Combustible Celluloid

Interview with David O. Russell

Getting Existential

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

David O. Russell enters the room, sits down and kicks his legs up on the table. His little white girly socks poke just above the rim of his sneakers and don't quite cover his legs before his gray slacks begin. He has topped off his outfit with a green/red/blue pinstripe dress shirt and long, unkempt hair.

But then they say that great thinkers usually can't dress themselves. And Russell has already moved on to a coffee cup filled with tepid coffee and cream. "See that?" he says, indicating the milky clouds within. "That's going to slowly turn into a galaxy paradigm."

Russell has been doing a great deal of deep thinking the past year, mostly in the writing and directing of his new movie, I Heart Huckabees (a.k.a. I ♥ Huckabees). The film concerns a young activist (Jason Schwartzman) who signs up with an existential detective agency, run by husband and wife team Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, but soon finds himself torn between their theories and those of a French nihilist (Isabelle Huppert).

Mark Wahlberg joins in, playing a long-suffering firefighter also torn between the two schools of thought. Jude Law plays the smiling, snake-charmer of a PR man at the Huckabees corporation, and Naomi Watts plays Law's girlfriend, a gorgeous model for the same company.

Each character goes through some kind of major spiritual, philosophical or existential crisis, which leads him or her to question everything under the sun. The film is packed to the ceiling with rapid-fire jokes, ideas and heated arguments.

Russell says his complex movie began many years ago when he saw Rushmore and made it his mission in life to befriend the star of that film, Jason Schwartzman, whom Russell saw as "his brother." Schwartzman returned the sentiment and they became friends.

"I wrote another movie for him first," Russell says, "for him and Mark and Lily and some others, centered around a Zen center I went to for four years in Manhattan, which I thought was a wonderful hub for a comedy, because you have everyone from journalists to janitors going there."

That first screenplay eventually evolved into I ♥ Huckabees. "I wrote it and I decided that I didn't have the story. There was no drive to it. After I put it in a drawer, I had a dream of being followed by a detective, but not for criminal reasons. I said, 'that's the story.'"

Wahlberg came on board after having starred in (and lived through) Russell's last film, the brilliant Three Kings (1999). "The friendship [Jason] has with Mark Wahlberg in the movie is my friendship with Mark Wahlberg. It's an unlikely friendship, where Mark went to jail and I went to college. It's a very strange coupling, which I find funny and fun."

Russell cobbled together the rest of the cast from actors he admired, especially Jude Law and Naomi Watts, but he had had Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin in mind from the start. Apparently, these veterans have always wanted to work together but never have.

"Dustin was the reason I got into cinema, because of The Graduate, which I didn't see until I was thirty, which is when he broke out. He was 31 when he starred in that. He asked me to come read the screenplay at his house, which took two days, because he liked to stop and discuss everything. That was just a dream come true for me."

Finally, the acclaimed and beautiful French actress Isabelle Huppert (Merci pour le chocolat, The Piano Teacher) rounds out the cast. Russell explains that he originally thought of Catherine Deneuve, but couldn't see her playing the scene in which she has to roll around in the mud with Schwartzman. Though Huppert eventually had second thoughts as well.

"We come to this scene, which Jason was really looking forward to for months. It turns out we have fifteen minutes to do it because we're losing the light. Jason goes, 'OK we gotta go. Let's go!' and he drops his pants. Isabelle's been in no fewer than 70 movies in France, and she's been naked in half of them. And she goes, 'David, I don't know, this feels vulgar to me.'"

Russell did some quick thinking, ran through the scene on video and showed it to her. She agreed just in the nick of time.

Then Russell explains the real irony: "When Jason was two, Isabelle went and met his mother, Talia Shire, at their house, and Isabelle held Jason when he was two. 20 years later, they have a sex scene."

Though Russell wrote with certain actors in mind, much of the movie's ideology came from Russell's former college teacher, Robert Thurman, the current Chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia, and -- incidentally -- Uma's dad.

The filmmaker talks first about the Huppert character's nihilism approach: that everything is meaningless and that once one accepts this, he or she can discover a certain kind of freedom.

"A Zen person will tell you that that's true. It's a different approach, but Bob Thurman would never start from that place," Russell says.

During the rest of the conversation, this intelligent filmmaker proceeds to touch on many different mind-boggling ideas, such as Thurman's theory that God probably doesn't exist, and if that's true then "nothing" can't possibly exist either; his words come tumbling out just like a scene from Huckabees.

"For me 'God' conjures a personage or an entity that created everything, which suggests that the entity is somehow separate from everything else, which doesn't really make sense. Because if everything is everything, and that means there's no such thing as nothing. Because nothing would have to be separate from everything, and how could it be? It would be next to everything, and then it wouldn't be nothing."

On the other hand, he discusses the theory of devolution, the process of stripping the idea of the self away in order to find the true self, as practiced by Hoffman and Tomlin's characters. In other words, forget about the job, your friends, your house, your clothes, and even your opinions and ideas and you'll find your true essence.

"Philosophy only interests me insofar as it's practical and that it makes you happy or liberated," he says. "I'm not that interested in modes of inquiry or spirituality that make you more rigid. If you think, 'This is it; this is the way and I'm not going to step outside of it,' it's a frightened way to be."

Russell could probably go on for hours with the deep thinking, but he is always up front with what the film really is: a comedy.

"I wanted to have fun on this movie, and I wanted everybody to love the way I work, which is loose and a little chaotic. That's how I get the performances. We let the camera roll. I don't yell 'cut.' We let it roll till the end of the mag. And that was liberating for these actors, because they forgot the camera was rolling. They loved it. I would talk to them, come onto the set while the camera was rolling. They came up with fantastic things."

Date: September 24, 2004

Read Jeffrey's review of I Heart Huckabees, a.k.a. I ♥ Huckabees.

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