'My films are not for everyone'

'Happiness' put everyone's moral radars in a spin and sent director Todd Solondz running for cover. With his latest, says James Mottram, he's getting back at critics and fans alike
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A film that vehemently divided viewers, the violent reaction to Todd Solondz's 1998 'burbs-set black comedy Happiness was enough to prompt the New Jersey auteur to take issue. While Happiness's amoral portrayal of paedophiles, sex pests and other misfits incensed some, others saw his manipulation of these loners and losers as misanthropic and exploitative. The film was dropped by distributor October Films, following pressure from parent company Universal, who deemed its subject-matter unacceptable.

Storytelling, Solondz's fourth film, is his retort – to fans and detractors alike – as he self-consciously puzzles over the response to his past work. Conceived as companion pieces, the film is divided into two stories, Fiction and Non-Fiction, each resonating with the other's themes. The former is set around a creative writing class, a hostile environment the 42-year-old Solondz himself is familiar with (both as teacher and pupil).

Hosted by black Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mr Scott (Robert Wisdom), the class includes the naïve Vi (Selma Blair), who winds up being seduced by Scott. He has anal sex with her while demanding she repeatedly say "Nigger, fuck me hard". Deconstructing the myth of black sexual potency, Solondz also explores the issue of "taboo" art, as Vi – who construes the sex act as rape – later turns in a story dealing with her experience, only to be accused by her classmates of trying to deliberately shock. An accusation frequently levied at Solondz himself, he would seem to share Vi's disbelief at how such incendiary material can be misread.

Equally telling is the lengthier Non-Fiction, the story of struggling documentary film-maker Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), who sets out to make a fly-on-the-wall study of an average American family, focusing on their eldest son, teenage slacker Scooby (Mark Webber). Undoubtedly an alter-ego for Solondz himself (who, like Toby, sports a wispy hairstyle and goofy glasses), the unsuccessful Oxman eventually achieves success at the expense of his subjects – who are greeted with howls of derision from the audience watching the resulting film. Called American Scooby, Oxman's doc is a thinly-veiled reference to Chris Smith's highly-praised study of a Midwestern wannabe horror director, American Movie. Solondz denies that he is attacking Smith himself but is instead commenting on "the nature of documentary film-making", partly as a response to audience misinterpretation.

"The audience that I saw American Movie with were laughing quite a bit," he says. "Some of it is funny, but at a certain point it became a little bit disconcerting. I didn't like this audience." It was, he says, largely made up of college undergrads, afflicted by a superiority complex higher education can engender. "It's something we've all been through. You feel incredibly smart and sophisticated [at college], as you read these big books that seem very intimidating, and you go to movies now with a different attitude to show how smart, hip and 'inside' you are." While this may be true, the fact that Solondz casts Mike Schank (one of the true-life subjects of American Movie) in a cameo role, smacks of entrapment, as those "inside" enough to get the reference are automatically condemned as smug in Solondz's eyes.

"My movies are not for everyone – especially people who like them," he says. Shocked by the response of some misguided fans of Happiness, who congratulated him for "funny" sequences that involved child abuse, Solondz knows he's playing a dangerous game. "Sometimes people don't read the movie in the way you intended," he says. "I understand it's a risk that I take with the subject-matter and the approach that I have – but I don't really know what to do about that." More straight-forward, however, is the brief but vicious parody of the infamous "paper-bag" scene from Sam Mendes' American Beauty: "I'm always very respectful of my peers, but some journalist told me that Sam Mendes was putting down Happiness, so I felt I had carte blanche to respond." Just as Storytelling plays, in part, as a response to the furore surrounding Happiness, it will be interesting to see how Solondz deals with the reaction to Storytelling. Already notorious for the aforementioned sex scene, the US release of the film in February will see a large red box on the screen obscuring the act – censorship employed at the behest of the distributor New Line to achieve an R-rating and which Solondz believes acts as a statement in his favour.

The production was also beset by internet-fuelled rumours from the outset: chiefly, that the film was conceived as a triptych and Solondz later ditched the third part (in fact, only a two-minute epilogue was jettisoned). Heather Matarazzo, the star of his sophomore breakthrough movie, the 1995 high school-set Welcome to the Dollhouse, was also said to be involved – and then cut. Solondz clarifies she was never in the film, after the pair had "creative differences". More viciously, Dawson's Creek star James Van Der Beek was labelled homophobic, after web-gossips speculated that the reason his role in Fiction wound up being snipped was because he objected to appearing in a gay sex scene.

Honest, and undoubtedly powerful, if only for the brutal scenes of victim-revenge, Storytelling stinks of self-doubt, as Solondz tries to come to terms with his own success – and at whose expense this has been achieved. "There's much more spotlight on me now," he sighs. "I think I have to go to a lower level. This is a little big for me."

'Storytelling' (18) is released on 30 Nov