Wiener-Dog: An Interview with Todd Solondz
Todd Solondz is no spring pooch when it comes to filmmaking. Solondz has been turning out high quality art films for over two decades, yet he doesn’t make movies for the unwashed masses.
There’s a direct line from his current movie Wiener-Dog to his widely acclaimed film Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995). In addition to featuring misanthropic characters and situations, both films have the character of Dawn Wiener.
Weiner-Dog follows the path of a dachshund that is passed off from owner to owner, all of whom could be politely described as “needing help.” And perhaps this canine that knows nothing but unconditional love could be the conduit for such guidance.
In a phone conversation with Free Press Houston, Solondz acknowledges Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), a parable of human folly told through the eyes of a donkey that has several masters. “It was an inspiration and I watched Bresson’s film before making this. But obviously I view the dog in a different way here. That film has such an oblique narrative, and that gave me the confidence to pursue my film with a certain structure. Yes, the film is about a dog, but it’s not really about a dog. It’s about mortality and how that shadows and hovers over each of the four stories.”
For Solondz, Wiener-Dog “is a vessel to be filled with the hopes, yearnings, and illusions of the owners. The dog can be a projection of innocence and purity that we experience when we look at the dog. Because it’s hard to see a dog in its dogness. People tend to anthropomorphize animals,” he says.
Assembling a brilliant cast that includes Tracy Letts, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Julie Delphy, Greta Gerwig (as Dawn Wiener), Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito and Ellen Burstyn, the movie ranges from heavy drama to light comedy, sometimes at the flip of a switch.
“I had brought Dawn back in Palindromes (2004),” says Solondz. In that film Dawn is killed off and her funeral becomes the motivation for the lead character to want a family. “Heather [Matarazzo who played Dawn in Welcome to the Dollhouse] made clear to me she didn’t ever want to reprise the part. That freed me to cast other actors. One of the prerogatives I have as a filmmaker is that not only can I create other lives, I can have actors reprise roles and yet have other actors take over those parts,” says Solondz.
“We all have one life but in movies you can create the possibilities of other lives. This is very much crystalized in the scene with Ellen Burstyn at the end.”
An intermission during the middle of the ninety-minute film has Weiner-Dog walking across America. “We had the crew stand around for about three hours and we got twelve-seconds of the dog walking on a treadmill,” explains Solondz. “Once we got that I could put in different backdrops to give a feel of the expansiveness of the story.” Throughout this segment a song, “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog” is heard. The tune emulates a Johnny Cash ballad and was written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
His cast impressed Solondz, yet he found his animal actors “remarkably stupid.” “We had several picture dogs that were unable to respond to any commands whatsoever. I asked the ASPCA representative that was on the set every day and he explained to me that because of inbreeding and because the way these dogs are bred for the market place one of the side effects was a deficit in intelligence.”
Wiener-Dog opens exclusively this weekend at the AlamoDrafthouse Vintage Park.