Todd Solondz made one of the saddest movies of all time and called it Happiness. He cast Dylan Baker as a paedophile and caused a huge controversy with the 1998 film, which was rejected by Sundance, dropped by its US distributor, though gained acclaim in Europe, taking out the Cannes Critics Prize. It also made a star of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who in the story played a chubby lonely man who believed he was in love with the stick-thin Lara Flynn Boyle though came to realise his true feelings were for his friend, the considerably larger Camryn Manheim.
To me, it’s somewhat heavy because it’s so sorrowful
Now with Dark Horse, Solondz tells the story of another chubby lonely man, Abe (Jordan Gelber), who falls for the attractive lovelorn Miranda (Selma Blair). Again, she doesn't love him but she agrees to marry him anyway. Despite the Dark Horse of the title, the film has been deemed lighter than Solondz's usual fare.
“It's a good quarrel as to which is the bleakest,” muses Solondz, a lean oddball man who speaks in a deliberate manner. “When I watch the movie, it feels so melancholy to me. I know there is humour but it's so muted, so muffled in a way by the pathos. So just because it may not have any of the 'controversial' subject matter, this doesn't make it lighter. To me, it's somewhat heavy because it's so sorrowful.”
Solondz wanted to examine a young man who is already not so young, who has already lost his youth and is clinging to it through his collecting.
“That is why the American Idol teen music filters through the movie as a counterpoint to his spirits,” he explains. “Abe still wants to identify and connect with what has already gone. I find this is something I can relate to as I see a lot of people suffer from this in different ways. There would be no cosmetic surgery otherwise.
“I also wanted to ask why, if a family has two children, one has a successful career and makes it in life, while the other doesn't. I don't know, but this is a common enough scenario. I'm not so interested in explaining it, but I'm moved by Abe's predicament and by his family. Mia Farrow as his mother is very enabling and wants him to still be a child whereas Donna Murphy as his friend wants him to be an adult. So for all the bad misfortunes that he endures, one after the other, for me the redemptive moment is at the end where there is this fantasy of him dancing. There is a good plot twist there as well.”
Family dynamics and angst in the suburbs have always been Solondz's preoccupations, from the moment he emerged with 1995's acclaimed Welcome to the Dollhouse. Blair had previously appeared in his 2001 film Storytelling, another controversial story where her petite student character appeared in a raunchy sex scene with her well-built, middle-aged black creative writing professor—though this movie did make it to Sundance. Even if Blair had maintained a friendship with the director, she wasn't expecting to be cast in the lead in his new movie, given a decade had passed.
“I'm such a fan of Todd's films,” admits Blair, a new mum who has not long returned to acting. “I love Todd's sensibility and his tone and his films were never very controversial to me. They were just real. I didn't know in Storytelling if that was a rape scene or just life. People get in over their heads.”
The one-time star of Cruel Intentions and Hellboy admits she was never going to be America's sweetheart. “I don't have the look for it and my personality and temperament aren't suited to it. Although I'd love the paycheck! I wish I had that kind of fame so I could have more freedom. I don't. But at the same time I am more of an independent girl and I have a dry sense of humour.” (That humour has come in handy now that she co-stars with Charlie Sheen in his new television series, Anger Management, based on the 2003 movie starring Jack Nicholson.)
“I love Selma and I think she is so gifted,” admits Solondz. “I felt in some sense that the character she plays is a continuation of the one she played in Storytelling, that when she abandoned her career in my head she just reverted to her original name, which was Miranda. But this is in my head and is not really relevant so much to the experience of watching the movie.”
Solondz has always attracted quality actors to his productions and Christopher Walken is no exception here, as Abe's dad. Solondz, though, says it was a challenge to keep the 69-year-old still.
“Chris is such a distinctive actor, peculiar in a way, so I had to kind of mute him so he would be more conservative. His hair is like rock'n'roll so I gave him a toupe to make him more normal. He's not the central character so he can't stick out in that way. I think he blended in nicely.”
Gelber, a New York theatre actor who currently appears in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, had auditioned for Solondz for previous movies. “I'd just seen him in this Mike Leigh play in New York and when he auditioned again he was such a natural fit that I was hoping I was going to be able to make it work with him.”
The idea of Abe as a collector holds considerable meaning for Solondz, and he notes that collecting comic books and anime, action figures and video games as Abe does, is a typically male pursuit. Though since Solondz lives in a small New York apartment with little free space, he has never been much of a collector himself.
“I think that the pathology begins when instead of owning the collection, the collection owns you. What does collecting even mean? What meaning accrues from owning all of these things? I don't want to psychoanalyse too much but I think it's symptomatic of the consumerist society, of the infantilisation that is encouraged, so that governments go about doing their thing while we play our video games.”
So is the movie about America today? “I'll leave that to you to decide, but I think it's true that anything I do…” he hesitates, not wanting to get into details. “Look, I am American and I am informed and shaped by my American experience, so it's natural that whatever I have so say is going to comment on that.”
Indeed, Solondz's independent films are always strong on social commentary, so it does come as a bit of a surprise that he once considered going mainstream and vacuous.
“Years ago, Drew Barrymore and I met to discuss Charlie's Angels and I loved the idea of being able to play with those icons,” he recalls with a chuckle. “But I knew and she knew that the studio would have been foolish to go with me, because if they had, instead of $300 million then the movie would have made $3 million! It wouldn't have made any sense. My interests are different so I have to be satisfied with a more limited audience. There are a lot of more commercial marketable ideas that I have that I could pursue but for whatever reason I am most compelled to pursue these unprofitable movies! I am grateful to have any audience!”
Solondz has long maintained that filmmaking is a horrible, stressful experience. “It doesn't mean it has no gratification, obviously I would not have continued making films if I didn't get some gratification from the process. I should emphasise that it is the production itself that is a nightmare. I do quite enjoy casting and I do quite enjoy the editing process and music and so forth. I enjoy working with actors but on a low budget movie like this, you are always in a hurry. So the work with the actors usually takes place in the casting room because there's so little time and you are more worried about locations falling through and overtime and things like that. Time management is a big part of the job. You never have enough shooting days, but it's just the nature of the beast.”
Dark Horse screens as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.