David O Russell took the 1994 Sundance Festival by storm with coming-of-age yarn Spanking The Monkey and two years later directed Ben Stiller in screwball comedy Flirting With Disaster. However, it wasn't until the release of his Gulf war satire Three Kings in 1999 (starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg) that he finally scored a bona fide hit. Even so, Russell didn't strike while the iron was hot, instead spending subsequent years obsessing over his existential comedy I Heart Huckabees - a film about what it's all about.
Is it true that Dustin Hoffman's character is based on Uma Thurman's dad?
No way! Actually, yes, that's true. I tried to write a movie like this for 15 years. In college I had Robert Thurman as my teacher [of Buddhism] - who's Uma Thurman's dad - and before that I had been raised with no spiritual tradition whatsoever. My mom's a Catholic, my dad's a Jew and they didn't want anything to do with anything. Dustin's character is based on Bob - the way he dressed in those suits, the hair, and the accessibility. That spirit of Bob suffuses the whole movie, because there are all these esoteric ideas, but there's also a feeling of warmth and humour about all of it. That, I think, is the most important thing of the whole movie and something which I share with Professor Thurman.
Your co-writer Jeff Baena said the idea of "existential detectives" came to you in a dream. Is that also true?
Well, the long answer is that I wrote something in 1990 that was a short film - about Chinese fortune cookies where this guy writes insanely personal fortunes by eavesdropping - and that was kind of an attempt at an existential investigator who then gets involved in the characters' lives. I got the money to make that but I thought I can't make another short film, because you kill yourself making every short film, and I was still working as a bartender and at an office job, so I said: "It's time to make a feature or become eccentric Uncle David who once wanted to be a filmmaker." So I spent 18 months trying to turn the fortune cookie movie into a feature and was struggling because of the pressure I put on it. Then I used this old writer's trick, which is that I had a mistress project. It's like having the most uninhibited sex and that script was Spanking The Monkey. Then I tried to write it again after Three Kings. It was about a Zen centre that I'd been to in New York. So I wrote that, put it in a drawer and said, "I don't think it's ready." Then I had the dream.
Does your experience in trying to get this film made relate to Albert's quest in trying to find a meaning to life?
Absolutely. I used to spend all my time marinating in these things as part of my job, every day. That's a good thing though - for me it was. I get to sit here and talk to you about it and it's not about some heist so that we've got nothing really to talk about. Do you know what I mean?
You reference a lot of philosophical theories in the film...
Most of it comes from Professor Thurman - Indo-Tibetan theories. I mean I've read a lot of western philosophy and none of it has captivated me as much as Eastern philosophy. I'm only interested in it insofar as it's practical and makes you feel more alive. Eastern philosophy just seems more direct for my taste. The Indo-Tibetan philosophy and the theory of interconnectedness is mostly [represented by] the detectives. Caterine's [Isabelle Huppert] Zen philosophy shares a lot with that, but it's more about, "Don't talk any nonsense, just about what's happening right now." It's like, if you feel sad, let's just talk about that. But she takes it further to a philosophy of cruelty.
How did all the visual effects and the stark set design help you to realise the story?
A lot of times you make these decisions for reasons you don't fully understand. Some of them are instinctual so I think in retrospect, the reason the film has a formality to it, visually and sartorially, is because I perceive all of this. While I'm having fun with it, it has very serious roots and there's something very European about that, where all these ideas are life or death. That European seriousness, or sensibility, was important to the detectives. It wasn't glib; it wasn't this fly-by-night, New Age thing because if you're joking about something it can be mistaken for a lack of seriousness. Also I just like it. I like how it looks. I was watching a lot of [Luis] Buñuel and he tends to - especially in The Discreet Charm - harmonise the colours so it's almost black and white.
Were you concerned about how you would balance the weightier themes with the screwball comedy?
I think it's all the same thing. I think that deep spiritual insight and comedy should have the same DNA. They both subvert the habitual mind. Someone slipping on a banana peel is funny because you see the ego out of control, and likewise, if I talk to you about infinity, it's funny because your ego is saying, "I don't know what the f*** you're talking about, or I'm going to pretend that I do or I'm going to tell you I think you're foolish." I think any spiritual experience that's worthwhile is not about ego and it will humble you in some way. And also, a Zen monk once said to me, "If you're not laughing, then you're not getting it."
I Heart Huckabees is released in UK cinemas on Friday 26th November 2004.