When I walked into the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Seattle to interview director David O. Russell, I thought I was prepared. A friend had warned me that the man behind the philosophical existential comedy I ♥ Huckabees could be a tough interview. "Don't get too attached to your own questions or agenda," she warned me. "Russell likes to take the conversation and run with it."
• I ♥ Huckabees Review
Russell also likes to use his ideas to jar people—including his characters—off balance. Two troubled men in Huckabees, Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) and Albert (Jason Schwartzman), hire "Existential Detectives" to help them learn the meaning of life. The detectives give them a large inflatable red ball and instruct them to smack themselves in the face with it. The impact stuns them momentarily and leaves them starry-eyed, knocking them out of coherent thought. Boom! Albert bops Tommy in the nose until he's dazed and confused. Whap! He returns the favor. Their momentary disorientation reminds them that it's possible to be set free from their ego and their angst.
Russell at the Hollywood premiere of his new film
In my interview with Russell, I was about to get smacked in the face.
Russell, who looks a lot like Albert, is energetic and restless. Seated next to him, Huckabees co-writer Jeff Baena patiently fielded my questions and filled in the gaps while Russell fidgeted, paced, made phone calls, and sometimes left the room entirely.
Here are some highlights from the periods in which Russell actually participated. (The complete transcript is posted here.)
I think Christian readers might find the ideas going on in I ♥ Huckabees very interesting. I suspect some will be uncomfortable with the movie, but I think it a great conversation-starter. Jesus was an idea man who liked to get his listeners to see a "bigger picture," and you seem similarly interested in getting audiences to ask big questions.
David O. Russell: I couldn't say it any better than you just said it. Do you want me to take a crack at introducing the ideas that drive the movie?
First, Mark Wahlberg is a very dear friend of mine and a very serious Catholic. There's a scene in I ♥ Huckabees where Mark's character [mentions] Father Flavin. Father Flavin is Mark's priest [in real life]—I encouraged him to mention him. That's the priest who pulled Mark off the streets. And he's passionate about that. As a result, he's always raising money for those inner city kids.
There's plenty of stuff about Jesus that I think [is true.] So Mark Wahlberg and I really get down about all this stuff, and we're quite serious about it.
Director David O. Russell on the set
Wait, let's back up even further—my mother's Catholic and my dad's Jewish, but I grew up in a home that was atheist. That's how I became a closet spiritual person. Later, I hung out with some Jesuit monks at a monastery in Virginia, and then I became an activist and worked for the Cardinal Christian Center for the Spanish-speaking in Boston. That's where I first made a documentary.
In college, I took courses from Robert Thurman, Uma Thurman's dad, who is the chair of religion now at Columbia University. Dustin Hoffman's character, the Existential Detective, is based on Thurman. Thurman always wore rumpled suits. At that time he was at Amherst College. Some of his classes were comparative religion classes, which he taught with David Wills, a professor of Christian ethics and theology. All of that stuff interests me.
Huckabees … is [illustrating] the ideas that were most compelling in my studies with Thurman … Eastern ideas. This may be hard for Christians to accept, but there's something deeply ecumenical about Eastern spiritual ideas. They say, "Come one, come all! You can be a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, or a Buddhist. We're not going to say, 'This is the Way and there's only one Way.' We're going to say, 'Let's talk. Let's talk about all of these ideas.'" So, Huckabees is talking about all of these spiritual ideas and putting them in a context without a church. The ideas are "departure points."
What kind of ideas?
Russell: One of the ideas is this: If you're unpretentious about these matters, people can mistake that for a lack of seriousness. That's why we had people wearing suits in this movie and it has this European formality to it … it's because I am serious about it. People are used to seeing these ideas taken seriously in movies that are dramatic like The Matrix or The Passion of The Christ. Or they're satirized by independent cinema. I'm doing something different—I'm taking the ideas seriously in a comedy, even though I'm being off-handed and joking about it as well. I think the most daring thing about this film is its sincerity and its optimism.
As a Zen monk once said to me, "If you're not laughing, you're not getting it."
Some influential Christian thinkers have also been inclined towards comedy. G. K. Chesterton famously employed a sharp sense of humor for very serious purposes. Thomas Merton was a Benedictine philosopher with a delightful wit—and, incidentally, he wrote a great deal affirming ways in which Christianity and Eastern thought have things in common.
Russell, praying at left, turned our interviewer into a makeshift priest
Russell: You know, you're dressed a little like a priest today!
[I'm taken aback. He's referring to the fact that I'm wearing dark clothing.]
Russell: All you need is … here, let me do this!
[Russell jumps up, hurries to a nearby table, grabs a white napkin and folds it into a small square. Soon, everyone is laughing as he buttons the top button of my black shirt and tucks the napkin in over the button so I appear to be wearing a clerical collar.]
