Interview with George Huang – director of Swimming With Sharks

George Huang is the writer and director of the black comedy Swimming with Sharks. The film is coming out in a worldwide Blu-Ray debut from the UK company Fabulous Films on the 19th of July. Swimming with Sharks was inspired by his and his friends experiences of working in Hollywood in the 80s and early 90s as assistants to various producers, most notably Joel Silver and Scott Rudin.

The film starts Frank Whaley as a young assistant to Kevin Spacey’s Buddy Ackerman. Ackerman is a horrible, abusive Hollywood executive. Frank attempts to get his revenge on Ackerman for the abuse he has faced. With #MeToo and the allegations against Spacey specifically, the film has a contemporary relevant—in some way it might be more relevant now than at the time, and it arguably adds extra layers to Spacey’s performance.

George has made a few more films, most notably the TV creature-feature How to Make a Monster for Cinemax, which was a monster-movie companion to Showtime’s earlier series Rebel Highway, which included Robert Rodriguez’s Roadracers. The directors were given the titles of old AIP films, and then the various filmmakers would create their own movie out of the title and maybe a few ideas from the original film. George has also collaborated with Rodriguez on various projects over the years. More recently George is teaching screenwriting at UCLA.

Thanks to George for graciously giving me some time to talk about Swimming with Sharks and his career.

With the new Blu-Ray release, there will be a renewed look at Swimming With Sharks. What do you hope that audiences might get from watching it in 2021 that they might have missed in 1994?

Gosh, I hope they will be entertained! What’s interesting is, I thought the idea of abusive bosses was solely in the “Hollywood” realm, but when we first went out with this decades ago, we took it to Wall Street, Washington D.C., we took it to the fashion industry, and it resonated with everyone across all industries—so Hollywood doesn’t have a monopoly on powerful abusive bosses. What I hope people take away from it… ideally it’s a cautionary tale. A lot of executives and producers saw it as a “training video,” a “how to make it in Hollywood” type of thing, and I was “no, no, no, that wasn’t the point of the film at all!” Hopefully it’s a warning, a red flag to instil better behaviour not only in Hollywood, but in a lot of high-pressure industries.

How is it to have made a film with a theme that predates the whole #MeToo era?

#MeToo, Black Lives Matter—all of these movements calling for equality is great. I wish I could say that was the intent when I was making the film. I just wanted to hold a mirror up to Hollywood and say “this is kind of what goes on.” The absurdity of it is so outrageous, so as a writer you don’t really have to create stuff—it kind of writes itself. The hard part of the movie, especially making it back in the ‘90s, was people sort of read it as an endorsement of this behaviour. Women in the audience were understandably very, very angry. They didn’t like how females were treated in the film, and they took me to task for that. The Q&A period after each screening was very hostile, but I pointed out that I’m holding up a mirror to the way Hollywood treats women, I don’t endorse this, I’m not saying this is the way we should continue, but hopefully it’s a way to start the conversation and something that everyone can use as a starting-off point to fix things. It’s taken some 20, 25 years for the discussion to really get robust, but the important thing is that it is happening.

I would say the treatment of her is accurate, and it’s fairly nuanced.

That was what I was going for and SPOILER ALERT, you have the two lead male characters conspiring to kill and cover-up the murder of the one female character. I could see how a lot of women could say “wow, you are really marginalising us, you are basically endorsing the erasure of women in Hollywood.” I’m not endorsing it, I’m just saying that’s how Hollywood treats women.

Who did you officially base Kevin Spacey’s character of Buddy Ackerman on? There have been a few different stories over the years.

I had worked for Joel Silver in the ‘90s, who was a notorious screamer. All you have to do is take a look at the first ten minutes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit: he plays the director who is screaming at Roger Rabbit. That was the way Joel got things done, but to his credit, he got things done. When I worked for him, he always had a movie that was premiering, a movie that was in post-production, a couple of movies that were shooting, and another movie that was in prep. The prodigious output that he had was incredible, so I understand why his patience level was basically zero. A lot of friends who also worked in the industry also worked for Scott Rudin. Every night, every weekend, we would get together and try to outdo each other with “can you believe what happened to me this week at the office?”

