You all know Columbia professor Robert Thurman as a Tibetan scholar and activist, friend of Richard Gere, father to Uma. But did you know that he was also a mentor of director David O. Russell ( Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster) and was the primary inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the audacious and philosophically dense I [Heart] Huckabees, which will be released Oct. 1? And now, the two men are collaborating on a new screenplay of their own.
“It’s going to involve the ‘rebirth reality’—the Bardo—of people dying and being reborn and being re-recognized in the next life,” said Professor Thurman the other day, sitting in his office at Columbia, where he is enjoying his recent appointment as chairman of the department of religion. He compared the duo’s fledgling movie project to Chances Are, the 1989 reincarnation romantic comedy starring Cybill Shepherd and Robert Downey Jr., with an incest twist. “It’s going to be a suspenseful plot with humor,” he said, “midway between the comedic and the Three Kings type of deal, which is a little more serious and action-oriented and has drama.” He added: “We’re not exactly sure how we’re doing it. It’s top secret, anyway.”
At the moment, Professor Thurman appeared anything but meditative: He had just returned from accompanying his old friend the Dalai Lama on a speaking tour in South Florida, and he was playing catch-up, with assistants and grad students frantically jostling for a precious few moments of face time. But he was finding a little time to plug Huckabees for his old pal, whom he first met while teaching Indo-Sanskrit studies in an Amherst classroom 25 years ago. “In this day and age of selling out to the Bushes and being corporate and acting like the industrial, plastic American lifestyle is like the greatest thing that ever hit the planet, ” Professor Thurman said, his voice booming off the linoleum floors. “I think in this day and age, a movie like [ Huckabees]—a 60’s movie, whether it’s generic Asian, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu; I mean, who cares?—whatever it is that reinforces some sort of hope for life and human integrity is great.”
The movie is a surreal and often funny tale about general philosophical exploration. Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is an environmentalist who descends into an existential black hole when his power over a local tree-hugging coalition is usurped by a bureaucrat (Jude Law) working at Huckabees, a Wal-Martesque chain. Markovski, a recent college graduate, enlists the help of two “existential detectives” (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to investigate his dilemma and to help him find true happiness. The cast is rounded out by Naomi Watts as the sexy and vacuous Huckabees spokeswoman, and Mark Wahlberg as a soul-searching post-9/11 firefighter dealing with his own existential crisis.
Each character is introduced to bits and pieces of thought from great intellectual minds—everyone from Sartre and Nietzsche to Zen master Nyogen Senzaki to, well, Robert Thurman.
“He’s a really awesome guy to know” is how Mr. Russell described his guru to The Observer during the Toronto Film Festival (yes, dear reader, we have been milking this junket for three weeks and counting … ). “He has a glass eye [lost in a tire-changing accident during the early 60’s]. He’s like 6-foot-4. Dustin’s character is kind of based on him; he wears these rumpled suits.”
Sitting at Columbia, Professor Thurman indeed appeared a formidable ball of dharmic energy, his graying hair tousled, his hands constantly fiddling with the black string connected to the ends of his reading glasses. Dressed in a blue button-up shirt and a pair of blue jeans pinched by a ratty black leather belt, he and his outfit looked well-worn, approachable. “He gets down with anybody about anything,” Mr. Russell said of his former teacher. “And that’s what I love about him.”
In 1965, at the age of 23, Robert Thurman became the first Westerner ever to be ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Within a year, he left that life to pursue his true passion: teaching. Since then, he has found a pedagogical outlook that melds cultures from both sides of the globe. “It’s an Enlightenment-oriented view of life—a view of life which is not what you expect from Buddhism, actually,” Professor Thurman said. “In other words, suffering is caused by your own mental derangement.” (Hear that, Ethan?) “If you become less deranged and more integrated in your heart and mind and you live more from the heart and more lovingly, then you’ll be happy and you’ll have a good time. I think that’s the message. It isn’t really Buddhism.”
During I [Heart] Huckabees, Professor Thurman’s relationship with Mr. Russell is captured onscreen in the dynamic between Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Schwartzman (who with his new, longer hairdo bears an uncanny resemblance to the young director). Unlike Lily Tomlin’s character, who searches for answers in the concrete, everyday details of life—What did you eat for breakfast? How is your sex life?—Mr. Hoffman’s character is more interested in the infinite, the interconnectedness of everything. And this, initially, has a profound effect on Albert.
“[His ideas] are very much in connection with the idea of true reality—Buddhist ideas,” Professor Thurman said of his alter ego.
The scholar’s influence also extended off-screen. While the movie was in production in Los Angeles, Mr. Russell turned the set into a veritable Eastern philosophy seminar, passing out copies of Professor Thurman’s The Jewel Tree of Tibet —a nine-hour, six-cassette recording of a retreat he hosted—to the movie’s main cast.
Making a movie about philosophical quests must be the most democratic approach to the study since basketball coach Phil Jackson applied Zen teachings to sports in his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, yes?
“I find Western philosophy endlessly complicated—unnecessarily so,” Mr. Russell said in Toronto. “And I think that Eastern philosophy has always been more compelling to me. And it communicates more practical ideas much more succinctly.”
At one point the film was titled The Existential Detectives, but Mr. Russell found the word “existential” too ambiguous. “It conjures different things to different people,” he said.” The critical response to Huckabees has been mixed, but the director is trying to remain centered. “A monk once said, ‘If you’re not laughing, you’re not in on the joke,’” he said. “That’s why, to me, it’s not contradictory to have comedy together with these questions. Investigating what you are is an absurd proposition.”
Meanwhile, Professor Thurman, scholar- cum-screenwriter, believes his protégé “is not asserting any particular or specific ideology in the new film. He’s just asserting that reality, and the way that you are responsible for creating your reality—you bring to it your own things,” he said. “So you are making the world that you are actually living in. You’re making it. And it’s your responsibility to make it better or worse. And you can’t repress parts of yourself.”