Having already watched him broach the cruelties of middle school children (Welcome to the Dollhouse), pedophilia (Happiness), and the true, ugly impulses that motivate artistic expression (Storytelling), I wondered going into Palindromes what new topic filmmaker Todd Solondz could use to make me feel uncomfortable. The answer: Abortion, of course! Palindromes chronicles the adventures of 13-year-old Aviva, who, after getting knocked up by her cousin and forced into an abortion by her creep-tastic mom (Ellen Barkin), embarks on a quest to get impregnated again. Her journey winds its way through a nightmarishly cheery Christian home for disabled youths led by the enigmatic Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), and then to a surly, blue-collar abortionist assassin for the extreme Right (Stephen Adly-Guirgis). As always, Solondz pulls no punches in dealing with his heavy material, and as always, the results are hilarious, unsettling, and endlessly thought provoking.
I've read that you had to fund this film entirely out of your own pocket. Any truth to that claim?
No. I did put money into it to get it started, but I couldn't afford to finance this whole movie, even if it is under a million.
While Palindromes is certainly controversial, it doesn't seem any more so than your last film, Storytelling. Why the financial difficulties this time around?
In this country, [filmmaking] is a bottom-line business--you can't delude yourself. Storytelling didn't make a lot of money--it was a combination of that and the material itself, which I guess people don't see as warm and fuzzy.
I felt like Palindromes had kind of a quest feel to it…
On the most fundamental level, it's the story of a 13-year-old girl who imagines that having a baby will provide a kind of unconditional love. It is a quest for that love, a quest for the sublime. And of course it's all set into motion by the question, "What do you do when your 13-year-old daughter comes home--and she's not only pregnant, but wants to keep the baby?"
Your treatment of the anti-abortion extremists, while not exactly sympathetic, is, I don't know, fair, or at least not obviously critical.
Ours is the only country in the world where abortionists are assassinated and clinics are bombed. The first reaction [to such crimes] is, "Oh my God, this is sick! How could they perpetrate such atrocities?" But then, as you think further, it becomes very painfully clear that everyone needs to feel that deep down they are good people. The man who is murdering an abortionist [believes he] is saving a million unborn babies. I'm not out to dispute this inherent goodness so much as to investigate the meaning of human nature and experience.
Palindromes' lead character, Aviva, is played by multiple actresses throughout the course of the film. Was that idea in the script from the beginning?
One of the conventions of moviegoing is that you have one actor per character, and that is devised so one can access the universality of an experience through the particularity of a single character/actor. [In Palindromes] you've got eight Avivas. It could be 18 or 80; any one of us could play an episode in this girl's life. I'm approaching the universality of experience from the other end of the telescope.
In your first feature film, Fear, Anxiety, and Depression, you play the protagonist. Why have you never acted since?
Well, I didn't want to be an actor in the first place and I didn't really want to play that role (the intensely neurotic Ira Ellis). The whole thing was a nightmare, and if I'd had my way, that film would never have been finished, never mind released. It's a painful memory that I prefer not to dwell on.
Do you have other movies in the works after Palindromes?
I always have something in mind, but I'm afraid to talk about the future.