Todd Solondz has two responses to a reporter’s admission of having a sore throat. The first is to announce his certainty that he has already, in a matter of seconds, been infected. (“It’s too late” to avoid the contagion, the director laments. “This will be my fifth cold of the year.”) The second is to begin a largely unprompted soliloquy about his life, career, and unexpected success with Welcome to the Dollhouse, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
“I can really help you out a lot,” he says, launching into the tale of how he made the film—and in the process initiating what may be most grudging comeback in cinematic history. “I’ve done hundreds of interviews,” he notes, insisting that he still approaches them with a sense of commitment: “I try, I try, as if it’s the first time.”
Solondz isn’t complaining, at least not exactly. After all, his film has been well received at festivals from Berlin to Toronto, picked up for distribution by Sony Classics, and warmly reviewed. “It’s just been a dream scenario,” he says, in the voice of a man who doesn’t believe in dream scenarios.
With his thick-rimmed glasses complemented by free-flapping shirttails and plain, old-fashioned sneakers, the 36-year-old Solondz looks a lot younger than his age. Nonetheless, the director came out of retirement to make Dollhouse, the utterly unromanticized tale of a generally disdained 11-year-old girl, one Dawn “Wiener Dog” Wiener. His film career actually began more than a decade ago at New York University film school, where he made several acclaimed shorts. “I had a great time there,” he remembers, “which doesn’t mean I didn’t complain every day.”
On the strength of that work, he signed a three-picture deal and eventually directed one feature, 1989’s Fear, Anxiety, and Depression. “I ended up making a movie,” he says. “It was a horrible movie, in my opinion.”
“It was so demoralizing that I left film. I applied to the Peace Corps; I was rejected.” Instead, he took a job teaching English as a second language to immigrants, many of them Russian.
He still had a script, though, written around the time he made Fear, Anxiety, and Depression in response to the idealized view of childhood offered by The Wonder Years. “This nostalgia is ill-placed,” he charges. “I think there’s a falseness there. I think there’s a laziness. Or, to put it harsher, repression and denial.”
Instead of denial, Dollhouse offers defiance. It indicts adults, especially parents, which Solondz realized was a problem when he set out to get parental approval for his young actors. “A lot of the parents were unsettled,” he remembers. “I think that’s the nicest way to put it.”
For first encounters, he offered a bowdlerized version of the script, minus “all the ‘fuck’s and ‘shit’s and the rape issue.” Ultimately, though, “I just could be frank, let them understand that it was a serious film. That it wouldn’t be exploitative. I think they sensed a certain reasonableness.”
Artistically, Solondz was more concerned about the kids’ reaction than the adults’. Rejecting the fashion-magazine nihilism of Kids—“I don’t think that’s the basic reality,” he says—the director attempted to infiltrate the bleakness of the suburban preteen. “I was worried that the script would seem false, like an adult’s words filtered through the voice of 11-year-olds,” he admits. “The kids were not really troubled by this.”
“Making a movie is horrible. I just hate it,” he shudders. “All I could think of was why I ever left teaching. [It’s] so horrible that whatever story you’re going to tell has to be really important.”
If not really important, Dollhouse has impressed viewers as really genuine, which has led to suggestions that it’s autobiographical. Solondz insists that it’s not. “Needless to say—well, maybe not needless to say—I was not a little girl,” jokes the filmmaker, who attended an all-boys prep school rather than a coed public school like the one depicted in his film. “I think there’s a certain authenticity that people are responding to.”
One controversial point, he notes, was the role of Dawn’s unsympathetic mother. “Every mother [who read the script] condemned that mother. But the movie is with the kids. It’s more sympathetic to the kids.”
Mothers like Dawn’s exist, Solondz adds, “which is why so many of us are so damaged.” He laughs nervously. “Please don’t take that so literally,” he cautions.
Dollhouse, the filmmaker contends, has already met his expectations. “I embarked on this with hope—hope more than confidence,” he recalls. A lawyer friend was “able to procure people who I thought were foolish to invest in the film. I never thought it would make a penny. If I were an investor, I wouldn’t have invested in it.”
“A little girl being picked on in the seventh grade? I didn’t see dollar signs.”
Now he professes disinterest in the movie’s box-office fate. “I have no stress about it,” he says. “I’m just interested in it as a test case.”
That indifference may reflect the director’s suspicion that Dollhouse’s success is a fluke. “I could make another movie tomorrow and it could be a total dud,” he says, seeming almost pleased at the prospect. More pleased, certainly, than he sounds about his continuing role in publicizing his current film. “The world doesn’t want me to move on,” he sighs.
“I did all this and it’s all just America,” Solondz gripes. “I hate flying, I hate it. I never really traveled before I made this movie. They want me to go to Australia. It’s a 20-hour flight. I don’t think I can do it.”