Flirting With Disaster (1996) and Three Kings (1999) both marked major progressions from David O. Russell's accomplished and challenging 1994 writing-and-directing debut Spanking The Monkey. But nothing he's done can prepare audiences for his latest film, I Heart Huckabees, a philosophically dense comedy that ranks as one of the most audacious and idiosyncratic American studio films in years. The sprawling, quirky story of a pair of existential detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) and their diverse array of spiritually adrift clients, I Heart Huckabees seems certain to divide audiences and win a devoted cult following.
In a role written specifically for him, Jason Schwartzman stars as an environmentalist wrestling with a department store called Huckabees; his character reflects the director's own history as a political activist. Russell's films deal extensively with family politics, as well, particularly Spanking The Monkey, a micro-budgeted comedy-drama about a frustrated college student (Jeremy Davies) who lurches into an incestuous tryst with his demanding mother. Family plays a similarly pivotal role in Flirting With Disaster, a funny, frenetic comedy about an orphaned neurotic (Ben Stiller) searching for his biological parents. Russell graduated to a much bigger budget and broader themes with Three Kings, a politically charged action-adventure caper-comedy set in the aftermath of the first Gulf War.
Russell also recently served as an executive producer on Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy and filmed a documentary that caught up with some of the Iraqis who worked on Three Kings, as well as other parties involved in the second Iraq war. (Warner Bros. declined to include that documentary on a forthcoming Three Kings DVD.) The Onion A.V. Club recently sat down with Russell and Schwartzman to discuss Iraq, philosophy, and the power of celebrity.
The Onion: Where did the idea for I Heart Huckabees come from, and how did the script get to its structure?
David O. Russell: Well, I wrote an idea 15 years ago that the NEA gave me money for. It was about a guy who had microphones in a Chinese restaurant, and eavesdropped, and got involved in people's lives through their fortunes. I used the money I got for that to make Spanking The Monkey. Then I had to give the money back to the NEA.
O: How did that idea evolve into I Heart Huckabees?
DOR: It was one of my first attempts to take a lot of the spiritual and metaphysical ideas that I've been captivated by, probably since I read [J.D. Salinger's] Franny And Zooey in high school, and since I had [Buddhist author] Robert Thurman as my teacher in college. He's an amazing scholar. He wears rumpled suits, and the Dustin Hoffman character is based on him.
O: What teachings of his have influenced you?
DOR: All of his ideas in the movie. The idea of infinity. The idea of no such thing as nothing, because nothing would have to be isolated from everything in order to be nothing. It's impossible. Everything is next to everything else. It would be next to other things, and then it's a part of everything. He's real anti-nihilism, Bob. He talks about the 10th dimension. There's a part in the movie where he and the physicist talk about the 10th dimension, and that's where they're on the same page. They say you only see four dimensions, and 500 years from now, people might say, "These poor bastards didn't perceive or experience the other six dimensions." I just like that because it's a departure point from the everyday world.
Jason Schwartzman: David and I were going to do this other movie he had written that took place in a zendo, which is a place David actually went to in Manhattan. He thought it was funny that real-life people would come to this one room at 6 p.m. just to get their consciousness cleared. Mark Wahlberg was going to be in the movie, and Lily Tomlin. I was going to play this songwriter, and I was writing songs for the movie, and one day he called me at 6 in the morning and said, "Jason, I'm going to be direct with you: We're not going to make the movie." We had a start date and a crew, and I was like, "Okay." He said, "Because I don't feel like it's there yet, and I only want to make movies that I truly believe in and will have a good time with. I want to give 100 percent to the things I do, and I don't feel quite right about it."
Shortly after that, David had a dream where he was being followed by a woman detective, but not for criminal reasons—for metaphysical and existential and spiritual reasons. He wrote that in his dream book. A couple of weeks later, he checked it out and thought it was funny. That was the hook he needed that he didn't feel he had in the zendo piece, for whatever reason. That was probably the genesis of it. Maybe on an even bigger, farther-removed point of view, being honest and saying "I don't believe in this piece" and not doing it, maybe he had to do that to open up his heart and allow the dream to come.
O: Wouldn't that be sort of a coincidence?
JS: I don't know.
DOR: Sort of. That's a good idea. There's a bunch of coincidences around this movie. I like how then you [Schwartzman] got a phone call to come over and read the script.
JS: After David and I hung up the phone that morning… Most people would think it was kind of a bummer call, but I thought it was a positive and amazing call. He was honest with himself and brave enough to stop a movie before its shooting because he doesn't feel 100 percent about it. Most people, I think, would make the movie and then whisper into your ear as the lights were going down before the first frame, "By the way, I didn't really like it, and didn't really have a good time, but we'll do it next time." You know, kind of passive about it. I thought it was bold. I thought, "That guy's great."
