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Paula S. Bernstein talks with Spanking the Monkey’s David O. Russell and Dean Silvers

In Spanking the Monkey, writer, director and executive producer David O. Russell has created a serious, yet darkly humorous film about a highly dysfunctional family. Consistently interesting and provocative, it is perhaps the first American film (outside of tv movies) to intelligently address the subject of incest. But though incest seems to be the main topic of the film, Russell rightfully suggests that "to call Spanking the Monkey a film about incest, is like calling Ordinary People a film about teen suicide or Drugstore Cowboy a film about theft."

Though Russell had written and directed two short narrative films: Bingo Inferno (1987) and Hairway to the Stars (1990), Spanking the Monkey is his first feature film. Originally optioned by New Line Cinema, Russell ended up making the film on his own, with a little help from his friends. Winner of the Audience Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival at which the film was acquired by Fine Line Features, Spanking the Monkey is the perfect example of an independent success story.

I met with David Russell to try to find out what inspired him to write Spanking and how he managed to raise the money to make such a controversial film. Producer Dean Silvers sat in on our discussion and was encouraged to butt in where he saw fit.


Filmmaker: You wrote the script while you were on jury duty. Had you worked out the idea beforehand?

Russell: I had never thought of the idea before. I had black fantasies about the community where I grew up and my family and that was what I tapped into. What happened was, I loved Gus Van Sant’s films and I had a grant from the NEA and the New York State Council on the Arts to make another film, but I didn’t want to make it. I didn’t think it was good enough. I wanted to make a film that I thought was more consequential. So I thought about Gus. I said, "What has he done?" And I realized that he had gone into some of the more unseemly sides of his psyche, in Mala Noche especially, which is how I sort of saw myself because of the budget of the production. I said, "Well, gee, I’m not gay and I don’t lust after young Mexican boys."

Silvers: No?

Russell: Well, I’m gonna make a confession right now. I actually lust after young Filipino boys (laughs). I sensed that there was some psychic power that can be derived from plugging into that part of your psyche – the part that you’re ashamed of – and I was right. Then I went on jury duty and that’s my best place to concentrate – when I’m in a crowd, or sleepy. You have an official reason to do nothing. That’s when I write best, when I have another ostensible purpose, like when I had a day job. Then my daydreaming becomes my writing. I had this black fantasy and I dared myself to do it.

Filmmaker: How many times did you watch Murmur of the Heart? Did you go and look at other films that dealt with the same subject matter?

Russell: I knew that Murmur of the Heart was a beautiful, lyrical film and I knew that wasn’t the ballpark I was in. I consider my film the anti-romantic version. The incest doesn’t come until the end in Murmur of the Heart and it’s sort of lyrical and lovely. It’s supposed to be this wonderful rite of passage his mother has inducted him into. Which, number one, I question the validity of that, whether that is possible. Number two, the incest in my film happens halfway through the film and it’s much darker. I wanted to put it in a banal context of every day suburban life, let it happen sooner and see what happens after it happens. To me, the context is more important than the act.

Filmmaker: At the screening I went to, there were lots of gasps once the act takes place. How do you expect audiences to get over the shock value of the subject matter and focus on other aspects of the film?

Russell: That’s my frustration with a lot of interviews because I feel they don’t scratch the surface of the film. It’s sort of a sensationalist approach. The act takes less than a minute, so what’s the rest of the film about? It’s not like the whole film is people fucking, and yet that’s what people fixate on – which I think makes sense in the culture since it’s such a taboo – but, there’s a more subtle side to the film. There are little transgressions throughout the film and transgressions that are unconscious. Even if you don’t have incest, these transgressions are in every home. If you accept those, without objecting, that’s already incest. So the trick of the film is that the violation happens way before the big violation. Giving your mother a shower – it’s done in a very natural way, nobody says anything, it just happens. Carrying your mother onto the toilet, having to wait outside the bathroom while you listen to her shit or pee is another violation. Putting cream on her, talking about your sex life, these are all the little transgressions.

Filmmaker: I guess it’s about the lines that we all cross in every day life.

Russell: Yes, exactly. The banality is what interested me most and that’s where the humor comes from. We don’t have tragic tools at our disposal, we just have our banal tools. It’s not Oedipus, it’s Westchester.

Filmmaker: As someone who grew up in Westchester, I have to ask: Do you see the film as a statement on the incestuous nature of suburban life?

