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Award-Winning Filmmaker of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” Discusses His Films in the 35th Annual Van Zelst Lecture

Director and writer Todd Solondz talked about a wide range of topics, from his start in Hollywood to his advice to aspiring young filmmakers, during the 35th Annual Van Zelst Lecture at the Segal Vistors Center on May 3, 2018.

“In my work, there’s this marriage of comedy and pathos,” said Solondz, who won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for Welcome to the Dollhouse in 1996, and the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Happiness in 1998. In 2001, his film Storytelling was named one of the “ten best films of the year” by The New York Times and his latest film, Wiener Dog, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. His films have tackled controversial topics, including rape, pedophilia, and suicide.

“All of my work in some sense reflects the divide between cruelty and kindness, which accounts for why some audiences have such a divided response to my work,” he said. “Sometimes, they may laugh and the other half may be angry, saying, ‘why are you laughing? This is sorrowful.’ And it is both concurrently. There is a comedy, without which life would be too hard to bear.”

The event, sponsored by a generous endowment from Mr. and Mrs. Theodore W. Van Zelst, included snippets of Solondz’s films and questions from two faculty moderators, Radio/Television/Film Department Chair David Tolchinsky and RTVF Associate Professor Thomas Bradshaw.

“We’re so excited to have Todd with us tonight that we needed two moderators,” joked Tolchinksy.

Bradshaw called Solondz a singular inspiration for him. “I’ve been watching Todd’s films for 20 years, and Welcome to the Dollhouse had a profound effect on me. His work has been one of the guiding lights of my career,” Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw asked Solondz about his work with child actors, who are often asked to play difficult roles but who turn in riveting performances.

Solondz said the difference between adult actors and child actors was simple. “Kids always know their lines,” he quipped. “With adults, it’s a crapshoot. I once had to write out lines on a cue card for one of my actors. And one actress kept flubbing her monologue. She told me, ‘I don’t know what’s happening.’ And, I said, ‘Well, maybe you didn’t memorize it.’”

Solondz’s razor-sharp humor kept the audience chuckling as he talked about his favorite childhood movies: The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. “If it didn’t have the official Disney trademark, I wasn’t allowed to watch it,” he said, discussing how his mother refused to let him see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “She told me it was so powerful. I said, ‘That’s the movie I wanted to see!’ But, she said, ‘Oh, no, you’re way too young to see it.’ I was 16!”

During college, Solondz talked about how he thought he might first want to be a playwright. “All my plays were terrible. Thank goodness none of them were produced,” he said. He went to New York University graduate film school and there found that he was able to express himself in film in a way that he’d failed to do as a playwright, musician, photographer, and the other creative pursuits he’d tried.

Then, with the success of his first film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, he said doors began opening in Hollywood. Suddenly, famous actors wanted to work with him, and he was able to get riskier projects produced. “People say you learn from failure, but I learn from success,” he joked. “Failure is painful. Success opens doors.”

Solondz also had advice for aspiring filmmakers in the audience, telling them to be true to their art but to be genuine. “When you’re young be careful of being too clever,” he said. “When you’re young, you want to show off what a genius you are. But, the more you show off, the more you show you’re not really ready.”

He also advised students to take the pressure off themselves.

“People think, ‘oh, if I’m not successful by 30, then I’m doomed,’” he said. “Don’t worry about that. The best thing about turning 30 is you never have to do it again.”

At the end of the discussion, School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe presented him with the Van Zelst Lecturer medal. He joked that he had two kids at home who would love fighting over it.

“We give this to you in hopes that you’ll remember us,” O’Keefe told him. “I can guarantee that we will remember you.”

Marley Smith, a RTVF undergraduate who wants to design sets after she graduates in 2019, said she enjoyed the talk. “His energy was very surprising, given the nature of his films,” she said. “I was very impressed by how down to earth he was.”

– Cara Lockwood