Todd Solondz is a polarizing moviemaker, to be sure, but no one can deny that the man has a distinctive style.
His last film, 2011’s Dark Horse, and his newest, Wiener-Dog, may be the two most disparate films of his career, but they’re both unmistakably Todd Solondz films.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Solondz changed course with Wiener-Dog, eschewing the single-character perspective of Dark Horse (which, though one of his most engaging works, received little positive attention from critics and audiences) to join the pantheon of Solondz ensemble anthology films. Wiener-Dog is in the vein of his biggest success, 1998’s Happiness, and is even more akin to his experimental 2004 film, Palindromes, which shares Wiener-Dog‘s episodic nature as it follows a single character on a somewhat disturbing journey.
Recurring Solondz character Dawn Wiener (played by Heather Matarazzo in Solondz’s 1995 breakthrough Welcome to the Dollhouse, and whose funeral made for a setting in Palindromes) is back in Wiener-Dog, and played by Greta Gerwig. That said, this movie is not titled for her. Its star is an actual wiener dog—an adorable Dachshund puppy—who ends up in the hands of several owners over the course of the story.
“Every time you make a movie,” Solondz says, “you want to do something different. By definition, it’s a progression. I always try to do something I haven’t done before.”
Asked about the cinematic inspiration for Wiener-Dog‘s misadventures, Solondz mentions Robert Bresson’s brilliantly elliptical, mournful Au Hasard Balthazar, and then “on the other end of the spectrum, Benji. Somewhere in between there, that’s sort of where I was headed.” The dog, he says, is “a conceit… something that seems rich in possibility, and can be absorbed in different ways.”
It’s safe to say Wiener-Dog lands well on the Balthazar side of that ledger. Its humor does not go down easily, and it explores mortality in an increasingly despairing manner. It does, however, encompass some surprisingly compassionate moments—which perhaps distributor Amazon Studios was banking on when it picked the film up at Sundance for, reportedly, a low-seven-figure number.
Regarding the plot, the canine protagonist is named Wiener-Dog by her first owner, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a young boy who’s recently undergone an unpleasant treatment for a potentially fatal illness. Remi’s gruff father (Tracy Letts) buys him the pup over the objections of his protective mother (Julie Delpy). Neither seems to have much interest in or knowledge of how to train the pooch, so she’s left in a cage in the basement, which naturally arouses the sensitive boy’s sympathies. As with many of Solondz’s child characters, Remi is full of questions about the ways of the world. (About that motif in his work, Solondz says, “It just seems to be very normal for these characters, a way of generating a setting that makes sense, in which the subjects can be discussed.”)
Remi’s mother’s efforts to explain why Wiener-Dog has to be spayed go completely off the rails, side-tracking into a sordid tale of venereal disease, interspecies rape and death. The segment’s climax occurs when Remi’s parents leave him alone with the dog, and he unwisely feeds it a granola bar, resulting in the most prolonged use of diarrhea as a plot device since Dumb & Dumber.
Because the film was shot by the venerable cinematographer Ed Lachman (most recently nominated for an Oscar for Carol—though while that was shot on Super 16mm, Wiener-Dog was digital), all the shots of doggy diarrhea are gorgeous, including a curbside tracking shot scored to Claude DeBussy’s “Clair de Lune” that seems to go on for several minutes. It’s in line with the film’s morbid wit that the shot’s length allows the audience’s reaction to change over the course of the shot—from shock to disgust to amusement.
Solondz appreciates the good fortune of working with a DP as accomplished as Lachman. “We’d worked together before [on the Happiness sequel, Life During Wartime], and we have an appreciation for each other’s sensibilities,” he says. “And I’m just very fortunate he was free and available to invest himself on a movie that was such a low budget for him.”
I asked Solondz about how he casts and works with children, as he manages to get affecting performances from them in many of his films. “It’s no different than looking for adult actors,” he says. “People come in. They read. And you pick the one that you think is the most appropriate.”
Referring to the more controversial aspects of his earlier films, he says, “Certainly, in this movie, there was nothing terribly troubling for parents to sign off on.” He’d probably get pushback on that statement from some parents, but Wiener-Dog certainly doesn’t have the deeply disturbing sexual content of some of his previous work.
Dad’s solution to Wiener-Dog’s illness is to have the ailing animal put to sleep, another process Remi’s mother struggles to reconcile with her child. The dog is brought to the vet, where she’s rescued by a rebellious technician—who turns out to be Dawn Wiener. Dawn is living the sad, lonely life viewers might have imagined for her after Dollhouse, but hey, at least she’s alive now. While buying food for the dog, she runs into her old school chum Brandon McCarthy, another Dollhouse character now played by Kieran Culkin.
Does Solondz have a larger master plan in bringing back his own iconic indie characters over and over in new films? According to the moviemaker, not at all. “First of all, I don’t look at anything as iconic. Everyone is just another character. It all came to me in the course of writing it. It wasn’t a pre-planned, calculated move or anything.” (On some level, though, the echo in the title of young Dawn Wiener’s unfortunate nickname must have been a subconscious, at least, evocation of his earlier work.)
