David O. Russell hasn’t always peddled in satire. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, he was a political activist and union organizer; not typically a breeding ground for comedy. But one decade and four films later, Russell has become one of Hollywood’s most consistently subversive filmmakers. His movies satirize corporate duplicity, religious hypocrisy, sexual identity, American colonialism, consumer culture, metaphysical longing, and blind patriotism. Sometimes all at the same time.
The real rewards of Russell’s films can be found in the details. A Desert Storm soldier complains about sand in his eyes after watching an Iraqi civilian get murdered (Three Kings). An LSD dealer gets belligerent when a dinner guest tries to light up a cigarette (Flirting With Disaster). A suburban father argues that Jesus Christ supports the consumption of petroleum (I ♥ Huckabee’s). It’s these small, throwaway moments – which often don’t have anything to do with the plot – that define the genius of Russell’s satire.
This interview took place in Russell’s home in Los Angeles. Specifically, on a pair of beanbag chairs, as his dog, Fred, repeatedly licked our faces and farted during key moments in our discussion, which Russell suspects was entirely intentional.
I. “I THINK THEY COULD RELEASE THIS FILM AND STILL GET WHATEVER FAVORS THEY NEED FROM WASHINGTON.”
THE BELIEVER: Tell me what happened with Three Kings. The last I heard, you were planning to re-release the film before the election. Than seemingly out of nowhere, Time-Warner pulled the plug. What went wrong?
DAVID O. RUSSELL: Well, the problem actually didn’t start with Three Kings. Warner Brothers was excited to put Three Kings out in theaters again, and on a new DVD, but they needed to package it with some new material. Something to justify a re-release. I didn’t have any more deleted scenes, or at least nothing that was worth tacking on to a DVD. So I decided to do a short documentary. Not about the movie itself, but about the situation in Iraq.
BLVR: And that was called Soldiers Pay, right?
DOR: Yeah. It’s nothing fancy. Earlier this year, we [Tricia Regan and Juan Carlos Zaldavar] shot the whole thing in just five weeks. It basically gave people involved in that conflict a chance to speak for themselves, without all the war rhetoric you usually hear. I talked to a few of the Iraqi actors from Three Kings, who had been hired by the state department as consultants. And I found some returning veterans who were willing to talk about why they went, what they felt about the war, and whether they thought it was justified. There are already soldiers who’ve come home and are very mixed about the war, and they talk about how you’re considered weak if you seek counseling for any trauma. Meanwhile, the Veterans’ Affairs budget is going to be completely slashed very soon. There just isn’t money for them anymore. The proposed budget for 2006 has over $900 million dollars in cuts, which is the only way they’re going to pay for this war. You have all of these soldiers who got really messed up over there, and they come home and need help, and they’re not getting it. The government is bankrupt. They spent $200 billion dollars on this war, and they don’t have anything left to take care of the people they sent over there to fight it.
BLVR: So Time-Warner took one look at Soldiers Pay and said, “No thank you?”
DOR: Basically, yeah. It was too political for them. I asked a lot of questions about this war. It takes the point of view that yes, Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein in power, but is the world better off with this war? Probably not.
BLVR: That doesn’t seem like a particularly outlandish view. And it’s certainly an odd reason to shelve the movie entirely. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 made some damning accusations about the war in Iraq, and it ended up making buckets of money. Doesn’t it make good business sense to occasionally stir up a little controversy?
DOR: Sure, but I think this was more complicated than a question of profitability. Remember, Disney dropped Fahrenheit 9/11 and forced Moore to distribute it himself. It’s not like Hollywood is clamoring for these types of films. When you get up to the big conglomerate levels, they’re hand-in-hand with Washington. A lot of these companies are giving millions of dollars to their candidate of choice. When that kind of money is involved, they don’t want to step on any toes this late in the game. It does seem a little skittish to me. I think they could release this film and still get whatever favors they need from Washington. But there’s a perception that they’ll lose powerful friends in Washington if they aren’t careful.
BLVR: How did it escalate from “We’re not including Solders Pay on the DVD” to “We’re not re-releasing Three Kings at all?”
DOR: Once I said I hoped the film would come out and be useful to voters before the election, which happened when the New York Times ran an article about the documentary, Time-Warner just backed away from it and decided to release everything later, but definitely not before the election. They told me that it was suddenly “physically impossible” to do it – logistically impossible.
BLVR: It does seem a little too convenient.
DOR: Just a few weeks ago, everybody was excited and there wasn’t even a hint that there might be a problem. But now, when politics are involved, it’s “impossible.”
