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Todd Solondz talks about his ‘sad comedies’

Todd Solondz
Todd Solondz Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The last name is pronounced SOlondz, not soLONDZ. But the 56-year-old writer-director Todd Solondz doesn’t mind how people say it.

During a recent visit to Boston to promote his new film “Wiener-Dog,” Solondz, from behind bright blue eyeglass frames and under a messy shock of graying hair, chuckled and said, “I’m so diversity-oriented, you see, that the more people bring different color and shade to the pronunciation, the more I can appreciate it.”

“Wiener-Dog” is a loosely structured collection of stories that are joined together by a dachshund that touches the lives of her different owners, played by people like Greta Gerwig, Ellen Burstyn, and Danny DeVito. Opening Friday, it’s Solondz’s eighth feature film in a career that started with the little-seen “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” in 1989, took off with “Welcome to the Dollhouse” in 1995, and gained him darling status on the art house circuit with “Happiness” in 1998.

Though his films and their characters are often dreary and shocking, they’re also darkly funny. Solondz likes to call them “sad comedies.” He also likes to talk about the road he’s followed as a filmmaker.

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Q. Is it true that you’ve been writing as long as you’ve been reading?

A. It’s fair to say I read voraciously at a very young age, whether it was the E.B. Whites or the Ellery Queen Jr. mysteries or Doctor Dolittle. In fourth grade a teacher asked me to write a poem, and once that happened, and it had gotten all this attention at school, that kind of positive reinforcement gives you the confidence to move forward. So I worked on what at the time I thought was a novel, but was, let’s say, an extended piece of juvenile fiction.

Q. What made you want to be a filmmaker?

A. Movies didn’t click in until college for me. Before that, movies were not connected to the world I grew up in. And music took up so much of my time. I listened to it a lot but I was also playing classical piano and cello. That was what absorbed me. When I went to Yale, I was an English major, and I was socially maladroit, so movies were a good escape. They had all of these film societies, and you could easily see a Groucho, followed by Howard Hawks, followed by Maya Deren. Even if I didn’t understand what I was watching, I was ingesting all of it. That’s where I came to think about movies.

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Q. But you didn’t go to film school till two years after you graduated from Yale.

A. That’s right. After college, I drove out to LA with a friend, and I wrote a couple of screenplays. They were very juvenile, but one of them got me an agent. But I spoke to her only once, and that was the last time she took a call. I knew I didn’t want to spend my 20s in Los Angeles. I wanted to live in New York. That was always my dream, and if it meant I couldn’t make movies, so be it. But I applied to NYU because I could go to film school and be in New York.

Q. But weren’t you also considering a career in standup comedy?

A. When I was in LA I was taken for the first time to a comedy club. It was amateur night, and I saw one after the other. I said to myself, “I could do that.” So I spent the week thinking about things I could put together, a little 10-minute act. Then at the end of the week, my mom called me, and I said, “Mom, I think I’m gonna be a standup comic.” She said, “Well, go ahead, but, you know, you’re not very funny.” So I never did it. She saved me.

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Q. What happened to your musical ambitions?

A. I was very serious about it, but I also was not delusional. I played adequately, perhaps even impressively, per those who have never listened to a recording of someone who is a musician. I realized I just didn’t have the talent. But I still have an upright piano in my apartment.

Q. Has writing and directing films been a comfortable fit for you?

A. I don’t have the right personality for it. I enjoy everything up until production, and I love post-production. But the actual production, when so much is out of your control, and there are so many compromises that have to be made, is very stressful, and is not pleasurable for me. That said, it’s not as excruciating as it used to be. I think age helps.

Q. Do you love what you do?

A. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to have made these movies that fill a kind of vacuum of the movies I would have wanted to see if I weren’t a filmmaker.

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Interview was edited and condensed. Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.