Indie hit Spanking The Monkey signalled David O Russell as an inventive director to watch, unafraid to take on incest and masturbation with broad strokes of left-field comedy. Road movie Flirting With Disaster brought him some star power to drive along his chuckle-strewn script, while in Three Kings he levelled his sights on something larger. With a bigger budget and scope, his Gulf war caper brought both intelligence and black humour to the Kuwaiti desert.
Now he's back with I Heart Huckabees, an "existential comedy" that takes on the biggest topic of all - what's this life all about? With an A-list ensemble cast, it's another film that combines serious questions with an offbeat sense of fun.
Paul Griffiths caught up with Russell at the London Film Festival, where Huckabees was the closing film.
Griffiths Is it true that you had a dream and that gave you the idea for existential detectives?
Russell That's true. I've tried to write this movie, or a movie like it, for 15 years. In New York, I tried to write a short film about Chinese fortune cookies. This guy wrote insanely personal fortunes to everybody by eavesdropping on them. That was kind of an attempt at an existential investigator, who then got involved with their lives, but I thought, I can't make another short film because you kill yourself making every short film. I was still working as a bartender, calling in every favour, and said, it's time to make a feature, or I'm going to be the eccentric uncle David, who once wanted to be filmmaker.
I spent 18 months trying to write the fortune cookie story into a feature and was struggling. There was a lot of pressure on it, you know - hurry up, I've got to get out of the bartending! So I used an old writer's trick and had this mistress project. You can have the most uninhibited sex, I mean writing, with your mistress project on the side and that was Spanking The Monkey - it just came out. I used the money that I had from the National Endowment Of The Arts to make that, and I had to give it back because they said, we gave you the money for the fortune cookie movie and not the incest movie.
And then I tried again after Three Kings. I tried to write a movie for Jason (Schwartzman), whom I adored, and Mark (Wahlberg), dear friend, Lily (Tomlin) and Dustin (Hoffman). Dustin was going to be in Three Kings, but the studio didn't want that, so after I made the film I went and apologised to him and said, "I love you and I really want to work with you." He said, "That's it?" So I repeated the whole thing and he said, "No, you've got to do it the Jewish way - bring me something." So five years later, I called him up and said, "I'm bringing you something."
First I wrote another project, based on a Zen centre in New York, that I'd been to with this Japanese Zen master. That's why I spent five years between two films. I wrote it, then put it in a drawer. And then I had the dream.
I became intrigued by the idea of a detective following someone around, not for any criminal or personal intrigue, but rather as part of a very serious investigation about existence itself. This was a funny idea to me, yet also full of ideas that are very serious.
In college, I had this guy Robert Thurman as my teacher, Uma Thurman's dad, and, before that, I had been raised with no spiritual tradition whatsoever.
My mum's a Catholic, my dad's a Jew and they didn't want anything to do with anything. I had my own kind of experiences as a kid, my own insights.
And then in college, I took many classes with Bob. He's a brilliant scholar, deeply unpretentious in a way that many scholars are not. Doesn't make you feel like he's the expert, even though he's this amazing translator of Chinese and Sanskrit. And so Dustin's character is based on him, in the way he dressed, always the suits and the hair and the accessibility. That spirit of Bob suffuses the whole movie, because Bob is very warm. He has these esoteric ideas, but there's this great feeling of warmth and humour about all of it, and that, I think, is probably the most important thing in the whole movie."
Griffiths There are lots of different theories that you express in this film.
Russell They're mostly from Thurman; they're mostly Indo-Tibetan. They are Buddhist, more or less. You see, I'd read Western philosophy and it's never been as captivating to me as Eastern philosophy. I'm only interested in it so far as it's practical and makes you feel more alive.
And the Eastern seems more direct, for my taste.
Griffiths So how hard was it to pitch? Did you ever think it wasn't going to get made?
Russell You always wonder that. Every single film goes through this dance, even the ones you think are no-brainers. I was trying to get Will Ferrell's movie, Anchorman made, because I was producer on that. I was helping my friends.
And they wouldn't make it. This film? How do you pitch it? "There's this married couple, existential detectives, who will investigate your life right now and follow you, and you hire them and they have these clients who get mixed up together and hilarity ensues, and that's all I'm going to say."
I had a choice, which is a luxury. I could have made it for less money, with Warner Brothers and Miramax sharing it, or with Fox Searchlight, which, ironically, gave us a little more money, so we didn't have to go to Paramount.
Griffiths If Dustin's character is based on Robert Thurman, is Jason Schwartzman's character based on anyone?
