Illustration by Charles Burns

Todd Solondz

[WRITER AND DIRECTOR]

“I AM OFTEN UNSETTLED BY THE RESPONSES SOME PEOPLE HAVE HAD TO MY MOVIES, AND THAT INCLUDES MANY PEOPLE WHO LIKE THEM.”
Disliking:
Victim stories
Losing anonymity
People who laugh at the expense of others
Censorship
Pretty waitresses who call you “Sweetie”

Todd Solondz was born in 1959 in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in the suburbs. As a student at NYU film school, he made several shorts, one of which in particular attracted enough attention to get him a three-picture deal with Twentieth-Century Fox. Unfortunately, the experience of making his first feature, Fear, Anxiety, and Depression (“I’m asking you, as my friend, don’t rent it, don’t try to see it”), was enough to turn him from filmmaking for years. During that time, he took a job teaching English to Russian immigrants at a school in New York where I too was teaching and where, in 1993, we first met. Three years later, “in part to redeem myself from the horror of my first feature experience,” Solondz returned to filmmaking with a low-budget independent feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, after securing another three-picture deal with Columbia. The film received the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as an award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Dollhouse was followed by Happiness (1998), which won the International Critics Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay. Solondz’s next film, Storytelling (2001), premiered at Cannes and was also included in the New York and Sundance film festivals.

Palindromes, Solondz’s new film, premiered in fall 2004 at the Venice International Film Festival. It was also included in the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. A story about a young girl who seeks to fill her emotional emptiness by becoming pregnant, Palindromes has divided festival audiences and provoked extreme responses. Critics have described it variously as “enthralling,” “tasteless and exploitative,” “a film without scruples,” “Solondz’s best film yet,” and his one film “most likely to piss people off.” Palindromes opens in U.S. theaters in April, 2005.

We met in various locations this past summer and early fall. The weather being often fine, much of our time together included long walks, usually in the evening, in downtown Manhattan.

—Sigrid Nunez

I. “PERFECT STRANGERS HAVE ALWAYS FELT
FREE TO SAY THINGS TO ME IN THE STREET,
OR SHOUT THINGS FROM PASSING CARS.”

TODD SOLONDZ: You know what happened today? One of those giant roaches flew through the window into my apartment. I couldn’t believe it. At first I thought it was a bat.

SIGRID NUNEZ: A water bug! Oh, those are awful. Everyone’s afraid of them. But as far as I know, they’re harmless.

TS: Well, just the idea of having one flying around your house… Then of course I had to catch the thing and kill it.

SN: I was reading in bed once and I saw one run under the bed. I didn’t know what to do. I knew I couldn’t kill it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

TS: So what did you do?

SN: I took a double dose of sleeping pills.

TS: Oh, no! But what I can’t figure out is this: I live on the eighth floor. How did it get up there? Does this mean, way up in the sky, roaches are flying around?

SN: My guess is it crawled part of the way, saw your open window, and flew in. You need to get screens.

But enough about cockroaches. Let’s talk about “Solondzian cruelty,” a phrase I just saw in a review of someone else’s movie. Every time you make a movie you get hit with the same mud: mean, cruel, perverse, hateful, misanthropic, et cetera.

TS: Yep. Every time. [Big sigh]

SN: You are one of the least cruel people I’ve ever known. So what’s going on?

TS: I think people have a lot of trouble figuring out what I’m trying to do. In particular, people have trouble understanding where I stand in relation to my characters, and very often this gets reduced to me making vicious fun of them. Ever since Welcome to the Dollhouse, whenever a new movie comes out with characters who are portrayed as “geeky” or grotesque or who are humiliated in some way, someone is sure to compare them to mine.

One thing I want to say: I don’t like victim stories and I don’t write them. For example, I never saw Dawn Wiener [the main character in Dollhouse] as a victim, or intended Dollhouse as a victim story. That is definitely a misunderstanding between me and a part of my audience. To be honest, I am often unsettled by the responses some people have had to my movies, and that includes many people who like them. There can be a blurry line between laughing at the expense of a character and laughing at the recognition of something painful and true. But blurry as it may be, it is nevertheless unmistakable, and sometimes the laughter I hear makes me wince. “Why do you make movies about such ugly people?” I’ve been asked. Well, I don’t see them as ugly. And this is why when Storytelling came out, I said: “My movies are not for everybody, especially for people who like them.”

