Todd Solondz: The World of a Famous Director and Screenwriter

Todd Solondz is considered to be one of the best modern independent American screenwriters and directors. He’s achieved special popularity in the auteur and art house cinema circles. The genre, in which Solondz is working, is so specific that it was decided to be named “Solondzian”.  

“Solondzian” –a peculiar mixture of violence, dark side of conscience, philosophical deliberations and socially-oriented satire. Fans of the director’s work sometimes describe his works as follows: “One can compare Todd with a neurosurgeon, who performs craniotomy and looks under the human skull, turning the concept of “wrong” inside-out”. Perhaps the most famous of Solondz’s works is the movie Hapiness, in which he explores sexual phobias and deviation as well as destroying the mythological castle of American family firmness. The film has received numerous awards, including the award for “Critics’ choice” as the best US film in 1998, and the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes.

How did you get into filmmaking? Why did you choose film?

I tried many other endeavours, such as music, photography, theatre; but I failed at so many of them. One evening I noticed an advertisement for a screening of short films by filmmakers at UCLA. It was open to the public and I wanted to go see these films. It was astonishing what I saw. Just how terrible these movies were, yet all of these film makers were going on to careers. I decided to do something of my own. So I called New York University. I asked them what the deadline for applying was and they said “today”. Back then it wasn’t so hip or cool to go to film school as it is today, so they took me.

Since you graduated from film school and entered the film business, have your expectations been met? Today’s students have this fear that the reality is far from theory.

During my student years I’d already met with the real film industry. There was a screening in Los Angeles of the best of film school students that year, and mine was the only a comedy. The very next day I was in the office of the president of 20th Century Fox. The next year was just spent with lawyers and agents, discussing pictures for Fox and Columbia, everyone was excited to work with me. But this mess wasn’t really the right thing for me, so I’d gone off. I was teaching English as a second language for a few years and I was very happy, it was the first time I was happy. Because I had no ambition, and when you have no ambition it is very liberating. Then I thought maybe I could be a local director and do little shows for children after school, but the movie became a big thing and my life changed after that. I came back, but never again did I cooperate with big film companies.

How does a screenplay start?

Usually I start with a pen and a piece of paper, but now I’m good with computers. I start in the beginning [crowd laughs] and then I write it to the end. I’m not mocking, I’m serious. Actually that’s all I can say. Writing a screenplay is a mysterious process, I don’t know how they do it. It’s a process of discovery, and self discovery. You have to be in solitude while writing. A screenplay is a battle. Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes you have to struggle. Persistence is a guarantee of a great film. You think its genius when you’re writing it, and then you get into production, and the script is somehow not what you thought it was. It changes with the actors, with the locations, and then you get into the cutting room and at that point you know your script was never genius. But still, you find the shape, what the story is about.. So when people ask me if the movie turned out the way I wanted it to [?], I always say “no, it never does,” but if I’m lucky it turns out better.

There has to be something before the computer/pen and paper. How do you get inspired to write a screenplay?

I don’t know. It’s a creative process, not an intellectual one. And I never use outlines, I never do treatments, I never do charts or anything like that. Something comes to you, and you just follow it. If you write three pages a day, in six weeks you have a feature script.

How do you make the decision on what screenplay is good and which one has to be put aside?

If I feel somewhat like I’m stuck and time is going and nothing’s advancing, I put it aside and start something else. Maybe I can go back to it later. The clue is if you find you’re spending 2 months, 4 months, 8 months, 2 years and you still can’t figure it out, it’s time to move on. If you’re a writer, you are allowed to have one idea only. When you’re not a filmmaker there is no such luxury. You have to be fluid. If it doesn’t work, try another idea, try something else.

In your films the looks of actors and their performances are very stylised. Is it hard getting them on the same page?

I love working with actors, I really do. We can never afford rehearsal, so the audition becomes the rehearsal essentially. Once you offer the part, then it costs money for the rehearsal, so I take full advantage of the auditions. But the problem with filmmaking is that you spend very little time with the actors. Most of the time you’re worried about your locations and not having enough coverage, not having enough time before the sun goes down. That’s why casting is the most critical decision you make because 90% of what happens on screen is a result of their hard work

All of your films had relatively low budgets. When you’re writing them do you take that into account, do you know you’re not going to get 200 million to make a movie? Have you ever written anything where you though “I’d better change that, I’m not going to get the money for it”?

Always when I’m writing a script, I’m both a director and producer in a sense as well. I always think, “do I need these extras?”, “do I need the crowd?”, “do I need a big restaurant?”, “how much do I need to seek”, I’m always thinking about that as I write. There’s no director who has a career who isn’t a businessman in a sense. You have to have that faculty functioning. My scripts are easy to read, they’re fast reads, there’s very little description. It will probably just say “interior house/kitchen”. I have to be fluid about what locations I can afford, what locations I can get.

You are not cooperating with big companies. How hard is it to find money for making a movie? Do you feel that it is hard for you to get your movies financed, or do you not have any complaints?

Well, I complain, I take pleasure in complaining. I think about it all the time. In Europe you have some subsidies but they don’t exist in the United States because it’s a market driven economy. In America it works this way: if you’re not working with the studio system, you have to get a budget together for your movie and find sponsors yourself. I confess, I’ve lost so much money for so many people, that it’s doubtful that someone would give me money again, but I like to be hopeful.

What would you do in the future if you wouldn’t be able to finance your films?

I don’t know. I’m fortunate in the sense that I can write, so maybe I’d write for something else. And I teach. Teaching is a great pleasure for me. No stress, it’s the opposite of filmmaking. I go and talk to a lot of young, hopeful, ambitious students, and I feel so happy, so good that I’m not one of my students.

Photo: KVFF

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