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I Heart Huckabees - David O Russell Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. Your film has been selected to close the London Film Festival. Is that an honour for you?
A.
Of course. It's a great honour and I love the people who run this festival; I love Samantha, who I met last night, and Sandra Hebron. They just give a good feeling to this whole thing, to me. They just feel like really good people who have their hearts in it, and really care about putting on a good festival.
And we had good audiences, because the night I came here, I'd left America - I voted and I got on the plane - and Kerry was winning, and there was no phones or anything on the plane; I got off the plane and it said Kerry had lost. So I was kind of shell-shocked.
I first went to a screening of Soldier's Pay, that documentary we made with my friend, and the audience were really kind of sad, and we had a Q&A afterwards, and it's kind of good in a way to be here, with British people.
And I heard some great quotes that I've been emailing back to the United States, like 'America is becoming the Europe that it fled', you know, in the sense that it's a more fundamental state.

Q. Where did you get the name Huckabees?
A.
My ass! [laughs] I don't know where it came from! Doesn't it sound like a good name for a store chain. It probably reminded me of Applebies, I now realise, but don't say that or I'll be sued.

Q. Is it true that you had a dream and that gave you the idea for existential detectives?
A.
No way! No that's true. I tried to write a movie like this for 15 years, so the long answer is that in college I had this guy, Robert Thurman, as my teachers (he's 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, so I had kind of my own experiences as a kid, my own insights, and then at college I met Bob and took many classes with him, and he was a brilliant scholar, and deeply unpretentious in a way that many academics are not. He doesn't make you feel like he's the expert, even though he's an amazing translator of Chinese sandscript, so Dustin's character is based on him, in a way. The way he dressed, the suits, the hair and the accessibility.
And that spirit of Bob suffuses the whole movie, because there's these esoteric ideas, but there's a great feeling of warmth and humour about all of it, and that I think is the most important thing in the whole movie that I share with Professor Thurman.
So I then went to New York and I tried to write something in 1990 that was a short film, the one about the Chinese fortune cookies, where the guy write insanely personal fortunes by eavesdropping everybody, and that was kind of an attempt at an existential investigator who then got involved with their lives.
I got money to make that but I thought I can't make another short film, because you kill yourself to make every short film, and I still was working as a bar-tender and had an office job, and I was calling in every dollar and every favour, and I thought it was a good time to make a feature, or I'm going to turn out like Uncle David who once wanted to a film-maker and, like, 'go talk to him, he knows a little bit about cinema', so I said I have to make this a feature and I spent 18 months trying to make the fortune cookie movie into a feature and was struggling. There was a lot of pressure on it; hurry up, you've got to stop bar-tending.
So then I had to use the old writer's trick, which is I had a mistress project, and you can have the most uninhibited sex, I mean writing, with your mistress on the side, and that was Spanking The Monkey, it just came out. And then I used the money to make that, which I had from the National Endowment of the Arts, and then I had to give that back, because they said we gave you the money for the fortune cookie movie, not the incest movie, and we're politically embattled right now.
And then I tried to write it again after Three Kings. I wrote a movie for Jason, whom I adored, and Mark, dear friend, Lily and Dustin.
Dustin was going to be in Three Kings and 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; I'm so sorry, let's do it in the future!'
And he said: "That's it?" And I said 'yes' and repeated the whole thing, but he said 'no, you've got to do it the Jewish way, you gotta bring me something'. So, five years later I called him up and said 'now I'm bringing you something'.
But first I wrote another project based on a Zen centre in New York that I'd been to with this Japanese Zen master, and again, that's why it's been five years between films, I wrote that, put it in a drawer, said I don't think it's ready, and then had the dream.

Q. So is the process of making the film as much a quest for you to find the answers, as much as it is trying to get a film made?
A.
Absolutely. I loved that I got to spend all this time marinating in these things as my job every day. That's a great thing, for me. And now I get to sit here and talk to you about it. We're not talking about some heist, where we have nothing to talk about. You know what I mean? 'Yeah, that guy's hair gel, and he was very funny that day!

Q. There's lots of different theories you express in this film - you're Buddhist?
A.
They're mostly from Thurman; they're mostly Indo-Tibetan, although there's the Zen. They are Buddhist, yeah, more or less. I'd read Western philosophy and none of it has captivated me as much as Eastern philosophy, which I'm only interested in so far as it's practical and makes you feel more alive. The Eastern seems more direct, for my taste. Indo-Tibetan is more the detectives, and Caterine is more the Zen, which shares a lot with that; it's more just 'don't talk to me about any nonsense, just what's happening right now'. And that has a lot to offer, if you're sad right now then let's talk about that. But she takes it a bit further through her actual philosophy of cruelty, which some people have said they feel like her in the last couple of days.

Q. You said that Dustin's character was based on Bob, so was Jason's character based on anyone?
A.
Me. That was me in my 20s. I didn't become a film-maker until I was 30. These are my favourite kinds of people who will take an idea or an investigation beyond convention, regardless of convention.