Another unfortunate thing is the way some people see me as dissecting my characters in some kind of heartless, coldblooded, analytical way, when in truth making these movies is a passionate, intensely emotional experience for me. I’m detached from the characters only to the degree that I have to be in order to write honestly about them. I admit there’s an element of brutality in all my work—it’s part of the truth about human existence I always want to explore—but the last thing I’m trying to do is put on some kind of freak show, inviting people to get off on other people’s pain and humiliation.

SN: But there are also plenty of people who find your attitude toward your characters empathetic and compassionate. They might not crop up as often as cruel, but I’ve seen the words tender and poetic and sweet and even spiritual used to describe your films. And I’m thinking how the portrait of the pedophile in Happiness was described by the movie’s producer as “nonjudgmental,” which is certainly accurate, but for me and many others it was also an extremely compassionate portrait, because of the way you allowed this character to fall to the very bottom, morally speaking, without ever stripping him of his humanity.

I think what confuses people is that the films are all black or—since I know you reject that description—sad comedies. If we’re laughing while watching these characters suffer, it can certainly feel—much as you don’t want this—as though we were laughing at them. And though I know you want to have it both ways, not everyone in the audience is able to escape the guilty feeling of having belly laughed at someone else’s pain. Then there’s the matter of casting.

TS: Yes. Something that drives me crazy is when I hear people talk about some of the actors in my movies, or about someone I’m considering casting, and they say, “Oh, that person is perfect because he or she is so grotesque, so disgusting.” And they assume I share these feelings.

And that reminds me. There was this one particular guy who interviewed me once and who really seemed to like me when we met. Then I read his piece, and he just went on and on, about how funny-looking I was, you know, and how I was the worst dresser, making me out to be this bizarre freaky little character, in a way that I just wanted to punch him. Then there was this reviewer who loved Dollhouse but couldn’t stop himself from saying the most awful things about the way I look and about the way Heather Matarazzo [the actor who plays Dawn Wiener] looks. Someone in the audience at a screening one time yelled “Freak!” when I walked onstage, and there are people who, without blinking an eye, refer to me as “the geek director.” All these people—to me, they’re exactly like the seventh-graders in Dollhouse whose cruelty I was portraying. And they don’t have a clue!

When I want to show the kind of meanness people are capable of, to make it believable I find I have to tone it down. It’s in real life that people are over the top. And if I have a certain view of how people behave in this regard, it’s because I’ve been a target for a certain kind of comment all my life. Perfect strangers have always felt free to say things to me in the street, or shout things from passing cars.

SN: Oh, god. Do you remember that time we were leaving Pastis and we passed that table full of drunks and they all started pointing and screaming at you, “Buddy Holly! Buddy Holly!”?

TS: Believe me, “Buddy Holly” would be one of the nicer things shouted at me. The funny thing is, strangers still seem to feel comfortable coming up to me and saying things, but now usually it’s because they recognize me, and they say nice things.

But I want to go back to the question of humor. It’s true, I do want to have it both ways. So far, at least, I haven’t found a way to tell my kind of stories without making them both sad and funny. And the comedy in my movies—among other things, it enables me to deal with the forbidden. When part of what you’re trying to get at is the truth hidden under a taboo, or when you want to nail a hypocrisy, laughter is a very useful tool. I want to show the painful side of existence, but there is no question I also want to make people laugh.

SN: But in fact, you’ve always wanted to make people laugh, right? Didn’t you once think of doing standup comedy?

TS: Yes, but that was for a fleeting moment and came to nothing.

SN: Like your dream of being a musician.

TS: No, that was something I seriously wanted to do, and would have done had I had the talent.

SN: You’ve done some acting, too, but you don’t do it anymore, even though you enjoyed it and once thought it would be part of your life. Now when you’re offered roles you turn them down.

