Talking About 'Storytelling'

At the Sundance Film Festival, director Todd Solondz proved far more likable than some viewers of his films might expect. I got a chance to ask him a few burning questions about his latest film, Storytelling.

JD: There have been many rumors about how much footage you cut from the film, and why.

TS: The amount that I cut was about the same that I cut from both Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse. The difference is, now that I've got a certain amount of attention from those two movies, people start watching me and making notes. The Internet, I don't know, I have no control over that. They're monitoring me, where I was never monitored before. It's true, a lot was cut out, but an equal amount was cut out - actors, storylines - of the other work as well. No one's aware of that, because they didn't have the Internet watching. I was lucky then, and I didn't know it.

JD: So it's inaccurate for people to think, "He had a finished movie, and somebody talked him into cutting chunks of it out."

TS: Oh, completely - it's absolutely 100 percent my cut.

JD: And that material isn't something that'll show up on a DVD, because it was never intended to be in the film.

TS: No, I believe, when you publish a book, no one needs to see the 800 pages that you cut out. This cut is what I stand by. There are some scenes that I'm very sad are not in the movie; actors, obviously, like James Van Der Beek, who did wonderful work, but given the ultimate shape of the film just didn't make sense to retain. So it does sadden me, but unfortunately I'm not a good enough writer to get it right in the writing stage. I keep screwing up, and write too much and shoot too much with every movie. And that's what happened.

JD: Second obvious issue: the red box.

TS: I could only get the money that I needed for this film from New Line; couldn't get enough elsewhere. New Line is a studio that will release only R-rated movies. I knew I had a scene that was going to be problematic; I could be optimistic, but I had to safeguard myself. And so I negotiated a contract such that - and without getting this approved, I wouldn't have made the movie - such that I had the ability to use beeps and/or visual bars as needed, in order to procure an R rating if I was having trouble.

I didn't want what happened to Kubrick and many others, where they just digitally, elegantly move something, and the audience doesn't know what's missing. In my movie, they will know what they're not allowed to see or hear. That was imperative for me, that I have that ability.

I've read people saying, "Oh, he had to make these compromises," and so on. But I'm really happy about this; it's a victory I worked very hard to achieve. The heads of the studio didn't want it; this is the first studio movie with a big red box in the middle of it. When I finished the movie and had this box, the studio said "over my dead body." That was their response, and then they went back and looked at the contract to see that, yes, I had that in there.

JD: How explicit is that shot? Were genitalia shown?

TS: No, you see the tush.

JD: So the problem was basically the combination of touchy racial stuff and sexual content?

TS: Well, they will never tell you what it is. There's no guidebook that says you can have this but not that. I know a lot of people seem to think that there was something racist about this decision, but I don't think so. After all, the dialogue is intact. I was told that the ratings board found the scene to be pornographic; now, for me, I didn't find it sexually exciting, but if they did I can't argue with them.

The only thing I wanted to do that I couldn't is to use the word "censored." I couldn't use that word; it's the only word they censor you from using. If you notice on in-flight movies or TV, it'll say the movie was "altered" or "modified" or "edited," but they'll never use the word "censored."

And they are not censors, strictly speaking, these ratings people. It's very complicated, because the studio system is complicit in the problem, all these forces that make it so that, in this country, movies that are serious adult films may not be seen by adults in the way that they can be seen elsewhere. In the rest of the world, Europe, Canada, whatever, there's no red box. The opportunity to see this box is only here, in this country.

When I did Happiness for home video, they wanted me to cut it so we could get into Blockbuster. I wouldn't do that. I offered to put beeps and bars in it, and they didn't take me up on that. Consequently, you can only find that movie at an independent video store, not at Blockbuster, because I wouldn't cut the movie. So we lost a lot of money.

JD: Considering the nature of the documentary produced in the "Nonfiction" segment, do you have a problem with the idea of documentaries?

TS: Well, I love documentaries. But the great challenge as I see it is not to exploit. Like you, as a journalist, have a certain relationship with me: You have to recognize that it's an unequal relationship, and you can't deceive yourself into thinking otherwise if you're going to be a responsible journalist or documentarian. At the same time, the subject has to be aware that it's unequal, and that my agenda is not the same as your agenda. And even when the subject is sometimes pleased with the work, that doesn't necessarily mean there hasn't been a certain amount of exploitation.

JD: Given this unequal relationship in journalism, are there perceptions of you out there that you'd like to correct?

TS: The difficulty I think people have with my work is that it's "immoral, insensitive, misanthropic ..." The list goes on. I can argue that there is a moral center and gravity to what I do, but that I don't make it explicit. There are no signposts telling people how to feel about the story, what's right and what's not. But for me, this is what makes it so compelling - it's not just an entertainment.

I'm making demands of the audience, to question their relationship to what's going on onscreen. And for those who don't like it, they have a big arsenal to attack me. At the same time, if people look at it just as a joke - because they are ultimately comedies, though terribly sad and painful ones - if you look at it just as a joke, it's equally problematic. Which is why I've often said that my films aren't for everyone - especially people who like them.
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