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Film: It's my film and I'll cry if I want to

Todd Solondz, director of Happiness, says success hasn't changed him. He was miserable before. He still is. By Xan Brooks
Once Todd Solondz had completed his script for Happiness, he changed his phone number and went ex-directory. He had visions of right-wing extremists ringing up in the wee small hours; fantasised about letter bombs being pushed through his door ("little wrapped gifts in juvenile handwriting"). When Solondz's British publicists wanted to fly him over to promote the film, he at first resisted. Eventually tempted onto Concorde, he spent the whole three-hour flight fretting that the plane was about to crash. On the (pallid, skinny) face of it, Todd Solondz is not the bravest of men.

How then to square the film-maker with his film? Because whether you love it or hate it, Happiness is undeniably a work of tremendous courage: a comedy that touches on child abuse; a multi-strand drama in which its biggest monster (Dylan Baker's clean-cut paedophile) is also arguably its most decent and human inhabitant.

Stepping semi-stunned from the cinema, I reckoned Happiness to be a film pretty much without precedent. Solondz, though, reels off a casual list of influences. Happiness's suburban darkness comes coloured by Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. Its humane treatment of a sociopathic central character was prompted by Capote's true-crime novel In Cold Blood.

"And anyway," he adds, "I'm not the first to put a paedophile in a movie. I mean, my God, just go back to Fritz Lang's M."

"Or Kubrick's Lolita," I suggest.

"No, not that one," says Solondz quickly. "I love the Kubrick movie but it is not about a paedophile because Sue Lyon is not a child. You can see that kind of arrangement every day on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. No one's getting arrested for that."

We are ensconced in an office five floors above the hubbub of Soho. Solondz is standing upright, moving gingerly from right foot to left, because he has sciatica and his back hurts when he's sitting down. He certainly has the bearing of a man prone to ailments: sniffles and sufferings either real or imagined. In the flesh, Solondz calls to mind the sort of seven- stone weakling you rarely see outside of a Gary Larson cartoon. His hair is a thinning shock aboard a narrow skull. His froggy eyes are reduced to raisins by the distorting glass of his NHS-style specs. A grandpa's cardigan hangs loosely over sloping shoulders.

Solondz's voice is too, is classic geek-speak: a sort of meandering cat's yowl that idles into a neutral undertone ("neeaarrgh") as he gropes for the appropriate word. It's like listening to radio static over dead air.Ask him how he'd argue with those who find Happiness sick or amoral, and he starts out philosophical then loses the thread.

"People see what they want to see. You can't argue with someone's perceptions. If I'm in this room and I say it's really hot and you say it's really cold, y'know, there's no point in arguing. Y'know... (neeaarrgh)... I think... (neeaarrgh)... That's not a good analogy... (neeaargh)... I don't know if I would argue. I'd just say they're wrong."

What complicates Happiness is the comedy. It is often hugely funny and yet the laughter it induces is guilty, shamefaced. Those who have taken against the film reckon that this is its undoing; that it both invites us to sneer at its beat-up, broken characters and (more crucially) plays its more troubling elements as knee-jerk shock tactics.

Solondz is aware of such responses. Since touting Happiness on the festival circuit, he feels he has clocked the entire spectrum of audience reactions.

"Some people laugh and feel guilty. Some laugh just because they think it's funny. Some people don't find it funny and still really like it. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with any of those responses. But I think that if one is laughing out of a sense of superiority - `Oh, look, what a bunch of freaks' - then I will have failed for that audience. Happiness is funny," he stresses, "but it's not a joke."

In the meantime, I'm still puzzling Solondz out; trying to figure how this frail creature with his gripes, neuroses and lugubrious wit came up with a picture that takes so many risks and takes them so confidently.Is the image a pose? Or are there some clues in the Solondz past that point to genuine rigour and resilience?

Solondz is pushing 40 but looks younger. The general assumption is that Happiness is the New Jersey-born director's second picture (following his school-bullying comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse). In fact it isn't. Ten years ago, fresh out of film school, Solondz signed a lucrative three- picture deal with Twentieth Century Fox. A dream come true. Except that things went awry when his debut picture - the aptly titled Fear, Anxiety and Depression - was first recut and then disowned by the studio bosses.

Glancing through Solondz' official biog, I notice that while his student shorts are listed by name, this first feature has been expunged from the records.

"Why would I mention something like that?" Solondz howls. "It was a painful period in my life. I don't need to reminisce about my open sores. I still need more time."

So he hated the film too? "We all hated it. That was the only thing we agreed on."

At the time, Solondz thought he'd blown his chance. He left the business, took a job teaching English as a second language and assumed that was that. Then came Welcome to the Dollhouse (which won the Grand Jury Award at Sundance) and he was right back in the fray.

All of which makes it tempting to frame Solondz's story as a classic redemption; a triumph over disaster; the bullied kid who gets even. The problem appears solved.

Except that Solondz - awkward as ever - is having none of it. He loved his teaching gig, he says, and regards film-making as a dreadful business.

"I think most film-makers love what they do, and I wish I loved it more. I really do. But I don't like the stress. I don't. I can imagine just dropping out."

Solondz claims he was never happier than during his years in the doldrums. Under questioning, though, he clarifies this.

"It was a time in my life when I was without ambition, and once you have ambition you're prone to be more miserable because you have expectations and hopes that are sure to be dashed. You're setting yourself up for disappointment."

He prods his glasses further up his nose and allows a chink of sunlight to filter through. "Now there are great things obviously. The good thing about success is that you don't have to dream about it anymore. I mean, it hasn't changed me - I still complain and whine all the time, it's just less becoming because there's no reason for it. For example, I say: `Urrgh, I don't wanna go to London.' But I can't complain about that.Todd Solondz downshifts to neural ("neeaargh"), groping toward a note of blissed-out, contented optimism.It is not," he concedes finally, "such a terrible life."

`Happiness' is reviewed on page 10