TS: Well, first of all, I’m not that good. And secondly, I’m seldom offered anything. But you’re right, I did think about acting more and then decided against it. Part of it has to do with this business of being approached in public. I have a distinctive look—it’s partly the glasses I wear—and people seem to remember me once they’ve seen me. But anonymity is very important to me, and I don’t want to be recognized in public more than I already am.

SN: It’s true. You do get recognized all the time.

TS: I mean, I don’t want to sound—of course it’s very nice, people come up and say appreciative things about my work. But the loss, in terms of privacy and anonymity, is no small thing to me. In fact, I’ve decided it might help if, from now on, I don’t wear my glasses for any more photos or TV interviews.

SN: You could also consider getting different glasses.

TS: But I like these glasses! And that’s just what I’m saying. I would never want to be like certain people, who change the way they dress, go out in disguise, wear a big floppy hat and dark shades. I would hate that.

SN: But you did change your glasses, I remember, when you were casting Dollhouse.

TS: Yes, but that was only because I wanted to appear as “normal” as possible to the children I was auditioning. I didn’t want them to be uncomfortable around me. Or maybe the simple truth is I didn’t want to risk their making fun of me.

SN: Well, I don’t know. How disappointing, if that’s your reason for not doing any more acting. It seems a sad reason to me.

TS: No, it’s a perfectly logical reason. And anyway, it’s really not that important to me. I don’t have any driving desire to act.

SN: But your experience must help you in working with actors? Ellen Barkin [who plays a role in Palindromes] said working with you was the best experience of her career.

TS: I think it helps me empathize with them. Several actors have said to me, “I’m so glad to have a director who talks to me.”

SN: But I would have thought all directors must talk, must explain to the actors what they want from them?

TS: Not at all. Some directors hardly talk to the actors at all.

SN: Something else I was remembering: How it bothered you when we were in another restaurant and the waitress called you “sweetie.” She was very young and very pretty. And you didn’t like that, her calling you sweetie. You said it was too familiar.

TS: No, I didn’t like it. Why should I like it? It was too familiar, and in a way you could say it was also emasculating. If I wanted to I could read it as, “You’re no sexual threat, sweetie.”

SN: Well, I guess… if you wanted to. But here’s a question: Can you give me an example of what you would call gratuitous meanness or cruelty in a film?

TS: Sure. Fahrenheit 9/11. Wolfowitz wetting his comb. There was absolutely no purpose in including that scene except to humiliate him.

SN: I agree. And boy, did it work.

You’ve accused me of meanness. For example, that time we were both being critical about [a certain person we both disliked], but you drew the line when I said she had teeth just like a horse. Remember?

TS: No, I don’t remember. But yes, that is the kind of thing that would really bother me. People can’t help how they look.

SN: Well, people can’t help what their IQ is, either, but it seems to me I’ve heard you criticize people for not being smart any number of times.

TS: That’s different, I think.

SN: Oh no, it’s not! But wait, where the hell are we?

TS: I don’t know, I’ve never been here before. Looks like a housing project. I see water. Let’s walk down there.

SN: I don’t know, Todd. It’s so deserted.

TS: But I’m feeling adventurous.

SN: And I’m feeling it’s late, it’s dark—

TS: Don’t worry. I’ll protect you!

SN: Don’t say that so loud. It might sound like a challenge.

TS: Wouldn’t be much of a challenge, would it? [Laughs]

SN: Oh, Todd, I think we should get out of here.

TS: You’re right, you’re right. But look at the bridge. What bridge is that?

SN: I have no damn idea.

TS: But look at it! From this point of view—the architecture—we could be in the nineteenth century.

SN: You look at the bridge. I’m watching our backs here.

TS: You’re funny.

SN: And we look like such tourists, you in that shirt and me with this backpack. “Two dead tourists found under the Whatever-it-is Bridge….”

TS: OK, OK, we’re going.

II. “MANY PEOPLE THINK MY MOVIES COME OUT OF
THE DEEPEST FEELINGS OF BITTERNESS AND CYNICISM AND
HOSTILITY AND NOT OUT OF ANY POSITIVE FEELINGS AT ALL.”