After a year of just hearing all these stories, I thought it would be great to sort of collect them. My initial thought was to compile them into a book of a series of tales: Stories from Hollywood Hell. At this time I was fortunate enough to meet Robert Rodriguez when I was working at Columbia Pictures. He had just came into town with El Mariachi, which he made for $7,000. He and I became good friends. Next thing I knew he was actually sleeping on the floor of my apartment so he could pocket the per diem the studio was giving him for a hotel: he wanted to save up money so he could buy a car. Every night he and I would get something to eat. He told me how to managed to do El Mariachi, and it really blew my mind because he broke every single rule I learned in film school, every rule they taught you in the studio system. And after a while Robert just challenged me go make a movie: “you love movies, you know how these things are made, what’s stopping you?” So I made the movie Swimming with Sharks.

You answered my next question, I was going to ask about Robert telling you to go make a film. I’ve always had huge amount of respect for him—Rebel Without a Crew, that book was a huge inspiration, and the way he makes the type of movies he does on such low budget. Except for Alita: Battle Angel, but that’s a different type of movie, a big CGI film…

What always impressed me about Robert is he approaches filmmaking with no fear. Myself, oh my god, my name is going on it, oh my god, it has to be absolutely perfect. And it’s not like Robert doesn’t have quality control—he definitely cares, but he also understands… “look, we can sit here, develop it and talk about, but the rubber has to hit the road and [you have to] make it.” Watching Robert work especially, there is an energy to his filmmaking. A lot of filmmakers, even myself, come with shot lists, everything storyboarded out, and that doesn’t allow for a lot of for improvisation or taking advantage of what’s happening on the day, or what the actors, the cinematographer or key crew members are coming up with on the spot. Robert is really a master of harnessing all the in-the-moment energy from the cast and crew to create his stuff.

I also love the fact that he is a regional filmmaker, which is incredibly rare.

Absolutely, he loves Austin. Even his current movie, Hypnotic, the Ben Affleck thing—they keep pushing him to go make it in Vancouver, during the pandemic it’s still open. But “no, I’ll wait it out, I’d rather just shoot in Austin.” And I understand: his crew is there, his studio is there, he has a wonderful set-up .The infrastructure he has created in Austin is fantastic. It’s a well-oiled, smooth-running machine, and why would you upset the apple cart?

Short film Robert Rodriguez made for Nike starring Kobe Bryant, Bruce Willis and Kayne West, George Huang collaborated on the script.

Looking back on the film now, do you seen anything different in the Kevin Spacey than when you wrote it?

Given his recent accusations, at the time we were shooting it the relationship between Kevin and Frank (Whaley) wasn’t very good. There was a lot of friction between the two of them. I sort of chalked it up to “wow, Kevin is a fantastic actor—look at this, he is carrying the role, he is doing stuff even off-camera to make sure we get the performance that we need on camera by kind of being taunting and abusing to Frank.” I don’t know what he did that got Frank really upset at him, but now, looking back, oh maybe that’s just Kevin being Kevin, [but]… It’s sort of that line between “oh, I though you doing this for the art.” Maybe this is just… but I don’t know.

I read he saw it a kind of stepping stone in his career,. Is that the kind of vibe that you got?

Absolutely, Kevin at the time was very, very ambitious. He had a couple sort of smaller roles in the Mike Nichols film Heartburn, he was in that Dennis Leary film The Ref [Note: also Glengarry Glen Ross]. He saw this as a leading role. I don’t think he had any big hopes or aspirations for what the film would do commercially, but he knew everybody in Hollywood will see this, and everybody in Hollywood will see me in this film, so that’s why he signed on to do it. Of course, I’m going “nothing about the good writing or me as a director?,” and he just didn’t answer… [Laughs]

I think part of it was a very calculated position he took, and I think it really paid off for him. The following year, right after Swimming with Sharks, he had The Usual Suspects, Se7en, and his career really took off after Swimming with Sharks.

There have always been rumours that you were kind of blacklisted after making a film that was a damning indictment of Hollywood. Was there any truth to those rumours?

That’s a theory that keeps going around, I honestly don’t know. To me, if I were being blacklisted, I think I would’ve heard it from agents or my manager, or even my friends in the industry that I’ve come up with as assistants. We are really good friends, and we’ve been friends for decades. I think somebody would’ve pulled me aside and said “oh, so and so won’t work with you because you made this horrible little film.” There is a theory going around right now during the push for diversity and equality that I’m not getting the same shots or same bites at the apple because I’m Asian. None of that has ever come up in my career—if it’s going on behind closed doors, I certainly don’t know about it, but even if it is, Hollywood is such a small town that you can’t say something like that without somebody getting back to you. I don’t think I’ve been “blacklisted,” simply because I think I would’ve found out about it. But who knows?