Russell Me. In my twenties. I didn't become a filmmaker until I was 30. I have been an organiser for a cause or two and I have been in parking lots talking to people and handing out fliers and I've had people mock me for it, but I didn't care. He's [Albert Markovski, Jason's character] one of my favourite kinds of people, who'll take an ideal, or investigation, beyond convention.
Albert isn't fooling around when it comes to asking, "What is this experience we're having?" He's passionate about these questions, which is what I like about the character.
From the minute I saw Rushmore I was in love with Jason and wanted to work with him. We got to know each other over the years. We have a lot in common. I wrote one movie for him, but decided it wasn't ready. Then I wrote this script and Markovksi was meant for him.
Griffiths In terms of casting, you had some quite high profile names attached that dropped out.
Russell It was funny. Gwyneth [Paltrow] came on like some little angel, just long enough to get it set up with Searchlight, and then jumped off, as she said she had to mourn her father's death.
Naomi [Watts] was the first choice, anyway, and then had schedule problems and then came back.
I spoke to Nicole [Kidman] about it. She wanted to get out of The Stepford Wives to do this. We had the same producer, Scott Rudin, and he said absolutely not.
I also spoke to Britney Spears to do that part, which I thought might have been fun. She came to my house three times. She was begging to do it. I think she might have been quite good.
I was captivated by Naomi since Mulholland Drive and think that persona and who she is fits the film perfectly. She and Jude [Law] had never done comedy, nor had Mark Walhberg for that matter, and it was a real opportunity to up end their golden personas and turn them inside out.
Griffiths There's that kind of screwball comedy element to it, very quick fire. How did you go about balancing the heavier stuff with the screwball?
Russell I think it's all the same thing. Deep spiritual insight and comedy have the same DNA; they both subvert your habitual mind. You know, someone slipping on a banana skin is funny, because you see the ego out of control. Any spiritual experience worthwhile will destabilise your ego a little bit, humble you in some way. A Zen monk once said to me, "If you're not laughing, you're not getting it."
I think one of the most daring things about the film is its sincerity. Films about these matters are typically very dark, like The Matrix, wrapped up in dark mythology. Or they're satirical, making fun of it. This film is neither; it's a big risk. For smarty pants critics, it doesn't fit their vernacular. We've been savaged by some of them and lovingly embraced by others. It's definitely divided them and I wasn't surprised, because it breaks a lot of the rules for what the so-called clever people are supposed to do. If you're going to be smart, you have to be pretentious about it, or very ironic, but if you're being sincere and funny, you must be an idiot.
Griffiths So is it I HEART, or I LOVE, Huckabees?
Russell I heart. I like that there's a heart in there. It makes people think about how they say something, or say something in a different way, that may cause them to make the meaning new, use a word differently."
Griffiths What about some of the visuals in the film? How does that relate to what's going on internally?
Russell I was drawn to a clean, classic, crisp look for the film. These are timeless questions rooted in age-old traditions, so I wanted a more European feel.
A lot of the time you make these decisions for reason's you don't fully understand until later. Some of them are instinctual. I think, in retrospect, the reason the film has a formality to it, visually and sartorially, is because, while I'm having fun with it, it has very serious roots, and there's something European about that, where these ideas are sort of life and death, especially in the last 50 years, up to the Sixties, really.
It was important to me that the detectives had their roots in serious tradition. It wasn't glib; it's not a fly-by-night New Age thing. Also, I just like it; I like how it looks. I was probably watching a lot of Bunuel and, especially in Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, he tends to harmonise the palette. It's almost black-and-white, except for a few things. I find it very beautiful when a film's palette is coordinate. Maybe, it's also key to the humour at the heart of the film - a certain formality and seriousness about these matters that persist in the middle of their absurdity.
Griffiths You've mentioned the European feel to the film. Is that why you went to Isabelle Huppert?
Russell I always imagined the [detectives'] nemesis being French. The fact that they had all been in graduate school and teaching together in Paris, it's very important to have that back-story. I was originally thinking of Deneuve, but she was busy and a bit old to be rolling around in the mud with Jason. Isabelle is very complex, very intense, very sexy, very French. She has impeccable style and taste, but she's also willing to have her face slammed in the mud. I said to her on set once, "Make that pouting, contemptuous face that you make," and Dustin and Lily knew exactly what I was talking about. She said, "No, I don't know what you're talking about." That, in itself, seems French.
Griffiths What's next for you?
Russell I would like to make a sequel at some point with these guys, because I love these characters. I'm writing something with Bob Thurman.