Listen carefully to Todd Solondz's Weiner Dog and you will hear the director make a good joke about his own audience. A film student, outraged by a lecturer's negative critique of his script, defends the piece with the words: "But it's transgressive."
That word has been following Todd around since his second film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1995. The tricky decision to make his bullied heroine, Dawn Weiner, dislikable was seen as "transgressive". That was nothing compared with the "transgressive" treatment of paedophilia in Happiness or the "transgressive" use of racist language in Storytelling.
“Well, you are picking up things there very well,” Solondz says in his tense Newark croak. “I don’t think I need to explain anything more. You have got it right.”
The t-word will not be thrown quite so liberally at Weiner Dog. Indeed, the device that links the four darkly comic stories could scarcely be more adorable. The titular dachshund is passed from lonely child to wandering young people to middle-aged academic to a bitter elderly lady. There's a lot here about mortality. Solondz may have taken Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) as a model. But, hey, Weiner Dog is still a doggy film.
"Yes, I wanted to do a dog film," he says. "That could go anywhere from a movie like Benji to something like this. I wasn't interested in the trials and triumphs of a dog, but the dog could serve as a conceit. I could create several stories that could be refracted through the prism of this pet. But really, the movie is more about mortality. It's about the shadows on each of these lives."
Let us talk about the challenges of shooting with a canine actor. You have a star to whom you can’t reason. Suddenly, trainers are part of the team.
“Oh, I can’t even begin to talk about the trainers,” Solondz groans. “The quote-unquote trainers? I survived it, and overall I am glad I did it. I would not have said that while making it. This is a breed that’s been bred in such a way as to keep them cute. But there is a price in other aspects of their constitution. The main one in this case is intelligence. I had no idea this breed was so lacking in intelligence.”
Solondz seems to have lightened up a little over the years. Now 56, he is not quite so pinched and introspective as he was when we first met more than a decade ago. He enjoys laughing at himself. He savours the universe's absurdity. But the artistic sensibility is similar to the one he revealed a few years after graduating from Yale University: chilly, bleakly funny, borderline misanthropic.
Raised in a middle-class Jewish family, Solondz studied English literature, but soon realised that his career would lie elsewhere: “I guess I initially thought it would be neat to be a professor because I’d be surrounded by people who would be reasonable,” he laughs. “Everything is a life lesson. Right?”
Before he got to college, he worked on musical projects and writing plays. Watching movies in the evening at Yale swung his psyche in a different direction.
"When I went to college it was before VHS even existed," he said. "We had screenings all the time. You could see the Marx Brothers followed by Maya Deren all in the same night. Because I was socially shy when I started, those screenings became a sanctuary. I had fallen in love with the movies in my youth. But it was so distant. There was no sense of possibility. I didn't know what a director was."
The Marx Brothers and Maya Deren? Absurdist comics and a spooky experimentalist? That doesn't quite get the Todd Solondz sensibility, but he has always combined comedy with unease to original effect. As for the lack of "possibility", Solondz arrived just as the independent scene was opening up new thoroughfares.
His first film, a musical called Fear, Anxiety & Depression (that title a virtual manifesto for the Solondz project), vanished without leaving any ripples in 1989. Made for $800,000, Welcome to the Dollhouse was swept along by the same indie revolution that brought us Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Weinstein, Todd Haynes and Sundance Fever.
One can only imagine the online furore that would greet Happiness if it was released today. Back in 1998, the internet was still background noise that could be avoided. Solondz's decision to write a major – not wholly unsympathetic – character as a predatory paedophile would now kick up a digital hurricane.
“I don’t know. That may be true,” he says. “Something has to be fresh to have a theatrical life now. To get them off their couches, it has to be the right kind of controversy to elicit that. The ways in which people talk online are monstrous. There is this shaming and cruelty on the Twitter-sphere.
“That’s fine. You have to take the good with the bad. But I don’t think it would have inhibited the release of that film if it had happened 20 years later. There were just as many haters then as there are now.
Solondz uses a word – “haters” – that didn’t really exist in 1998. “Yeah. Hey look. I’m trying to stay hip and now. Ha ha!”
Like most of that generation, Solondz now finds it tricky to finance films with mid-level budgets. Films either cost $100 million or $3 million. But he is one of those less mainstream film- makers (Jim Jarmusch, Woody Allen and Park Chan-wook are others) who have been taken under the wing of Amazon Studios, which has committed itself to releasing its features into cinemas before they stream. This sounds like a lifeline.
“When I go to the movies, I still go to the movie theatre,” he says. “I am attached to the romance of the movie theatre. I think accordingly and design accordingly. It is much more rare for young people to have that attachment. As far as Amazon goes, I am grateful there is still an entity that is interested in movies.”
We need the likes of Todd Solondz. There is too much complacency and blandness in contemporary culture. We need his edge and his unflinching eye. I hope he’ll reassure us that he’s going nowhere.
“I always like to set myself up for failure. I am lucky and grateful to have done what I’ve done. But I am hopeful that I’ll do another. Always hopeful.”