SN: Aside from turning down opportunities to act, you’ve also turned down a number of scripts. You’ve always been willing to consider adapting someone else’s work, but in the end you’re never tempted. Why?

TS: Well, so far, at least, my own ideas always take priority over those of other writers. As long as the well doesn’t run dry, I imagine this will be the case. And this seems only natural and logical. I mean, there are many other directors who are probably both more skilled and excited to adapt novels or work within certain genre conventions. I’d like to do that kind of work someday, but for better or worse I’m too drawn by my own material.

SN: I was also thinking more about this question of anonymity and privacy, and how sometimes I think you take it too far. For example, how much it bothered you when you heard that I’d recommended a film to a friend of mine because you’d spoken highly of it.

TS: Yes, that did make me angry. The idea that people would be going to a movie because of what I said about it. It makes me feel, I don’t know, arrogant, self-important, self-aggrandizing, whatever. Like I’m being used—

SN: That’s crazy.

TS: You asked me, and I’m just trying to explain how I feel.

SN: For me to say to a friend, “Oh, I haven’t seen that film yet myself but Todd really liked it.” How fucking sinister is that? How can that make you angry?

TS: OK, OK. I admit, I’m hypersensitive about this. I’m not sure why it’s so embarrassing, but it definitely brings out a sense of shame in me.

SN: Ah! A writer I know once said that she always felt there was something shaming about publishing her fiction, and John Banville said something very similar in an interview in [this magazine]. I don’t understand it, but I do know the feeling. Is that the way you feel, too?

TS: Absolutely. Before Dollhouse came out I was in agony. I was overwhelmed by the fear that I’d done this awful thing and was about to be exposed and humiliated before the entire universe. Part of the shame has to do with a sense of presumptuousness. Like, who the hell are you to make a movie?

SN: And I just read somewhere that Marlon Brando felt that way about being an actor: embarrassed and ashamed.

But I wanted to talk a little about how secretive you are. For example, the great pains you take to keep your movies under wraps for as long as possible, refusing to divulge anything about them before they come out, and asking other people to keep silent as well. Other directors aren’t like that. Why so mysterious?

TS: Well, you know, when it’s your baby, you feel protective. And the more a movie is talked about, the more the response to it is going to be colored and even tainted, I think, by that talk. And my work always seems to provoke a lot of controversy, and of course I don’t want the controversy to overwhelm the experience of watching the movie itself.

But I know I’m extreme. I mean, when I go to the Korean grocer, I ask for a paper bag instead of plastic so it won’t be known to the world what I bought.

SN: That’s right, sweetie, keep ’em guessing. I remember once I got in the elevator of my building with a plastic grocery bag, and one of my neighbors cocked her head and said, “A yam and an apple. I always like to see what single people buy.” In fact, I wasn’t single at the time. She was a perfectly nice woman—

TS: No, she was not a nice woman. That’s just what I mean. What a thing for her to say!

SN: Now where are we? Weehawken Street. Why do we always end up on these streets I’ve never heard of? Should we turn back?

TS: No. Let’s keep walking. You know, I’ve always been told that I’m too secretive. People say, “You don’t share enough, you should open up more, and You’re a hard nut to crack.” But you know, the times I have opened up,

I can’t say I really felt better afterward. In fact, I’ve felt kind of regretful and even degraded. And whenever anyone says to me “You’re a hard nut to crack,” it just makes me more wary.

SN: Like when people say to you, Trust me?

TS: Exactly. Do you want to go get some ice cream?

SN: OK.

Another word used to describe you and your work a lot is dark. Andrew Sarris, no fan of yours, says your films are too dark. And I told you about that person who supposedly worked on one of your films who said—this was gossip repeated at a party—“Todd Solondz is just like his films: very dark.”

TS: I have no idea who that person might be. But yes, “dark” is another one of those negatives often used against me.

SN: But “dark” doesn’t have to be negative.

TS: Believe me, when applied to me and my work, it’s meant to be negative. Many people think my movies come out of the deepest feelings of bitterness and cynicism and hostility and not out of any positive feelings at all.

