“I’ve got a blow up doll, and she looks like you, little girl...” sings ultra-cool high schooler Steve Rodgers in a garage while 12-year-old Dawn Wiener watches from the hood of a car, dancing in Todd Solondz’s 1995 cult film Welcome to the Dollhouse. The relationship between Rodgers and Wiener— her idolizing him with an ardent, pre-teen lust; him drinking up her attentions like only a suburban egotistical teen can do—skirts the line between uncomfortable and inappropriate in a way that has become a trademark for Solondz.
This year, the acclaimed independent filmmaker has brought back his homely but tenacious character Dawn for a new film Wiener-Dog. Following four narratives tied together by a dachshund, the film is opened with a long shot of the titular canine staring longingly out at the audience from her crate. The film has no soundtrack, but in that moment, we are all wiener dog.
In the 90 minutes that follow, we are bounced from one moment to the next through a complex web of bliss and despair told through vignettes featuring an affluent family with a sick child; grown up versions of old friends; a film professor who reaches his breaking point; and an unhealthy relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter.
Shortly after seeing Wiener Dog, we spent the morning musing with Solondz about life, storytelling, and his latest film.
You grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. What was that like?
My dream was that I would come to live here, in New York. That was the Oz. And in that sense I’m living out my dream. It’s a funny thing that as an adult at this point in my life I see a lot of people who grew up in places not far from where I grew up who have flourishing, successful, interesting sorts of artistic careers, but growing up as I did it just felt like a wasteland. The idea of having contact with artists and so forth was such... it felt so unreachable. My family had a very middle class kind of lifestyle where they socialized with lawyers or dentists or accountants and so my life is very different from what I grew up with.
You discovered filmmaking at a bit of a later stage, right?
I wasn’t a prodigy. I suppose I had to fail at a number of things before I found my way. I think it’s nice being older instead of younger. People tend to dread age but, to me, I would never want to relive my youth—my 20s and so forth. Life definitely got better as I got older. You have less time so you have to use it more wisely.
Did the conceptualization of Wiener-Dog stem the nickname for your character Dawn Wiener from Welcome To The Dollhouse?
Well I thought of a dog, and then I thought of a wiener dog once I thought of Dawn Wiener. I just wrote through it. Like in any writing process, you find it as you write. I don’t work with outlines. You hope you’ll find your way through this, and that—it’s a process. I’ve been writing since [I started] reading, so it’s something that’s been part of my nature. And that’s always been the grounding through which I’ve been able to construct these movies.
It is interesting that you used two characters from Welcome to the Dollhouse, portrayed by different actors—
I feel free to try things out; it’s kind of like different costumes, different embodiments, and it’s very freeing. There is the kind of character that recurs from picture to picture—in the classic, the Antoine Doinel kind of series where you see him grow, the actor, from movie to movie. It signifies a sense of mortality to the audience. You achieve different things, though, when you recast a character and different kinds of means can evolve, or different colors, shades, and that’s neat—what different actors can bring to a part. It opens up all sorts of questions—look [at] an actor’s face, that’s a whole story right there and it’s for you to mine as a filmmaker.
I’ve noticed that when you use music in your films it tends to be very pointed and specific and not done to any excessive amount. What do you think about the power of music or the power of silence?
It’s the way you orchestrate all of this. On the one hand, it can serve as a kind of counterpoint, and on the other hand it can serve to accentuate an emotional experience. It can, at it’s best, add meaning rather than repeat what we already see visually. I love music. I would have been a musician had I had the talent. I love working with musicians and composers—that’s one of my favorite parts of the process.
If you could impart one lasting legacy, what would you want it to be?
I don’t really think too much about legacy, but I always hope that I make movies that ll a certain gap in what’s out there that provides a certain kind of solace or consolation—that sense that you are not alone—that is not supplied by those films that are much more popular.