The Director's Chair Interviews
Solondz welcomes the world to his Dollhouse
by Scott Roesch
What a difference six years makes. In 1990, Todd Solondz's first feature film, Fear, Loathing, and Depression, was ripped apart by reviewers who called it "inane," "sophomoric," and "so off-putting it may well discourage interest in directors under thirty for years to come." This year, his follow-up, Welcome to the Dollhouse, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently packing art houses from coast to coast. Dollhouse's deadpan, dead-on look at the suburban hell inhabited by junior-high outcast Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) has audiences laughing even as they wince.
"It is a sad comedy," acknowledges Solondz. "But for me, it's kind of upbeat in that [Dawn] doesn't jump out the window. I'm not interested in victim movies, or in victim literature. The persecuted and the persecutor reside within each of us, and I think contending with those forces is part of the process of growing up. [Dollhouse] is a story of survival."
Survival is a subject Solondz knows a little bit about. Ten years ago, fresh out of N.Y.U. Film School, he astounded his classmates by landing not one, but two, big-studio Hollywood deals on the strength of his student film Schatt's Last Shot (another teen comedy). "I really thought that lightning had struck," recalls the writer-director, now thirty-six. But after several difficult years, all he had to show for it was Fear, Loathing, and Depression (Goldwyn), a would-be comedy about a group of struggling Manhattan artists, which even Solondz admits was "misconceived and misbegotten." The experience is still painful for him to talk about. "Totally demoralized," he began to look for other work. After the Peace Corps rejected him, Solondz took a job teaching English as a Second Language. He eventually returned to filmmaking, "because I didn't want the first movie to be the last word on me."
For his comeback attempt, Solondz pulled out a script that he'd written back in 1989, before the bottom fell out of his career. Most of the financing for Dollhouse, which was budgeted in the high-six-figure range, came from a private investor who saw fit to patronize a failed artist on a project with--let's face it--questionable appeal. "I thought they were very foolish," says Solondz, not one to project excess optimism. "A story of a little girl who gets picked on at school is not where you would ever realistically pin your hopes on a return." By the time he wrapped the film, in 1994, he was more despondent than ever. "It wasn't paranoia," he says. "I just didn't think people would take to it."
John Pierson and other influential producers' reps who saw early cuts of the film agreed with him, and it wasn't until Dollhouse caused a commotion at the Toronto International Film Festival last September that distributors showed any interest. The movie has now grossed $1.5 million, and it's expanding to more and more theatres every week.
If the rumors are true, his next project promises to have even more commercial appeal: unlike Welcome to the Dollhouse, this one is said to contain its share of sex, violence, and nudity. All Solondz will say about the script is that "it has adults in it." The demographic shift might have something to do with the fact that he's sick and tired of being asked questions about his own childhood. Like Dawn Wiener, he grew up in suburban New Jersey and wears thick, geeky glasses. Those similarities, and the movie's remarkable authenticity, have prompted a number of people--a number that's "in the hundreds," according to Solondz--to ask whether Dawn's experiences are, in fact, his own. For the record, the answer is no: his own life is a different story, one that we won't be seeing on the big screen. "I just don't think I would ever want to do that," says Solondz, grimacing as if the mere thought of it causes him pain. He's much more comfortable talking about Dawn.
"The point of the movie is that she's getting through it," he says. "Many kids who endure that kind of persecution can become warped or damaged by it. But I think that the majority of them, in fact, can be strengthened, and I think she falls into the latter category." Given everything Solondz has experienced in the past decade, it isn't too much of a stretch to draw the same conclusion about him.
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