Flirting with success

A chat with David O. Russell, Hollywood's hot director of the moment

By Cynthia Joyce

Published April 22, 1996 10:37AM (EDT)

David O. Russell, the unpredictable writer and director behind hot-movie-of-the-moment "Flirting with Disaster," seems an unlikely candidate to have become the latest toast of Tinseltown. After a less than auspicious beginning as a political activist and maker of documentary videos, Russell decided to make film his sole focus, writing and directing his first short in 1987, "Bingo Inferno." That film marked his induction into the Sundance Film Festival, a badge that enabled him to garner grant money from the New York Arts Council and the NEA to finance a short comedy, "Hairway to the Stars," before making "Spanking the Monkey" (1993), his darkly humorous take on mother-son incest.

These days, Russell doesn't have to look any further than his own life for inspiration. Scrambling between
two ringing phones, a fax, and his screaming two-year-old who refused to put his pants on, he put to rest any doubts that Mel, the somewhat scattered and non-commital hero of the wildly funny "Flirting," was indeed based on his own life.

Speaking from his home in New York City, Russell took a few moments to talk with SALON about his new film.

"Flirting with Disaster" is such a departure from "Spanking the Monkey." It's been called your "great leap" into the Hollywood big time.

I don't even know what "great leap" means, really. It's a more commercial film, if that's what they mean.

After making a movie about incest, I think it would be hard not to become more commercial.

I didn't get into film until I was 28, and I'm 37 now. By the time I wrote "Spanking the Monkey" I had done a lot of living, and had had a lot of relationships, and been through a lot of jobs, and had
a lot of failures. I had had a whole other life, a whole other career in political work.

So after I made "Spanking,"I thought, "What do I want? What would feel fun?" With "Spanking the Monkey, " it was lugubrious on the set every day, because people were being asked to work with this horrible energy. There's black humor in the movie, but, you know, it's a really gross place to go -- where a mother sleeps with her 18-year-old son. Everybody was kind of in a cranky mood because you're asking them to live with this every day. So I thought I'd like to do something that would just be more fun. But it doesn't mean I won't do twisted dark things again.

Would you consider making someone else's film?

I've seen a lot of scripts, but none that have interested me that much. One, called "Girl, Interrupted" (based on Susanna Kaysen's memoir of her breakdown and recovery) interested me a lot, actually. I'd be happy to do that. But I haven't seen that many books or scripts that I thought were incredible.

You were a student of novelist Mary Gordon in the late '70s at Amherst. Were you ever interested in writing fiction?

Yeah, that's what I thought I was going to do. I always had this thing that I was going to do political work and write fiction, but it wasn't working out. I burned out on the political work. I was making trouble around low-income housing and toxic waste dumps in New England, and trying to get those things treated. I burned out on that and I said I think I'm going to go into movies. I think the basis of good movies is writing, anyway.

What writers do you like?

I like Robert Stone, I like Thomas Pynchon. But mostly now I read nonfiction.

What did you make of Andrew Sarris' comparison of you to Preston Sturges in the New York Observer?

I'm suing him (laughs). I think the comparison is apt, but I didn't study him or anything like that. I was never a Preston Sturgis fan. Thank God, because if I was I think "Flirting" would never have been as original. I think I would have been too preoccupied with the screwball comedy genre.

Where did you come up with some of your more idiosyncratic characters, like the gay ATF agents and the son of the acid freaks?

With those two ATF agents, I thought it would be fun to have federal agents who were gay. But, like a lot of my friends who are gay, they defy every gay stereotype. They weren't obviously gay in any sense.

With Lonni Schlichting, I knew I wanted his father and mother (played by Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin) to seem like these wonderful dream parents who then had something very narcissistic and criminal going on. And the son is sort of a red flag, who's saying look, he was raised by them, and look how miserable he is. So he's kind of the squeaky wheel. It's a fun character, because he gets to be way out there.

I like the Schlictings, because I love seeing the contradiction between their psycho-speak, that whole new age, Buddhism-speak, and their complete self-absorption. You see it all the time.

For the entire soundtrack of "Spanking the Monkey," you used only songs from Morphine's "Cure for Pain." Did you have as much to do with the soundtrack for "Flirting"?

Yeah, I was very particular about it. The films don't carry a lot of music, so you have to be very particular about what's going to fit. They don't need a lot of music.

I don't know how much I enjoy it. You make this soundtrack deal, which is like a deal with the devil. At first you say, "Oh how exciting, Geffen is incredibly discriminating, they never do this, and they really love the movie, and they have a great list of artists." But then they're like, "You have to use this single, and not that one, and this band doesn't want to be in the movie," and it's just a big pain in the ass. I think everybody's sick of it -- even the bands. Sick of MTV and the whole thing.

We heard the Grateful Dead would never license music because they didn't want Jerry Garcia's name to be associated with anything that had drugs in it. But I said, "You gotta see the movie." So they all saw the movie, and they all laughed and said, "Sure, go ahead."

But, through all that, I think we put something good together. It's not your standard mountain of music. It's a nice eclectic, weird mix of music -- like Southern Culture on the Skids, they have the closing song.

Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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