II. “REPUBLICANS LOVE TERRORISM.”
BLVR: Three Kings dealt with the hypocrisies of the first Iraq war, suggesting that we were wrong to call it a victory when there were still so many atrocities taking place in that country. It could be argued that Bush Jr. answered those charges. He went back to Iraq and removed Saddam from power. Isn’t that exactly what you were calling for in Three Kings?
DOR: Yes and no. I was pointing to the absurdity of making an international coalition and going all the way to the doorstep of Baghdad, and then not even bothering to get Saddam and basically fucking the Iraq people over. But if you rewind even further, the film also asks, “Why go there at all?” I don’t think we should have gone to Iraq in the first place. And I think Bush Jr.’s reasons were even more disingenuous.
BLVR: Why’s that? Because he was so clearly doing it for daddy?
DOR: He was. That’s not even a question. I met Bush Jr. when I was editing Three Kings. This was before he’d even gotten the nomination. He was at a gathering at the home of the Chairman of Warner Brothers. I was invited and was introduced to him, and I told him that I was making a film that would question his father’s legacy in Iraq. At first, he looked at me like, “Who the fuck is this guy?” And then he went cowboy and said, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to go back and finish the job, won’t I?”
BLVR: Holy Christ. Are you serious?
DOR: That was in July of ’99. He was planning to invade Iraq long before he had any idea if he’d even get elected.
BLVR: That is fucking scary.
DOR: And it’s not like pointing that out really makes a difference. It’s not like the Bush family is the only culprit here. There’s a whole history of war profiteering that’s just become ingrained in the political system. Especially for the Republicans. To be honest, I think that Republicans love terrorism. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but I really think it’s true.
BLVR: Well, terrorism is the new communism. It’s the new Red Scare.
DOR: Exactly. It’s easier to control people when they’re afraid. Yeats said something that reminds me of how politically effective the Republicans are in our culture today, and how well they work the media, which is not liberal at all. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The Republicans just want to bankrupt the government. They think that the government should do nothing, except maybe support the military. So terrorism is perfect for them. What happened to the domestic agenda? What about education and health care? Fuck all that. We need to bomb another middle-eastern country. Bush was in a shithole on September 10th. 9/11 was the best thing that ever happened to him.
BLVR: Helping Bush probably wasn’t what the terrorists had in mind.
DOR: And yet that’s what happened. For some reason, fundamentalist Muslims always play into the hands of the Republicans. It’s probably unwitting, but they do it every time. They almost single-handedly took down Jimmy Carter and allowed Reagan to take over. It’s like they’re all suffering from a sort of political tone-deafness. Don’t they realize that they’re helping the very politicians who want to destroy them – who will only continue oil policy without regard for the human costs? Does Osama understand that he gave Bush license to invade any country he wants?
III. “PEOPLE MISTAKE ACCESSIBILITY FOR A LACK OF SERIOUSNESS.”
Russell asks me to watch a video that he recently completed. It’s a 20-minute infomercial starring the two existential detectives from I ♥ Huckabee’s (played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin). Their “guests” include Dr. Robert Thurman, Chairman of the Dept. of Religion at Columbia University, and Dr. Joe Rudnick, Chairman of the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy professor at UCLA. The majority of the video involves the two academics discussing their theories on infinite relativity and the possibility of multiple dimensions. At one point, Hoffman and Tomlin cover their arms and faces with mud. An elderly lady appears and disappears at random, eventually announcing, “I’m old. I don’t understand any of this.” Later, everybody eats watermelon as Jon Brion performs “Knock Yourself Out,” a song from the I ♥ Huckabee’s soundtrack.
BLVR: What are you going to do with it? Are you considering running it late at night as an actual infomercial?
DOR: It’s going to run on IFC. It was mostly just an experiment. I liked the idea of using an infomercial as a way to talk about the politics of consciousness. When most people turn on their TVs, they don’t expect a frank discussion of philosophical ideas in their practical context. Or any context.
BLVR: And they certainly don’t expect to see Dustin Hoffman eating watermelon.
DOR: That too, sure.
BLVR: The infomercial really isn’t that thematically different than the film itself. So why do any of it as a comedy? Why play it for laughs when you’re dealing with some pretty intense philosophical issues? Do you take it seriously while also poking fun at it?
DOR: I think so. It’s a bit of both for me. I take it seriously and I laugh with it. It’s not an either/or for me. In my mind, these are not necessarily disparate ways of examining the world. As a Zen monk once said to me, “If you’re not laughing, you’re not getting it.” You could say the same for crying, but it’s most definitely true of laughing.
