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 responsible for the new, philosophical existential comedy I ♥ Huckabees, starring Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg, 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.”
Russell likes to use his ideas to jar people off balance—including his characters. Two troubled men in Huckabees, Tommy (Wahlberg) and Albert (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.
I was about to get smacked in the face.
Russell, who looks a lot like Albert, is energetic and restless. Seated next to him, his 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.
Things began badly. Russell got a cell phone call from another reporter, and began answering that reporter’s questions. I sat patiently for a moment, organizing my strategy, and decided to interview Baena. After all, my allotted time in the room was short. Other reporters would arrive soon.
Here’s a transcript of what transpired:
Overstreet: “The whole premise of I ♥ Huckabees sounds like something that might have started as one of those jokes that grows until its so good you have to actually do something about it. So how did the project develop?”
Baena: David had this idea about doing a short film in which there are these people who spy on diners at this restaurant and listen in on their conversatons and then write these very individual fortunes for their fortune cookies. At the time, the story was about all of these upper class New York people. Well, this was during that big strike that they were having in New York—
[Now Russell is off the phone, and he interrupts.]
Russell: Excuse me, who do you write for?
Overstreet: Christianity Today. 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.
Baena: Jesus’ whole gig was new ideas, pretty much!
Russell: Jeffrey, 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?
Overstreet: Go right ahead!
Russell: Wow! This is one of my favorite interviews.
Overstreet: Well, I’ve looked forward to it. I have two favorite war films—Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and the war movie you made: Three Kings.
Overstreet: Those are war films that transcend the typical us-versus-them dynamics of war movies and really dig into the hard questions about what really separates us from each other and is this violence really our only resort to solving these problems? What is really happening in a war?
Russell: That’s beautiful.
Okay, well, first, Mark Wahlberg is a very dear friend of mine and a very serious Catholic. That’s one of the reasons that we have our unlikely friendship. There’s a scene in I ♥ Huckabees where Mark’s character [mentions] Father Flavin. Father Flavin is Mark’s priest—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.
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.
My first [spiritual] experience I had in a field in the back of my middle school, one that I couldn’t describe and I didn’t really understand until I read a book by J.D. Salinger called Franny and Zooey. People I could relate to weren’t really in the church, necessarily, but were asking these profound questions.
Then I went and hung out with some Jesuit monks at a monastery in Virginia—I did a four day retreat there, 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 I’m interested in philosophy insofar as it’s practical and it makes you feel more alive. And it makes you more open-minded. That’s really the only way it interests me.
So Huckabees is talking about all of these spiritual ideas and putting them in a context without a church. I think they can absolutely live without a church. The ideas are “departure points.”
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.”
Overstreet: 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. These guys knew that if you are too serious about it, without humor, then you’re not getting the Big Picture, you’re not experiencing the faith that knows it is all redeemed in the end.
But what worries me—
Russell: (Smiling.) Oh, I’m sure there’s plenty that worries you about this movie.
Overstreet: No, I’m not saying it’s your movie that worries me so much. I’m worried more by the collective effects of a trend that I see in movies. The Christians that we see on the big screen are almost always portrayed as overly serious, judgmental, narrow-minded people who aren’t interested in ideas.
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.]
Overstreet: You realize, you’re making a priest out of a writer who’s wearing a Bob Dylan concert shirt.
Russell: ALRIIIIGHT! [quoting a Dylan song] “You Gotta Serve Somebody”! Bob Dylan. That’s a guy who didn’t give a fuck about the bad reviews, and he became a Christian and went around playing Christian arenas. Those are my heroes! That’s what Jesus would do today.
[Now both Russell and Baena are working on perfecting my collar.]
Russell: Does anybody have any Scotch tape?
Overstreet: I wish I’d brought a camera.
[Baena pulls out his 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!”
[He suddenly sits up straight.] Oh! I’ve got to read you a quote!
[He turns to his assistant.] Kristy, would you go to my room and get my book? And don’t go through my underwear drawer again.
Baena: The best way for a Christian to understand the energy of this film would be to think of that part in the New Testament when Jesus goes into the temple and starts flipping over the tables and pointing out the hypocrisy. In Judaism, the temple was the most holy site in the world. But if you extend that argument as a metaphor and you say “The world is a holy place,” and you’re treating this holy place like a money-lending psycho, then Jesus says, “This is hypocrisy!” and he’d point it out and flip it over. That’s the energy of the movie.
Russell: [stands up and points enthusiastically at Baena] TESTIFY!!
We did an infomercial for this movie, which you get. [He hands me a copy of a DVD.]
It’s Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin with the head of religion, Robert Thurman, of Columbia, and the head of Physics at UCLA, Joe Rudnick. Now, Joe Rudnick starts talking about the Tenth Dimension. He says there are six dimensions curled up right here in addition to the four that we know. Now, right away, we’re in “Jesus territory,” or we’re in “metaphysics territory” or we’re in “Detective territory.”
My brain goes, “What? Ten dimensions? What are you talking about?”
But he says that we could be regarded one day as we regard people from Columbus’s time. You know, back when people thought the world was flat. When you hear about the Tenth Dimension you start thinking, “Oh, I’m going to feel uncomfortable now.” That’s a good sign, because my fingers are being pried off of what I think I know, and I’m going to have to open up from little me to big me.
Overstreet: That’s not too far from what Christ frequently did for his listeners. He’s always grabbing the apostles by the collar and telling them to quit acting in these rash ways, telling them to quit making all these assumptions, and to just listen up so that they can see a Bigger Picture. So that they can see the Kingdom in a new way. He tells us that someday, many will face God and say, “Look at all the things we’ve done in Your name.” And God replies, “I never knew you.” We do tend to make assumptions and get so busy acting on what we think we know that we forget to open ourselves to God, who has a tendency to illuminate our misconceptions about ourselves and our ego, over and over again.
