Poor Dawn Wiener. Even her name spells trouble. The put-upon 12-year-old played so memorably by Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse has been an icon of outcasts since the day in September 1995 that audiences first laid eyes on her. And so has the film’s auteur, Todd Solondz, whose subsequent brutal comedies like Happiness (1998) and Storytelling (2001) have courted controversy and caused endless squirming. Here’s some behind-the-scenes info on Welcome to the Dollhouse, the movie that put both Matarazzo and Solondz on the map.
1. TODD SOLONDZ HAD GIVEN UP ON SHOW BUSINESS BEFORE MAKING IT.
The New York University film school dropout’s short films had earned some notoriety in the 1980s, and Todd Solondz got a studio deal to make features. But his debut, Fear, Anxiety & Depression (1989), was a frustrating flop over which he had little creative control, bringing out all three of its title emotions. He swore off the movie business and got a job teaching English to Russian immigrants. Five years later, he was persuaded to try again by a lawyer friend who said she could help with financing. “I had such a horrible experience on that first movie,” Solondz said. “I thought it shouldn’t have the last word. That somewhat inspired me to go to the trouble of trying to make another movie.”
2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY THE WONDER YEARS.
“I had been told it was a popular show,” Solondz told an interviewer of The Wonder Years. “I tuned in, and even though it’s set in a time when I grew up”— Solondz was born in 1959— “it bears little resemblance to the era I knew. So I wrote this script [in about 1988] and put it in a drawer because I was certain it would never be made.”
3. IT WAS MADE FOR $800,000.
In 2016 figures, that’s about $1.2 million—but remember, this was in 1995, before digital film drastically reduced the practical costs of moviemaking. In theaters, the film made about $4.5 million.
4. THE PEOPLE WHO ENFORCE CHILD LABOR LAWS WOULD HAVE FROWNED UPON THE PRODUCTION, IF THEY’D KNOWN ABOUT IT.
Welcome to the Dollhouse
doesn’t just “break the rules” about how stories are told, it also broke actual laws about how movies are made. Solondz admitted that “we sometimes worked in the middle of the night, which wasn’t really legal in the U.S., certainly with child actors.”
5. THOUGH IT LAUNCHED HEATHER MATARAZZO’S ACTING CAREER, IT ALSO CAUSED HER A LOT OF PAIN.
Heather Matarazzo went into seventh grade just as the film was premiering at the Toronto Film Festival: “I was entering into the experience I had just done on film,” she said. “There was definitely an element of kids being jealous.” Moreover, she wasn’t invited to the Toronto premiere, nor to Sundance four months later (where the movie won the Grand Jury Prize), which she assumed was a cost-cutting measure. “It felt like having helped set up the party, then not being invited to it.” She also said she internalized Dawn too much. “Interviewers would say, ‘How does it feel to play such an ugly girl?’ What I would hear was: ‘How does it feel to be so ugly?’”
6. SOLONDZ THOUGHT HIS TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL ACCEPTANCE LETTER WAS A JOKE.
Other prestigious festivals like Cannes, Venice, and Telluride had rejected the film, and Solondz’s experiences with potential distributors had been negative. So when he got a fax from Toronto saying it had been accepted, “I thought it was a prank,” Solondz recalled. “I mean, this wasn’t paranoia. I’d shown it to some sales people, and they didn’t even finish watching it.”
7. PLAYING A CHARACTER ACCUSED OF BEING A LESBIAN HELPED MATARAZZO EXPLORE HER OWN SEXUALITY.
Among the taunts Dawn Wiener’s tormenters hurl at her is “lesbo,” an accusation that isn’t even true of the character, who’s all about the boys. It turned out to be true of Matarazzo, though. “I didn’t even know what ‘lesbo’ meant!” she later said of her 12-year-old self. When she learned what it meant, she had an epiphany: “Oh my God! That’s what I am, a lesbian!” Excited by her discovery, she’d “go around set to the people I really liked and say, ‘I’m a lesbian. I’m a lesbian.’”
8. THE ORIGINAL VERSION WAS EVEN DARKER.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Solondz’s ideas were initially even more unsettling than the “toned down” ones that made it to the final product. A prime example: According to Matarazzo, an earlier version had Dawn actually being raped by the boy who keeps threatening to do so. Solondz confirms that his first ideas were “darker and more depressing than the final version” but says he doesn’t want to publish earlier drafts.
9. THE MAIN CHARACTER IS ALSO IN TWO OTHER SOLONDZ FILMS (SO FAR).
Solondz’s 2004 film Palindromes begins with a funeral for Dawn Wiener, said to have gotten pregnant in college before committing suicide. Dawn was resurrected for Wiener-Dog (2016), a triptych of stories with a dachshund as the connecting thread; now she’s a veterinary nurse and played by Greta Gerwig. (Kieran Culkin plays Brandon, Dawn’s bully-boyfriend from Welcome to the Dollhouse.) Matarazzo brusquely told Solondz around the time of Palindromes that she didn’t want to reprise the role, and said she learned of Wiener-Dog’s existence on the Internet.
10. IT INSPIRED CRUEL INTENTIONS.
Roger Kumble, writer/director of the steamy 1999 teen thriller Cruel Intentions, said, “I’d just seen Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, and I was like, ‘Wow ... f*****-up high school. Never seen this.’ It was so dark. And it was one of those moments when you’re just walking across the street, and the idea popped into my head to do Dangerous Liaisons set in high school.”