BLVR: If nothing else, a little humor makes it more accessible for a mainstream audience.
DOR: But it’s not like you add the comedy to the seriousness – they are one in the same to me. That’s what I love so much about Thurman. He talks about things that are just mind-blowing, but he always does it in a way that’s very simple and straightforward. Far too often, people mistake accessibility for a lack of seriousness. Thurman is one of the most brilliant scholars I know, and he could probably talk circles around anybody. But he’ll talk to you about his ideas in a very ordinary way. With a lot of academics, there’s an ether that goes up around them and somehow elevates them and credentializes them and mystifies them and their ideas.
BLVR: If it’s not complicated, it must not be valid.
DOR: Yeah. It has to be evasive or somehow shrouded or difficult to decipher. People have become so accustomed to that cloak of self-importance that comes with most philosophy that they begin to think it’s a necessary element. “If I can understand it, if it’s something that anybody could wrap their head around, it must not be important.” And that’s not the way it should be. These are ideas that everybody should be thinking about, not just academics and scholars.
IV: “FRANNY AND ZOOEY”
DOR: Have you read Franny and Zooey lately?
BLVR: Not lately, no, but I remember it well.
DOR: A lot of the ideas in I ♥ Huckabee’s were inspired by that book. When I first read it in high school, it had such a profound effect on me. These were people that I could relate to. They cared about the same questions that intrigued me. They wondered about the difference between what appears to be and what is actual. They were just regular people, and their need for some kind of spiritual, higher meaning wasn’t put in the context of a church, where most of these questions are usually dealt with. Franny was struggling for meaning, and the answers weren’t clear to her. I could totally relate to that anxiety, and I appreciated that Salinger didn’t allow them to settle for easy answers.
BLVR: As I recall, Franny and Zooey examined some of the similarities between eastern mysticism and Judeo-Christianity, particularly in regard to prayer. Aside from a brief exchange with a clearly deluded Christian family, religion really isn’t a factor in I ♥ Huckabee’s. Do you think that organized religion is becoming irrelevant as a means of understanding the metaphysical world?
DOR: I don’t think it’s irrelevant at all. But it can be dangerous. You have to be careful that it doesn’t turn into a closing of the mind instead of an opening of the mind. I don’t think the Christian family in the movie is deluded — that sounds almost too harsh, or more harsh than I’d like to think about them — but it is ironic to me that they are, while openhearted in some big ways, simultaneously so closed minded, and not in any way welcoming of inquiry or discussion. I think if religion closes discussion or exchange of ideas or curiosity about other views, it’s not true to its core. It’s not easy to follow Jesus’ example, and if you go to church it doesn’t mean you’re automatically doing it. I suppose what I like about Zen is that the teachers are constantly questioning your insight and challenging it, looking for sloppiness or laziness in it, and ways you can go past that.
BLVR: Have you studied Zen at all?
DOR: I spent four years practicing at a Zendo in New York City. It was a townhouse on the east side, founded by one of the first Japanese roshis to immigrate to the United States. At six o’clock every night, the place would be filled with janitors and carpenters and stock brokers and physicists and doctors, all coming together to practice Zen, to investigate consciousness and being. I’m not sure how familiar you are with Zen –
BLVR: I know almost nothing.
DOR: Well, it’s about getting away from your habitual thought patterns which tend to become kind of rigid and predictable. It’s similar to those experiences when you stop your mind, such as when you’re having sex or doing a drug or having a fight or being in an accident or playing sports or music. Those are the moments of pure experience, and at a Zendo, you’re practicing this as a state of being so that you can do it all the time. In some ways, it’s an enormous disappointment, because it’s nothing like what you see in the movies. It’s not like The Matrix.
BLVR: So they don’t teach you how to levitate?
DOR: [Laughs.] No, sadly.
V: “IT’S ABSURD TO CRITICIZE MUSLIMS FOR BEING FUNDAMENTALIST WHEN CHRISTIANS CAN BE JUST AS EXTREME AND FANATICAL AND FRIGHTENING.”
BLVR: You don’t see a lot of stories dealing with existential despair in mainstream movies. The Christian religion gets the lion’s share of attention, whether it’s Mel Gibson’s “Jesus Died For You” sermonizing or Kevin Smith’s Catholic satire. But not many filmmakers bother to examine what it’s like to really grapple with a spiritual crisis outside of organized religion.
