Tuesday, March 20, 2007

OPEN FORUM: THE HUCKABEES MAELSTROM

If there be devils, would I were a devil,
To live and burn in everlasting fire,
So I might have your company in hell,
But to torment you with my bitter tongue!
-- William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, V:1.

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that's the essence of inhumanity.
-- George Bernard Shaw.

The degree of one's emotion varies inversely with one's knowledge of the facts: the less you know the hotter you get.
-- Bertrand Russell.

***********************************************************************************

We’re going to go someplace ugly today, so fasten your hip waders…

In writer-director David O. Russell’s idiosyncratic comedy I Heart Huckabees, Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman play a pair of “existential detectives” who are hired by a slacker environmentalist (Jason Schwarzman) to follow their client around and solve the conundrum of his perpetual malaise. The movie is a high-wire act unlike just about any other I can think of, practically daring its audience to throw up its collective hands in frustration over its exhausting pace and the buzzing (droning) bee-hive of philosophical quandaries that have been woven into the farcical fabric of its script. It’s one of those movies that audiences (and there weren’t many counted in that number when the movie was released theatrically in October 2004) either immediately love, jumping on its train of dizzying thought and grooving to the disorientation experienced by the ever-thinning oxygen of its headiest concepts, or immediately hate, repulsed by its apparent disregard for easing viewers into its world or making them feel comfortable (or even wanted) once they get there. Huckabees is practically the definition of a movie fashioned by its auteur without serious consideration of the marketplace, and by this standard one would have to consider it some sort of miracle (or perhaps an aberration escaping like hot steam from a fissure in the Hollywood infrastructure) that it was made, marketed and distributed at all in this timid age of endless research and quirky projects that turn around in perpetuity, in arrested development, like orphaned carousels.

One might expect anyone who could create a project that flirts so precariously with disaster for two solid hours to be, well, a tumultuous personality. And Russell’s reputation certainly did precede him. Here’s an excerpt from a Playboy interview with George Clooney in which the star recounts an incident when his relationship with Russell came to a violent head on the set of Three Kings:

“CLOONEY: David is in many ways a genius, though I learned that he's not a genius when it comes to people skills.

PLAYBOY: Did you learn about that the hard way?

CLOONEY: I did. He yelled and screamed at people all day, from day one.

PLAYBOY: Did he yell at you?

CLOONEY: At me often — and at someone daily. He'd throw off his headset and scream, 'Today the sound department fucked me!' For me, it came to a head a couple of times. Once, he went after a camera-car driver who I knew from high school. I had nothing to do with his getting his job, but David began yelling and screaming at him and embarrassing him in front of everybody. I told him, 'You can yell and scream and even fire him, but what you can't do is humiliate him in front of people. Not on my set, if I have any say about it.'

Another time he screamed at the script supervisor and made her cry. I wrote him a letter and said, 'Look, I don't know why you do this. You've written a brilliant script, and I think you're a good director. Let's not have a set like this. I don't like it and I don't work well like this.' I'm not one of those actors who likes things in disarray. He read the letter and we started all over again.

But later, we were three weeks behind schedule, which puts some pressure on you, and he was in a bad mood. These army kids, who were working as extras, were supposed to tackle us. David wanted one of the extras to grab me and throw me down. This kid was a little nervous about it, and David walked up to him and grabbed him. He pushed him onto the ground.

He kicked him and screamed, 'Do you want to be in this fucking movie? Then throw him to the fucking ground!' The second assistant director came up and said, 'You don't do that, David. You want them to do something, you tell me.' David grabbed his walkie-talkie and threw it on the ground. He screamed, 'Shut the fuck up! Fuck you, and the AD goes, 'Fuck you! I quit.' He walked off.

It was a dangerous time. I'd sent him this letter. I was trying to make things work, so I went over and put my arm around him. I said, 'David, it's a big day. But you can't shove, push, or humiliate people who aren't allowed to defend themselves.' He turned on me and said, 'Why don't you just worry about your fucked-up act? You're being a dick. You want to hit me? You want to hit me? Come on, pussy, hit me.' I'm looking at him like he's out of his mind. Then he started banging me on the head with his head. He goes, 'Hit me, you pussy. Hit me.' Then he got me by the throat and I went nuts. I had him by the throat. I was going to kill him. Kill him. Finally, he apologized, but I walked away. By then, the Warner Bros. guys were freaking out. David sort of pouted through the rest of the shoot and we finished the movie, but it was truly, without exception, the worst experience of my life."


There were intimations of conflicts on the set of I Heart Huckabees as well, and the chaotic, anything-goes style of the movie raises questions as to just what director would be confident enough in shaping this material and bringing it to the screen without having some major neuroses and potential nervous breakdowns over it.

Now comes the rather shocking evidence that, indeed, the I Heart Huckabees set was anything but a happy one, at least as it involved dealings between actress Lily Tomlin and director Russell. Tomlin, apparently unconvinced that Russell had anything resembling a hold over the tone of the movie or even the way he wanted his actors to approach the film scene-by-scene, became increasingly vocal in her displeasure regarding the director.



It’s not clear where the following scene took place in the chronology of Tomlin’s relationship with Russell, but even so it raises a couple of interesting questions, and it certainly seems to prove that Clooney, while an engaging raconteur who is well known for using humor and exaggeration in interviews, on awards shows and, one assumes, in everyday conversation, was telling the story of his own contretemps ith Russell pretty straight. Behold, if you can bear it, Tomlin vs. Russell (and turn down the volume if you’re at work):



What are we to make of this spectacle? I’ve seen arguments on movie sets before, and though they seemed like a big deal to those involved, and certainly to me, at the time, they’re nothing compared to this. And it would be na├»ve to assume that this was the one and only time something like happened on the set of I Heart Huckabees. Perhaps, from what we know of Russell’s volatile temperament, and what we now seem to know about the temperament of at least one of the actors he hired, this isn’t so much an apocalyptic explosion as it is a relative ripple on the surface of a generally chaotic production.

(Dustin Hoffman can be seen milling around in the background here, keeping fairly quiet, but in the first clip he takes a more active role in trying to either mediate between Tomlin and Russell or simply encouraging her to just get on with business. Jason Schwarzman, for his part, stays passively slumped in the chair opposite Tomlin’s desk for the duration of the tirade.)