DOR: "I'll slam my face in the mud for that dude."
JS: Yeah. You'll go there with him, because that was such a display of trust and loyalty. He was so forthcoming with me that I wanted to be that way with him. We hung up the phone, and then about 18 months later, he called and said, "Hey Jase, how ya doin'? Come over to my house." I went over and he handed me this really thick script. It was I Heart Huckabees. It was an amazing experience to read, because it was so beautiful, so meaningful, so surreal, so unlike anything I had ever read. After coming from the zendo piece, you could see how far it had come. He hadn't just severed an idea and gone to something else. It really wasn't quite right, and he was going to make it right, and this is the quite-right version. It was cool to see an artist refining something.
O: Were there elements of the zendo piece in I Heart Huckabees?
DOR: Lily [Tomlin] was sort of the den mother of the zendo, and in a way, she plays a similar role in this movie. I can't remember, was Lily the wife of the stockbroker?
JS: I just know that Mark [Wahlberg] and I were brothers.
DOR: Mark and he were brothers. That was based on my friendship with Mark. This odd couple. We're very different people. But we most definitely have a lot of love for each other and know we're going to be honest with each other.
JS: David always says that Mark went to jail and he went to college, and that's a beautiful thing that they could be friends.
O: Is there a lot of you in Jason's character? You're an activist yourself—is that reflected in the script?
DOR: Absolutely. I didn't really become a filmmaker until I was 30. I spent my 20s basically doing stuff like Jason's character does in this movie. Standing in parking lots, organizing for different causes. We had a lot of fun, too. You canvass and raise money in neighborhoods. We'd get in the town council's face about slums and confront these old guys and make them change. Sometimes you put a suit on, because you want to look not like they expected. Like when I got to confront Antonin Scalia in Amherst. I was given some honorary degree a couple of years ago, and I heard that he was there talking. He was having some meeting with the conservatives on campus. I said, "I gotta go to that." I was supposed to give a talk at 3 o'clock, but at 2:30, I knew I couldn't stay for the whole thing. So I went into this room. People would nod knowingly when I went in. They'd give you the secret nod.
JS: You mean the conservative wink?
DOR: So there are only 20 people, and Antonin Scalia is, like, right there. He's talking about the Constitution and all the things that he thinks should be done to it, why they're the bosses of the Constitution. I felt terrible that I had to interrupt him, because I'd rather do it formally, but I knew that I had to go do my talk. Then I had the idea that the medium was the message, that it had a poetic meaning, so I could do it with a clear conscience. The interruption would be the message. So I stood up and said, "I have to interrupt you." He said, "At least have the decency to let me finish." I said, "No, see, but you didn't let the election finish. That's how I feel about that. I want to know how you could not let the election finish. It doesn't feel good that I'm not letting you finish your talk right now, does it?" They all stood there and looked at each other awkwardly. I said, "Well, I have to go. I'm giving a talk because I'm getting an honorary degree tomorrow." That was truly the coup de grace. I think they all thought I was just some homeless riff-raff from town. That's what I mean about wearing a suit. It's always good to catch people unaware.
O: What can you say about your documentary on Iraq?
DOR: I've been working my ass off. I've been finishing Huckabees, and while we were doing that, we were making this documentary. It's an insane amount of work to take on, but I thought it would be really cool if this could come out before the election. So we went out and interviewed a bunch of veterans coming home from Iraq. We interviewed humanitarian-aid workers. We interviewed a two-star marine general who's a Republican. We interviewed Iraqis that had been in Three Kings who were my friends, who have since been hired as consultants to the State Department, who have been back to Iraq. They were part of the commission whose recommendations the defense department has publicly said they ignored.
The film is provocative. It raises a lot of questions. It resonates like Three Kings with "What are we doing here?" Is it a war of conquest for oil? Or is it a mission of liberation? The culture there is so pervaded with grief. The soldiers were requisitioning things left and right, not good for an occupying army. They would just go into people's houses and take computers and TVs for the army. It certainly didn't look good to the Iraqi people. In addition to that, it mirrors the Halliburton contract players who are all there. The soldiers, who make $20,000 a year, are seeing their counterparts, who were in the military six months ago, who now make $200,000 a year, and have cell phones and can call home and stay in good places with air conditioning, whereas these guys never get to call home and are sleeping in these gnarly places. It's like the ultimate Republican war culture: It's the laissez-faire-market war culture. So of course guys are going to start taking shit on their own. When these guys found $300 million in cash, why wouldn't they want to take a little bit of it? We met those guys and we interviewed them, and the guy who was the fall guy, who was the lieutenant in charge of the whole thing, got off scot-free.