DOR: That’s true. In fact, I’d say you don’t see it anywhere in our culture, except maybe on a personal level. The investigation of consciousness has come to be regarded suspiciously by most smart people and by most scientists. That’s a legacy that began with the Inquisition, which considered non-Christian spiritual inquiry as blasphemous. A thousand years ago, scientists who wondered about consciousness and the nature of reality were burned at the stake. We still haven’t recovered from that and it’s left us with a culture that no longer investigates consciousness, except on the fringes.
BLVR: Are you in any way troubled by the growing tide of religious fanaticism in this country? Has it always been this way, or are we just slowly but surely becoming more morally conservative and dogmatic?
DOR: It’s a closing of the mind that happens when you want to be lazy and go with the easiest answers, like the media do all the time in their sound bytes, as do the Republicans. Gay marriage is a complete red herring to distract everyone from the economy and the war and health care and education – Republicans have done this for generations. They scare people with non-issues, like marijuana, which is actually safer than alcohol in many ways. So now you have all these people claiming that gay marriage is wrong because the bible says it’s wrong. Quite frankly, the bible is filled with advice that you’d never, want to follow. “Don’t cut your hair on a rainy Thursday because locusts will eat your farm” kind of thing.
BLVR: The fact that so many people are still using the Bible as an instruction manual for their lives is a little crazy.
DOR: Any time that a religion says, “This is the only way,” it just loses all credibility for me. I can’t get past that point. The religion itself may have some great ideas, but I can’t take it seriously if it’s blatantly exclusionary. Why can’t we accept that different approaches work for different people? The idea that anyone would think their religious ideas make them morally superior is just preposterous. And it’s the same thing that scares smart people away from spiritual investigation. It’s absurd that we’re so quick to criticize Muslims for being fundamentalist when Christians can be just as extreme and fanatical and frightening.
BLVR: Well, yes. But it could be argued that Christian fundamentalists are a little less openly hostile. They’re not as likely to, say, fly a plane into a building and kill thousands of people.
DOR: No, probably not. But Christianity has been responsible for plenty of horror and death in the world, all supposedly in God’s name.
VI: “UNHAPPY ENDINGS CAN BE AS CHEAP AS HAPPY ENDINGS.”
BLVR: I was shocked at just how much subversive stuff you managed to squeeze into I ♥ Huckabee’s. The dinner conversation with the bellman’s foster family, for instance, really skirted the edges of offensive. Any time you attack patriotism and religion, you’re on dangerous ground. Take a line like, “If Hitler were alive today, he’d tell us not to worry about oil.” You indirectly compared the U.S. government to Nazis. Are you at all concerned that audiences are going to be offput by your politicizing?
DOR: Let’s give them a chance and see what happens. What I’ve heard from people who saw the film in Toronto is that they enjoyed it and had a good time with it, even when they don’t follow or agree with all the ideas. I’ll take that as an opening. I think audiences deserve the benefit of the doubt. I prefer to be surprised by them rather then just assume they’ll react negatively to any new idea.
BLVR: You don’t normally give your characters a chance for redemption. Your films tend to end with a moral ambiguity. Characters either run away from their problems (as in Spanking the Monkey) or just give up entirely (as in Flirting With Disaster).
DOR: I suppose. But it’s my experience that endings are never easy, and I think I’m not alone among filmmakers or writers in this. There are so many different ways to end a film — and so many of them could work equally well or equally badly. In Spanking the Monkey, it was half a victory that he got out. He’s not like Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, where you can tell he’s going to repeat the same mistakes indefinitely. Just allowing him to walk away from this terrible situation was the kindest and realest thing I could’ve done for him. In Flirting, well, I think I’d do the whole film at a deeper level if I was making it today. The ending feels just okay to me. At least it doesn’t suck. It’s half insightful because he’s beyond the idea of finding an “original” or “true” family that will redeem him.
BLVR: You took a different tack with Huckabee’s. This time, your characters actually make a positive change in their lives. Why is that? Do you just care about these people more, or do their problems seem somehow more important?
DOR: The endings for all my characters seem sufficiently human and messy for me to feel comfortable with them. In some ways they have only moved an inch, but sometimes an inch is a great distance. I think it would have felt annoying to me if the characters in Huckabee’s hadn’t gotten to that point after struggling with their lives in this explicit way via the detectives and the philosophies. Unhappy endings can be as cheap as happy endings. In some ways the most daring thing about this film, in addition to actually caring about these approaches to consciousness, is its optimism.
BLVR: You do know that you’re going to break a lot of black hearts with all this hopefulness, don’t you? Are we witnessing the birth of a kindler, gentler David O. Russell?
DOR: Stranger things have happened. Yeah, sure, why not? Let’s break some black hearts.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the November 2004 issue of The Believer Magazine.)