SN: It’s funny, I remember how shocked I was when I saw you described somewhere as evil. Of course I know there is this dark, pessimistic, closed side to you. But in many ways you’re also very open, and full of curiosity about other people and life in general. And I would never describe you as dark or misanthropic. In fact, I think of you as a sunny person, very cheerful and fun to be with, just the person one wants to see come round the corner—

TS: If you say so.

SN: There’s also that side of you that’s like a child who’s never grown up. I often feel when I’m with you as if

I were twelve years old again.

TS: I’ll take that as a compliment.

SN: Other times I feel like I’m in a Woody Allen movie. [Laughter] I’ve known you for more than ten years, since before you made Dollhouse. And basically you’re the same. You still live by yourself, in the same place. Your lifestyle hasn’t really changed. You’re still a solitary and, for all your success, unspoiled. Except for having become middle-aged, you haven’t changed at all.

TS: Why do you say this to me? What did you expect? Why would I have changed?

SN: Well, it does happen, you know. It’s a cliché, and I’ve seen it happen. Success does change people.

TS: I think you have an exaggerated sense of my success. Do you want any of this ice cream before I throw it away?

SN: But you’ve only had one bite!

TS: I don’t really want it. My stomach is a little upset.

SN: Oh, no. I hope it wasn’t the conversation.

TS: No, it was the Moroccan dinner.

III. “STORYTELLING IS THE ONLY STUDIO MOVIE
WHERE THE CENSORSHIP IS PERFECTLY CLEAR, THE ONLY
STUDIO MOVIE WITH A BIG RED BOX COVERING UP A SHOT.”

SN: You and I have seen so many movies together, but I’m still often surprised at your responses. The way you gasp at violence, for example, or get squeamish at the sight of gore, even when it’s very fake. And you go “aww” when a cute animal appears, and I recall you made an indescribable sound during the extraordinary sex scene in Strayed. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who responds as viscerally as you do to what’s on screen.

TS: Yes, but oddly enough, not to comedy. I’ve always said that I myself am not the best audience for my own work, because I’m just not that receptive to comedy.

SN: But you love funny movies.

TS: Yes, but that’s different from liking comedies. All I mean is, I’m not the kind of audience comedy directors want at a test screening because I seldom laugh, and if I do, it’s not very loud. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the movie. On the other hand, when it comes to violence, I can be a bit too audible. When I was making Storytelling, I couldn’t watch while the violent sex scene between the student and the professor was being shot. It was too intense.

SN: Well, we here in America didn’t get to watch it either, of course, because it was blocked by that famous red rectangle. But in the end you weren’t entirely displeased with that, right?

TS: Well, needless to say, I would have preferred the scene to be shown untouched. But I was not entirely displeased with the block for a very specific reason. In the contract, I had stated that I would not cut anything or change any lines in order to get an R rating. I would agree only to boxes and bleeps. As a result, what the audience sees in my movie is a pure example of censorship. Usually the audience has no idea that the censored version of whatever movie they’re watching isn’t the original. Storytelling is the only studio movie where the censorship is perfectly clear, the only studio movie with a big red box covering up a shot. I take pride in that—and, of course, in having avoided the fate of Eyes Wide Shut.

Notice, by the way, how nobody uses the word censorship. Instead, everyone talks about “the rating system.” But most Americans have no idea how abridged the work they end up seeing on screen really is, how different from what the director originally intended. With Storytelling, at least, it’s explicit: this is what the censors say American citizens, no matter what age, are not permitted to see, even though it can be seen by other people all over the world. I suppose you could call it a political statement.

SN: I know so many novelists who don’t read other novelists, especially not their contemporaries. But you watch movies all the time. Do you get a lot of your ideas from other movies?

TS: Well, when I write something, I end up taking elements from different places, and of course, sometimes there might be an element from another movie. For example, with Happiness, one thing I had in mind was the character of Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. But I was also thinking of Lolita. Then I took the character of Vlad from A Feather on the Breath of God. I even thought you might be angry at me for that, but I loved that character—

SN: In my book he’s called Vadim. And you made him a much less romantic, much sleazier character. Vadim would never have hit his wife, you know. But the filmmaker I always think of when I think of your work is Fassbinder. Fox and His Friends, for example.

