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 shocking 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 costar 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," said "Smokin' Aces" director Joe Carnahan. "And he's not an apologist."
Some folks in the industry called Russell's behavior "unprofessional" and "irresponsible." To others in Hollywood, 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," said "I (Heart) Huckabees" cinematographer Peter Deming. "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, saying, "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," said Goodman. (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" costar Mark Wahlberg and Tomlin herself have worked with Russell more than once.
Most people who know the business acknowledge that movie sets are often pressure cookers and that directors are usually the first to blow. Sometimes, the argument goes, the creative process demands an outburst. Consider the history of similarly "passionate" directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah and James Cameron.
For his part, Russell hasn't talked publicly about the episode since the video surfaced on YouTube last month, and he declined to comment for this article. But Tomlin has come forward to proclaim her enduring love for Russell, and George Clooney, who clashed with Russell during the making of "Three Kings," swiftly dismissed rumors that he was the one who leaked the footage. This week, Clooney told Entertainment Weekly the video was "sneaky" and that it messed "with people's careers."
Meanwhile, amateur parodies have cropped up online, and recently actors Paul Rudd and Michael Showalter posted their own amusing version of the tantrum on Collegehumor.com.
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. It's like someone selling naked pictures of Madonna. Things happen during your life, and someone captures it and exploits it."
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.
Doug Wick, founder of Red Wagon, said that Kristin Gore "knows him and also felt that he has such a unique comic vision that always kind of finds a reality and heightens it."
Russell made news as a hothead long before this video surfaced. He and Clooney famously came close to choking each other on the 1999 set of "Three Kings." In a 2000 interview in Playboy, Clooney called the shoot "without exception, the worst experience of my life." He went on to say that the director grabbed him by the throat after Clooney confronted Russell about berating the crew, particularly an incident in which he threw an extra to the ground and kicked him.
(Goodman says Russell's reputation for outbursts is just "a bad bounce of the ball" and that the "Three Kings" shoot was high-pressure due to the physical demands and filming conditions.)
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. Goodman said there was an attempt back in 2004 to track down the person responsible.
"It's a symptom of technology and a change in our society that really troubles me," the producer said. "It feels like nothing feels safe or private. You can take 30 seconds of the fight and make somebody look like anything you wanted. It would be impossible to show somebody 72 hours of tape, which could really show the nature of the professional relationship, which with Lily and David was largely incredibly positive. On that day in particular, we were back shooting in an hour. They completely reconnected, and we moved on."
Special correspondent Sheigh Crabtree contributed to this report.