I’d be curious to hear from those who have film production experience, be they actors, directors, crew members, whoever—How do actors and directors involved in something this grotesque and public get themselves back on the rails, creatively and interpersonally? Clooney suggests that Russell walked away and, upon his return, pouted for the rest of the shoot in, I would assume, relative silence. But recounting the aftermath in such a sketchy way doesn’t indicate just how awful it must really have been, and it doesn’t seem much of a jump to think that the creative juices that Tomlin felt were oozing rather than flowing at the time of the blow-up must have dried up completely, at least for a while. And while I’m fishing for answers, I’ll fish for an opinion or two as well: Can working with a volcanic director actually be good for the creative process? If not, why (besides the money) would actors and crew members tolerate such behavior? Is this kind of threatening, off-the-rails, abusive behavior somehow actionable? And if not, why would anyone want to work with Russell again? Huckabees may be brilliant, it may be a mess, but one could hardly call it complacent—it’s in there scrapping for slivers of enlightenment and understanding right along with the people who made it and the audiences who choose to see it and run with it, and perhaps some of this striving, searching, reckless clashing of tones and spirits that are vital to the movie can be directly traced to this kind of passion, however misplaced it might seem. These are the questions. I have no answers.

By sheer coincidence, I ran across I Heart Huckabees a few nights ago on IFC and was sucked right into it. I was enraptured by the sense that the movie is constantly finding new patches of thin ice to skate on, and I felt as I did when I saw it theatrically that it always felt just on the verge of imploding, or falling apart like those pixilated boxes that frequently fragment its wide-screen frames. But I have no idea what seeing the movie now, in light of this three-minute piece of video purloined from the movie’s set (three minutes obviously never intended to be seen by the public), will be like, or how direct observation of the conflict at the heart of the relationship between Tomlin and Russell will color my thoughts about the movie as a whole. I look forward to finding out, even as I feel, in the aftermath of seeing this clip, that I’ve just witnessed a car crash. Rumors of clashes on movie sets are the stock in trade of entertainment reportage, and they have been ever since Hedda and Louella plied the wagging tongues of their gossipy wares. But seeing it for one’s self is like watching a page from Hollywood Babylon come to life and then, at least for me, wishing that there was at least this much still left to my imagination.

(In light of this jaw-dropping piece, take a look at the innocuous spin put on the movie, and the director, by stars Tomlin and Hoffman on this CBS Morning Show interview when the movie was being released.)



It’s Open Forum time. What are your reactions to this video? How do creative artists recover from a blow-torching like this one? Would you work for David O. Russell? Are his movies worth this kind of behavior? And how much of this do you think can be laid at Tomlin’s feet?

UPDATE 3/23/07 9:29 a.m.: The second video is now back up, but who knows how long it'll be there. And speaking of Tomlin, here's her reaction to the whole nasty affair. (Thanks, Ju-osh, for the link.)

44 comments:

Sal Gomez said...

Here's my take on this.

First, I had some prior knowledge of this "on set" conflict between Russell and Tomlin but I had never seen this footage before and I had heard a different story about the "fight" between Russell and Clooney.

So as I said, here's my take: There are some directors who know exactly what they want and there are those who have a pretty good idea but really like to wait till the actors have a grasp of their characters before suggesting changes in the performance. The later description is handled best when the actor is allowed to give their take on a scene and then offer the director his take.

As a person who has studied how to work with actors I have learned that there are differences in how an actor will take direction. Actors are more receptive of a director who knows what he wants and works out the changes before they roll any film but are always willing to work around a scene on set, as lomg as the director isn't trying to schackle the actor. Actors also hate when the director stops them from acting because he doesn't like what he sees. This frustrates the actor to no end.

A better way to handle this is to shoot scenes as they had been rehearsed and worked out and blocked, then watch the playback together. The actors and director can then decide if they want to make changes. Actors like that alot because they feel a part of the process. They also feel like the director is "protecting" them and their performance.

Tom Hanks once said that he was working on a Spielberg film when, after shooting a complicated scene Tom could tell that Spielberg wasn't entirely happy with it. So after watching a play back Tom offered a suggestion. After taking about 2 or 3 minutes of describing to Spielberg his idea, Spielberg sat up and shouted, "I can shoot that."

Tom felt this was brilliant of Spielberg to do that for his actor.

I could feel from Tomlin's explosive tirade from inside the car that she had become frustrated with Russell probably starting and stopping to make changes in the middle of their performances. She's the type of actor that can't work that way.

On the other hand, Russell's explosive reaction to Tomlin felt to me like a controlling director completely frustrated with an actor who was unwilling to be controlled in such a way. You'll notice that the veteran Hoffman had a total ambivilant reaction to the whole situation.

Now as to your question of how you get the train back on the rail after such a wreck... who knows. The pressure to finish the film, the threat of never working again, the money you could lose or make... I just don't know. It is a business after all.

The creative process wouldn't necessarily be stifled because of this kind of explosion. In fact I would imagine there were probably a bunch of explosive moments during the writing, pitching and preproduction for this film.

But who can say.

It is an interesting insite into the making of a film, but not an example of how all films are made.

Damian said...

This is a very interesting post, Dennis, because it touches on something I've been thinking about lately.

First of all, I have yet to see either Three Kings or I heart Huckabees and, although I previously wanted to see the both of them, rather than being intrigued by these clips, I found myself more disinclined to watch them. Then I wondered: "Why am I feeling this way?" I'm not completely sure about the answer, but I think it has something to do with feeling that if I watch these films I am somehow excusing the behind-the-scenes behavior involved in bringing them about. It's as if I were saying: "It's okay to treat other people like that as long as great movies get made."

However, prior to this I have been a firm advocate for separating a work of art from the artist(s) involved in its creation. Up until recently I would've said it was okay to look at, listen to or read something that was created by a despicable human being (not that I am saying anyone involved in the film I Heart Huckabees is necessarily a despicable human being; I'm just using an extreme example), and in fact probably would have been upset with someone who suggested otherwise. I remember talking once with a female friend of mine who refused to watch Woody Allen films since the whole Mia Farrow/Soon-Yi scandal. As a huge fan of Woody Allen, I engaged her in this debate quite passionately. Does this recent shift in my thinking mean I am being hypocritical?