Russell: I don’t think that the parents of our generation were very interested in their kids. I think they were interested in what their kids represented in terms of potential and kudos and achievement. The boy [in the film] is [someone] who has lived his mother’s unfulfilled expectations for so long that I don’t think he really even knows what he wants.... He has cultivated such a false self, he’s been such a good son that he even doesn’t know who he is, until the very end of the movie. I think the whole movie is about him flailing around looking for some genuine feeling. Oddly enough, he takes this weapon of fulfilling other people’s expectations to an extreme by giving his mother the husband that she doesn’t have.

Filmmaker: Casting is crucial in a film like this. How did you go about it?

Russell: We ended up getting SAG actors and having to contort ourselves into a deal with SAG. We found them by looking long and hard and having a hard-working casting director named Ellen Parks who worked on this as if we were paying her thousands of dollars a week and we weren’t. She brought us many SAG and non-SAG people. Jeremy [Davies], I saw on a Subaru commercial, and he had the interior life of the character. The mother had to be somebody who was attractive, but not too attractive so that you weren’t rooting for him to get it on with her.

Silvers: There was a lot of videotaping. We’d spend hours videotaping tons of people and then spend hours going over and over the tape. Russell: But the key is we did the casting in eight weeks. We took a long time with it. Just like we spent six weeks rehearsing. If you want to make a good movie, I think you just have to take the time to make sure all the quality elements are there.

Silvers: And treat it as an emotional development as opposed to some of these films where you start by giving the actors scripts the day before, you rehearse with them and then you shoot the next day. SAG was great, we got a Limited Exhibition Contract, which allowed us a reduced rate for a film that was somewhat experimental in nature. Ultimately, when we were able to get a distribution deal, we bumped it up to the low-budget minimum, and paid the actors a lot more money.

Filmmaker: How difficult was it to get funding? Would you go the same routes next time around?

Russell: This time, we had NEA and NYSCA money totaling just under $50,000. Dean brought in the resources of his office, his legal services, the use of his staff. Then we had a few people who offered to give us money, like a couple hundred thousand dollars to own the film beforehand, but we wisely decided against that, which meant we kept ownership of the film and had creative control. But we also had the humiliating process of asking everybody we knew to become investors. It was very creative. It wasn’t even a limited partnership. Dean and his law associates came up with a new configuration that avoided the convoluted requirements of a limited partnership, which are very demanding. We ended up with a way that was actually written up in the Law Journal of having the protection apparatus of a limited partnership, but somehow avoiding the other parts of it. The minimum investment was $1,500 each. We also got a lot of help from the Shooting Gallery. We offered the same deal they offer; investors can recoup five times their investment and then it caps off. That’s how we got it in the can. Then we had lots of barter deals – like the barter deal with the motel. We got $10,000 worth of motel rooms in exchange for a promotional video we did about the motel.

Silvers: And I bartered my legal services with the music composer and script supervisor.

Russell: Buckeye Entertainment came in once we had it in the can and had a rough cut. They gave us over $100,000 to finish postproduction.

Silvers: We went to film houses and asked if they would give us their leftover film stock. It’s remarkable – there were different emulsions and different film stocks. We were shooting Super-16, but a week before the shoot, we got this windfall of 35mm film.

Russell: All along we were committed to the best performance and if we were shooting 35mm, was this suddenly going to mean that we couldn’t shoot as many takes as we wanted, that we couldn’t get the best performances? I was willing to shoot 16mm if it meant that sacrifice. But we finally ended up having enough 35mm stock to do it. And it was hard on the actors because these were short ends, which means that in the middle of an intense emotional scene, of which this film has many, the camera would run out.

Filmmaker: What would you do differently next time?

Russell: We’re going to get real financing from a European company or a small U.S. company. The main thing I’d want to tell the Filmmaker audience is, when you’re outside there in the cold, you think, "if only I had a deal at New Line, things would be great." Well, we had a deal at New Line and it didn’t solve any of our problems. You just get a whole other set of problems, and we didn’t solve them. That’s why we were back on the street. New Line optioned the film for like a three-month period or something. All of the sudden, how are they going to justify their budget? So, they have to get big casting. Can you get big casting when you’re a no-name director with controversial material? No. We got the best casting director in Hollywood to help us, David Rubin, who cast for The Addams Family and The Firm. He’s done major pictures and he was on our side. He loved the script and he was helping us for practically nothing, but we could not get the casting New Line required. New Line basically asked us to do the impossible. Plus, you have to go through multiple rewrites with executives which is also sort of torturous. But I’d say we benefited from those rewrites. We didn’t keep them per se, but there’s always an idea or two that comes up.


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