Film Scouts Interviews

Todd Solondz on "Welcome to the Dollhouse"

by Lisa Nesselson

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Deauville, September 6, 1996

"A year ago I was despondent - now I'm living the dream of any young filmmaker," says Todd Solondz, the gifted 36-year-old writer/director of "Welcome to the Dollhouse," the unsettling, cruel and perversely entertaining indie film that won the Grand Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and seems to have a good shot at a prize here in Deauville where it is the last of ten films to be presented in competition. "The title I wanted was "Faggots and Retards"," says Todd, smiling rather sweetly. "This is the language that kids use on a daily basis."

At least they don't miss an opportunity to use it whenever Dawn "Wienerdog" Wiener is on hand, trying desperately to fit in. Dawn, played to earnest, geeky perfection by Heather Matarazzo, now 13, is the designated all-purpose scapegoat and outcast of her 7th grade class at a junior high school in suburban New Jersey. "I made this a brutal, acid sort of movie with a little girl at the center," says Todd of his film, the merciless yet nuanced portrait of an ugly duckling who's not going to turn into a swan anytime soon. "Grown-ups know which things really matter," Todd adds, "but when you're a kid everything is a matter of life or death."

With it's sardonic but tellingly true-to-life episodes of taunting, tattling, teasing and testiness from peers and the thoughtless workaday favoritism of Dawn's own parents as they lavish attention on her disgustingly adorable little sister, "Dollhouse" is the kind of film critics grow extra arms to embrace and the general public sometimes grows extra legs to flee. Sartre's catchy tag line - Hell is other people - sums up the spiffy socio-comic undercurrent of "Dollhouse" as it follows Dawn's infernal existence. (Sartre is no longer with us, but perhaps he would have enjoyed hearing one of the groups the film's composer Jill Wisoff has performed with: Chocolate Bunnies from Hell.)

"Reviewers keep saying it's obviously autobiographical and if I were to make a Western, I hope they'd say the same thing," says Solondz, bemused. "Nothing in the movie actually happened to me but in a way it's as if it had. But just for the record, " - Todd pushes up his oversized glasses as the early afternoon sun hits his Adams apple - "I was not a little girl. I don't have a little sister and so on and so forth. There is no stand-in for me."

"Dollhouse" is a concise 87-minute argument against having a family. Does Solondz think there's any socialization process that's NOT destructive? "Certainly there's a universality of experience in the farewell to childhood," Solondz opines. "There's almost a sort of primal aspect to it. Some cultures foster the behavior more than others - I'm sure America's pretty high on the list. I imagine Margaret Mead might have found places where they're all very nice to each other."

As it turns out, the popular "kids" weren't very nice to "Dollhouse" at first. "Cannes rejected it, Venice rejected it, Telluride rejected it," says Todd, reeling off the names of prominent film festivals. "Toronto was the turning point. "Dollhouse" has a little girl being picked on, after all - but people bought the movie and it's gonna make money."

Good, I say. There are far too many movies that try to get at the essential decency of people. Solondz takes glee in nailing the prevailing cruelty and one-upsmanship at large in many a cherished institution. "Dollhouse" is the true, equally funny, flip side of "Clueless" that proves there is indeed more to life than shopping - there's mental anguish, familial and broader social persecution and the torturous stirrings of pubescent hormones coupled with the soul-deadeningly cheerful veneer of suburbia.

"In American films, this period of life is not treated seriously," says Solondz, mentioning classics of adolescent angst like "Les 400 coups" or "Pixote". "You have either the cute and cuddly Disney kid or the evil devil monster. For me it's fertile territory - middle class kids growing up in the suburbs." Todd especially relished the chance to capture "that correctional facility architecture that is endemic to the landscape of American suburbia."

After a few of his NYU Film School short films drew attention in the 1980s, Solondz was offered three-picture deals by two major Hollywood studios. But his feature debut, 1989's "Fear, Anxiety and Depression" went nowhere fast and Solondz dropped out of showbiz. After a few years of "happily teaching English to recent Russian immigrants," Todd decided to jump back into the creative fray when a lawyer friend said she could arrange financing for a low-budget effort.

Solondz says he took it as a compliment when parents of prospective cast members called the script "sickening" or "depressing" since that jibes perfectly with the world he was trying to portray. The film was shot in the summer of 1994 in West Caldwell, New Jersey.

Now go buy a ticket or I'll tell everybody you're a retard and you eat boogers.

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