There was a conversation going on over at Noel Vera's blog the other day about racism in the arts. H.P Lovecraft, Richard Wagner, D.W. Griffith and Mel Gibson were all names that came up in the discussion which revolved around the question of how far we ought (or ought not) to go in making a distinction between the art and the artist. If the work itself seems to be promoting horrible things, that's pretty easy, but if the work seems neutral (perhaps even good) but the person responsible seems horrible, that's not so easy. I remember wrestling with this same issue back when I was in college and discovered that one of my favorite actors had done things that deeply offended me. Could I still, in good conscience watch his movies then? How moral/ethical is it to experience (let alone enjoy) works created by someone whom I know engages in a lifestyle or embraces an ideology that I personally find abhorrent? Something else raised in Noel's discussion was the suggestion that enjoying and/or finding value in the art is one thing but "supporting" it (either verbally or financially) is quite another. One might wnat to read a book written by a pedophile, but I one needn't pay for it, should they? One might be persuaded to look at paintings done by Adolf Hitler (perhaps even praise them) but one needn't hang them up on their wall, do they? Then again, what if the mere act of viewing/reading constitutes "support?"

The way I eventually resolved the issue in my own young "freshman" mind was to admit that if you dig deep enough, you're going to find something about everyone that is not good. We are all capable of atrocious things and if we think hard enough, I know we can all come up with at least on example of a time we did something truly horrid. It's simply the case that some sins are just more socially acceptable than others. Does that mean we should avoid anything touched by hands other than our own or should we only avoid things that come in contact with "the REALLY bad people (however we decide who they are)?" Clearly we can't shun everything that's out there in the world. That would be patently absurd, but it does seem to me like there needs to be a place where we draw the line. Where that line is drawn, however, probably needs to be decided by everyone indvidually.

To bring all this back to I Heart Huckabees, I'm not certain how much of this is Tomlin's "fault" and how much is Russell's "fault" and I don't want to speculate too much on that based on the very "out-of-context" clips we've been given. I just want to look at the nature of the outbursts themselves. Her reponses, while certainly being "spirited," do not frighten me nearly as much as his does. Her reaction seems a bit provoked while Russell's just looks flat-out insane. The moment when he comes back into the room telling her to "act like an adult" (while ironically hilarious) reveals that there is very little logic or reason involved in his tirade. When you take this footage together with the story told by Clooney, it seems the man has serious issues. He needs help. Maybe some anger management classes or something. I don't know. I just know that he looks dangerous (when he repeatedly called Tomlin a b***h and actually threw something at her I was shocked). Speaking as an actor, I don't think I would ever work with Russell and I don't particularly care how gifted he is or how marvelous the finished products turn out.

It's become somewhat of a cliche to say that "insanity and genius tend to go hand-in-hand," but it's situations like this that affirm that notion for me. Clearly, David O. Russell is not "normal," because that is not how "normal" people conduct themselves (unless, of course, they are driven to in the most extreme of circumstances such as... the Holocaust; making a movie, though, shouldn't qualify) but then again, it sounds like the actors who signed on to his films did so on the basis of his scripts, which they thought were brilliant. It's after being on his set, however, that they seem to have re-considered ever working with him again. A word of advice to Russell: the ability to make great films is virtually meaningless if you can't get anyone to make them with you.

Anyway, that was a rather long rant and I'm sorry. I am really interested, though, to hear what other people have to say about this.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Damian, Sal: Thanks for your well-considered comments. When I first saw these clips my instinct was to post them because I thought they were intrinsically interesting/mind-boggling. But then I became more fascinated by the questions they brought up in my mind, and I hesitated a bit as to whether or not to post the clips. I decided to post them because, in addition to their car-crash attraction, they provide a glimpse (admittedly out-of-context) at the occasional reality of what we hear so often describe in our genteel press as "creative differences."

I want to toss your thoughts around in my head a bit more before writing anything more specific, and I really must go to bed right now-- big paper to write tomorrow. But again, thanks for honoring the intentions of the post with your thoughts.

Damian said...

You're welcome, Dennis. Thanks for posting such a thought-provoking topic.

One thing I forgot to mention at the end of my rather extensive musings was the fact that, in the end, I suspect I will end up watching both I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings, if not just out of cursiosity. It was probably just my immediate reaction (having seen what a creep David O. Russell is) to just say "screw him" and have nothing to do with him or his work, but I'm not so sure that makes me any better than him. It just may prove difficult for me to separate the personality of the film from the personality of its director (just as some people can't watch atcors like Tom Cruise on screen without thinking of all of his off-screen flaws), but I'll try not to put the cart before the horse. I'll try to keep an open mind when I do eventually catch them. Who knows? The films might actually turn out to be quite good and profound (as I've heard they are). Truth can come from the most bizarre sources sometimes.

I just think that as a lover (and student) of film, I can't afford not to watch them at some point and any delusions I might have of being an "unsullied" individual aren't gonna do me any good. If I can watch Triumph of the Will, Birth of a Nation and Natural Born Killers, I think I can watch David O. Russell's movies.

Burbanked said...

The phenomenon surrounding the airing of these clips has fascinated me for the reasons that Sal and Damian write about above, but also for another reason.

We are truly living in a new and amazing age that is allowing us to glimpse into the hearts and minds of our pop culture's artists in strange, fascinating, and sometimes scarily unprecedented ways - and it absolutely changes the way we will view their movies.

This kind of footage being widely available was never possible before. Not only am I amazed that we're able to see these kinds of pull-back-the-curtain pieces, but think about the guy or girl, standing on set, who made the conscious decision to leave the camera rolling! To me this indicates that these two instances were NOT the first time on this movie that Russell came into conflict; that someone WANTED to expose these occurrences and that someone KNEW they would have a means to distribute this footage when the time came.

Quite simply, that blows my mind.

