Dark Horse opens with a wedding. The bride and groom twist across the dance floor while the music thrums and guests party. The camera moves through the revelry until it lands on a table where two guests sit and look on at all the fun they are missing. Abe (Jordan Gelber), an overweight nudnik with an ear-to-ear grin, tries to strike up a conversation with Miranda (Selma Blair), his alluringly sullen table-mate. And that’s about the time we remember that this is a Todd Solondz film, and that nothing but sadness can come from these two conversing. The party will end and we will stew in his world for an hour and a half, but oh what a world it is.
Solondz’s films, like Happiness and its untraditional sequel Life During Wartime, have the unique ability to make audiences laugh at the strangest and darkest aspects of the human condition. Dark Horse, a movie sprinkled with some great laughs, is no exception. It is a film about slacker, it is a film about depression and it is a film about death. That may sound like an atypical way to spend an evening at the movies, but Todd Solondz is no typical filmmaker. He embraces the utter sadness of life and shares it with us in a way that is entertaining and, in this case, redemptive.
I called Todd up last week to discuss his new release, what it was like working with legendary actors Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow and the Jewish characters in this film.
Your new film Dark Horse just opened in New York. Have you seen it with an audience yet?
No, I don’t think I’ve actually watched it with an audience here. I’m trying to remember where the last…not recently, but I’ve done a few Q and A’s though.
Do you like to be there with an audience while they’re watching it?
I have sat through it with an audience a few times. There are always certain places where an audience has a common response and other times it’s sometimes a little surprising. But I’m very pleased with the film and very proud and happy about it and glad that it’s out there now for people to see and experience.
How have you wanted to make Dark Horse?
I don’t know. I wrote it right after I finished my last one, [Life During Wartime,] which was two years ago. The writing itself, in some sense, doesn’t take so long. In another sense, you know, anything you write it’s like it takes a lifetime, decades until you find that moment when you can actually put pen to paper. But if the money comes more quickly I’ll be able to be more productive than I am.
This feels like one of the quickest followups to one of your films. Is the money coming faster, or are you more inspired?
It’s really all about money. I’ve already written what I’d like to do next, it’s just a question of how long it takes if you’re fortunate enough to finally get the financing together.
You make it clear in Dark Horse that this film is about an affluent Jewish family through many cues, but religion and ritual doesn’t play into their lives at all. So, why is Abe, the main character, Jewish?
It’s not like I wrote the character and then decided that he was Jewish. It just came out that way. I don’t advertise that he’s Jewish but I don’t hide it either. There are obvious signs that he’s Jewish. It’s a secular Jewish family as well, so it’s not one that I would say is very observant either. In fact, his whole condition, this whole collection that he has…collecting in general it’s very much a phenomenon of secular societies. Places where you have the Ayatollah all over the place they don’t have this pathology. You don’t have to go to Ayatollah, you can go to Williamsburg or what have-you…
I remember seeing an Israel poster and also a giant Hebrew Coca-cola bottle in this collection.
Yeah, the Hebrew Coca-Cola bottle…it’s a token for a collector who’s of a secular persuasion let’s say. The Israel poster actually, I had a certain amount of ambivalence about including it. It was my eighth choice poster. I mean, the seven others before it I just couldn’t get clearance on. I don’t want to make any easy satirical statements, let’s say, because their political sympathies lay with Israel. But on the other hand I felt it certainly would be consistent with who they were.
Without ruining the film, does any of the way you handle death in this film come from Jewish beliefs about the end of life?
It’s really hard to answer that. Not in any direct way, it would have to be very oblique certainly. My family was…it was a kosher home. I did go to an Orthodox Yeshiva as a child and yet I would say it really was not very observant at the same time. There really wasn’t much of an intellectual basis to the understanding of the religion. It was much more of a cultural rather than a religious or, as I say, intellectual phenomenon.
It is a kind of death in life experience that the character goes through. His life is somewhat of a dead end, kind of. Inertia has set in. The resuscitation to live life comes tragically too late for him. But to what extent this is a result or influenced by my understanding of Judaic concepts regarding death and afterlife and so forth. I really couldn’t tell you.
The film feels influenced by the bleakness of certain tropes in Yiddish literature. Was that, or anything else, an influence on you?
You know, look, it’s hard to say…I leave it to others. You may illuminate this better than me. I don’t know that I can tell you the sources from which this work has been influenced and shaped on any conscious level though I’m sure there are many sources, but it really wasn’t designed or inspired directly by any particular one.
You grew up at a Yeshiva?
No, I only went to a Yeshiva for my first three years of school and then was quickly extricated from that world.
And then you went to public school?
I went to public school. I went to many different schools, but the Orthodox Yeshiva was the first one.
What was it like working with Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken.
In Mia’s case I always knew I wanted to be able to cast her. I thought it was a long shot because I knew she was very tied up with the Sudan and so forth. But she met with me and she told me she was retired from acting. She hadn’t read the script but her son Ronan told her that he was a big fan of my work and he implored her, “Please, Mom, you’ve got to do this movie.” And so she did it.
So that’s how I got Mia and it was a total delight to work with her. Chris [Walken], he, I think was eager, as I was told, to play a human being. He is cast in so many larger than life sorts of characters. He wanted to play something that was more grounded. And so he embraced the toupée and the change in his eyes and muting him, turning him into a sort of regular kind of guy. I mean his face is powerful and iconic as it is so I was all about restraining that.
I’m curious how you came to Jordan Gelber who plays Abe.
He had auditioned on another movie of mine and then I saw him in a play of Mike Leigh’s, Two Thousand Years, which actually had to do with Jews in London. He made an impression on me that made me think he would be most suitable for this part. I didn’t know I’d be able to cast him because he was not a celebrity, wasn’t known. But I got lucky. Of course having Mia and Chris and Selma Blair made it possible that I could cast this unknown.
Even a filmmaker of your stature needs to have star power to get funding?
Generally speaking that may be true, but it really depends on the kind of script and material that you have.
But you thought the backers would want a bigger star in the lead?
Any backer, any financier, of course, would want to have a star. But there was a level of trust and faith at work. If I had thought there there was a star who would have been more appropriate, then it would be a different story.
Gelber was wonderful.
Yeah, I know. I thought so too.
Can you talk about your next project?
The only thing I can say is that it takes place in Texas. We’re trying to figure out how to get the money right now.