Spinning Platters Interview: Todd Solondz on “Dark Horse”

by Jason LeRoy on July 26, 2012

Jordan Gelber and Selma Blair in DARK HORSE

Ever since his 1995 breakout Welcome to the Dollhouse, writer/director Todd Solondz, 52, has continued to plumb the depths of soul-sick suburban alienation with equal parts open-hearted compassion and satirical ruthlessness. While he is prone to subjecting his characters to the most profoundly unsettling social and psychological horrors imaginable (this arguably reached its nadir with his notorious 1998 epic Happiness and its wrenching pedophile protagonist), it is always clear that he loves and embraces them in all their sad, desperate flailing for love and validation. And while Solondz’s protagonists have always been underdogs, his latest film both deconstructs and transcends that familiar archetype. It is titled, appropriately, Dark Horse.

A tender and pointed rumination on the increasingly ubiquitous schlubby man-child persona that has permeated our culture in recent years (think Kevin James and Vince Vaughn), Dark Horse is the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), an obnoxious and overweight thirty-something who still lives with his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) and works in his father’s office. But despite his inauspicious circumstances, Abe carries himself with sitcom-like bravado. The film opens with a rambunctious wedding reception dance scene that finds Abe on the sidelines with Miranda (Selma Blair, whose exquisitely mournful features previously graced Solondz’s Storytelling), a downbeat and fragile woman who also recently moved back in with her parents.

Abe decides to begin pursuing Miranda aggressively, and since she is too weak and defeated to resist, the two begin dating. Their comical size difference reads like a parody on the “chubby everyman with the model wife” sitcom model. But despite his garrulous surface, Abe’s insecurities are never far below the surface, especially concerning his successful doctor brother (Justin Bartha). Abe has long been the “dark horse” in the family, but he’s always expected that he’d have his day; that the dark horse would eventually take the lead. However, this being a Todd Solondz film, you can imagine that fate has something considerably darker in store for him.

Co-starring Zachary Booth, Donna Murphy, and Aasif Mandvi, Dark Horse is Solondz’s most accessible film since Dollhouse; his subsequent films (many of which have been set in Solondz’s native New Jersey) have frequently featured incendiary subject matter and experimental structures, which has made financing and distribution a perennial challenge (he is also known for having the same role played by wildly different actors; the protagonist of Palindromes was played by seven separate actresses, and his Happiness sequel, Life During Wartime, featured an entirely new cast). But although it is gentler than his past work, it is still very much in the unmistakably droll and uncompromising voice of Solondz, one of cinema’s last great understated provocateurs.

You’ve mentioned that casting and financing came easier for Dark Horse than your previous films. Do you think that was related to the relative lack of taboos in the script compared to your other work?

I don’t know if it’s because of the absence of the taboo controversial subject matter, but we did get lucky and the financing happened a lot faster. So while it took five years to get Life During Wartime happening, this one took only two years.

Is that one of the faster turnarounds you’ve experienced?

Yeah, they’d been every three years until Wartime.

Speaking of Wartime, it was your first film to receive the Criterion treatment. How was that collaboration?

They were wonderfully respectful. It was really a totally pleasant experience. I had a lovely person who handled the preparation and design and so forth of the DVD.

It came out beautifully; I have it at home. What inspired the character of Abe?

It’s hard to say. After having written and made it, I can see how it could be viewed as an alternate to the man-child genre, as exemplified by the Apatow movies and the TV shows that are very popular today; but it is a character that is very abrasive and off-putting, not someone you want to have lunch with. But he’s someone that I would rather the audience not dismiss out of hand, but take the time to recognize that there is a kind of vulnerability and an inner life — that he matters, and that our feelings for him matter that much more precisely because he is not a hero.

So you weren’t consciously thinking about sitcoms or Apatow at the beginning?