Artists are no longer untouchable, pedestal-dwelling icons to us anymore. They have faults and foibles and quirks and fears that cannot but help impact not only how we view them, but how we will choose to spend our money to support them. The time has long past where studio PR machines can put a lid on these kinds of things, from keeping quiet the rumors of a star's indiscretions to on-set conflicts like this.

Think of the highest A-list celebrities who have taken these public beatings, even in just the last few years: Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, Woody Allen. For my part, I can say that it truly does color my perception of their artistic output. It makes it much harder to accept actors in roles when we know as much as we do about their private lives. We can't un-know these things when we're watching them anymore.

I haven't seen Huckabees, but it does sound fascinating. It also sounds like a chore. I liked Three Kings, but I feel more than a little put off by what I've seen of Russell here to make it worth seeking out his movies. Life is too short and my time-budget for movie watching is far too precious.

Flickhead said...
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That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

All artists are assholes, on some level, Flickhead. Does this mean you can't look at Picasso or listen to Miles Davis knowing what jerks they were? I think the only time this becomes a problem is when you use your art the way, say, Leni Riefenstahl did. Plus, this is far from the first time we've known this about Russell. If actors keep working for him and studios keep hiring him, then they've made the decision for you. I'm not saying I'd want to work for him or associate with him, but I wouldn't hold it against his film. What would surprise me is that there weren't similar contremps on all movies, but perhaps not to Russell's level (calling her a c--- is really inexcusable). But it's like what they say about the making of sausages. I agree with the poster who said the most interesting thing was Dustin Hoffman never blinking. He'd been there and done that before, hadn't he?
Anyway, as I told Dennis yesterday, with the presence of Jason Schwartzman in the scene, I like to look at this as David O. Russell's American Express commercial: My fucking movie, my fucking card, you bitch!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Flickhead, yours is a good question. As I said above in response to Damian and Sal, when I first saw this my jaw dropped just like everyone else's did and the scary, revealing quality of it felt like something worth sharing. But then I hesitated because of what I described as that car-crash quality-- why did I feel the need to share it? Speaking only for myself, would I be so quick to post the clip if Russell had gone the extra mile and made physical contact with Tomlin, or Hoffman, or anyone else? I'd like to think no, though it might not have kept others doing so. I agree with you-- on a very fundamental level, I wish I hadn't seen this stuff, because it most certainly will color how I look at two movies-- Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees-- I very much admire. But whether I ended up seeing it or not, it's out there, and I ended up concluding-- and who knows, maybe those conclusions were wrongheaded-- that the questions the clips raised in my mind, questions that I posed in my post, made showing them and discussing them more than just a nasty spanking delivered because I have some ax to grind against Russell. I felt it was valuable to see what "creative differences" look like in certain extreme situations, and even though seeing it was unpleasant, and even though Huckabees may never look the same to me again, it also makes me marvel all over again at how movies can come together and triumph over fights and crises and disasters and incompetence and egos to sometimes shine as works of wonder, ingenious storytelling and art. My post was an attempt to approach what for some will inevitably be simply a shrieking freak show, a dirty peek at stuff no one was supposed to see, with a measure of seriousness, asking questions (and provoking the asking of even more questions, like yours) as to what it might mean.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Continuing my role as contrarian here, what's the possibility that this was the catharsis Tomlin and Russell needed? It's the things we don't know about how the shoot went, especially how Tomlin and Russell interacted before and after these moments, that would be necessary to make a full judgement. Of course, the guy needs to learn to control his temper and he needs some help. But what about the studios that keep hiring people like him and James Cameron? Does the art excuse all? Just asking.

Flickhead said...
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Sal Gomez said...

I think maybe we are all getting a little too personally involved with what we saw in those clips.

True, to some it looks very disturbing and I tend to agree with that on a certain level. Yet, not too many of us have been in the position to put your face, likeness, reputation, talent, or career on the line everytime you decide to do something creative and then have that stuff exposed to everyone.

Imagine how much pressure you would have to endure to know that either as a director, actor, writer, producer, stand-up comic, singer or any role that is open to possible public humiliation, you are going to get the screws put to you at one time or another.

It's alot different when you write a column in a newspaper or publish an open forum blog because the likelihood that people will find out who you are is miniscule at best, but to have the public know who you are well... that's pressure man.

As I stated above, I can completely understand the frustration of both the actor and director in both clips we've all seen. I also agree that Russell may in fact be a bit unstable to say the least. But wasn't Salvador Dali a bit insane? Wasn't Andy Warhol kinda looney?

It's not an excuse but it's an explanation.

Woody Allens troubled public life never swayed me from watching his films. I still believe he's a brilliant humorist and creative filmmaker. His choices in his personal life are certainly questionable, but I'm not plucking down my dough to watch his home movies.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

But it's not, Flickhead.
My only point is that if Lily Tomlin can take it, or the other actors or the studio heads, that's their call. I'm not going to like or dislike his film based on the fact that he's a raging asshole. I find it interesting information, but ultimately, unimportant to the work of art (be that as it may.) The only difference I can think of, as I said earlier, would be a Riefenstahl-like case. Russell being a Class-A jerk is not the end of the world. Do you really think he's the only director like this? C'mon. The only people really impacted here are the people that CHOOSE to work with him. I wouldn't, after seeing this. But the people that CHOOSE to work for him in the future, well, they've been warned.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

TLRHB: Your question is closely keyed, I think, to mine-- How did Tomlin and Russell (and everyone else involved, however peripherally) recover from this incident (or, assuming this wasn't the only conflict, incidents) and regroup to maintain their goals as artists? That's the question that fascinates me, one which this footage provokes but can never answer. In light of this footage becoming so public, I wonder if Tomlin or Russell will ever feel compelled to step forward and attempt to address this sorry situation.

