Art of the Real 728x90 Film Comment Film Society of Lincoln Center

Online Exclusive: David O. Russell interview

By Gavin Smith

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A selection of outtakes from Gavin Smith's interview with I ♥ Huckabees director David O. Russell

Selling the concept
The only person I had to pitch it to was Lorenzo di Bonaventura at Warner Bros. I said it's about these existential detectives who people hire to investigate their lives and the nature of reality, and it's going to be a comedy. So I wrote that, and then Lorenzo left Warner Bros. after a very famous altercation, and I was there with all these people that hated him and didn't want to do anything that had his stink on it, and I didn't know them. Then suddenly I was shopping this thing all over town. Scott Rudin came in and said, "I'll give this to [Paramount president] Sherry Lansing but she won't get it at all, even though she had said she'd like to have a film like The Royal Tenenbaums or in this direction." A lot of people were like that with Three Kings too, they're like, "I don't get it. I don't understand what you're doing here." And then afterwards some of those same people said, "Oh, now I completely get it."

Anyway, I wrote this comedy about that, its working title was Zendo. I owed something to Miramax, and I asked them to work with Lorenzo because I liked him—he helped me with Three Kings. I thought this way I'll take care of the Miramax obligation and I'll have the best of both worlds: Warners for production and Miramax for marketing. Warners hasn't a clue how to market a film like that and Miramax can be a little pesky in production. And because he's such a good friend and facilitator, he said, "Okay, want to do another one? We'll roll the costs into the next picture." So I said I'd write this other one, let me think about it.

Huckabees' roots
In a certain way it goes back to Flirting with Disaster, in that [the main character is] investigating his identity. They get to be detectives, and Tea Leoni gets to be [Ben Stiller's character's] detective. Also, [the films are similar] in terms of a bunch of people just talking in a familiar environment. I am trying to take ideas and marry them into a character and narrative world, and not be didactic and simplistic. One of the intentions of Three Kings was to have this dynamic tension between all these questions. Soldiers seem to have won a war but they find they don't know anything about the situation. So again it's having the rug pulled out from under your feet, and saying, Let's inquire deeper. So it's going after ideas and having feelings and ideas side by side, and also having some fun with it. I couldn't have handled it 10 years ago. There are things you gotta keep private and then you wonder as you become a public person if this stuff will ever become part of your work. There's something liberating about it.

The meaning of Three Kings
The most boring part of Three Kings to me is the heist and the gold. When I was doing marketing, I said the gold is the McGuffin. And the guy who had just come from McDonald's to run marketing didn't know what a McGuffin is. And I looked at him, and I said, "You don't know what a McGuffin is, do you? But you know what a McMuffin is." I couldn't resist. The main characters in Three Kings just want to go and get the gold and leave—and the mission of the first Gulf war was a little like that: we're going to go and set everything properly, and leave. Set properly for our extraction of oil. Well, what about these people? Now you're going to walk away and leave that? I couldn't believe no one had made a film about that.

Personal life seeps in
The things I care most about were put into this movie. On Three Kings, I would just want to sit in my trailer and watch Rushmore and stay in that world, but I'd have to walk outside and be in the desert with 200 Arab extras and guns and military shit. This film is a world that I love to be in, it was like a graduate course for me. I was consciously thinking, How do I think about these questions? And suddenly the blanket came to me and I said, We'll put that in the film—something that served the movie yet also served my understanding of these things. It was a part of my own meditation or reflection, struggling and grappling with this Rubik's cube, and I gave it to Dustin [Hoffman] as a late addition because I thought it made it so clear. At one point I had Dustin's character take out a paddle and a Ping-Pong ball and start hitting it back and forth while they were talking so that they stopped thinking—which actually became more the Isabelle Huppert character's domain.

Character relationships between Bernard and Vivian and Caterine
In the end Albert [Jason Schwartman] accuses them of working in concert, although they deny it. I went back and forth on whether that should be true or not. In a way it doesn't matter. I had a long backstory with them that got cut out—it was a whole other movie in a way. Caterine [Isabelle Huppert] had been their graduate student, they had been lovers in a kind of triangle like the one between Nietszche, Rilke, and this woman called Salome—I think she went off with Rilke. I liked the idea of these intense people transcending normal social relationships. I also tried to have Bernard [Dustin Hoffman] and Vivian [Lily Tomlin] go through their own crisis during the movie, but it was too much. I wanted them to have to confront a lot of shit themselves, and the problems got thrown back on them and their expertise got taken away from them, which in a way is what any teacher wants from any student. Caterine was also conceived as a Moriarty figure—I like the idea of the detectives having a nemesis.

Dismantling identity and reality
It's like what Dustin says in the movie. You can't tell where your nose ends and space begins. What you think is distinct and separate and solid is porous and indistinct. That idea's like a touchstone. I'll try it on in any given context. In Three Kings, okay, you've got guns, you feel frustrated, you haven't seen violence—what is violence? Let's talk about that for a second. We've seen a lot of movies, but what is it really like when a bullet goes into your abdomen? Take a second to think about that. Which is like getting you out of one dimension into the other dimensions and trying to expand our very narrow mental software a little bit. Which happily also has a comedic effect.

Jon Brion's score
I was so fortunate to get that guy. I loved his music for Punch-Drunk Love. Jude Law said music captured the vibe of last summer when we shot the movie. I said, "What specifically do you mean?" And he said, "The emotion, the chaos, the wondering," and then he paused and said, "The joy." Which completely took me by surprise, but felt completely right. That there's a joy in the movie and in the music. Then you have these other matters in there.

The bookend opening and closing images of the film
Well, it's a blurry shot of greenery, like pointillist painting or those cubes. In a way when you squint, you start to see the blanket a little. The hard distinctions are blurred, and the unity is more evident. I like that the film starts with that granular, grainy feeling and returns to that. At the beginning, Albert's talking from a sense of frustration that I identify with, he's swearing and nothing seems to make sense, though he's trying to keep a good front up, and he's angry about the whole proposition of his life. By the end he's come to a place where he can make a better peace with that. It's still as fucked up as it was, but he's come to that Zen thing of accepting something in its fucked-up nature.

Directing actors
I like to let the camera roll and not stop, and talk through lots of different takes. So the actors would forget I'm there. Rather than stop, reset, now very consciously recraft your next performance. Things would get looser. I'll talk to them during the takes, shout out some stuff, especially if it's a rollicking take. And the rhythm of the language and the energy of the scene is very important to me. They can do it their way, but when I communicate what the rhythm should be, and I think they got it every single time, there's not a scene in the movie where I felt they didn't do it the way I envisaged it.

The enigmatic title
There was really no title I was happy with. I stuck with it because I like that it has a Heart in it. It seems to make an ironic comment about those sorts of bumper stickers but it doesn't mean it ironically; I think at the end there is a kind of embrace of the Huckabees character. There's an integration of Brad [Jude Law] and Albert.

Marketing a film that rejects everything marketing stands for
[Laughing] We're gonna have this infomercial where the detectives kind of deconstruct the infomercial and the notion of promotion as they're doing it. And they say, Isn't something that's happening to you serendipitously or spontaneously more alive in some respects than actually having it promoted to you? And so the infomercial is gonna kind of eat its own tail as their doing it. And we're going to drop this debate between Bob Thurman and these physicists right in the middle of it, just cut to it. These physicists talk about 10 dimensions. They say we are people who thought the world was flat. A thousand years from now people may look back at us and say that we could only see in three dimensions. We don't have any idea what is to conceive in 10 dimensions.