No, it was only later that I thought about how I wanted the parents watching Seinfeld [in one scene when Abe returns home], because the George Costanza character has a storyline where he’s living with his parents. I wanted to have that playing as a kind of counter-life to the tragic life of the family. That one was an entertaining comedy, but this is the reality watching the show. It’s not the actual Seinfeld — we couldn’t license it — so I had the actual actors come in and read lines in a studio to simulate it.

You had Jason Alexander and Estelle Harris come in and read those lines?

Yes.

Oh, wow. So over the course of the film, we see Abe run the gamut from doggedly optimistic to totally delusional, with one crushing scene opposite Mia Farrow in his bedroom where he seems very much in touch with his bleak reality. Was that a pivotal scene for communicating the vulnerability you hope audiences see in him?

It was important, but at the same time, his philosophy of how horrible humanity really is — it’s not only cynical, it is juvenile. And the movie serves to undermine that, for in fact, the tenderness and affection is out there, and is to be found in unexpected places, and always surprises us. The possibility of grace does exist.

What would you say Abe sees in Miranda?

You could say like a moth to a flame, but there is on some level the recognition that here’s another wounded soul. She lives at home as well, although for very different reasons: she comes crashing home, having failed in some way out there in the world. I think certainly if he meets someone who does live at home, it takes off the stigma of his own situation a little bit.

The film is underscored by some jarringly saccharine anonymous pop songs. I recognized the ebullient opening song, “Right Hand Hi” by Kid Sister, because it’s on my gym mix. Where on earth did you find the rest of those tracks?

The idea was to find the kind of songs you see on American Idol, a very adolescent pop sort of sound. So my music supervisor did the job of looking for songs that were recorded by aspiring musicians who want to make that big hit song and break through in that way. I sifted through what was submitted to me until I found stuff that I thought would be most appropriate. It is like a loop in Abe’s head; as that cheerfulness continues, it only underscores the pain and sorrow he himself is experiencing.

To what extent would you say Abe is a victim of these kinds of generic cultural messages of happiness and individuality?

You could say in some sense that he’s a victim of the cultural detritus that suffuses our lives. Another journalist just brought up Scooby from Storytelling, and I can see the connection there. But Abe is stymied by it; he has this death in life, and finally finds a kind of life in death. This is a character who is clinging to the hopes and dreams of his youth, and that irretrievability is what torments him. That loss and that plight is a phenomenon I think is very common to a lot of men. I don’t know a lot of women who suffer in this way, or at least deal with it in this way. It’s a fending-off of mortality, I suppose in the same way that women get cosmetic work done. It has the same sort of resonance, but Abe’s drug is his toy collection. That’s his addiction; he’s a case of where a collection is no longer owned by him, but now the collection owns him. That’s when it has become a sort of pathology for him.

On the subject of cultural detritus, what do you make of what New Jersey has come to represent culturally?

Well, my New Jersey is not a literal transposition of what New Jersey is. There are a lot of different aspects to the state like any other, so it’s hard to generalize. When I grew up there, I lived in a suburb and I certainly thought it was a very unattractive suburb. But when I traveled across the country, I came to Los Angeles and I found places that were so much more ugly. But it’s also not just an architectural or an aesthetic issue, obviously it’s a psychological one. And that’s what the movie is interested in examining — both the ugliness and the beauty to be found in this world, both literal and not literal at the same time.

I read that your next project will leave the east coast for the first time?

Yeah, I wrote a script set in Texas. We’re trying to figure out how to get the financing and who’s producing it and so forth. So we’ll see.

At this point, can you see any of the characters from Dark Horse living on in your imagination and inspiring future stories?

I don’t have any plans at present. The Texas script involves no preexisting characters. But if there is an opportunity to make another project, who knows?

Finally, just as a fan, I’m curious if there are any real-life figures you’ve ever considered making a film about. You’ve given us so many unforgettable fictional characters.

There are a lot of people that are compelling. The problem is I’m too distracted by my fictions.

Dark Horse is currently playing in San Francisco.

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