At first glance, no one would ever associate Todd Solondz's films with those of Judd Apatow. And yet, Solondz, one of the premier independent filmmakers of the past two decades, has made a new film, Dark Horse, that plants its flag firmly in the fertile ground of arrested development so successfully mined by Apatow in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Pineapple Express — only to turn these tropes and conventions upside down.
Solondz, the 52-year-old writer/director/NYU professor, has been gradually rolling out his latest work to some of the best reviews (The New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott compared it — favorably — to Death of a Salesman) of a lengthy oeuvre that includes numerous awards from festivals like Venice, Cannes, Sundance and Ft. Lauderdale.
Dark Horse treads along some of the same Jewish and New Jersey landscapes that Solondz, himself a Jewish Garden State native, has explored in previous films like Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Life During Wartime, and features Solondz's penchant for unflinchingly candid character studies of people who can be far from likable.
But it is there that the similarities to his previous work stop. Dark Horse is the story of 30-something Abe (Broadway veteran Jordan Gelber) — who still lives at home, surrounded by his beloved, ever-expanding collection of action figures — with his parents, played by Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow.
Abe works — begrudgingly — for his father, commuting to work in a canary-yellow Hummer. He meets Miranda, another 30-something living at home, at a wedding reception where they are the only two people not dancing. A rapid-fire, sweetly awkward courtship results in an equally fast engagement and Abe's mounting difficulties dealing with adult responsibilities.
What makes Dark Horse different from previous films by Solondz is the way he has written Abe — and all the major characters — as sympathetic figures, despite their many flaws. As to whether or not his new film hews to the Apatow formula, there will be no spoilers here, although he readily acknowledged their similarities and differences in an interview conducted via telephone during his recent appearance at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.
Much has been made of the tone of this movie, and how different it is from your previous work. Do you agree with that perception?
I can't account for people's responses. I never know how people will ultimately respond to my work. The poster had at one point two blurbs, one of them describing the movie as "brilliantly cruel" and another blurb was "so tender, so gentle." So who's right? I don't know. It's a question of sensibility. I think it's curious, and it's also consistent with the responses my movies have engendered over the years. Some people may like it and say how funny it is. Others may be angry at the people who are laughing because they find it to be so sorrowful.
You are the father of two young children. Do you have an age in your head for when you will let them watch your films?
Honestly, I haven't really thought about it much. We can't even sit through Elmo right now. It's not too high on my list of priorities.
Jordan Gelber's portrayal of Abe is so poignantly evocative — at turns arrogant, preening, tender, vulnerable, always dreaming, whether or not he is awake. How did he get to this point in his life, so detached from the reality that surrounds him?
There is a very adolescent quality, of course. This is a character who very much clings to the dreams of his youth, and finds himself so sadly removed from achieving them. It's a kind of death in life that he lives. He only finds life in death. It's a story that dramatizes the question, at what point do you stop owning your collection and your collection starts owning you?
Did you consciously set out to make a counterpoint to the Apatowian school of manchild movies?
It just seemed to work out that way. I didn't have to consciously try. I have that sensibility. I realized at the end that it had a connection to the Judd Apatow films, but I didn't realize that when I was writing it.
There are certain nods to the Jewishness of the characters, like Abe's Coca-Cola collectible with Hebrew script and the Israel poster outside his room. How did you decide on how Jewish to make them?
Although it is a Jewish family, it is a secular one as well. The Israel poster — I was a little ambivalent about it. I wanted something a bit more neutral. It was believable that they would have it in their home but I really didn't want to make too much of it either.
While most movie soundtracks are intended to be aural background designed to underscore scenes, the song selections in Dark Horse seems to have been purposely chosen to stand in direct contrast to what is transpiring on the screen.
They function as a kind of counterpoint. This is a very adolescent pop soundtrack, inspired by American Idol. It's like a loop in Abe's head. As the movie progresses, there is more turmoil and things are grimmer and more troubling, and the cheerful songs only underscore the poignancy and pain that is being experienced. These songs are not random. They all connect to the irretrievability of youth.
What is the one piece of advice you find yourself offering most frequently to your NYU students?
If you realize that you don't have a knack for storytelling, for filmmaking, that's OK. Film doesn't have to be the center of the universe. It's not, and you can grow from that. You can do something else. To try and carve out a career in American filmmaking and to work outside the studio system — it's such a longshot. You have to look at film school like going to poetry school. That's how likely it is you're going to make a living from it.
Has the independent filmmaking process gotten easier for you over the years?
Today, more than ever, because the audience has shrunken for movies like mine, with the Internet and the piracy, the cable TV, there's just too much competition and it's that much harder to establish oneself. But I think today, in certain ways as never before, technology has made the possibility of making a feature more accessible than ever before.
The next one I've written takes place in Texas. I hope I'll get the money for it, but who knows?
Did you ever have a plan B in the beginning, just in case a career in film didn't work out?
I did want to be an advertising executive as a kid when I was growing up at some point, but everything is so competitive. I've just been pretty lucky.
Dark Horse opens on July 13 at the Ritz at the Bourse in Philadelphia. For more information, call 215-925-7900 or go to: www.darkhorsemovie.com.