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 naïve 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.)
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
If there be devils, would I were a devil,