Director's Chair: Todd Solondz - 'Dark Horse'
Issue: September 1, 2012

Director's Chair: Todd Solondz - 'Dark Horse'

HOLLYWOOD — Indie director Todd Solondz first burst on the scene with Welcome to the Dollhouse, his acclaimed 1995 film about a relentlessly bullied, shy 7th grade girl, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.  Since then, the New Jersey-born Solondz has amassed a body of work that is distinctive and idiosyncratic, and which has unflinchingly explored even darker subject matter — including murder, suicide, rape, child molestation and abortion — in such films as Happiness (nominated for a Golden Globe), Storytelling, Palindromes and Life During Wartime.

His latest film, the ironically-titled Dark Horse, tells the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), a deluded, overweight, loser man-child in his thirties still living with his parents (Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken), who romances Miranda (Selma Blair), a depressed young woman who also lives at home.

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Solondz talks about making the film, his love of post, and the financial pressures of indie filmmaking.

POST: How would you describe this film, and what sort of film did you set out to make?
SOLONDZ: “I set out to make a boy-meets-girl story, and it seems I ended with an alternative take on the whole arrested development genre that Judd Apatow made famous with The 40 Year Old Virgin and other films of that sort. It’s really about a character who isn’t typically good looking and who’s got a lot of issues, and it’s a challenge to make the audience care about him.”

POST: It plays like a comedy but it isn’t, is it?
SOLONDZ: “No, I’d call it a very sad comedy — maybe my saddest ever. Each time I think I’ve made my saddest one yet, then I always surprise myself. I’m moved by it and Abe, and that’s what I hope to achieve.”

POST: What were some of the key themes you wanted to explore through your main character, Abe?
SOLONDZ: “He collects all these toys and is into videogames, and his bedroom’s decorated like he’s still in junior high school. He’s an emblem of that phenomenon, where one stops owning a collection to find that it owns oneself. So it’s that sort of pathology that develops at that point, and what interested me most was the way he clings to all the hopes and dreams of his youth. He lives a kind of death in life. 
“I think that obsession with that irretrievability of youth is very much a phenomenon in all secular, prosperous, consumerist democracies, where grown men have collections like Abe’s and are very worshipful of things. You seldom see this phenomenon in women. So his drug addiction is toy collecting and in some sense it staves of a sense of mortality, I suppose. Maybe in women it’s all the cosmetic work.”

POST: Abe drives this huge yellow Hummer. How symbolic was that?
SOLONDZ: “It obviously relates to his inner image of himself, and on another level, it’s another big toy in his collection. It just seemed like the perfect car for him to drive.”

POST: Where did you shoot and how long was it?
SOLONDZ: “We shot in New York because of the great tax breaks, and we found locations that could certainly pass for New Jersey, where it’s set. The shoot was just five weeks since we were on a pretty tight budget and schedule.”

POST: This was your first time working with DP Andrij Parekh, whose credits include Blue Valentine and Cold Souls. What did he bring to the mix?
SOLONDZ: “He was great and very inventive. We shot on the Red, and when you work with this new digital technology it poses a different set of challenges. Ultimately, it’s not so much whether you use film or go digital — it’s about whether your DP has an artistic sense that matches what you’re trying to do, and Andrij did. I’m very happy with the way the film looks and the color palette and design.”

POST: So are you a big digital fan?
SOLONDZ: “Yes, but in terms of shooting this, the fact is, I just don’t have the option. (Laughs) I’m hardly in the league of a Chris Nolan budget-wise where I can insist on shooting film. I think most filmmakers still prefer film, but most don’t have the option anymore.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
SOLONDZ: “We did all the editing and post at Goldcrest in New York, working over five or six months.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 
SOLONDZ: “I do, a lot. For a start, the food’s much better than during production (laughs). I far prefer post to shooting because I have a personality that’s not well-suited to production and all the stress. Some directors relish that process — I just try to survive it. So once I get to the edit and post, I feel most at home and far more in control.”

POST: You’ve worked with editor Kevin Messman on several of your films, including Life During Wartime and Palindromes. How does that relationship work?
SOLONDZ: “He doesn’t come on the set really. He gets all the dailies and then starts putting the material together while I’m still shooting, and then within a week or two of the wrap he usually has an assembly that I can view. Then we start, and I’m there with him every day as we work through it all.”

