Todd Solondz walks through the door of a Cafe on 12th Street in Manhattan, looking, apart from his trademark lemon-yellow converse all stars, like a person in disguise. He wears a floppy khaki sun hat and oversized shades. As he walks through the room, he peels off the sunglasses and replaces them with equally large eyeglasses with thick, retro frames. He yanks off the hat to reveal his hair, which is gray and thinning and bordering on mad scientist. He looks, perhaps, like an oddball character in a Todd Solondz film. The waitress recognizes him and greets him warmly, and he does the same. He's a memorable presence. Appearance aside, he sounds a bit like a Jewish grandmother, his voice comically nasal, his words unhurried and elongated by a childhood in New Jersey, an accent that 30 years in New York City has failed to undo.
Known for being an enfante terrible or "agent provocateur" in American independent cinema for his caustic and hilariously pitch-black comedies, which often feature taboo subjects and cruel, humiliating, arguably misanthropic humor, when we meet at the cafe, the 52-year-old filmmaker has just begun doing press for his latest film, “Dark Horse.” The story follows Abe (played by Broadway actor Jordan Gelber), a man in his mid-30s still living at home with his parents, who meets a woman in similar circumstances and decides to pursue a life with her, at which point the film spirals into the surreal and tragic landscape of Abe's mind. The film shifts away from the kind of disquetingly uncomfortable subject matter – rape, pedophilia, masturbation, abortion – Solondz has become known for featuring in films such as “Palindromes” and “Happiness,” the latter of which was originally rejected by the progressively indie Sundance Film Festival who felt it was too unpleasant.
The departure is a deliberate move on his part, and has been criticized in some early reviews, perhaps by those expecting more of the same. Regardless, “Dark Horse” is still undeniably a Solondz creation, a whip-smart, bleakly humorous funhouse mirror treatment of modern society and the arrested development phenomenon, scored purposefully with schmaltzy, "American Idol"-inspired pop. The night before, at a Q&A following a screening of “Dark Horse” -- robustly attended by a parade of independent film peers and admirers, including Paul Schrader, Kelly Reichardt, and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" filmmakers Sean Durkin and Antonio Campos -- Solondz called his latest an “alternative” entry into the Apatow-ian man-child genre, inciting giggles from the audience.
Talking to Solondz, his brilliance is quickly apparent. In interviews about his films, when prompted to make some sort of analysis about the meaning of his work, he's fond of giving a sort of verbal shrug, saying “Look, I'm not an academic,” before following through with something about the “infantilization of the modern man” that sounds decidedly erudite. Solondz teaches film at NYU, and it's easy to imagine students rushing to record his words—he's one of those people whose casual discussion of craft is effortlessly mind expanding. He is especially likable for his openness and dry self deprecation, speaking freely about his neuroses and personality flaws. He has referred to himself as “socially maladroit” and considers the experience of being on set and shooting his films to be nightmarish, a constant state of crisis. “I feel like my obituary is going to read 'Mr. Solondz collapsed on the third day of shooting,' ” he joked, unsmiling. Still, he’s praised for being an “actor’s director” with a talent for figuring out exactly what each actor needs from him in order to deliver the best performance within them. He also has a reputation for being exceedingly hands-on. In an interview within the DVD extras for “Life During Wartime,” Shirley Henderson recalls Solondz spending several hours with her in a salon while she was getting her hair done for the part of Joy Jordan, making sure it was just right. She also spoke of the physical proximity he keeps during shooting, joking that if he could be underneath her chair at that moment, he would be.
The controversial content in his work has naturally triggered a fascination for many about the director and his motivations, but for the most part he declines to self analyze. Solondz grew up in a Jewish household within a middle class New Jersey enclave of ranch houses. The second youngest of four kids, he insists that he had a relatively normal childhood. “Every family has its complications, but I don't think mine stood out in any particularly memorable way against any other families in the neighborhood.” Solondz's mother is a musician who attended Juliard before marrying Solondz's father, an MIT graduate. He also considers himself to have been a relatively normal, and certainly untroubled, kid. “I was a pretty easy kid for my parents, I think. Never got into trouble. Didn't make a girl pregnant, didn't become a drug addict. Didn't have car accidents. I went to Yale. I mean, you know, I was basically an easy polite little boy. I don't think I had a bad boy streak in me.”