TS: Well, I certainly admire Fassbinder and I particularly love Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, but I can’t really say he’s been an important influence. I wish he were, but in fact I’ve been more shaped by the TV pop culture I grew up with.

SN: Can we sit in the park for a while? It’s such a beautiful night.

TS: Sure. You know, when I was young and growing up in the suburbs, where there was nothing to excite me, no real culture or stimulation, no real adventure, I thought all the time about how one day I’d move here and my life would be like this. I’d live and work in Manhattan, and there’d always be something happening. And in the end, for me, it’s not so much about the theatre and the museums and galleries and so on. It’s about the streets, and the life of the streets, and the endless parade of different kinds of people, and how you can never get enough of it. It’s always there and you never grow tired of it, just going out and walking or sitting and watching it all. But how many times in life does it actually happen, that you dream that something will be magical, and it turns out to be just so?

IV. “I SEE PALINDROMES AS MY
SADDEST FILM TO DATE, AND I SEE
IT ALSO AS MY TENDEREST FILM.”

SN: Now that I’ve seen Palindromes, I have to ask you first about your decision to use eight different actors to play the role of Aviva [the main character]. You had this radical idea from the start?

TS: Yes, I was very excited about it but I also knew I was taking a huge risk. It’s never really been done before, not in this way. The idea came to me partly because of the response so many people had to the character of Dawn Wiener in Dollhouse. So many people who saw the movie, no matter how different they were from one another, said the same thing. They said, “That was me! I was just like Dawn Wiener!” And so I started wondering what it would be like to create a character who was played by different actors of widely varying types, what that might mean in terms of audience identification as well as sympathy for the character. But it was more than that. I had a vision that in the end, paradoxically, Aviva could turn out to be a deeper and more poignant character for having been played by different actors than if she’d been developed in the conventional way. Also, the magical aspect of the device appealed to me. I wanted to take imaginative liberties with this movie, which I see as a kind of fable.

SN: And the odd and even more paradoxical thing is, you wanted to use the device of changing actors to help make one of the film’s most important points, which is how, in the end, Aviva’s character doesn’t change.

TS: Yes. With all the actors who play Aviva—and that includes a six-year-old girl, four adolescent girls, one adolescent boy, and two adult women—I wanted exactly the same thing from them, the same quality of innocence and fragility. At the end of her adventures, many of which are grim, Aviva remains the same girl. I don’t mean she hasn’t changed in any way at all. But her core is the same. She’s still the same vulnerable, love-seeking girl, no less innocent than at the start.

SN: Dollhouse is very much a part of this story, no? Palindromes is dedicated to Dawn Wiener’s memory, it begins with Dawn’s funeral, Aviva is Dawn’s cousin, and at one point Dawn’s brother, Mark, appears and gives a very loaded speech about human nature and the limitations of our capacity for change and transformation—a speech most people will take as an expression of your own view. Would they be right?

TS: Not quite. I agree with most of what he says, but I don’t take it all with such a sense of bleakness and doom. Yes, free will and choice may be illusions, but accepting one’s flaws and limitations can be liberating. Anyway, I had to bring the Wieners into the picture for a reason. Here I was, writing another story about a young girl who has certain similarities to the protagonist of Dollhouse, and I felt I couldn’t just ignore this. I had to deal with the Wieners in order to get past them, if you know what I mean.

SN: We’ve talked some about influences, about how elements of other films might get into your own films. In Palindromes there are echoes of The Wizard of Oz, Night of the Hunter, Alice in Wonderland. What else?

TS: Well, I was also thinking of Gulliver’s Travels. You know, going on a long journey and arriving in a strange world where everyone is different from you. And Huckleberry Finn. But let’s be careful here. I thought of these other movies and I reference them, in the same way I did Shadow of a Doubt while making Happiness. But that’s not the same thing as saying Palindromes was influenced by any of them. It wasn’t. At least, not in any meaningful way.

SN: Here’s something that really surprised me. Although there are some very funny scenes and jokes in the new film, I’d say there’s far less humor than in any of your other films. It’s still a comedy, I guess, but—

TS: You’re right. There is less humor. It’s less of a comedy. I see Palindromes as my saddest film to date, and I see it also as my tenderest film.

