and I agree

    by gruntybear

    This site really should do a weekly DVD/bluray column or something. You'd think it would be a natural fit for a movie geek site.

  • Nov. 12, 2012, 6:17 p.m. CST

    Abe sounds like he's probably a Talkbacker.

    by schadenfreudian

    Hi, Abe(s).

  • Nov. 12, 2012, 8:16 p.m. CST

    The proposal comment not a spoiler?

    by Sydney2K

  • Nov. 12, 2012, 8:56 p.m. CST

    No ofense to Capone but...

    by chubasqueiro

    Interviewing Todd Solondz for a geek site like AICN seems something in the same ironic vein of Storytelling. Solondz is one of the few filmmarkers with a true and unique voice and is good that somehow he gets squezzed among all the hype a pseudo cool news of the shit we, loyal fanboys of pop culture, consume everyday. Life During Wartime tastes better if you have in mind Happiness and I found a strong theme in it: to forgive is the same as to forget? How difficult is strive for or five forgiveness? In this film the notion of redemption, usually brough with some catharsis, feels like an impossible fantasy.