Todd Solondz, known for his quirky and disturbing films Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Storytelling, sat down with Gothamist on the occasion of his latest cinematic foray, Palindromes, which stars Ellen Barkin, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Stephen Adly-Guirgis, and is in theaters today.
Age: 45 years old
Occupation: I make movies.
Born: Newark, New Jersey
Where do you currently live: New York, NY
How many years have you been in New York? Over 20 years.
Your new film Palindromes -- it's impossible to ignore the abortion-related plotline. Are you trying to make a political statement?
It is true that the movie is perhaps my most politically-charged. The story is thrust into motion by the idea of what do you do when your 13 year old daughter comes home pregnant. And not only is she pregnant, but she wants to keep the baby. It's kind of an impossible dilemma. For many a lose-lose proposition. The movie is not dogmatic. It's not out to advocate a position pro-choice or pro-life for that matter. But rather to explore some of the moral dimension of what it means to take on certain kinds of convictions. Trying to force the audience in some sense to re-assess, re-evaluate some of the pre-conceptions and myths that we live with.
Do you have a particular stance on the issue?
I don't like telling people where I stand on this, although I'm surprised anybody wonders. I suppose if I say I'm pro-choice, if I make that clear, it let's the audience off the hook, then they can sort of relax. Okay, it's alright he's pro-choice then I can enjoy this. But I don't want them to relax, I'd rather not have any sort of complacency. That's what this movie is out to poke at. Additionally, if I say I'm pro-choice, no one that's pro-life will come to see the movie.
Has the film elicited any reactions from pro-choice or right-to-life groups?
Not from any organizations. I don't even know that it's shown up on their radar. I know some Christian websites are not too fond of this, but then there are some evangelicals that I have spoken with that were very taken with it. It walks a fine line.
Do you think you are going to change any opinions?
When I'm asked who my audience is, I say someone with an open mind, which is not a vacant one and sometimes a liberal mind is not the same thing as an open one.
Ellen Barkin's character, let's say for example, she's a good woman, a progressive parent who if she had a form, she would check off pro-gun control, pro-gay rights, anti-war, etcetera, etcetera. But when suddenly thrust into this real-life nightmare, this terrible crisis, everything is thrown topsy turvy, and it forces one to have to re-examine, it's a test of one's moral fiber. I think she doesn't handle the situation appropriately and I think that at the end when she says am I a terrible mother? she's acknowledging her failure to come through at the critical moment in the appropriate way and therein lies her dignity. But it's the idea here that we all take on certain slogans or civilians about these different issues so to speak. It's, as I say, it's one thing to check off a box, it's another when reality intrudes.
In the beginning of the film the audience learns that the family in Palindromes is related to the family in Welcome to the Dollhouse...
I use Welcome to the Dollhouse as a launching pad really and a kind of a demarcation, that was then and this is now. Dawn Weiner, who I incidentally wanted to bring back, I wanted her in this and I wanted her in Storytelling, I begged her, I never begged anyone, but she refused to appear in either of these movies.
How did you come up with the title?
A palindrome is a word or pattern that instead of developing in different directions it folds in on itself so that the beginning and end mirror each other, that they are the same. Loosely, metaphorically speaking that palindromic part of ourselves, that part that is immutable, that resists change, that withstands it. That stays the same.
We have here a story of a young girl, Aviva, she's an innocent. From beginning to end, she is an innocent. When we first see her, her mother says to her "you'll always be you." And then at the end of the movie, Aviva says, I'm gonna be a mom. Now a mom is a palindrome, but more significantly, that need to be a mom, which existed right at the get go, in some sense is defining of her identity. That maybe biologically she won't be a mom, but she could be a "Mama Sunshine."
As Mark Weiner puts it, whether you gain 50 pounds or lose 50 pounds, whether you have a sex change operation for that matter, that it doesn't matter, that there is some part of ourselves that we cannot escape. That he sees maybe with a bit of sense of doom, but I see it can be a freeing thing. If one can acknowledge one's limitations, failings, flaws, and so forth, that it can be a good thing. It doesn't mean that one cannot "improve" one's self provided one is the kind of person that can improve.
Do you think the film is optimistic?
I can't be the judge of that. It is certainly the saddest of all my comedies in some sense; it's also the tenderest. This heartbreaking tale which is at base on the most fundamental level a story of a young girl on a quest for love, because what is the desire to have a baby if not that?
Is that what you consider your films, comedies?
It is hard for me to separate the humor from pathos, I think they are inextricably connected. One emerges from the other and vice-a-versa, it's not like I throw in some jokes or throw in some serious scenes; it's all of a piece, it comes concurrently together, which is why from the get-go, from the beginning in all my movies amongst those who like what I do, half might say, oh, that was really funny and the other half will be angry, how can you laugh that was so sad, so painful, but for me it's both at the same time.
The lead character in Palindromes, Aviva, is played by several actors, ranging in age, race and gender. What was the thinking behind that?