POST: Who did the visual effects work and how many visual effects shots are there?
SOLONDZ: “All the visual effects work was done by Fly Studio in Montreal, but I never even went to Canada. It was all done remotely. We’d send them the files of what we wanted and they would send the finished effects back to us. People will be really surprised to find out that there are a lot of CGI shots in the film — in the three figures! But they’re nearly all invisible. 
“I love working with visual effects and all the technology because you can use tricks and all kinds of things to heighten a dramatic effect. There are some obvious shots, like the one where we blur the ‘Toys R Us’ logo for legal reasons, and the scene where Abe turns yellow from hepatitis. We tried using make-up, but we knew we’d have to add CG to that, and we actually did both of those at Goldcrest.”

POST: How important are sound and music to you?
SOLONDZ: “They’re both a huge part of my movies, and I love working on all that in post. Michael Hill was my music supervisor and he helped us gather all the music together. We had just one song especially written, for the scene in the bar where Abe goes to meet Miranda and her ex. Eric Offin, who also did Life During Wartime, did all the sound design and mixing at Gigantic in New York.”

POST: Did you do a DI?
SOLONDZ: “Yes, at Goldcrest. The DP did his pass and then I’d go and look, and then whatever I had notes on or wanted to change, we’d do. The DI is just a great process for refining and fine tuning the look of the film. I’m a big fan.” 
Goldcrest called on Quantel’s Pablo. 

POST: Did the film turn out the way you originally envisioned it while writing the script?
SOLONDZ: “It never does (laughs). But if you’re lucky, it turns out better. It’s always a surprise, because in post you always discover exactly what you have wrought. But I’m very happy with the film.”

POST: As a filmmaker you’re often accused of being cruel and perverse — how do you plead?
SOLONDZ: “Those are the nice things people have called me. I am human, and I don’t really relish people saying bad things about me, but I understand that my movies always generate an ambivalent response. I wish I had a stronger character and was indifferent to all the criticism. That would make life much easier.”

POST: In your previous films you explored some pretty dark subject matter — including murder, suicide, rape, child molestation and abortion. This isn’t nearly so provocative. Are you getting mellower?
SOLONDZ: “I don’t know, but I did deliberately avoid controversial subjects with this.”

POST: Is film dead?
SOLONDZ: “Not yet, but it’s hard to see how it will survive, given how fast things are evolving in technology. I love film, but it does seem very last century now.”

POST: How’s the indie film scene?
SOLONDZ: “It’s always been a struggle, and it still is. The irony is that thanks to all the new, cheap technology, there is now a glut of movies being made. So many kids now have access to equipment that enables them to make movies very cheaply, so everyone’s doing it. In that sense, it’s a good thing since it’s democratized the whole process. But the problem is, it’s harder than ever to actually make any profit from your work. That’s partly to do with the troubled economy, but I think it’s also a by-product of the rise of the Internet, and all that comes with it, including piracy and all the competition. 
“People have so many options at home now, it’s hard to get them to go out to see a small indie film. So it’s pretty grim in that regard. Of course, there will always be surprises that come out and take the world by storm — but for every one of those films, there will be many that hardly anyone will see.”

POST: Is Hollywood healthy or sick?
SOLONDZ: “Financially it seems to be doing just fine. The problem is there’s no middle ground anymore. They either make these huge big-budget event movies for $200 million and more or cheap movies for $20 million. But in between, there’s hardly anything, which is sad.”

POST: Have you ever had any interest in doing a big-budget mainstream movie?
SOLONDZ: “Not really. It’s never been my ambition. I’m just not interested in those kinds of projects or stories.”

POST: Is it true you wanted to be a musician originally?
SOLONDZ: “I did, when I was a child, but sadly I just didn’t have the talent.”

POST: You also acted for a while. What happened?
SOLONDZ: “It wasn’t like a big ambition that I took seriously. I had fun doing it at the time, but I don’t miss it, and I don’t have any cravings to keep doing it.”

POST: What’s next?
SOLONDZ: “I have a script that’s set in Texas and now it’s the same old thing — if we can get the financing for it. That seems to be the biggest hurdle now.”