With Wiener-Dog, Todd Solondz takes us on a journey through the absurd circus of humanity.
Todd Solondz movies are universes of futility. They're full of characters with half-forgotten dreams, outcasts for whom disillusionment is only the next rung on a ladder climb toward death (and thus, irrelevance). But along the way, amidst the mundanity of daily life, an absurd form of comedy emerges. It makes perfect sense, then, that Solondz would choose a Daschund—that cute-but-pitiful creature that waddles along like a discarded bunless hot dog, bred into "remarkably stupid" (in Solondz's words) oblivion—to connect his four narratives in his new dark comedy, Wiener-Dog.
The film begins with Remi, a young boy who, after surviving cancer, is gifted the tubular canine by his helicopter parents (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy). Because Solondz films adhere to a deadpan logic, it's not the experience of life-threatening illness that awakens the young boy to his mortality; it's the dog, who graces the screen with projectile diarrhea after being fed chocolate granola.
"The comedy in my movies is always wed to the pathos. They're inextricably entwined."
Next, we're catapulted into the life of a young vet tech (Greta Gerwig, reprising the role of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse) who rescues wiener-dog from euthanasia. The ill-fated dog changes hands at least twice more, from an outmoded film professor (Danny DeVito) to an ornery elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn) who names him "Cancer," and whose granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) serves as a stark reminder of the follies of youth. The dog even enjoys a short stint with a husband and wife with Down’s syndrome who lead a peaceful co-existence that would be the envy of the others.
"It’s hard to see a dog in its dogness," Solondz told No Film School when we caught up with the director prior to the release of Wiener-Dog. Throughout the film, the characters project their various illusions onto the animal. Wiener-dog becomes a receptacle of skewed perspectives, a menagerie of the pitfalls of the human spirit. (According to Solondz, the film was inspired by Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, about a donkey who endures a similar fate.)
In addition to directing, Solondz is now an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, his alma mater. Below, we discuss his particular brand of tragicomedy, the virtues of getting lost in a story, and why he dropped out of the "evil empire" of film school—but wouldn't be the filmmaker he is today without it.
No Film School: I read somewhere that you don't relish the process of filmmaking. The story has to be important enough for you to put yourself through the process. What was so important to you about Wiener-Dog?
Todd Solondz: That's true. It's a fair question, and a good question, but it's kind of unanswerable in some sense. You could ask that about any movie and I don't know the answer. Why are they important to me? I don't know. I think the movie itself in some sense answers that question best. What I'm trying to express is what is expressed. The why of it is just in my nature. It's what I do. If I didn't have any stories to tell—things that moved me emotionally—then I wouldn't put myself through this.
NFS: What is it about the process that you find to be uncomfortable?
Solondz: Well, on this movie in particular: I love dogs, but working with them was a nightmare. We had about five Dachshunds. They were all so remarkably stupid. One of the things that I learned from the ASPCA rep [we had on set] was that it's a breed that has been bred for the marketplace because of its cuteness, but at the expense of its intelligence. They were show dogs, and none of them responded to any command. "Stay," "sit," anything. One even bit the little boy.
"We had about five Dachshunds. They were all so remarkably stupid."
For the interlude, I had the dog on a treadmill. That was controlled in some sense, but it was still three hours of the crew standing around so we could get about 12 seconds of usable footage. It was pretty horrible having to contend with the dogs and I had to rewrite scenes because the dogs just wouldn't do them. Sometimes when things don't work out the way you plan, then maybe good or better ideas emerge. I tried to put a funny spin on that.
NFS: What's an example of something better that came out of a scene not working?
Solondz: I like the scene, for example, of Tracy Letts walking the dog at the beginning of the movie, but that wasn't scripted. I just figured that out on the day because what I had initially had in mind, the dog was not capable of doing. I just rewrote it, and I did that. I think it's better.
NFS: People describe your films as belonging to the genre of dark comedy. What does that term mean to you?
Solondz: The subjects may be a little bit more troubling. It's comedy emerging from the unexpected underbelly of things.
NFS: What do you think comedy can bring to the experience of troubling things?
Solondz: I’m very thankful that I like laughing. It gives me great pleasure. When I'm feeling despondent or terrible things happen, it is for me a very powerful outlet. To me, the comedy in my movies is always wed to the pathos. They're inextricably entwined. That's why some audiences they may say, "Oh, it's so funny," and the other half is angry at the first half, like, "Why are you laughing? This is not funny. This is sad and sorrowful." I'm both, you know? I'm both audiences, but concurrently. It's all fraught with ambiguity.
"I did think that film school was a rip off and a joke, but paradoxically, had I not gone there, I don't think I'd be a filmmaker today."
NFS: You teach at NYU. In the film, Danny DeVito plays a film school professor. How has your experience as a professor been?
Solondz: I love my job. I love teaching. I love my students. I have some wonderful colleagues. I mean, NYU is an evil empire. The Tisch School of the Arts is managed with astonishing incompetence and corruption. I suppose it's inevitable for that section [of the film] to have a certain satirical thrust laid in there.
NFS: What was your experience of NYU film school when you attended yourself?
Solondz: When I went many years ago, I loved it. I had a great time. I mean, I did think that film school was a rip-off and a joke, but paradoxically, had I not gone there, I don't think I'd be a filmmaker today.
That said, I did drop out. I didn't complete the program, but had I not gone there....I didn't have the kind of social life I think someone like Kevin Smith or Richard Linklater had, that they had a whole group of friends that they could go off and make a movie with. That just was not a viable option for me.
"Every time you take out a camera and start putting together a story, you're shaping and discovering who you are as a filmmaker."
NFS: So film school helped you create a community to facilitate your future filmmaking?
Solondz: Well, it gave me a certain amount of confidence. I had failed at so many other endeavors up until that point that when things clicked.... My shorts, they got a lot of attention. They offered me 3 first-look deals at 20th Century Fox and Columbia. They were fighting over me. All of that happened as a result of having done this work I would not otherwise have done had I not gone [to NYU film school].
NFS: Did it help shape you as an artist in any way, as well?
Solondz: You know, every time you take out a camera and you start putting together a story, you're shaping yourself and discovering who you are as a filmmaker. It's by doing.
NFS: What kind of wisdom do you impart onto your grad students?
Solondz: I don't know that I would characterize anything I say as wisdom. If you're a young, aspiring filmmaker, you have you love what you do, and do what you love. If you don't love it, then there's really no point.
"With time and distance, you begin to see that the story you're trying to tell is different from what you have on paper."
NFS: Is there anything specific you help your students navigate in the filmmaking process?
Solondz: I try to help figure out what is the story that they're trying to tell. That's the big challenge. It's the big challenge for the students in all the years of film school, whether it's the first day or the last day.
NFS: Are students trying to tell a story with too big of a scope? What do you think is so hard about getting to the root of their specific narratives?
Solondz: Well, it takes time. You have to have patience with yourself, even if you don't have patience. You write a story and you think it's the story you want to tell, but sometimes with time and distance, you begin to see that the story you're trying to tell is different from what you have on paper. That takes time to figure out.
"I always think I have a sense of what I'm doing, but I'm always lost and trying to figure it out."
It's always a process of discovery for me. I always think I have a sense of what I'm doing, but I'm always lost and trying to figure it out. This process of filmmaking is what unravels the mystery.
NFS: When you set out to write Wiener-Dog, what was the discrepancy between what you thought you were making and what you wound up making?
Solondz: You know, it was so vague in my head, how this was all going to play out. There were so many problems that we had, as you always have when you make movies. You're always assaulted by them. I feel I'm very happy with the movie. It has its own life and that's all I can ask for.