And to offer my answer to your question for TLRHB, Flickhead, I certainly wouldn't want my wife or daughter directed in such a way. But it is interesting to me that studios and actors do seem to be separating the man with the fiery temper from the talented writer-director. According to IMDb, Russell is in pre-production on a new movie starring Vince Vaughn, Luis Guzman and Elizabeth Banks, three actors new, as far as I can tell, to a Russell set. I'm not sure the art excuses all-- even if I agreed that Fitzcarraldo was a masterpiece (which I don't), it wouldn't have justified, in my mind, Herzog's exploitation of an indigenous people to realize his vision. But at this point, you've got to believe that actors and studios have an idea of what they're in for with Russell, have to some degree prepared themselves, made the choice as adults to work with him, and are perhaps continuing to enable this outrageous, inexcusable behavior. If he physically assaults Banks on the set, then Russell will have, I suspect, taken the last straw. Yelling and hurling disgusting epithets, however, are the established playing field for this guy. It'd be interesting to see just how bullying he gets with the hulking Vaughn or the none-too-passive Guzman.

M. Peachbush said...

qyvI'd like to add a comment on the "All artists are jerks" tangent. I realized that a long time ago, but sometimes it bothers me more than others.

Woody Allen, for ex: I still think he is a great comic artist, but his penchant for making much younger women worship his characters is starting to creep me out. A lot of actors and directors do this, but because of what we know about Allen, it seems worse.

Or Bob Dylan: As I began to understand what a self-centered and nasty man he is (seems to be, at least), I realized how nasty some of his songs were. I also started to distrust his sweeter songs, like he's faking it on those.

For other artists, I don't have this problem, because I don't see the personality flaws in the work (as much). Now, I'll start to notice when Russell shows his characters' violent outbursts into positive virtues, and when he shows reasonableness and compromise as cowardice and waffling.

But I can still enjoy even Leni Reiffenstiel and Birth of a Nation.

Bill said...

This discussion has pretty quickly broadened into a does-an-artist’s-work-justify-repellent-behavior conversation, and I think Dennis intended this to be more specifically about Russell, but as I’m not a fan of Russell, and am more interested in the broader topic, I choose to escalate…the…broadening?

Whatever, anyway, this is something that’s interested/troubled me for a pretty long time. Movies, and other art forms, are very, very important to me, and it’s always difficult to find out that an artist I admire is a thorough bastard, or worse. Polanski leaps to mind. My problem is, I don’t think the work justifies the behavior (and I realize that the people who use that argument, unless they’re Norman Mailer, are using a very broad definition of “justify”), so I feel a bit hypocritical praising “Chinatown” or “Rosemary’s Baby”. If I was truly that bothered, shouldn’t I deny myself those movies?

And as for Woody Allen, I convinced myself a long time ago that what he did was bad, but not that bad, and besides which, Farrow wrongly accused him of child molestation, a potential life-ruiner for Allen, so maybe she wasn’t totally blameless. Denial on my part? Quite possibly.

It would kill me to learn that someone I really, really admired, like Joel or Ethan Coen, was actually a scumbag. From what I hear about those two, though, that’s not likely to happen. I also don’t buy the “all-artists-are-mean” argument. That’s a weak, impossible-to-prove argument.

And, ironically, I don’t think Russell falls into the category of artists we’ve been talking about. He’s an asshole, and I don’t like his movies, but Lily Tomlin can handle herself. As unpleasant as he may be, this strikes me more as gossip than anything else.

Anonymous said...

Speaking personally, an artist's personality has generally not affected my appreciation of his or her work, and that generally seems to be the case for most (within reason, anyway).

In a strange way, an artist with a troubled personal life can often make their work even more interesting. As an example, Sam Peckinpah was in many ways a horrible human being -- alcoholic, drug addict, absent father, violently tempermental, etc. But nearly everyone that knew him and was close to him had a love/hate relationship with him; it seems they understood his complexities and were terribly fond of him, despite some of his characteristics. And his personal conflicts are manifested in his work in a lot of ways, which infuses them with an intensely interesting depth.

However, that's not what I get from this isolated incident, personally speaking. I've never liked Russell's work at all, and this fact probably colors my views on these disgusting outbursts, but I don't see a tortured or mad artist trying to capture a personal vision, I see a wierdo going nuts in the middle of shooting a silly movie.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Flickhead, I see you took down your comments. Hope it wasn't me. Please don't misconstrue anything I said as personal to you, and I'm sure you didn't toward me, either. Just a free-flowing, somewhat strongly stated conversation on the particular topic. Peace out, as the kids say.

deepstructure said...

since no one seems to have represented this point of view i'll contribute it:

david o. russell is a hack, not a genius. and 'i heart huckabees' is a mess of a film and not some great work of genius.

take away all the rhetoric about genius, madness and great art, and you see him for what he (and many other leading figures in any competitive industry) are, self-absorbed individuals with power complexes.

any competitive environment selects for those willing to push their personal agendas to the fore. add to that the sycophantic atmosphere of a film set towards a director and it's not surprising this type of behavior is common.

althought it's funny someone caught this on camera, what i find hysterical is that someone actually moves the camera to better frame the last part of the argument when russell walks back in!

tom said...

There is a New York Times article from 2004 that details the "Huckbees" shoot. It gives the impression that Russell intentionally made the shoot difficult and crazy in order to get the performances he wanted (kind of like Kubrick forcing Shelly Duvall to do an unfathomable number of takes). The link is available on Russell's Wikipedia page (I would put it here but am not sure how to do HTML links).

I think Russell is still an asshole anyway. His fight with Clooney and bullying of Christopher Nolan (explained in the article: basically, he put him in a headlock at a party in order to get Jude Law to appears in Huckabees) prove that much. But maybe his asshole-ism was purposefully exaggerated for the Huckabees set.

Bemis said...

The film sets I've been on are usually fraught with the tension that comes from everyone involved wanting to make the best movie possible. For a director, there's the conflict between creating a harmonious working environment and getting it right - I've directed a number of plays, and while I've never called one of my actors a cunt, I've had quite a few burst into tears or storm out shouting expletives in my direction. Directors are by definition manipulative, just as actors are vulnerable, so things are bound to give once in a while. But there's a basic level of professional respect that keeps things moving along - the work itself generates a sort of mutual appreciation that overrides the rough spots.

