Although he possesses his father's facility with numbers, Solondz grew up fantasizing about an artistic existence in New York City (“that was Oz for me.”). He wanted to become a musician and practiced piano and cello tirelessly (“I had everything but talent”). He began writing stories at a very young age (“I've been writing since I'm reading,” he often says), penning a novel over the course of three years during elementary school, chapters of which his father's secretary typed up for him each week. He wrote his first play in high school, and went on to pursue an English major at Yale, writing mostly plays, all of which were “remarkably terrible and mercifully unproduced.” After a couple of years in Los Angeles working at a box office and delivering screenplays as a messenger, he left for New York City, knowing it was where he wanted to spend his twenties. Solondz entered film school at NYU (considered, at that time, to be a dubious pursuit) by the skin of his teeth, calling to inquire about the application process on what turned out to be the deadline. He turned in a screenplay that day and was accepted.
Solondz now teaches at that film school, but openly says the program was terrible and mismanaged when he attended. Still, he maintains that he never would have become a filmmaker without the confidence he gained there. “I have a weak character,” he says, “If people had all told me my work had no interest or import, I wouldn't have had it in me to keep at it.” But the response was overwhelmingly positive, so much so that he dropped out to pursue his filmmaking career when things began to happen. “The big coup was I did get an agent, who spoke to me only once or twice and then never picked up another call, but it didn't matter. It just felt good for my spirit to know that for a moment at least there was a casual thought that maybe I was worth representing.”
At the previous night's Q&A at the Apple store in Soho, Solondz described his films as being “fraught with ambiguity,” saying that, for better or worse, they are a reflection of his sensibilities. “Laughter is not this monolithic force,” he said, reminding the small crowd in attendance that there are different kinds of laughter, and that it can occur in unexpected places, and that that's OK. “The pathos and the comedy are inextricably intertwined...I just find that there's great hilarity when terrible things happen.”
He emphasizes that his writing process is an instinctive, not intellectual one, and that it doesn't involve any conscious calculation. Characters come to him, he says, as though he's performing a séance. “They talk through you. You channel. And you can channel certain elements of people you know intimately, or not, people you just met—you never know. Things just enter one’s consciousness and for some reason have a certain meaning or resonance for you that is very useful for what you've embarked on.” The meanings and significance within the stories he tells, within the characters he invents and the actions he creates for them, often don't reveal themselves until much later, and sometimes not until after a movie has been made. “You discover that the film has meanings other than what you had in mind that you were conscious of. And it exposes something of one's unconscious. Even when you're talking about the film after the fact, Suddenly you connect certain dots that weren't possible at the get go. You call yourself a director, but really I find myself more in pursuit.”
Much of the humor and brilliance in Solondz's films stems from the specificity of his characters and the amount of detail with which their appearances, and even environments, are curated. The nameplate necklace Abe wears tangled in his chest hair speaks volumes – simultaneously reflecting a child's inclination to flout items featuring his own name, and a New Jersey douchebag's inclination to display that kind of jewelry, a signifier of wealth—yet the necklace's feminine-leaning font points, perhaps, to the deep, wounded sensitivity that sits just below his obnoxious posturing and unfounded confidence (which begins to crumble as the possibility of growing up becomes more real). This and other subtle details, like his ringtone -- a piece of poppy, lite-radio, female-sung chorus one would not usually associate with a large, balding, 30-something man who wears bling and drives a yellow Humvee – appear repeatedly and build an atmosphere of constant humor. But it breaks your heart a little too -- these touches, in their specificity, birth a real and identifiable character. We've all known an Abe, or at least seen him, noticed him as we've gone about our own lives, just as we've all known or seen a Dawn Weiner (the uber-awkward and widely despised pre-teen protagonist from “Welcome To The Dollhouse”) or a Joy Jordan (the naive and hapless waif from “Happiness” whose goodness repeatedly leads to her ill treatment by others). These are types, less common than those we're used to seeing in movies, and far more authentic-feeling for the painstaking detail with which they've been drawn.