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

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore