Spanking David O. Russell '81E
Q: How did you first venture into filmmaking? Was it always a passion of yours?
A: Movies were a passion. Filmmaking was not. I never thought I’d be a filmmaker; I was never a filmmaking or cinema geek. I thought I might be a writer.
Q: Then how and why did your interests change?
A: I spent a good deal of time in the dream of movies both when I was watching them and when I was remembering them, probably for unhealthy reasons related to the sadness of my home. When I was a teenager, there were no VCRs yet. But my girlfriend’s grandmother had owned a movie theater a long time ago, and she had some all-access pass to all United Artist theaters. So we would go see films like “Shampoo,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “Chinatown,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” again and again and again, like six times. Then we’d go have sex in her mother’s station wagon, parked in front of my house. This cinema studies program won high marks from me.
Q: What other interests have you pursued aside from filmmaking?
A: I was a journalist, briefly, and a dedicated leftist, including a period that could be characterized by Doris Lessing’s remark, “Joining the Communist Party in my youth was the single most neurotic act of my life.” I never joined the Communist Party per se, but I had my neurotic version of it. Though I don’t regret the critical thinking and subversive inquiry that I’ve kept from that time.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your work?
A: I get to learn about and write about things that inspire me, so it’s like on-going learning. I get to be in charge of guiding the realization of the visions that come out of this. I get to collaborate with smart friends and good people. I get to make tiny ripples in the consciousness of our media nation (i.e. we were invited to screen “Three Kings” at the Clinton White House and Clinton went on to say, on national television, he thought the film was very useful to enlightening people about the reality of our intervention in Iraq and probably future intervention). The President said this about a movie that has a scene in it in which Mark Wahlberg has crude oil poured down his throat by an Iraqi who is making the point that we protected Kuwait strictly for oil reasons, and you could add that we needn’t have even been relying on oil, or supporting oil dictatorships in the Mideast, if we’d stayed on the 1979 alternative fuels path. Also, the pay so far is pretty good and I get a lot of independence. I get to spend time with other filmmakers and writers who I respect and have become friends [with].
Q: Would you say that there is a common thread that unites your work, or your path in life in general?
A: This question feels like it could lead to some pretentious hot air, so I’ll skip this one.
Q: How did you feel about being honored at the MoMA’s “A Work In Progress” gala benefit and having your films in their official collection?
A: I despise museums as bourgeoisie institutions that only serve to validate the ruling class’s sense of superiority while pacifying the masses with so-called cultural entertainment. Wait, I don’t know what just happened. I think I fell into some kind of time warp or parallel self from another era. How can it not be an honor to have my films in the same collection with such movies as “Eraserhead,” “Faster Pussycat Kill Kill,” etc. Obviously, the museum has decided to make their collection a little more current and dynamic and bring in filmmakers who are fairly young and still figuring it out. Due to a stroke of luck I got to be the first filmmaker in this new MoMA tradition, and I suggested they name the annual event “A Work In Progress.” I actually love museums and would be happy to have any excuse to hang around in one, so MoMA said they’d let me curate a film series in the future. I’m thinking of doing one called “Sexual Compulsion,” which could simultaneously commemorate an era [of] Amherst’s past with “Carnal Knowledge.” Other films that could go in it would be “Klute,” “Vertigo,” “Blue Velvet,” “Mulholland Drive,” a bunch of films by Bunuel, such as “El,” “Viridiana,” “Obscure Object of Desire,” “Belle de Jour,” “Un Chien Andalou,” Kubrick’s “Lolita,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Human Nature” and “The Celebration” by Thomas Vinterberg. One of my favorite bonuses of being a filmmaker is that I have gotten to know curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art while researching film ideas and I get to go to the museums with friends when the museum is closed and nobody’s there. Though I also go a lot during regular hours.
Q: What are some of your favorite parts from your movies?
A: Although there are many things I would do differently now, I like a lot of “Spanking the Monkey.” In particular, how twisted and suffocating the main character’s bind is, as well as the painful mind-fuck his parents put him through, which he, in turn, puts the young girl through. In “Flirting With Disaster,” I like the opening montages of Ben Stiller’s imagined parents and Patricia Arquette waiting in bed, respectively. In “Three Kings,” I like the kinetic energy, the politics-woven-into-action genre, the bullet in the body sequence, the way the Arabs are humanly portrayed for better or for worse and the interrogation scenes with Mark Wahlberg and Said Taghmaoui. I hate the heist/gold premise and would never do that again and the slightly sentimental ending, though I do think that, in retrospect, the gold serves neatly as a metaphor for decades of oil extraction without regard for the human or political costs in oil producing countries.
Q: What are your future projects? Where will you take your career now?
A: What I learned from “Three Kings” is that I am not interested in playing with genres and big studio budgets and I want to do lots of strange personal and philosophical/spiritual, smaller films. My next film will begin production in the winter and is a strange comedy that will star Jason Schwartzman among others who I am still speaking to.
Q: What are your best memories of Amherst?
A: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Evelyn Waugh, Nabokov, Dostoevsky, Vimilikirti, Milarepa, Flaubert, Aeschylus, Robert Stone, William James, Karl Marx, Salvador Allende, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Emily Dickinson, Talking Heads, Puffer’s Pond [and] Quabbin Reservoir.
Q: Did you find any students or professors particularly inspiring?
A: Nick Schorr [’81], Heather White [’80], Tom Keenan [’81], Robert Thurman, [Professor of English] Barry O’Connell, [Professor of English] Bill Pritchard, [Professor of English John] Cameron, Doris Somers, [Professor of Spanish] Jim Maraniss, [Professor of Classics and Women and Gender Studies] Rick Griffiths, [Professor of Sociology] Jan Dizard, [Professor of Political Science] Pavel Machala, [Professor of Religion and Black Studies] David Wills, half of [Professor of Political Science] Bill Taubman, half of [Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science] Austin Sarat and many others.
Q: From what did you get most of your education? (e.g., travel experiences, other students, etc.)
A: All of the above, but mostly being pretty passionate about ideas, even if it meant being stupid sometimes.
Q: Do you have any advice for students interested in cinema, media, etc.?
A: Only the ones who are subversive. Don’t give up.
Q: How does it feel to return to Amherst as a commencement speaker?
A: I wasn’t aware that I was the commencement speaker. I’ve actually been asked not to say anything to anybody during commencement weekend and to wear a false beard for some reason that I don’t understand, but I signed the agreement, so that’s how it’s going to go down.
Q: Do you have any additional comments that you would like to add?
A: Yes, I just want to add that the nature of reality is nondual, defying our habitual awareness of subjects and objects, and that we are all inexplicably linked in a net of interdependence that creates cognitive dissonance if we try to hold it in our consciousness every day, but is ultimately liberating. Thanks, that’s all for now.