In Wiener-Dog, the eighth feature from writer-director Todd Solondz, a dachshund is passed from owner to owner across four different storylines. For those familiar with Solondz’s filmography, the prospect of interlocking narratives won’t be surprising: Like Happiness, Storytelling, Palindromes, and Life During Wartime before it, his new film seeks obtuse thematic links between the oddities of human interaction. The simple premise allows access to a wide array of characters, from an adult version of Dawn Weiner (Greta Gerwig), the character Solondz introduced in his breakthrough Welcome to the Dollhouse, to Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a screenwriting professor in New York whose colleagues and students resent his “negativity” and old-school methods. The dog plays a lesser role in each successive story until the very end, in which a sudden accident resurrects the thread and conjures an image that circles back to the film’s start. Such are Solondz’s ironic sensibilities: Right when something (or some being) seems forgotten, it returns in an unexpectedly, and uncannily, emblematic manner.
I spoke with Solondz about the influence of Au Hasard Balthazar on Wiener-Dog, his knack for working with younger actors, and whether scholarly theory has a place in the art of filmmaking.
How did the continuity between Dawn Wiener’s nickname and an interest in making a film that follows a dachshund come about?
I had killed Dawn Wiener in Palindromes and I was always looking for an opportunity when I could bring her back to offer her a possible alternative life trajectory. Something a little sunnier, a little bit more hopeful than what I gave her in Palindromes. This was an opportunity to do that.
Did you have any reservations about resurrecting Dawn for this film?
No. For me, I didn’t see why I just couldn’t put together or create another alternative life for this film. People write books and then they bring characters back in other books. I didn’t see why I couldn’t do that as a filmmaker. I had also wanted to make a dog movie and, of course, when I thought of Dawn, it clicked immediately. The kind of dog, not just because of her nickname, so to speak, but how that dog would be perfect for this movie. I was very much inspired by Au Hasard Balthazar and I rewatched it before I made this. It has a kind of oblique, if not wobbly, narrative to it, and that gave me a certain kind of confidence to try approaching this story of a dog going from owner to owner as four discreet kinds of stories that would be connected by this little dachshund.
It’s certainly difficult not to think of Au Hasard Balthazar while watching this film. What is attractive to you, as a storyteller, about the underlying concept of possessing either a dog or another being and the ways characters negotiate that relationship throughout the film?
It’s a funny thing about pets—a dog is a dog and it’s hard for us to look at dogs, being so anthrocentric, not to look at them anthropomorphically. They’re so often a kind of vessel for people’s emotions and illusions and yearnings and desires and so forth. In fact, they can be a kind of projection for a purity or innocence that’s always unreachable for us as humans. But that’s because we also have a hard time looking at a dog in all its dogness, and this is why when bad things happen to little dogs like this, it’s much harder for many people than when bad things happen to people, even children.
The film’s first segment takes deliberate aim at the romanticism of pet ownership and the others do so indirectly. Did films or art that treat the topic in such a precious and sentimental manner also motivate you?
Obviously, I didn’t want to sentimentalize this story. It’s not a story of a dog’s trials and tribulations and triumphs. One of the things that impels you when you make a movie is that you have a story or a point of view that hasn’t been expressed or told and so you try to give that [story] form. I’ve seen my fill of other movies with little dogs and pets and so forth, so yes, I wanted to have another take, so to speak.
Your films often boast memorable performances from young, unknown actors. Here, Keaton Nigel Cooke provides another striking example of that. How do you go about selecting and directing these young actors to so thoroughly embody the confusion of being an adolescent?
I think I have some specific sense of what I’m looking for when I go about casting. A specific quality. It’s not a physical thing so much. But I approach things very conventionally. I have a casting person and he just scrounges about, scouring whatever he can until I find an actor that can pull off what I need.
Is it then a specific sense you have of what you want prior to searching or that once you find the actor you gain a sense of what you can pull out of them?
It’s both, I suppose. But generally I have a strong sense of what I’m looking for. That can be affected or altered somewhat by an actor who gives me perhaps something a little bit different, but not counter to what I’m looking for. You have to be open and fluid about all of this, but you also have to have a strong sense of knowing what you’re looking for in order to find things you might not know you were looking for.
I know in 2009 you began teaching at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Was material taken from your experiences there to write the segment for the screenwriting professor played by Danny DeVito?
Certainly, yes. I teach in the grad program there, and I love my job. I love teaching and I love my students. I have some wonderful colleagues. With that said, I do see NYU as something of an evil empire and the Tisch School of the Arts being managed with remarkable incompetence and corruption. So it’s hard for that spirit, I suppose, not to inform my approach to this story. There is, of course, a satirical thrust and a philosophical underpinning as well, but the story is really about a man’s quest for redemption and meaning. If I were to really go and make a movie attacking the film school, it would’ve been a different one and a longer one.
At one point in the film, a student tells DeVito’s Schmerz that he wants to write a screenplay about identity that’s informed by queer theory and Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet. Schmerz categorically rejects this and tells the student he has to find a story. I’m curious about your personal approach on this topic: Do you advocate writing screenplays from such theoretical perspectives?
Even though I think Schmerz is something of a man of failed dreams or ambition, I actually think he’s probably a pretty good teacher, but he’s perceived as something of a dinosaur and a hack. Yet he does understand that movies are about stories. If you want to make a movie about gender, well, you have to know what does that look like…what does that gender want? Storytelling isn’t so theoretical, and getting stuck in the ideas can often be a block to being able to tell stories.