Solondz concurs that his reputation for writing meaty roles for actors and the critical acclaim he’s received over the years has made it easier to cast the type of actors who enable him to find funding, but it’s still “every filmmaker’s challenge” to find the right actor for the part. “There’s definitely more pressure to get name actors now than there was, say, 20 years ago,” he says, “but the pressure was always there. It’s always hard to get something off the ground, unless you have a hit movie that preceded it. That makes everything less difficult.”
Gerwig combined the marketability he needed with the specific talent he wanted. “I’d met Greta before, and I had a sense that she would be someone that would really tap into what I was looking for here.” Indeed, Gerwig does convincingly convey the sadness, and the resilient kindness, of the adult Dawn Wiener.
As for Culkin, “I really wanted to work with him,” Solondz says. “I saw him in [a stage production of Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth] one or two years ago, and I really wanted to work with him. I didn’t know if I’d be able to, because he wasn’t a big enough name, but in the end, the producers let me cast him.”
Dawn, who has renamed the pooch Doody, ends up going on an impromptu road trip to Ohio with Brandon, where Brandon visits his brother Tommy (Connor Long) and Tommy’s wife April (Bridget Brown), both of whom have Down’s syndrome, to deliver some bad news. After the Ohio segment, Solondz inserts an “Intermission”—a montage of a few minutes that shows the dog wandering through various vistas, from a baseball field to a strip club, to the strains of “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog,” an original song written for the movie. After the musical interlude, we’re introduced to a new dog owner, Dave Schmertz, a depressive screenwriting professor at NYU, played by Danny DeVito. Schmertz had a screenplay produced years ago, but he’s apparently been struggling for a while with his new one. He seems uninterested in his teaching work, and is often distracted by calls to his agent.
Schmertz seems to take his little Dachshund everywhere, but by now the dog has essentially been relegated to a prop. She grows increasingly peripheral to the plot as the film goes on, and her owners get older. What was the intention of this conceit? Solondz: “If you’re asking if mortality’s a theme, yeah, it is.”
Wiener-Dog‘s depiction of NYU’s vapid students and cynical, burned-out faculty (at least as far as Schmertz is concerned) is less than flattering. Asked if it reflects his own experiences teaching there, the filmmaker demurs, telling me that neither Schmertz nor his students are drawn from anybody in particular. “Not really. We never actually see him teach, but no. I don’t think any of my students would connect me with this character. But you’d have to ask them, I suppose.
“I wrote what was going to be useful to the story,” he says. “And it’s his [Schmertz’s] story. It’s his quest for meaning and redemption. There are so many ways I could have attacked NYU when making the film. If I wanted to make a movie attacking the corruption and ineptitude of a place like NYU, that would be a different movie.”
After Schmertz’s segment ends, Solondz immediately cuts to the dog’s next owner, an elderly woman played by the great Ellen Burstyn, and referred to only as Nana. Her granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet), has come to for a visit, something it’s clear she doesn’t do frequently. She drags along her burly Black conceptual artist boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael James Shaw), who seems very unhappy to be there, and storms off in a huff when Zoe compares his work to that of Damien Hirst. It soon becomes clear that Zoe is only there because she needs money.
As is often the case with Solondz’s work, the scene plays somewhat broadly, but eventually, thanks in part to the strength of Mamet and Burstyn’s work, a heartbreaking flash of humanity arises that sets up a reverie for Nana—a paroxysm of regret followed by the film’s grim punchline. By this point, the little dog is mostly an afterthought, and Zoe is appropriately shocked when Nana tells her she’s named the dog Cancer.
For her small but pivotal role in the film, Zosia Mamet (of Girls fame) took a surprisingly traditional route: “I auditioned for Todd.” Part of the appeal was the chance to work with Burstyn. “To get to act opposite Ellen was something I never dreamed I’d be able to do, and so that, in and of itself, was a huge draw,” she says. “Ellen is a piece of history and a total force. I was definitely excited and, I’m not gonna lie, totally nervous. It was really special because in the thick of it, it was just the two of us; the two of us in the country for two days together.”
Mamet had no qualms about taking a tiny role in the ensemble film. “I don’t think it’s necessarily about the size of the role,” she says. “It’s what I have to offer to it, and what it has to offer to me. I’ll do one scene in a movie if I think it’s different than anything I’ve done before, and if it feels like something that will be challenging and exhilarating.” She took the part in spite of the film’s low budget and her tight schedule. “It was an indie film and so we were fighting time and weather and schedules. I was shooting Girls at the time. They let me out for these two days. It was crazy, as all indie films are, but you know what you’re getting into when you sign up for that.”
So, does Solondz, cinema’s foremost misanthrope, ever feel pressure to make his films more politically correct? “You’d have to be living like a hermit not to be aware of the zeitgeist [toward political correctness],” he says. “It’s been going on for 30-odd years… it’s hard to imagine not being affected by that reality.”
Nevertheless, Solondz admirers would likely be surprised if they ever saw the zeitgeist affecting him very much. MM
Wiener-Dog opens in theaters June 24, 2016, courtesy of Amazon Studios and IFC Films.