Q. Unusually, there's a heart in the title of the film. So is it I Heart Huckabees or I Love Huckabees?
A.
I Heart.

Q. Where did the Heart come from?
A.
I like that there's a heart in it, it kind of makes me smile. I think it's kind of sweet, and I think it's fun, and I like that if there's any confusion about how to say it, or if it bothers people, then I like that, because 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, you know when you use a word differently.
It's ironic, but it's also sincere, the heart, because I think the most daring thing about the film, in some respects, is its sincerity, because films about these matters are typically very dark, like The Matrix, or something, wrapped up in some dark mythology; or they're satirical, or making fun of it. And this is neither of those. So it's a big risk, not only for regular audiences, because it's a different movie, but for smarty-pants writers, it's a risk, because for smarty-pants critics, it doesn't fit their vernacular either, so we've been savaged by some of them, and we've been embraced lovingly by some of them. But it's definitely divided them and I wasn't surprised by that at all, because it breaks a lot of the rules for what the so-called smart people are supposed to do.
If you're going to be smart, you have to be pretentious about it, or very ironic about it, and if you're kind of being sincere about it and funny about it, you must be an idiot, you know? But fuck them.

Q. But there is that screwball comedy element to it, and quite glib, so how did you go about balancing some of the heavier stuff with that screwball stuff?
A.
I think it's all the same thing. I think that deep spiritual insight and comedy should have the same DNA; they both subvert the habitual mind. Someone slipping on a banana peel is funny, because you see the ego out of control; and likewise if I talk to you about infinity because you're ego is saying I don't know what the fuck you're talking about, and I'm going to pretend that I do, or I'm going to tell you that I think you're foolish. So, to me, it's the same thing because I think any spiritual experience that's worthwhile is not about your ego, and would destabilize your ego a little bit, it'll humble you in some way, and I think comedy does the same thing. And a Zen monk once said to me, 'if you're not laughing, you're not getting it'. So, to me, it is the same thing.

Q. So what about some of the visual stuff in the film. How does that relate internally? I heard you talk about it being very stark visually and the colour palette is very important...
A.
A lot of times you make these decisions for reasons you don't fully understand until later, some of them are instinctual, so I think in retrospect, the reason the film has a formality to it, visually and sartorially, is because I perceive all of this, while having fun with it, to have very serious roots. And there's something European about that, where these ideas were sort of life or death, especially in the last 50 years plus, up to the Sixties I would say.
In other words, it was important to me that the detectives had their roots in some serious tradition; it wasn't glib, it's not some fly by night new-age thing. Because if you're joking around about something it can be mistaken for a lack of seriousness. So I think that was part of it.
I like the European feel of it, as I said, for what I just said, because I think that's kind of a European sensibility to take these things so seriously. And also I just like it, I like how it looks, and I was probably watching a lot of Vernwell, and he tends to, especially in discreet charm, harmonise the palettes - it was almost black and white, except for a few things.

Q. How difficult was it to pitch and did you ever wonder, during the process, am I ever going to get this made?
A.
You always wonder that, for the most part. Every single film, just about, goes through this dance; even the ones that you would think would be no-brainers. I was trying to get Will Ferrell's movie, Anchorman made, because I'm producer on that, and they wouldn't make that. So every film goes through that.
This film, how do you pitch it? You just say there's this married couple, existential detectives, who will investigate your life right now, and they will follow you, and you hire them, and they have these clients who get mixed up with each other and hilarity ensues, that's all I'm going to say.
And I had a choice, which is nice, which was a luxury. I could have made it for less money with Warner Bros and Miramax sharing it, or with Fox Searchlight which, ironically, Rupert Murdoch's company gave us a little bit more money, so we didn't have to go to Canada.

Q. But in terms of casting, as well, you had some quite high-profile names that dropped out, or weren't available?
A.
Gywneth [Paltrow]? It was funny, Gwyneth came on like some little angel, she just came on long enough to get it set up at Searchlight, and then she jumped off because she said she had to mourn her father's death and hadn't stopped working. Naomi was sort of the first choice anyway, and had scheduling problems and came back, and Nicole [Kidman] I spoke to about it. Nicole came up to the house and talked to me about the script, but she wanted to get out of Stepford Wives and do this, but we had the same producer. Scott Rudin was the same producer and he said 'absolutely not'.
I also spoke to Britney Spears to do that part, because I thought that might have been very fun.

Q. And what did she say?
A.
Oh she would have done it. She came to my house three times, she was begging to do it, and I think she might have been quite good in it. But I think Naomi... I was kind of captivated by her since Mulholland Drive, and I think that persona and who she is fits the film perfectly. And she and Jude had never done a comedy, nor had Mark Wahlberg for that matter, and it was a real opportunity for them to up-end their golden personas, you know, and turn them inside out.

Q. And why did you go to Isabelle Huppert?
A
. Well I always imagined their nemesis being French. She was always this French nemesis. I suspected they all had been in graduate school together, teaching together, and to prepare it, it was very important that we had that back story. I was originally thinking of Deneuve, but Deneuve was very busy and then I thought better of it, because she's a bit old to be rolling around in the mud with Jason. And Isabelle is very complex, very intense, very sexy and very French.
We would say things to her on the set; I remember once, I said 'you know, make that pouting face, you know that pouting contemptuous face that you make', and Dustin and Lily knew exactly what I was talking about, but she said 'no, I don't know what you're talking about'. That, in itself, seems French.

Q. What's next for you now after Huckabees?
A.
I don't know. I would love to make a sequel, or something with these characters at some point, because I love these characters. I'm writing something with Bob Thurman.

 

 

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