And Warner Bros. said to me, "No!" Which surprised me. I said in The New York Times, I wished this would have some impact before the election. I'm not even in the movie. I let the people speak for themselves. This Republican two-star general, he's pretty critical. He says a lot of heavy shit. This guy's the real deal. He was in Vietnam, the first Gulf War. He's like G.I. Joe. He says, "If there was not an al-Qaeda connection in Iraq before, let me promise you, there is now." Coming out of his mouth, it's kind of heavy to hear him say that.
O: Some parts of Huckabees seem antithetical to each other, like the way Jude Law's corporate character co-opts the environmentalism of Jason's activist character. Is that where you see society headed?
DOR: I just think that things keep drifting in a certain direction, politically, in this country. It's like this PSA we did, where Jason goes, "Nature is beautiful. There's always going to be people who want to develop. But we can compromise. Divide it by half." He's on a green screen with nature, and it becomes half-developed. Eventually, by compromising and dividing it by half, the whole thing is just a big concrete city. I think that's the drift. Even when corporations are saying that they're green, so often there's still a "compromise" in their way. I don't think people get that. I think the guys who did The Day After Tomorrow are trying to say that. It might seem a little hysterical to people, but they're trying to make the point that people don't really get it.
But in terms of the interconnection thing, that's a radical idea. A Bob Thurman, Tibetan radical idea, that they would say, "Embrace evil." Joseph Campbell would say that. He would say, "Life is a killer." We really get that what he called bliss… People thought bliss was just tripping out. No, it's like some huge, infinite sense of yourself that transcends time and space. That includes everything, even people who are "evil." If you have a more Christian—or Judeo-Christian—viewpoint, the evil guy is like the devil from some dark universe that has substantiality. I think the other view is that, no, it doesn't have substantiality. Nothing has substantiality, beyond temporary, impermanent being. The only really woken-up point of view that is openhearted and loving is the one that is going to not even hate them. Gandhi said, "Don't fight Hitler. You'll become like Hitler. You'll start having a military-industrial complex like Hitler." I gotta tell you, there's some truth in it. Suddenly, Dwight Eisenhower said the same thing. You have started to become an economy, but the most public spending is on the military. And we spread these bombs and weapons all over the world. We trained Saddam Hussein's military, and Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban. It's like this weird fuckin' joke. So Gandhi was right. This is all my way of saying that Jason's character, and Jude's character, who seem antithetical—that's sort of the drift of the movie. Any movie that's worth its weight, talking about infinity, or the 10th dimension, which it's true that there's no distinction between you, the table, and me. So it had to be broken down between him and Jude, the alpha-Cigar Aficionado, alpha-FHM man.
We just did this radio show with this shock jock, and we wanted to just walk in and tell the mayo story. [In the film, Jude Law's character compulsively tells a hackneyed anecdote about Shania Twain. —ed.] "So I'm with Shania, and we're by this store down by the Loop in Chicago. She's hungry, and she wants a sandwich, a tuna sandwich, no mayo. She hates mayo." That's a conceptual framework—we all have our own version of that. Even if you think somebody's an asshole, and you go, "I've heard that guy tell the same fuckin' story 10 times." There are a lot of movie stars and moguls in Hollywood, I'm in the room with them, and I'm like, "I've heard this story 10 fuckin' times, and I've only known this person three months." But what's great about that is that we all have our own version of that, which is our mind that we go through our day with, every day. Even if you're a smart-ass, you have your own conceptual framework apparatus.
The film is about pulling the rug out from under that. I don't want to shoot fish in a barrel. When you go see a more independent-minded film, it used to mean it was a film that was going to challenge your point of view. Now, a lot of times, people are going to reaffirm their credentials. "My ironic, cynical credentials are…" "Please stamp my hand. I still belong in the same cynical, ironic club." One of the weird things about the film I'm proud of is its sincerity.
O: Do you think that sort of irony has a corrosive effect on society as a whole? Why is it important that the film be sincere?
DOR: This goes back to my activism days. I've always been a wise-ass. You ask anybody in my high school who I was, and I was the wise-ass.
JS: Weren't you voted "class rebel"?
DOR: Yeah. Yeah.
O: Were you ironically voted "class rebel"?
DOR: No, although that would have been funny.
JS: That's funny. "I'm an ironic rebel."
DOR: I don't know what that means. That's terrible. I don't want to live in that universe. That's such a frightening universe.
I was a wise-ass, but the thing about me, like his character in the movie… That's why Jason's the man to play it. When I saw Rushmore, I said, "That man's my brother, and I have to become friends with him." And we did become friends. His character in Rushmore is a bit of a wise-ass, but he also has great sincerity in the things that he pursues, and great commitment. I believe in great commitment. When you're committed, you are an immediate target, and you have to not give a fuck. As soon as you are committed to something, you are a target for irony, because irony doesn't really have a position, except ragging on stuff and making everything funny. I just think it gets boring after a while. I think when you commit to something, that's when you find things out and have meaningful experiences.