Todd Solondz has taken on pedophiles, teen bullies, rapists and all manner of deviants.
But nothing in his previous work will prepare audiences for his latest protagonist — an adorable dachshund. In “Wiener-Dog,” the “Happiness” filmmaker follows the titular pooch as it is passed around from one dysfunctional owner to another. This being a Solondz movie, there’s plenty of dark gags, from explosive doggy diarrhea to an automobile-induced trip to the pet cemetery, that are certain to make the comedy one of the most divisive films to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
It’s the first film Solondz has had at the Park City, Utah, gathering since “Welcome to the Dollhouse” premiered to great acclaim in 1995. In a fitting bit of symmetry, “Wiener-Dog” checks in with that film’s teenage protagonist Dawn Wiener, now living an unfulfilled life as a veterinary assistant. There’s a casting switch though. Greta Gerwig assumes the role in place of “Dollhouse’s” Heather Matarazzo.
Variety spoke to Solondz about the difficulty of working with animals, his television viewing habits and what it’s like to be branded a misanthrope by critics.
Are you a dog person?
I do love dogs, but I don’t have one. It’s too much responsibility. But I grew up with dogs in my family. We went through a number of them. It taught me a lot about mortality.
You said this film was inspired by “Benji”?
On one end of the spectrum is “Au Hasard Balthazar” and on the other is “Benji.” In between the two this movie lies.
How difficult was it to work with the dogs in the film?
This dog was very, very difficult. The problem with the breed, and I learned a certain amount from the ASPCA rep, it’s been bred to maintain a certain physical appearance, but at the expense of damaging itself. It’s not a very intelligent breed. It doesn’t respond to stay or any other commands.
Why use this kind of dog then?
Well I didn’t know about it until it was too late.
Would you describe “Wiener-Dog” as a comedy?
As much as any of my movies are comedies. They’re sad comedies. It’s always a marriage of comedy and pathos.
Do you go to the movies often?
I do love going to the movies. I don’t watch them otherwise unless it’s homework. I don’t like to watch them on TV or the computer. I like to watch them in the movie theater. Many years ago when they invented the DVR you could record all these great movies and you’d have all these great movies recorded, but it would feel like homework to watch them.
I like to go out to see movies on a big screen in a dark room. I like having an audience. That’s what movies are for me.
Do you like television?
I watch it. I mean, I’m not up to date on a lot of things. I know it’s a golden age and there are some things I’ve enjoyed, but I’m out of the loop on a lot of these things and I have to catch up on them.
What shows have you enjoyed?
I finally saw “Breaking Bad” this year. I love Chris Lilley’s work. Lisa Kudrow’s “Comeback” was fun.
Why did you decide to revisit the Dawn Weiner character and why did you decide to use a different actress in that role?
First of all, Heather Matarazzo had made it clear many years ago that she never wanted to play the character again, so that’s a moot point as far as the casting goes. In other work I’ve done, I like to recast. It opens up different possibilities. It seemed nifty that given that the character’s nickname was that kind of dog to go and incorporate her in this story.
You also killed Dawn off in a different film, so is she alive in this fictional universe you’ve created?
I can create a character that has one trajectory and then I can offer another possible life trajectory. I could make her a fashion executive. This is something I have the freedom to do as the author of the character. I don’t want to be constrained by any technicalities.
You teach film at NYU. What do you get out of that experience?
I teach Monday mornings. I love it. I have a great time. I love teaching the students, working with them. They’re like little puzzles. Trying to help them figure out their own solutions.
Danny DeVito’s character in the film is a film school professor and flailing screenwriter. He puts elements into his scripts that are middlebrow because he wants to connect with mainstream audiences. Do you ever feel pressure to make your movies more accessible?
I can’t say anyone has put any pressure on me to put the mafia in there. I don’t think anybody has pushed that. It’s always hard to know what is commercial. Nobody knows ultimately what movie will connect and resonate with audiences. What movie is commercial. There’s not a science to it. I always thought all my movies were commercial, but I’ve always been proven wrong.
If you make under $5 million in the business that’s not called a success. That’s not taken seriously. I don’t think I’m taken seriously in that way, because my movies have never been profitable in that way.
Has it become more difficult since you started working to get financing for independent film?
Getting financed is always difficult. It’s always less difficult if you’re coming off a movie that’s been profitable.
There’s always a plus or a minus to all these advances. With the advent of the Internet, going to the movies as an experience has been displaced. It’s no longer so central culturally in the way it once was. The audience for movies I might make is much smaller than what it once was. Most of my students, they watch things on the Netflix or the download, so they’re not going to theaters. That’s why things are so difficult.
Some reviewers and commentators argue that your films are misanthropic. Do you object to that label?
People say a lot worse than that. I’m not here to dispute. I don’t see it that way, but if one is critical of humanity’s foibles, for some that may be equated with misanthropy. Satire is a very sharp weapon that can illuminate, and misanthropy just feels a little reductive.
Would you say you have a pessimistic view of humanity?
These are broad strokes. Everything’s contextual. If you say, “Don’t get on the plane. it’s going to crash,” maybe you’re needlessly pessimistic. But if there’s a snowstorm and there’s lightening and thunder, maybe it’s not a question of pessimism.