Wiener-Dog, writer-director Todd Solondz’s eighth feature film, is not about a dog–wiener or otherwise. Or at least that’s what he insisted, repeatedly, when we met during the Sundance London film festival, where the film enjoyed its UK premiere earlier this year. Sure, there’s a dog in the title. And on the poster. And in just about every scene of the film, a collection of four separate stories connected by the canine. But don’t let that fool you: Wiener-Dog is all about death. The dog is incidental.
Which came first, the stories, or the idea of the dog as a framing device?
The dog as a conceit. I had a dog in the first story that I wanted to use as a kind of device that would be a kind of cohesion, a kind of conceit, a prism through which I could play with all sorts of stuff. It’s not really a story about a dog, or the story of the trials and triumphs of a dog. That movie is… if that’s what you came for, you’ll be disappointed.
You make a point of linking the first and second stories through the dog, but the third and fourth remain disconnected, narratively. Was there a temptation to connect them all more explicitly through the dog?
I just didn’t think it mattered. At that point, it’s… as I say, it’s not about the dog’s journey per se. There was something, I did provide a little bit of an explanation of how it got to DeVito’s [Danny DeVito, who stars in the third story] but then I dropped it, it just didn’t matter to me. I felt that at this point the audience would accept that this is a kind of conceit, and not need to know the technical details of how it escaped and survived between the stories.
The dog’s names in the shorts range from the blunt (‘Wiener-Dog’) to the shocking (‘Cancer’). How did you come up with those?
Well everyone brings their own meaning, their own issues, their own what-have-you to the identity of this dog. But as I say, it’s not about the dog, it’s about the people.
In that case do you worry that the dog as a conceit could distract from the focus of the stories?
No. For me there isn’t. The dog doesn’t have a character, the dog is just dumb. The dog is cute, and sweet, and benign, but it is not expressive of character. Unless I was doing some National Geographic or Hollywood Lassie kind of story… that was never my intention. People maybe are so smitten with the cuteness of the dog that perhaps they’re disappointed that they want just want more, and can’t get enough, but that’s not what the movie was ever intended to be about. But its cuteness and its lovability, it does resonate with some of the ideas that I dramatise.
The film’s first story very quickly establishes the tone, that it’s very willing to push some probably uncomfortable boundaries for people.
Anyone who’s seen any of my movies would be familiar with my sensibility. Look, as I maybe said, the movie’s really about mortality, and contending with mortality, in different philosophical, emotional, and satirical ways. So that’s what it’s about, for me. It’s just a… what do you call that, a MacGuffin type thing? But the literalness of a dog… dogs are cute. It has to serve an idea. In and of itself, a dog would be of no interest.
How do you see the dog bringing out those themes of mortality?
Well each story deals with the subject. It shadows every one of them, directly or more obliquely. That’s what was my focus.
Did you always set out to make four shorts, or did that first story start out as a feature-length idea?
No, because that first story was just… contained. I didn’t see any reason to try and expand it. I wanted to be able to go in different places.
To explore the theme from different angles.
Yeah, they’re different ages, and roles. The way people ascribe different meaning and value to this little cute thing.
Wiener-Dog is out in UK cinemas from August 12th, and you can read Candid’s review from Sundance London here.
Words by Dominic Preston