SN: Much will be made about the roles played by the children with disabilities, especially about their pro-life Christian rock performances.

TS: You have no idea how moved I was when we were doing those scenes. My eyes welled up because the kids took such pride and joy in their work, and I knew how much they loved performing, and how much they’d all come to care for each other.

SN: They did do a fantastic job.

TS: Yes. And the knowledge that some people believe I was grotesquely mocking them is very, very painful to me.

SN: I got a sense from the people in my audience that they were confused about several things. Above all, the ambiguous attitude toward abortion.

TS: People don’t like ambiguity where abortion is concerned, do they? I mean, neither side does.

SN: I’m thinking about the comment Ellen Barkin made at a press conference in Venice, about how if her own twelve-year-old daughter got pregnant she’d drag her kicking and screaming to have an abortion, and how that riled the pro-lifers. Frankly, I think that was an incredibly bizarre and appalling thing for her to say, especially at such a moment—

TS: She was simply expressing how she felt.

SN: OK. My point is, there’s every reason to believe Palindromes will give as much if not more trouble to pro-choicers than to pro-lifers. And something that keeps coming up is how audiences can’t tell from the story where you yourself stand on the issue of abortion, and how this affects their judgment of the film.

TS: May I begin by saying Palindromes is not about the issue of abortion or any other issue. It’s about characters and a story I invented for them. In telling that story, I end up exploring what happens to a girl who, out of a need for love, develops an overwhelming desire to be a mother. We see how her parents respond when they learn she’s pregnant, and later we see how some very different people feel about such a response. These utterly opposing views were, to me, as a filmmaker, equally worthy of investigation.

As for where I, personally, stand on the issue of abortion, that’s something else entirely. For me, to put that stance unambiguously front and center would have made the film far less interesting. And I think it’s too easy. It would be letting the audience off the hook. A liberal audience such as the one you saw the film with could breathe a sigh of relief and say, Oh, it’s OK. He’s showing the other side but he himself is really on the “correct” side. Ours. Do you see what I’m saying? I simply wasn’t interested in creating a movie that showed one side as right and the other as wrong. I know a lot of people may find this unsettling. But I don’t make movies with the idea that people are going to walk out of them feeling comfortable or better about themselves or more secure in their own biases or opinions.

SN: I want to know what it’s like for you, having such a polarized audience out there. A musician once said to me if you don’t get any bad reviews you’re not doing your job. Is it possible you see the controversy your films always generate and the wildly discordant judgments as a higher compliment to your work than universal praise would be?

TS: Oh, I wish I could say so, I really do. But it wouldn’t be honest. No. The attacks, the bad reviews, they hurt me a great deal. Maybe someone else can say how they prove I’m “doing my job” or some other such positive thing, but I can’t. And though I’ve been accused of purposely choosing certain subjects precisely in order to shock and provoke extreme responses as a calculated way of getting attention, this is simply false. And I don’t revel in the controversy or the attacks. I want people to like the films and to say good things about them. I want praise and respect, like everyone else.

SN: Pedro Almodóvar said recently that he considers himself more honest and sincere and clear in his movies than he is in real life. That makes me want to ask: Is what I see on screen in some way more Todd Solondz than the person walking beside me now?

TS: I’d say what’s in my films captures certain things that might be elusive about me in real life. Not that there’s anything conscious about it. I mean, I don’t reserve specific parts of myself to be dealt with only in my work. Also, whatever is up there on screen about me is coded, so to speak, never explicit. So you could say it’s still elusive or disguised, only in a different way.

SN: We seem to be back to the question of secretiveness. I know you make it a habit never to say a word about what you’re doing next, or about any project you might even be thinking of working on. You’ll only give your stock answer: We’ll see. But we know one thing at least, because as you like to say, every story that’s worth telling is a love story. I take it you still believe that?

TS: I’ll always believe it.

Sigrid Nunez is a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin for spring, 2005. Her fifth novel, The Last of her Kind, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Illustration by Charles Burns

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