For all these metamorphoses that take place, shape, size, skin color, sex, etc., that the character still remains a constant. That all sorts of shades and nuances can be brought to this character, I mean I knew at the beginning I had to begin with a black little girl to alert the audience that something was off. Ellen Barkin is the mom but the girl is black. Well, maybe it's adopted, I don't know. But then she's latino, then she's a redhead. At first I think the audience is going to be disoriented, confused by what's going on, but then it kicks in. Okay, the character is the same, but the actors are changing. They sort of pass the baton on from one to the next as they take over. You have the big black woman who is kind of a Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians and then at the end you have Jennifer Jason Leigh who's a woman of a certain age. You look at that face and it's etched with sorrow. She's lived a whole life, like in one of those fairytales when the character leaves as a child and then at the end of the day comes back an older person. She's lived, as in this character, a whole life of a great emotional pain and sorrow and yet of course she's still 13 years old.
What's your secret to working with actors?
The actors…the children have very little experience. Everyone has different needs. Some want to be left alone, some need line by line, you do what ever is necessary to get what you need.
Casting is everything. If you get the right people they make you look good.
Do you consider yourself a good read of people?
I would like to flatter myself, but I always find myself being surprised. I'm a great mis-judger as well and that's what makes it so interesting.
How do you create your characters?
I'll just say, you hope you have an imagination at work you hope it has the support of your life experience and what you've observed and so forth.
The only research I did on this movie really was about some of the aspects of abortion in terms of legal issues. Things that I'd read in the newspaper that might be applicable that needed to be supported in the narrative. In terms of character, I've never done research.
How about the stories… where do they come from?
Like everything, what compels one to put pen to paper is a great question. I mean it is certainly not fun. I don't know. And I don't want to be evasive or coy about this either though. I have been writing since I've been reading. It's not a new thing for me.
There are things out there that it's hard not to be responsive to. We live in a country, certainly the only one in the world as far as I'm aware of, where abortionists are murdered and clinics are bombed. Where to be an abortionist in fact is like being a policeman or a fireman. It's a profession that is a heroic one, where you put your life on the line. You can certainly make a good living as a doctor by not performing these procedures, so regardless of one's political convictions or ideologies, you have to respect the integrity of the person who is willing to take on this profession.
There was one abortionist assassin I read about who when he was captured the community rallied around him, very sympathetic to his plight. It underlined one of the profound truths of human nature, which is that we all must believe we are good people. I'm not out to dispute that, but I certainly am out to examine it - the way in which the man who does murder the abortionist imagines himself to be fighting the good fight, to be saving a million unborn babies. Stalin on his deathbed thought he was basically a good person. We all think we are fighting the good fight and basically think we are good people. Narcissism and self-deception are survival mechanisms without which many of us might just jump off a bridge. I think all of this fed into the impulses at work here.
I think that certainly there's nothing in this movie or anything I've done really that I think is as troubling as what one sees in real life. Real life is much harsher and certainly here we are in the days of Terri Schiavo. You can't get more obscene or grotesque than what life has to offer.
People say some pretty nasty things about you. Where do you feel that comes from?
People -- it's true -- will say horrible things about me, and they've said horrible things about me for a long time. All sorts of epithets, cruel, misanthropic, cynical, vial, loathsome, it goes on and on, and I suppose what gives me courage to go on is that I do have another set of viewers who serve as a counter balance to all the terrible things people say about me. It's not fun to hear people say things like that about you. And there is not much I can do about that. I just adhere to what I feel is truthfulness, the reality I am setting up here. I think it's just hard for some people to find a portal, an access to the worlds I am setting up here. If one feels locked out, I think one can become very resentful.
Do you consider yourself a glass half empty or a glass half full kind of person?
Everything is a question of context. Optimism is not inherently a superior way of viewing the world. Certainly doctors will say it might be better for one's physical health to be an optimist. But, morally speaking it may not be appropriate in certain circumstances.
You look at what's going in the world. You read it day-by-day, it's the best narrative. Should we be (optimistic)? Of course right now all the liberals are terrified. What happens if in a few years there's stability in Iraq, the Palestinians and the Israelis are developing some sort of approach towards real peace…
For me, it really shifts from context to context. About certain things, I might be optimistic. Am I optimistic that this movie will make a $100MM, I could be but I think I would characterize myself as somewhat foolish to think so.
Do you agree or disagree with this statement: "Smart people are usually unhappy people"?
I don't know about that. The ability to take pleasure in one's life is a skill and is a kind of intelligence. So intelligence is a hard thing to evaluate and it manifests itself in so many different ways. I do think the ability to know how to live a life and not be miserable is a sign of that.
What do you think you would you be doing if you weren't a filmmaker?
I think about that all the time. Years ago I did apply to the Peace Corps and I was rejected. I love the idea of doing something like that but I really haven't figured out what. I really don't have any skills.