As director David O. Russell's now infamous I (Heart) Huckabees on-set freakout on Lily Tomlin, posted as a Web video, reaches the parody phase, his friends are coming forward to defend his tirade - and his colorful directing style.
Sure, they say, he's "exacting" and doesn't suffer fools; to an outsider, they admit, his tantrum toward the film's co-star captured on video might look like a madman's rant. But one obscenity-laden fit shouldn't define Russell, who, they point out, is also a brilliant writer and gifted filmmaker.
"He has his own unique bearing; you've got to know that going in," Smokin' Aces director Joe Carnahan said. "And he's not an apologist."
Some in the industry called Russell's behavior "unprofessional" and "irresponsible." To others, however, making such a clip public - leaking it from the set, then posting it on YouTube.com, for example - violated a basic industry code: What happens on the set, stays on the set.
"It's just hard to understand unless you're part of the club in a certain respect," I (Heart) Huckabees cinematographer Peter Deming said. "When people see this clip, particularly if you're not in the film business, they'd think, 'This guy's insane!' But he's not. Things happen when you're in this machine that's been rolling along for several months."
The fight was almost comic in its melodrama, starting with Tomlin griping to Russell about his direction of the film, a 2004 release about two existential detectives hired by an environmentalist to find out why his life has suddenly become chaotic.
Tomlin, who plays one of the detectives, is seen in the video telling Russell, "We're not all as brilliant as you." Russell soon erupts, sweeping papers off Tomlin's desk, then stomps around, kicks a trash can, tosses a hat stand, storms out screaming, then stomps back in, still yelling. One crew member is seen ducking in the background to avoid flying objects.
Producer Greg Goodman, a longtime friend and producer on Huckabees and Russell's earlier film Three Kings, said the clip was taken out of context.
"He's a very responsible filmmaker who wants to make sure we're coming in on budget," Goodman said. (And indeed, Huckabees came in on time and on budget.) "He is an individual. You embrace that."
Carnahan said everyone knows Russell has a strong personality and that signing up for one of his films is "you know, in for a penny, in for a pound." Huckabees co-star Mark Wahlberg and Tomlin herself have worked with Russell more than once.
For his part, Russell hasn't talked publicly about the episode since the video surfaced on YouTube last month. But Tomlin has come forward to proclaim her enduring love for Russell. George Clooney, who clashed with Russell during the making of Three Kings, dismissed rumors that he leaked the footage. This week, Clooney told Entertainment Weekly the video was "sneaky" and that it messed "with people's careers."
In 2003, three months before Russell began shooting Huckabees, he reportedly grabbed The Prestige director Christopher Nolan at a Hollywood party and put him in a headlock because he believed the director was trying to poach Jude Law from his Huckabees cast.
As for the leak of the Huckabees footage, the culprit behind it is still a mystery.
The existence of the Huckabees video was first reported in a 2004 New York Times article, and the clip circulated among talent agencies in summer 2003. Clearly its most recent release hasn't damaged Russell's career. In the midst of all the online Russell bashing, Columbia Pictures and Red Wagon Entertainment announced his latest project: an adaptation of the book Sammy's Hill by Kristin Gore, daughter of former Vice President Al Gore.
Friends say Russell isn't too bothered by the publicity.
"His response was to sort of ignore it," Deming said. "Though I'm sure he's sort of disappointed that someone would do this. ... Things happen during your life, and someone captures it and exploits it."
Gina Piccalo writes for the Los Angeles Times.