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Todd Solondz on the pains of directing a mutt with 'Wiener-Dog'

The indie legend talks about making his latest dark comedy and how much he loves teaching.
Todd SolondzWiener-Dog

This year Todd Solondz went back to Sundance. It was back in 1996 that the director brought “Welcome to the Dollhouse” to the film festival, where the dark comedy became a major hit and ’90s indie landmark. In his eighth feature, “Wiener-Dog,” that film’s besieged hero — Dawn Wiener, now played by Greta Gerwig instead of Heather Matarazzo — makes a return. She’s only in one segment out of four, all of them about sad characters dealing, not always happily, with adversity. All of them are linked by a wandering dachshund, who’s passed from one owner to the next.

You’ve been a teacher at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts since 2009. There is a very unhappy film professor here, played by Danny DeVito, who has very unpleasant interactions with his students. However, you’ve spoken about your own experiences as a professor in very glowing terms.
I love teaching, I love my students. I have some wonderful colleagues. I love the job. Teaching there has been wonderful. But it made me realize NYU is really an evil empire in so many ways. I got to have some insight into the way the Tisch School is managed with such remarkable incompetence and corruption. That was really good material for me — though the movie’s not about any of that.

There’s a scene where a student pitches DeVito’s character a superhero movie. Do you get a lot of that?
There are all kinds, all kinds. But none of these students [in the film] are based on anyone, really. My students are, by and large, very serious about what they are trying to achieve. For many people it’s a good program. For some people it doesn’t make sense. It depends on what your situation is.

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How do you juggle teaching and directing?
I’ve got lots of time to do whatever I need to do. If you want to write you make the time. I shot this movie during the summer when I wasn’t teaching. But I cut the movie while I was teaching in the fall without any problem.

This has four stories. Were some of them ones that you had initially thought about in some form earlier, or did it all come together at once?
Nothing comes together at once. I wrote the first one first and the last one last. But I wanted to make a dog movie, and when I say a dog movie, the dog is kind of a conceit, really. It’s not really about dogs, the trials and tribulations of a dog. For me it’s about mortality and how it casts a shadow over these four stories.

Tell me about directing a dog. That can’t be easy.
Yeah, it was horrible. The dachshund is one of those breeds, I learned, that is bred for the marketplace, and is really cute but at the expense of intelligence. I worked with show dogs, and they were remarkably stupid and could not respond to any command. The bulldog has also been bred for the marketplace, at the expense of the constitution of the animal. Those dogs can’t even have natural childbirth anymore. When I wrote it, I liked the idea of a dog movie, but I was just living in denial of what it’s like working with a dog. It was horrible.

It must be especially hard if you’re making an independent film.
I had to rewrite some scenes because of the inadequacies of the dog and what it could and couldn’t do. But when you’re put into a corner like that you come up with other ideas. Some of them might even be better. So you just deal with it. That’s part of the job of being a director: Problems assault you and you have to go and figure out how to make those problems in some way work for you. If so they become actually gifts, let’s say, instead of insurmountable obstacles.

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Some of the characters here are cruel, but even the worst ones can have moments of real tenderness.
I appreciate you pointing this out, because it’s reductive to say, “Oh, this is cruel.” There is an interplay, a combination arranged there. Certainly with the section with Kieran [Culkin] and Greta [Gerwig], it ends on the sunniest, most hopeful, most romantic note I’ve ever done. But there’s also terrible, painful, bleak moments as well. I guess it’s more bleak in the second half and a little sunnier in the first.

How do you react when people call your films cynical and pessimistic?
You can’t control the way others will absorb your stories, your movies. If I didn’t have an emotional investment in the lives of these characters I certainly wouldn’t put myself through the ordeal of making one of them.

It is nice you brought back Dawn Wiener, especially since you’d killed her off in “Palindromes.”
That’s why I brought her back. I wanted for many years to have the opportunity to offer her a more hopeful life trajectory than what I provided in “Palindromes.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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