That said, what Russell does here is particularly disturbing because of its self-destructive quality. Tomlin sure is pretty cranky (who could snap at Naomi Watts like that?), but her complaints are focused on the material. When she makes that comment about not being as smart as Russell, that should be an obvious cue for any halfway-competent director to step in and address his actor's insecurities. He appears to be so focused on the importance of his own vision that he forgets it's the actors who really have to go out on a limb. They need to be able to trust their director, but how can they do that when he's firing projectiles at the cast and crew? It's justifiable to get angry on a set sometimes, but Russell's behavior is borderline-incomprehensible - who would trash their own set? - and seems to have nothing to do with the scene and everything to do with ego. Even if he's just responding to Tomlin, there's no reason to put the entire cast in crew through this tantrum. Conflict can give birth to inspiration, but that dick-waving nonsense just kills it.

That said, I do like both Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees a great deal (though, as others have said, this goes a long way towards explaining their unevenness). I think it's possible to be a good artist and a nice guy, but I don't require my directors to be nice guys (though I beg to differ with some of your definitions of what constitutes a "bad person"). If the director's work is honest and reflective, that can go a long way towards excusing bad behavior - after Polanski's arrest, for instance, he made Tess, a remarkable film that has a great deal of empathy experience of being a young woman who has suffered both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of callous men. I see some of the same contemplation in Russell's films - his Huckabees stand-in frequently sabotages himself with moments of overblown aggression. Perhaps he needs to internalize the meaning behind his own art more fully and realize that he, Lily Tomlin and the set are one.

Sidenote: How is this the same or different from Kubrick's treatment of Shelley Duvall? And what do you make of moments like the Kubick/Duvall one, or P.T. Anderson's blowup and subsequent apology during Magnolia, that make their way into the official making-ofs?

Bemis said...

Note - between "empathy" and "experience" should be the words "for the." Why oh why won't Blogger allow us to edit comments?

Flickhead said...

TLRHB: I should never have piped in. I'm unable to express myself in blog comment sections -- when writing articles or reviews, my average paragraph takes about four weeks to compose, while here a lot of it's off-the-cuff and banged out in three minutes. Not my milieu, to say the least.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Flickhead-- I'm in and out of the thread all day long while trying to write a paper for school, so I've kinda taken a back seat for a few hours and let the comments flow. I appreciate your honesty and your questioning of the topic and the video-- the difference in the points of view is exactly why I decided to go with it, because I wanted to think about more than what I felt capable of understanding about it at the time, and I really value what you and everyone else above can bring, and has brought, to the party. The reasons you cite are some of the same ones I cite to myself when it comes to getting into long discussions in these kinds of forums-- I often don't have the time, either during the day, or within the rapid-fire pace of the exchanges, to make myself make sense. Thanks for reading AND commenting.

(P.S. And I'm painfully aware I still owe you one! After the project I'm working on is finished, I'll gladly fall into the welcoming arms of Monica Treut and send the results your way!)

Damian said...

In returning a little late to the conversation, I can see that I've missed quite a bit of dialogue. I'd be really curious as to what Flickhead's comments were (though I can gather a little bit about them based on other people's reactions), but I guess I will never know. Oh well.

Theo said...

I fully understand that the actor and the director may have different opinions as to how a character should act and speak and so on. But Russell is being such an asshole to Tomlin. The director should always be able to work together with the actors to mold the movie into their vision. I know there can be conflicts but you have to deal with it rationally. In the videos, Russell is not only holding up the movie with his unnecessary immature ranting but he personally attacks the actors. As for the point about the actors willingly working with Russell.. I really doubt they knew he was an asshole before they signed up to do the movie. But on another note, have any of you seen the video of Klaus Kinski berating Werner Herzog? Herzog clearly has more patience than anyone I have known. Here's the video...


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yITx7txr-7M

Anonymous said...

Dennis,

Just heard about this today, while on the set of a film that just started shooting... finally saw the clips about an hour ago.

Such stories of bad behavior are extremely entertaining, and even more fun backed by video evidence.

I've been relatively lucky not to encounter anything even close to this kind of behavior - there have been a few 'colorful characters' and I once saw a DP physically restrain a director who was about to punch out his lead actor... but the Russell thing is NUTS.

Of course, such bad behavior is legendary in filmmaking, and part of its allure - plus the fact that no matter how awful you feel for Lily Tomlin, you can bet that she was well compensated to be able to put up with such bullshit, as is most of the 'above-the-line' people.

When you're 'below-the-line', your choices are rather limited: don't put up with such crap, and get a reputation and have difficulty getting work, or eat the shit and work another day - With Pay!

Robert H.

Ross Ruediger said...

Wow! Amazing stuff, Mr. C. I'd heard rumors about the Tomlin & Russell friction on the HUCK set, but to actually see it!!! I sincerely hope these clips make it onto a future DVD release of the film.

I find it interesting that nobody's mentioned anything about FLIRTING WITH DISASTER - also directed by Russell and also featuring Tomlin (although not in as prominent a role). Maybe when high-profile directors and actors have worked together more than once, they have a "different" sort of relationship.

For whatever it's worth, I've been a fan of the guy's flicks ever since SPANKING THE MONKEY, and I can't say he's ever let me down.

Peet said...

A fascinating post, Dennis!

I'm pretty shocked by Russell's appalling behavior in this video. I've been on a lot of sets, but I'll never allow for something like this to happen. David Fincher once said that nothing good ever came from a happy set. I beg to differ...

For those who were surprised to notice that someone decided to keep the camera rolling: This isn't film footage we're seeing, but raw playback material. Most modern movie sets have a VTR operator that records every take on video or harddisk for instant reference. Generally speaking, a VTR operator doesn't stop recording unless the director tells him to. I suppose Russell is the kind of director who likes to keep shooting while barking orders.

Ross Ruediger said...

The latter two vids have been removed (and I'm sure the first will be going soon). I gotta wonder if your article, Dennis, and the heavy traffic SL&TIFR receives, may have led to their removal. Anyway, it was um, "great"(?) that you brought them to our attention before they went away.

Thom McGregor said...