I see your characters sitting on the rock at the end of the film, and they’re disillusioned with their own worldviews. They are taking that first step into a larger understanding. They’re getting off their high horse.
Russell: Exactly. Albert begins the movie near that rock, and he’s cursing, he’s very frustrated. And he end up there, but he’s moved an inch… and what a big inch it is. At the end, they’re not cursing anymore. They’re at peace.
I also love these characters in that they’re very Quixotic. They’re dedicated to the impossible causes. So, to begin with they’re going to go down for an idea. Like Jesus, or Ghandi, they’re going to get hold of a big idea and take it all the way. Mark Wahlberg’s character says, “I saw 9/11. It makes no sense to me. I’m not going to stop asking this important question.” And I love that about them.
[His assistant hands him the book he requested.]
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.”
Overstreet: 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 instead I ask…]
Overstreet: 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.”
No. I did not want to satirize that family. Here’s the conundrum me about that family. They have big hearts. That’s why I show that they’ve adopted that Sudanese man. But they’re closed-minded.
[He pauses.] But you’re right. You’re right. They’re not Chesterton Christians. They’re not Merton Christians.
Baena: David’s whole concern when we were making this was that we wouldn’t make them paper tigers.
Russell: But no, he’s right. Still, while they are open-hearted, they’re also characters who wanted certainty, so when people came and talked to them about asking questions, they were like, “No, we don’t need to ask questions.” They weren’t Merton types.
Baena: In the next movie, we’ve gotta have the Merton types. But you could say that 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.”
Overstreet: I’ve got to interview this guy.
Russell: [Standing up again.] Kristy? I want my phone.
Overstreet: 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!
Overstreet: Because it’s about getting beyond our “certainty” and opening ourselves up to the mystery of God?
Russell: [Now talking on his cell phone to Mark Wahlberg’s answering machine.] Mark Wahlberg, I’m sitting here with a man who writes for Christianity Today. He gets the movie, he gets your character, and I want him to talk to you. Call me on my cell phone. [Russell promptly leaves the room to run an errand.]
Overstreet [to Baena]: Another concern I have about the film, thinking about the character of Tommy… there seems to be a loose end with the story about his relationship with his family. What happened to them? Are these questions he’s asking so important that he’s actually ready to let his wife take the kids and leave him forever? Isn’t he going to put up some kind of fight to save his family because he loves them? He seems to get over them so quickly, and right away he has the hots for Naomi Watts’ character, Dawn. What about his responsibility to his family? Doesn’t “the Bigger Picture” mean he needs to see past his own desires and care about the needs of others?
Baena: I think what Tommy wanted was to follow the connections he makes with Albert and with Dawn, because what he had with his family wasn’t as real. Not that he’s never going to see them again… but in reality, things don’t end up being wrapped up in a bow where everything works out. That’s part of his crisis—he lost his family because he’s asking these questions.
Overstreet: You’re right, that the conclusion of the film is realistic — it’s what usually happens when things go wrong in a marriage or a family. Watching a film like this, I feel so intensely that I want things to work out, but you’re right, in the real world, things rarely work out the way we want them to. Still, I can’t shake the notion that Tommy is too quick to make his own philosophical questions his sole priority, and he doesn’t work hard enough to help his family understand him. He doesn’t work hard enough to save his kids. His marriage isn’t taken very seriously.
Baena: Part of the thesis of this movie is that Albert takes on another cause and fights for it. He’s investing himself in a selfless issue. But ultimately he’s doing it for the wrong reasons. He wanted to be a hero. He wanted the celebrity that was attached with it. Even in things that are selfless, there’s usually an argument that people who are helping are in it for themselves. If something’s really selfless then there’s really no value in it for you… there’s only value in it for the world. So it’s really a hard line to demarcate. There’s a certain amount of instinctual spontaneity
Wahlberg is trying to help with his convictions about the petroleum issue, but ultimately he’s getting embroiled in this personal drama and chaos, as opposed to being selfless and being out there to be a vessel to improve things. You can’t avoid being an egotistical person and ultimately somewhat narcissistic. You can try to curb it by recognizing that behavior. But at the same time your repetitive behavior has its own psychology and it’s impossible to get out of that. So the best that you can do is recognize those patterns and repetitions, try to do your best to avoid those, and that’s the closest you can come to being selfless. That’s when you become more effective. When your subconscious is attacking you all the time, ultimately as hard as you try it’s not going to work out as well.
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!
Overstreet: 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 that has a strong religious belief, especially Catholics, love this film.
Overstreet: 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.
Russell: Mark, listen to this quote I just read him. Ready? “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.”
Wahlberg: Wow. That’s great. Who said that?
Russell: This British poet who was a Christian, W.H. Auden.
Overstreet: Auden was an interesting fellow. He was sort of the George Lucas of poetry in that after he’d published a poem and readers and critics had become big fans, and students had written dissertations on them, he would go back to the poems and revise them and change them… “the special edition.”
He’d drive people crazy doing that.
So… Huckabees isn’t trying to change anybody’s beliefs… it’s just inviting us 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.
Overstreet: Maybe next time you’re in Seattle we can pursue this conversation further.
Wahlberg: I hope so!
* * *
At this point, the publicist is outside preparing to bring in the next reporter. I give Jeff Baena and David O. Russell farewell handshakes. And I watch the next journalist walk in. I have this faint sense that I should give him a caution—he may be startled by what’s about to happen.
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.
[An abridged version of this article was originally published at www.ChristianityTodayMovies.com.]