Todd Solondz has no illusions about his movies. They aren’t for everybody.
The stories — in pictures such as “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness” and “Dark Horse” — tend to be darkly satirical, populated with troubled characters leading unfulfilled lives.
Depending on which review you read, Solondz is either thought-provoking or perplexing, adventurous or inappropriate, sympathetic or misanthropic.
But they are not films you tend to shrug off after seeing them.
You can watch his latest effort, “Wiener-Dog,” then hear Solondz talk about the movie afterward at a screening Friday at Sun-Ray Cinema in Five Points.
It’s his eighth film, and his second appearance at the Sun-Ray. He was there in January 2015 for a Q&A after a screening of his 1998 film, “Happiness.”
“Wiener-Dog,” a dark comedy in which a dachshund is passed from owner to dysfunctional owner, stars Julie Delpy, Kieran Culkin, Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito and Ellen Burstyn.
Solondz, 56, talked about his new movie and other film-related topics in a recent telephone interview from New York.
If someone assumes a movie called “Wiener-Dog” is largely about a dog, is he in for a surprise?
Well, yes and no. Certainly, a dog is at the center of the movie and is what connects the various segments — the life trajectory of this one dachshund — but for me, the movie is really about mortality, and how it shadows and hovers over all these characters and stories.
Is it true that you found inspiration for “Wiener-Dog” in two other films: Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar,” and “Benji”?
Those were the two ends of the spectrum of what I considered animal movies. I watched the “Balthazar” movie again, before I made this, and it gave me a certain confidence to go and devise the structure in the way that I did, because that movie has a very oblique kind of narrative structure. I thought also about “Mouchette,” another movie of his. So this was my dog movie. I wanted to make a dog movie, I just hadn’t thought really about how hard it would be.
The dogs were the source of the problems you had while making the movie?
Yeah, that was the hardest thing. I learned over the course of the production that, because of inbreeding, for the marketplace, to help the animal maintain its cuteness and sheen, it has a certain amount of intelligence bred out of it. So we worked with about three or four different dachshunds. They were show dogs, but all of them remarkably stupid and unresponsive to any commands whatsoever.
So you opted for beauty when maybe you should have chosen a dog trained to perform in movies?
Well, in the end, I’m glad I had the dog, that I had used this dog, though I really didn’t know I would make it to the end while I was in production. For the interlude, for example, we put it on a treadmill, and we basically stood around for three hours until we could get 12 seconds of usable footage. But that’s the way it was with the dog. I had to rewrite and rethink things because of its mental deficiency.
Sorry to hear that. Do you think you’ll be working with a dog again anytime soon?
No, of course not. But no need to feel sorry about any of this. This is a part of the process if you want to make a dog movie, this is what you’re embarking on. It’s all fine. I’m very happy with the movie and very happy I got to make it.
“The Ballad of Wiener-Dog” that plays during the interlude was written by composer and lyricist Marc Shaiman. What were your instructions to him?
Marc Shaiman and [co-lyricist] Scott Wittman wrote it together. I’d worked with them before, and I described what I was looking for. I wanted something very expansive, very American. I gave them a Johnny Cash song as a kind of template. And it was to be expressive of the dog’s quest for home. And they delivered. They understood. We had a very good collaboration.
The film’s narrative doesn’t always explain how Wiener-Dog gets from one person to the next.
It does in the beginning, and then I let go of that. I didn’t feel it terribly important how it got from one place to the next. The audience could fill in the blanks. And it goes from owner to owner, as the lyrics have suggested, with its own quest for home. But I just felt at a certain point it didn’t really matter how it got from place to place.
The headline for one “Wiener-Dog” review said, “Love Dogs? Don’t Go See This Movie.” How do you react to a message like that?
Some people certainly fetishize their pets, and the movie has a certain sensibility that not everybody can cotton to. It’s not designed to please everybody. But it’s not a question of dog ownership. It’s just that some people appreciate the sensibility and others don’t, regardless of the presence of the dog. I think every movie of mine has elicited similar sorts of complaints, so it’s not new that people have trouble with one of my movies. I don’t have control over those things. I mean, I love dogs. I don’t own one, but that’s because it’s too much responsibility.
Critics tend to label your films as “sad comedies,” and to describe your viewpoint as cynical. Are you OK with that?
I don’t have control over labels. Labels are, of course, reductive, a shorthand, a kind of lazy way of describing what’s being portrayed. But as I say, they’re reductive, so they really don’t have much meaning for me.
“Wiener-Dog” had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Did you watch the film with an audience?
I did. That was the first time I saw it with an audience.
Is the experience an unavoidably anxious one?
I think I was looking forward to it. I was excited, and happy with the way in which the movie played. That’s a great pleasure to get to see it with an audience. It was fun for me. Audiences often surprise you [with their responses], but that’s part of the excitement of the whole experience.
You’ve said you weren’t destined to be a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker. What caused you to reach that conclusion?
Well, look at the movies themselves, the writing’s on the wall. These are movies with a limited appeal, a limited audience, limited marketplace. And they don’t attempt to entertain audiences in quite the same way that mainstream studio films do.
David Crumpler: (904) 359-4164