The director of Welcome To The Dollhouse, Happiness and Palindromes recalls his first student film, Feelings (1984), in which he plays a suicidal young man at the beach — and sings Morris Albert’s eponymous cornball tune.
What do you think of Feelings now, looking back on it?
Well I’ve always been deeply embarrassed by it, but I think with time a certain kind of affection has grown around it for me; even as the embarrassment lingers.
Are you comfortable with it being available now?
Yeah. Obviously if you’re a cinephile, but particularly if you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you look at a short film like mine and you think, If this guy could start with a movie like this, then maybe there’s hope for me.
Have you changed much as a filmmaker since?
Maybe I haven’t changedm but certainly I’ve grown a little bit. You get older and you have, I think, a richer sense of the world.
What’s the American independent film scene like now compared to back then?
I thin kit’s much more competitive than ever. The minus is that I think it’s more difficult to get theatrical distribution — it’s very brutal. But at the same time the invention of this video technology — HD and so forth — has made the idea of being a film director much more democratic. When I was a student no-one thought, ‘Oh I’m gonna go off and make a movi after I finish college’. So while there are a lot more bad movies there are also movies that are good that might not otherwise have been made.
Are you ever offered studio movies?
Not recently. I think they’ve either given up on me or written me off. I don’t forsee any collaborations, but who knows in the future? When I made Welcome To The Dollhouse every studio wanted to work with me — then all I had to do was show them the script for Happiness and all the doors closed.
Is it difficult to fund your films?
It’s always hard. If your last movie did well at the box office then it makes it easier.
How do you feel about ‘quirky’ commercial hits like Little Miss Sunshine?
Well they’re certainly made with a budget. These are movies that, while they weren’t made by studios, certainly were financed by people who had a sharp commercial incentive.
What are you working on now?
I’m starting casting on something. I would’ve started sooner but the money’s been a bit of an issue. Let me make sure the money’s all done before I start talking about it.
Are you misunderstood by critics?
I’ve never had much of a track record with any one critic. They like what they like and they don’t like what they don’t. Ulitmately what they have to say is not of great personal interest to me; however, if they do say good things it’s certainly helpful to a small degree at the box office.
You once said, “My movies are not for everybody, especially the people who like them.” What did you mean?
It’s tricky the way in which my movies operate. While they are comedies they’re also very sad comedies, and sometimes people laugh in places or at times or in a manner that I’m not sure is really appropriate.
What do people expect of you?
I don’t even know what people expect from me. I can’t really think too much about that because there’s not much I can do about it. All I can do is try to tell stories and make movies that engage me and hope that it’s something that translates to others.