I may be one of those few, those happy (?) few, who feel simple indifference to I Heart Huckabees. I expected wackiness and some pretension, and I got 'em both. It didn't put me off, but the film in general really isn't as unique as it thinks it is and not profound in any way. However, I really like Three Kings, one of the best war movies I've ever seen. But is Russell a genius? No way in heck! (I'm a mom. I'm trained not to swear.) When Dennis showed me the clip, I was amused and rather disgusted, but not really surprised. Tantrums like that probably go on all the time on sets all around the world, since every director/actor/et cetera probably at least believes that they're a genius in some way. In fact, I think bosses in every business pop off postally on a semi-regular basis and on a variety of levels in every office, sports field, factory, blah, blah. It just comes from having responsibility and an overinflated sense of power, power, power! What's sad is really how common this kind of behavior is in this country from anybody with any authority or command over other people. Russell's show here is just an extreme and extremely hilarious variation on it. And yeah, Tomlin can take it, all right, and give it right back. And still not have to throw anything! Good for her. Genius shmenius! Be nice, for God's sake.

Chris Stangl said...

It absolutely looks like David O. Russell is a bad kind of guy. He is clearly a bad director.

That may not be the same thing as a bad filmmaker, though. But he's bad at the on-set job of giving direction to actors and crew. We can prove this: there's a video of him being bad at the job.

As the audience, it's always up to us how deeply knowledge of the artist's personality warps our experience with the artwork. I'm going to choose not to care too much, but admit the video makes me skeptical of HUCKABEES finer points about personal growth and transcendence. How do you believe ethical screed from a man who calls women names at work and treats performers as a means to an end, in full violation of Kantian dictum?

The real lesson of the HUCKABEES idiocy is: do not work with Mr. Russell. He does not respect his fellow artists. If any director anywhere, anytime spoke to me that way, I'd walk. If any director spoke to another actor that way, I'd walk. And I haven't directed a major motion picture, but I've directed theater, and there is absolutely never any reason to treat your actors that way.

So how are artists allowed to behave at work? There are, I posit, two ways as a director to melt-down, freak out on set, and torture your actors: 1) you are out of control and, 2) you're doing it "on purpose" to affect a mood on set.

#2 is a method of deluding yourself, when you're still just out of control. Russell's behavior on the HUCKABEES set is, we suppose, pretty clearly a man out of control of himself, his set and his art. James Cameron, known for berating his crew on every single film, tells them he's angry at their inefficiency and inability to master all the skills he has. But as he tries to demonstrate that he is Superhuman Moviemaking Machine, all he proves is that he doesn't know how to delagate, communicate or trust anyone else's craft to mesh with his vision; ie: he demonstrates he cannot direct. Ditto Barry Sonnenfeld, who breaks down in tears on every film.

But Cameron, Sonnenfeld and Russell are piss-poor examples, or maybe the finest, for their movies are, er, piss-poor examples. I like HUCKABEES, TERMINATOR and, uh, THE ADDAM'S FAMILY, but none of them are "worth" the price of any pain.

But are THE SHINING, or Scorsese and Coppola's films "worth it"? On the set of BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, during the scene in which Mina Harker drinks from Dracula's chest and is caught in flagrante delicto, Coppola began screaming at Winona Ryder, calling her a slut and a whore. And she started crying. And he kept shooting, and she kept acting, and when the scene was over, he hugged her and apologized.

I love BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA. I'm not likely to stop enjoying it. If we must go there, Coppola is a "genius". But Winona Ryder is my favorite living actress. The anecdote makes me unhappy for her, and uncomfortable because the actor is reduced to personally reacting to external circumstance, not personal connection with her character. Suspicion confirmed: when asked about the incident, Ryder reluctantly admitted she understood what Coppola was doing, but found it hurtful, and said the method is stupid and "it does not work."

It does not work. It demonstrates that a director either does not understand the actor's craft, or has no faith that they understand their own craft. In either case it displays an utter lack of respect. Never mind that it proves you an asshole or hints that you are screwed up somehow: there are other ways to "trick" actors - talented or limited - into doing what you want, and they're not incompatible with being a screwball. Hitchcock was a screwball, didn't communicate well with many of his actors, and found creative means to get what he wanted while maintaining the epitome of a professional set. David Lynch is a screwball, and gets what he wants from limited actors and is by all accounts a joy to work with. It's foolish to think the most effective way to capture a fractious atmosphere on film is to create one on set. It's a business of make-believe: so start make-believing already!

Noel Vera said...

Damien, thanks for the link to my post.

Hitchcock isn't as cut-and-dried as all that; Dave Kehr makes a case that he really treated actors better than people thought. Who's to say what's the truth, short of evidence admissible in a court of law?

As for the controversy--well, I'm not all that shocked. I've been on sets before, and with tempermental directors before, and it can get as unreasonable and insane as that. Filipino filmmaker Ishmael Bernal would shriek about horse cocks and toss a chair; Mike de Leon was rumored to have tried to shoot his dog; when his production designer intervened, he attacked him. The poor man escaped out a window.

What I found interesting was Tomlin's behavior; she really seemed to be making a titanic effort to contain herself; I imagine I would have walked out some time before. Strictly my interpretation, but I think Tomlin hung in there and just let some of her frustrations out because she believed in the script and character she played; she just didn't like the director much.

For the record, I think Huckabees' the best thing Russell did. Three Kings was okay, a touch too fairy-tale towards the end. Spanking I don't much like; too many memories raised of Murmur of the Heart, of which I have very fond memories...

Noel Vera said...

Polanski's one of the more difficult cases for me. I genuinely like his films, and I agree, Tess is a wonderful movie, whether or not it followed a rape trial. Another one I'm not comfortable with is Victor Salva--there's something about his Jeepers Creepers I can't quite shake off, not the least because it seems to be playing into its child-molester subtext (would I like it less if it didn't? Thorny question).

Bill said...

Noel, I'm glad you said that about Salva. I've only seen "Jeepers Creepers", which didn't do much for me, and which I saw before I knew about his past. Since I found out about his molestation charge, though, I can't deny that I've been curious to see it again, and some of his other movies, to see if he's either bad at hiding, or good at subtly slipping in, evidence of his...problem. Because that seems to me to be almost making a game out of his hideous crime, I've resisted.

Ju-osh said...

Dennis Cozzalio said...
"I wonder if Tomlin or Russell will ever feel compelled to step forward and attempt to address this sorry situation."
For Tomlin's take, click here:

http://wwww.tmz.com/2007/03/22/lily-tomlin-speaks-on-i-heart-f-kabees-meltdown/

Noel Vera said...