Russell: Does anybody have any Scotch tape?
I wish I'd brought a camera.
[Baena pulls out his camera cell phone and takes a photo of Russell in a pose of prayer beside me in my 'priest costume.']
Russell: Let's keep going. Back to what I was saying about "departure points."
Jesus would say this is true: If your spirituality is about your ego, then your spirituality is fake. Our ego likes to control things, to have certainty. Certainty is very useful. If it wasn't, we'd be sitting in our own excrement. But, that certainty can really close your mind off to the true light of Jesus and to the truth about what is. This film is about "departure points"—departures from certainty and the ego.
The whole idea behind the Existential Detectives is this: When you're stuck in traffic, and you're cursing—just like Albert is at the beginning of Huckabees—at that moment you think that that's what your life is about. The Detectives are there to challenge that [self-centeredness]. If Jesus was there, he'd say to you every two minutes, "Child, what do you think you are right now?" So when you see [the Detectives] out of the corner of your eye, you remember, "Oh yeah, that infinity thing." For the Christian, that would be, "Oh yeah … the Cross!"
I've got to read you a quote! [His assistant brings him a book.] This is a quote from W. H. Auden: "We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die."
I love that. "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind." But that leads me to another question. Christ transforms so many lives, but when Christians are portrayed in movies, they're always narrow-minded, thick-headed, judgmental extremists. I know some Christians are like that, but why the constant caricatures?
Russell[bluntly]: Do you think I did that in this movie?
[I'm ready to say yes, but I turn the question back to him.]
Do you think you did?
Russell: I did not want to satirize [that Christian family]. They have big hearts, but in certain ways, they're still closed-minded. [He pauses.] But you're right. They're characters who want certainty. So when people come and talk to them about asking questions, they're like, "No, we don't need to ask questions."
Baena: Mark Wahlberg's character is the radical Christian in the movie.
Russell: In any interview with Wahlberg, if you ask him what is the ultimate truth, he says "Jesus Christ."
So, the message you want people to walk away with after they see Huckabees is this: They need to step back from their assumptions for a moment and see a Bigger Picture. They need to whap themselves in the face with the red ball, so to speak.
Russell: You want my take on the red ball? That's prayer at its best!
Because it's about getting beyond our "certainty" and opening ourselves up to the mystery of God?
Russell[suddenly talking on his cell phone]: Mark Wahlberg, I'm sitting here with a man who writes for Christianity Today. We're talking about Jesus. Would you like to talk to him? [Russell hands me the phone.]
Mark Wahlberg: Good morning!
Good morning! We're having a conversation about I ♥ Huckabees and how that relates to things that Jesus said. They tell me that you're the guy who can talk about how Christians can appreciate the film.
Wahlberg: When David approached me about this film, I was thrilled with the idea. Then when he told me … how he wanted me to prepare for it, things he wanted me to do—like studying Buddhism—there's a lot of stuff that I was skeptical about.
But I soon learned that nobody was trying to recruit me or change my beliefs. It was just a way for everybody from every religious background to better themselves and learn more about one another, and learn more about life and love. It was beautiful. Everybody I know who has a strong religious belief—especially Catholics—love this film.
The film really focuses on the difference between two perspectives, one that says "Everything matters," and one that says "Nothing matters." Can you share with us how the ideas in the film relate to your own faith?
Wahlberg: It all comes down to Jesus. It is all about love and how we all are connected. Coming from the inner city where there wasn't much hope, where there was a lot of violence and drugs, I can relate to the other side, where it seemed like nothing was connected, nothing mattered. It was all dark and painful. I had those feelings when I strayed from my faith, got caught up in the street life, drugs, and crime … and it wasn't until I woke up in prison that I said, "Oh God, I need to straighten my life out." It was God that brought me back and put everything else in perspective.
So, Huckabees isn't trying to change anybody's beliefs; it's just inviting them to step back and explore some big ideas?
Wahlberg: I want to assure people that this movie doesn't in any way try to get them to change their faith or their beliefs. It only enforces their faith. It's all about love. It's all about Jesus.
* * *
Things feel a bit foggy as I step back out onto the sunny Seattle sidewalk, as though I've been hit in the head by an inflatable ball. I still think it's a bit of a stretch to say Huckabees is about Jesus. (See my review.)
But Russell's onto something: Our lives are a series of humbling realizations. At that very moment nearby, Mount Saint Helens erupts, reminding us of how little we really understand or control. Still, all of us—including Russell, Baena, and me—have a lot more to learn about one thing we can count on: the promises of Christ and his mysterious grace.
I catch someone giving me a funny glance. Do I really look that dazed? Then I laugh and remove my "clerical collar." I'm restored to my normal self, faith stirred, but unshaken.
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