Although Solondz reigns over the black comedy corner of the independent film world, he considers himself to be a commercial director. It's his treatment of his subjects, he explains, that falls beyond the parameters of the mainstream. He emphasizes that, for all the social and political commentary inherent in his work, at the end of the day it is meant to be entertainment, and he keeps his characters and narratives accessible enough that an 11-year-old would be able to understand what's happening. “They might have a lot of questions about the social, sexual, political ramifications and so forth, but they would be able to follow the story.”
He is most compelled by the inner lives of his characters, and he likes to challenge his audience by giving certain characters qualities that border on monstrous. “I don't like making it so easy to like the characters. The idea there is it's a kind of test, a kind of challenge to the audience to see if they can engage in these characters notwithstanding their abrasiveness and off-putting nature and still be able to cross that line to a kind of empathy or connection emotionally with them—that, for me, is very exciting. As I say, I don't think a lot of people would want to have lunch with Abe Worthheimer or Bill Maplewood [the pedophile from “Happiness”], but it's about recognizing that there's a human pulse there, that one has to think twice before writing them off.”
Critics of Solondz have noted a softening of his body of work in recent years, some proclaiming “Dark Horse,” despite its inherent societal criticisms and healthy dose of bleak humor, is downright toothless. But perhaps hitting that kind of trademark level of shock time after time becomes tiresome. And Solondz is a family man now, father to a three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter (both of whom are named after young characters in Hanna Barbera cartoons about conventional families)—something he says he hadn't expected to happen at this stage in his life, a kind of unexpected blessing. During our interview, Solondz is hesitant to talk about his children with a tape recorder present. They're good, he says, and he wants them to stay that way. Perhaps the defanging of his recent work is no coincidence.
Solondz is sometimes troubled by the effects his work has had on people. He is fond of saying that his movies are not for everyone, and especially not for some of the people who end up loving them. He's recounted in several interviews an experience he had after screening “Happiness” at the Telluride Film Festival, when “a young gentleman came up to me, excited about the film. He said, 'Man that was so great, it was hilarious, I loved it, when that kid got raped it was hilarious!' And I knew I was in trouble.”
He's less concerned with the opposite sort of reaction, of those who saw “Happiness” at age twelve and considered themselves permanently damaged by it. “I don't think movies have that power to screw you up,” he said at another Q&A. “You're already screwed up.” He recalled wanting desperately to watch “Dark Shadows” as a child, and urging his mother, who forbade him to watch the show for fear that it would cause nightmares, to leave the house to run errands so he could sneak in an episode. “What my mom didn't understand is that it's real life that gives you nightmares.”
"Dark Horse" is now playing in limited release.