This weekend, a new NYC film festival, "First Time Fest," makes its debut. It's a showcase devoted to the movie director's first outing—as scary and euphoric as that can be. One sidebar, "First Exposure," invites prominent directors to discuss their breakthroughs. Among this year's guests is Todd Solondz, who will present 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse. We reached him by phone.
So this is an interesting circumstance, because Welcome to the Dollhouse isn't your first film. That was 1989's Fear, Anxiety & Depression.
I know! This is not my debut film in any strict sense of the word. It's so stretching the meaning of the word debut.
You had gone to NYU in the '80s and got a chance to make a feature quickly out of the gate. But you don't have fond memories of it.
It was just a mortifying humiliation, that experience. I've always been deeply embarrassed by Fear, Anxiety & Depression, which doesn't even have a title I really wanted. But I didn't want that movie to have the last word. And in fact, before I even finished it, I wrote Dollhouse, to redeem myself from that nightmare. Still, I didn't do anything with the script for a number of years.
Was it a matter of you losing creative autonomy?
It's funny about autonomy: A movie can be made for $10,000 or $100 million, but it doesn't de facto mean that you have creative control if you make it for the lower amount, or that you won't have creative control if you make it for higher. Filmmakers, very often, are open to certain kinds of compromises that undermine the integrity of their work. My first movie was ill-conceived, ill-begotten.
So that experience ultimately spurred you to try again, a good thing. Did you feel prepared?
How does any movie prepare you for anything? There's so much luck involved. On a dime, Dollhouse could have failed. I remember showing it to producer's reps and they didn't even make it to the end. This wasn't just my paranoia; it was not an obvious success.
Yet you ended up with a singular work, one that was undeniably yours this time. Were you more ready to stand your ground, or did you do anything on set that you regret?
I won't say regret, but there were lots of mistakes and flaws. I think the saddest memory I have is that we fired our director of photography two weeks into the shoot. He was very talented, but we had to fire him if were to finish the movie. There were a number of reasons, but mainly, we weren't going to get a film in the can on budget and on time if we didn't make a switch. We did the right thing, but no one can ever feel good about that.
Sounds like you had some hard problems on that shoot.
Every movie assaults you with variables. Part of the job of being a filmmaker is problem-solving. It did feel very much like a life or death situation for me; the stakes felt so high. I am happy that I'm not young anymore, because I think young people are more susceptible to the pain of those kinds of stresses.
Do you take a longer view of your career these days?
I don't know how long a view I have left. Sure, I have different scripts that I like to get made, but I don't have as much time left. You just don't how longer you'll go on living in good health.
You're in the prime of your life, Todd.
I don't know. I'll only know if it was my prime when I'm on my death bed. That's the only place when you have the right perspective. Look—we'll see if fortune comes my way and I'll get to make another movie. I never presume I'll get money again. So I have to be very Zen and appreciate that I got to make the movies I made. If I'm a lucky guy, I'll get a chance to tell another story.
Welcome to the Dollhouse screens Sun 3 at 7pm at Loews Village VII. Click here for tickets