David O. Russell thinks that submerging oneself in philosophy is just about the most fun a person can have. So much fun, in fact, that in addition to his latest feature, I § Huckabees, the writer-director filmed a 30-minute infomercial with two of the movie’s stars, Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman, and two professors, Columbia University religious scholar Robert Thurman and UCLA physicist Joseph Rudnick. The informercial consists of a discussion about existence, and it’s intended to promote not the movie, exactly, but Jaffe & Jaffe, the “existential-detective” agency run by Tomlin’s and Hoffman’s characters.
After an opening disclaimer noting that the Jaffes are participating against their will, Tomlin’s Vivian announces that the group—the fake detectives, the real professors, and a selection of guests—will be discussing “neat, fun ways you can rip your soul open!” The panelists occasionally break for commercials, which are spots for the movie’s other two bogus organizations, retail giant Huckabees and the Open Spaces Coalition, an environmentalist group fighting Huckabees’ expansion.
“This is heaven to me,” Russell coos as the video plays in his Ritz-Carlton suite in Georgetown. “To have the head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and head of religion—they’re getting down. They’re talking about the real deal.” It’s the first time Russell, in D.C. to promote the film with Huckabees star Jason Schwartzman, has sat still in nearly an hour. The fidgety 46-year-old is clearly entranced by the rap session he’s orchestrated.
He ought to be: Russell reports that he began writing the script for the Charlie Kaufman–esque existential comedy about 15 years ago, well before his first feature was released. “I got a grant from the NEA to make [Huckabees] as a short,” he says, “but I decided to put the money toward Spanking the Monkey.
“Then, after Three Kings, I wanted to make a personal comedy, and I wanted to write it for this man,” he continues, indicating Schwartzman. “I wrote another movie for Jason first, an ensemble comedy with Lily and Mark [Wahlberg, also in Huckabees], centered around the zendo,” a place where Zen practitioners gather for intensive meditation. “But I didn’t quite have the story that I wanted. And then I had to make the tough call to not make it.”
The hiatus only made Schwartzman, 24, more eager to work with Russell. “I was excited about the movie, and I was excited about working with David, who at this point was a friend. I remember getting the call one morning, and he said, ‘Look, we’re not going to make the movie because I don’t feel 100 percent about it.’ And to me, that phone call, you could look at it negatively, but it wasn’t negative at all….He basically said, ‘I don’t want to do this unless I love it, and I’m being honest with myself as an artist and with you as my friend, you know what I mean? I’m being loyal to something inside of me.’ And I was like,
That is the kind of person I want to work with.”
The idea for the film that Russell would feel 100 percent about came after he had a dream in which a woman detective followed him around for unknown reasons. He decided to revisit the Zen foundation of his defunct script to shape Huckabees’ themes of interconnectedness and the deeper meaning of everyday events, which are based on the teachings of celebrated American Buddhist Thurman.
“Robert Thurman was my teacher in college, and I’ve been friends with him for 25 years,” Russell says. “As much as I’ve read Western philosophy, I find it to be too convoluted and impractical, whereas the Eastern philosophy I studied with Bob was more succinct. So I had everyone listen to his tapes, and Dustin’s character is modeled on him. He always wore rumpled suits. There’s a certain formality to his character, because [the detectives] are serious about what they’re doing, after all.”
Even so, the tone of Huckabees is decidedly daffy, from the watermelons that decorate the Jaffe & Jaffe office to a giant ball with which the characters smack each other in the face in an effort to attain “pure being.” The narrative is centered around Schwartzman’s Albert Markovski, an Open Spaces activist and inquiring mind who secures the services of Jaffe & Jaffe after randomly running into a young Sudanese refugee three times. Albert is certain that the coincidental meetings mean something—and also wondering about the cosmic worth of his own life and work.
Schwartzman, who’s best known for his role as a high-school soul-searcher in Rushmore, insists that Albert’s hyperconsciousness isn’t the symptom of yet another tortured young man. “You could look at it that the character is in a very weak place,” he says, “but I think he’s in the healthiest place in his life, because he’s asking the questions. I suppose that, you know, the darkest hour is just before dawn, and maybe had the movie opened an hour earlier in his life…I think he’s just coming out of it. But he’s propelled by that torture into figuring it out.”
“Jason says the comedy is the motion on the train, and the ideas are the stowaways, and I think that that’s exactly right,” Russell adds. “And one important thing about the movie is that I am sincere about these ideas and we are inherently optimistic. Although I think Caterine has a very useful purpose.”
That character, played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, is a former colleague of the Jaffes who, Darth Vader–like, went in a darker philosophical direction. “There’s a lot of Zen in her,” Russell explains. “There’s a lot of Zen that’s very direct and present and right-now, but it can tend toward nihilism, which I think is a pitfall. But there’s a lot of disappointment in life, and there’s a lot of authenticity in saying, ‘Yeah, this feels bad, and I’m just going to go with that right now.’ That can be liberating, because then no one feeling will own you, because one thing’s for sure is that things change.”
Despite Russell’s insistence on Huckabees’ ultimately hopeful message, however, the film more than dabbles with negativity. Indirect references to Sept. 11 pop up throughout, most notably in the character of Tommy Corn (Wahlberg), a pessimistic and somewhat batty firefighter struggling with both the meaning of life and the exasperation he feels over people’s continuing use of unsustainable energy sources.
“9/11 definitely deepened Mark’s character a lot.” Russell says. “Everything he says I stand behind: Why is it people only ask themselves serious questions when something really bad happens, and then they forget all about it? And why are we self-destructive? I’d been friends with Mark since Three Kings, so I thought I could show him in a way he’s never been seen.”
Huckabees was a first for its director, too. Unlike Russell’s previous films, this one was completed with a co-writer, former assistant Jeff Baena. “It’s lonely to write by yourself, and I didn’t really want to do it again,” Russell says. “So first I wrote with Richard Apell, who’s a writer for The Simpsons, but then he had to go off and do a TV deal. I do [consider other people’s scripts], but it never seems to work out. I would love to be able to just say, ‘Thank you!’ but I always end up doing it myself.”
Another collaborative project, the controversial anti-war short Soldier’s Pay, will be released in some theaters and on the DVD of Robert Greenwald’s similarly themed Uncovered: The War in Iraq, Russell reports, sometime “before the election.” Until then, the director seems content contemplating the events of the metaphysical rather than the political sphere—what happens, for example, when you get clocked with a ball.
“The ball is based on being whacked in the Zen temple,” Russell says. “It’s a metaphor for what can happen in meditation. It can happen in sports, sex, drugs, music…”
“I think for me that drumming is kind of like the ball,” interjects Schwartzman, who recently left rock group Phantom Planet. “There’s a great Nirvana lyric: ‘Beat me out of me.’”
“I had a teacher who said,
‘Save me from what I want,’” Russell responds.
“Beautiful,” says Schwartzman.