I saw Powder and didn't much like it--thought it was a soddy apologia for his condition. Jeepers is creepy because he seems to revel in his predation. Very uncomfortable fare. Haven't seen the sequel.

Noel Vera said...

Looked at the Tomlin reply. What can I say? Diplomacy is the lubricant that makes the moviemaking business go round.

Fritz said...

First off, I think it's unacceptable to act the way Russell did in any job or situation - I've never worked a professional film set, but many friends have and I've heard stories of horrible, contentious sets, and ones that were a lot of fun, so I think it would be wrong for anyone to imply that this kind of behavior is necessary to be an artist.

As for the broad question, in theory, I would like to believe that I could separate the art from the artist, but I think it often affects us subconsciously whether we want it to or not. My best example is the book A Confederacy of Dunces - perhaps my favorite book ever. It's, on the surface, a comedy. However, knowing as I did going in that its author (John Kennedy Toole) killed himself before his book was even published, I felt the book had a bittersweet sadness to it as well. I don't think it was anything in the text as much as me reading it knowing Toole killed himself before he could witness his own success.

Salva and Allen make it difficult, too, b/c their films obviously tie into their own personal issues(and I love Allen's films, I even defend some of his poorly regarded films of recent years) - Allen too often casts himself as the love interest of a much younger woman and Salva's films deal with children as victims.

Anonymous said...

There isn't a general answer to the question of whether you can separate the art from the artist. It depends on what the art is about. If Russell is trying to "offer up a sliver of enlightenment and understanding," how seriously am I supposed to take his perspective on how one should be in the world when it turns out that he treats people like crap? It's like if Ike Turner went around singing "We Shall Overcome."

Also, I don't think all artists have to be assholes, but they do need to keep the emotional spigots pretty wide open, and some happen to have a lot more garbage and rage to deal with than others.

I'm curious, now that David Lynch seems to have taken his transcendental meditation pitch on tour -- does anyone know what he's like on set? Not that I'm looking for dirt, but he says that meditating made him a lot less angry. If it really worked, maybe he should sign Russell up for a course.

Noel Vera said...

I'd love to have talent be directly proportional to likeability. The relationship seems randome, tho, or at the very least more complicated than that. Dostoevsky's novels are so insightful, I'd argue, because he was such an asshole; he knew how low a human being will sink, how that human got there, and the monstrous justifications he makes along the way. Same time Renoir's likeability and compassion seems inextricable from the tremendous empathy you see in his films.

Then there's Charles Burnett. Beautiful film, and from what little time I've spent with him, a beautiful, soft-spoken man, but his talk can be incredibly bitter when it comes to race relations. He's seen some serious shit.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

William Boroughs shot his wife in the face.

A.R.Yngve said...

The argument "All great artists are jerks" is as hollow as the equally wrong statement "All great artists are drunks/addicts."

Think of all the jerks, addicts, losers and drunks who are talentless, failed or just mediocre artists.

Of course artists have their personal "demons" that they channel into their work... But they spend that "nervous energy" on yelling at co-workers and throwing things at them, said energy is dissipated and wasted. It's simply lousy life-management.

Art has always been and will always be an ego trip, and it is probably fair to label most artists as self-centered. However, you can be selfish in a sensible way.

I think the best comment in this discussion was: "It's a business of make-believe: so start make-believing already!"

Or, to quote Alfred Hitchcock's reply to an actor who said he wasn't able to act a scene naturally: "All right. Then fake it."

That ought to be a book: How To Fake It In Hollywood And Be Nice To People.

(And William Burroughs should have gotten a long prison sentence for killing his wife.)

Phillip Kelly said...

I may make a comment particularly based on the the post, how such a tirade might affect a shoot, but for now all I have to say is that I don't think anyone sees Russell (at least not that I've heard or read) as a brilliant Director. He's certainly intriguing. But his films are just as uneven as they are intriguing. That's not a sign of brilliance. So let's just say that he isn't a brilliant director, does this give him the right to tirade as if he were a brilliant director? It may sound like I'm speaking in circles, but it's a complicated issue.

When you watch the behind the scenes footage of "The Shining" you see Kubrick having a hard time with Duvall. But he doesn't throw a fit, he rolls his eyes at the camera, speaks condescendingly to her, even chastises her for being flaky, but he doesn't throw a hissy fit because someone is having a hard time with their Direction. And Kubrick was a brilliant director.

Oh hell, now that I'm into it. I worked with a terribly difficult director once. A man who walked the edge of sanity as far as I'm concerned. It wasn't until the shoot that we found out how insane. The idea was great. He presented it with a strong vision. To be shot straight through (which turned out to be 48 hours) would benefit the idea of the film, and make for great marketing. He was insane. manipulating actors then becoming insanely angry when he pushed them too far. I'll admit it was one of the strongest performances I've given. I was completely open and raw emotionally, but it wasn't the experience I was hoping for. It also never paid off, because he flipped out, the film never was finished, and I'll never see the footage or the movie -- unless I make it big someday and the director decides to release it.

For a human being to go through something like this, no matter what level of the totem pole you're on, is not worth it. If an actor wants to put him or herself through emotional turmoil and distress for a roll it's good to have a director you can trust on set. An actor needs to have trust, even when tempers are high, and from what I saw Tomlin had no trust in this director, and there very may well have been a reason why.

Noel Vera said...

And yet and yet and yet--I love Tomlin in Huckabees; thought it was her best work in years (not that she's worked all that often, far as I know).

There's rumor that Gene Hackman was unhappy working in Raimi's The Quick and the Dead, but he really brought that film to life, gave a cartoon Western what measure of complexity it had (and badly needed).

And Duvall, who was unhappy in The Shining was terrific.

Wasn't Bergman frustrated with her character in Casablanca? Wasn't Dreyer hard on Falconetti? Didn't Hitchcock torment Kim Novak? Didn't Herzog pull a gun on Kinski? Yet Bergman, Falconetti, Novak and Herzog gave such indelible performances. Does the end justify the means? I don't know; sometimes the results are such that i can't bring myself to give a definitive answer.