As you might have guessed, the veterinary assistant who sends the pup off on its journey is none other than a grown-up Dawn “Wiener-dog” Wiener, from Solondz’s breakout 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse.
“I wanted to do a dog movie,” Solondz told the crowd at the BAM Harvey Theater on Friday. But make no mistake: this is a dog movie that only Todd Solondz could have made– meaning it’s less 101 Dalmations and more 120 Days of Sodom.
Solondz isn’t a dog owner himself. “I don’t like the responsibility,” he explained in his neurotic, Woody Allen-esque way. “When I was a child, we went through a lot of dogs.”
If you’ve seen Solondz films like Happiness and Dark Horse (his last one, released in 2011), then you won’t be surprised that the audience laughed knowingly at the words went through. If you aren’t familiar with his brand of pitch-black comedy, then this should give you an idea of what his work (and his fan base) is like: At one point during the q&a an audience member raised his hand to ask, “I really love all the self-loathing in your films, and I’m wondering why self-loathing gets such a bad rap in our society?”
“I know,” Solondz responded, not missing a beat. “It would change so much for Trump, if he had just a teeny dose of it.”
Solondz said he considered Wiener-Dog to be his funniest movie– and “one of the most hopeful and romantic.” But, yes, there’s plenty of self-loathing in it, starting with an embittered and washed-up filmmaker and New York City professor, played by Danny DeVito, who minds the mopey canine for a while. When asked whether his NYU colleague Arnie Baskin informed the character, Solondz admitted he “was inspiring, yes.” But there must’ve been some of Solondz in there as well: “I’m so grateful not to be young,” he said when asked whether his age (56) had something to do with the film’s exploration of mortality. “That’s why I love going to school and I look at all the young, hopeful, ambitious filmmakers and I say, ‘Thank God I’m not you.'”
Not that Solondz’s life is all biscuits and backrubs. Sure, the adoring applause he got from the packed house when he came out to introduce the movie must’ve felt good. “My Gosh,” said the Greenwich Village resident in his nasal, New Jersey patois, “Suddenly I’m cool here in Brooklyn.” But make no mistake, Solondz considers filmmaking to be an “assaultive” task compared to the thing he feels he’s better suited for: staying at home. “I don’t really have the right personality, I think, to be a director,” said the indie icon who has now directed eight feature films.
“I mean, Ang Lee will tell you he never feels more alive than when he’s surrounded by a hundred crew people and actors. For me, I know my obituary: ‘Todd Solondz collapsed the third day of production.'”
In the case of Wiener-Dog, one of the biggest headaches was the wiener-dog: “I wrote a dog movie but I wasn’t really thinking of the reality of what it was like to work with a dog,” Solondz confessed. Sure, the breed made for a good callback to one of the director’s most enduring films, but dachshunds– even Hollywood dachshunds– aren’t particularly brilliant, or so an ASPCA representative told Solondz. “We had three or four or five dogs– they were all, every one, remarkably stupid,” Solondz said. “I mean, these were show dogs but even ‘stay’ or ‘sit’ or ‘sleep,’ anything, it just did nothing.”
Luckily Solondz had some decent two-legged talent in Greta Gerwig, who plays Dawn Wiener; Ellen Burstyn, who plays the curmudgeonly shut-in that ends up with the dog; and Zosia Mamet, who plays the spinster’s grandkid in a way that recalls her performance, as Shosh, in the “Crackcident” episode of Girls.
Burstyn told the crowd that she wasn’t all that familiar with Solondz’s work when he came to her apartment to discuss the role: “I thought, ‘I don’t know what kind of movies this guy makes but he sure is weird.'” After the laughter died down, she added: “And interesting.”
Now, it seems, she’s one of Solondz’s best defenders. At some point during the q&a, a perplexed audience member asked the filmmaker why so many of her fellow moviegoers had laughed at a scene that is classic Solondz. I won’t describe it, because it’s a spoiler, but suffice it to say that it’s a gruesome scene that a less jaded audience might’ve found tragic and heartbreaking.
“You’ll have to ask them,” Solondz deflected.
But then Burstyn burst in: “It’s so amazing that a filmmaker would do that,” she said of the squirmy, “wild” scene. “Only Todd Solondz would do that, that I know of.”
That said, Solondz is aware that sometimes his deadpan blend of cruelty and absurdity can misfire. “Everything that, I think, I write is fraught with ambiguity to some extent, and a mixed set of emotions,” he said, going on to recall a screening of Happiness some years ago at the Telluride Film Festival. “A young gentleman, somewhat inebriated, came up to me and he said, ‘I loved your movie, that was so cool, especially when that kid got raped, it was hilarious.’ After that I’ve always said my movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them.”
On June 24 and 25, Todd Solondz and Danny DeVito will appear at the 7:30 and 8:30 pm screenings of “Wiener-Dog” at Angelika Film Center, 18 West Houston Street.