I know I’ve certainly met some producers who take some certain umbrage with the way I portrayed Hollywood. I don’t think I will ever be invited by the Academy, because they are a more celebratory organization of film and filmmaking. That being said, I’ve had a fortunate career. I always seem to be working, if it’s with filmmakers like Robert or Luc Besson. I’ve had very fruitful collaborations and, knock on wood, I’m happy to be working as a paid writer and director.

What was it like getting your foot in the door in the indie film scene of the early ‘90s, which now retrospectively is being seen a sort of a second ‘70s?

It was glorious, and it was intimidating as hell. In 1997 I was put on a panel at the SXSW film festival with Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderberg, Rick Linklater, Mike Judge AND Kevin Smith. And there was me. Holy crap, I was like, “what the hell is going on here? I don’t deserve to be on the dais with all of these esteemed filmmakers.” I think even Kevin joked about it on one of his blogs afterwards: “I just did this superpanel, I don’t know what the hell George was doing on it.” It was a great time, it was a good opportunity, it was a time you could get independent films made. It was exciting, and just being a room with filmmakers like that, just to able to hang out with them, was incredible. I was terrified waiting in the green room for the panel, and Steven Soderbergh came over and introduced himself. “Like you need to introduce yourself, I know who you are—you are Steven fuckin’ Soderberg!” Oh my god, he was gracious, he was kind, every time we’ve ran into each other he has been very encouraging. It’s sort of nice to feel that you’re part of that class of filmmakers, it’s incredible.

I’m sure it was a good after-party too!

Oh yeah, what was great about the after-party, all the attention went to Quentin. The rest of us could slide away and have a conversation, and Quentin had to field the general public. It did sort of scare me off, because we were having breakfast at a restaurant in Austin, and a guy got up on the table and screamed “Nobody fucking move, this is a fucking robbery!” And I was like “holy shit, what is going on? Oh my god, we are being jacked up!” And he continued on, and we all realised… holy shit, he is doing the Tim Roth monologue from Pulp Fiction. I’m just staring at Quentin and he just keeps eating, and he goes “this happens to me all the time.” I thought to myself “oh my god, the poor man can’t go out for breakfast without something like crazy like that happening,” which is like insane. I don’t know if I would ever be comfortable with that, I think I’ll just hang back here for a little bit.

I know there has been a TV version of Swimming with Sharks that has been shot. Have you been involved with that in any way?

No, it was originally commissioned by Quibi [Note: the short-lived streamer aimed at mobile phones, essentially films or TV shows in short, bite-size episodes, but then COVID happened—most of their content is now available for free on The Roku Channel]. Lionsgate, who own the rights to Swimming with Sharks, they wanted to adapt it into a TV version. I pitched them my take on it, but they preferred Kathleen Robertson’s take and, look, having worked TV, you can’t have too many cooks in a kitchen—it’s disrespectful to a show runner. You need to have a singular creative voice on any set, otherwise the story dissolves into mush. The studio decided to go with Kathleen Robertson’s take, and I respected that and sort of stepped back. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turned out. I’m a big fan of Diane Kruger and Kiernan Shipka, I’m curious how that version plays out.

I totally get the direction of going in with it being the experiences of this young woman in Hollywood.

Yay, absolutely—and that’s not my experience, that’s not something I could’ve ever written, so I’m looking to seeing how they do it.

Is it a weird sensation to have a TV show being made out of a film that was obviously such a personal story to you?

It feels a little strange, a lot of people felt “offended for me,” and that’s where the “blacklisting” comes in: “Wow, they aren’t even bringing you on as a producer.” But having been on the other side of that, do you really want the original writer hanging over your shoulder going “that’s not what I would’ve done, you’re missing the spirit of this thing.” You have to understand the studio is basically taking the title of the film as a sort of marketing brand and running with it. Everybody has their own version of this story to tell, as a viewer I welcome that. I would love to see what other people’s versions of the story have to tell. My pitch on what the story was going to be was based on my experiences of touring the film initially, as I said to Wall Street, Washington, the fashion industry. Every season would’ve been a different arc of the boss/assistant relationship, but in a different industry, so we pull the curtain back on the music industry, fashion industry, and that was my take.

I know for years you were supposes to be doing the Madman movie—so what happened with that?

It got all caught up in the Dimension/Miramax debacle. Mike Allred, Robert and I wanted to bring the comic to life, so Mike sold the underlying rights to the comic book to Miramax and Dimension, and in the last few years you’ve seen the company spiral into bankruptcy. There are a lot of legal entanglements. I think now we are just waiting it out for the rights to revert back to Mike before we pursue the next step, but what’s exciting is that technology has made it easier to accomplish what Mike created in the comic books now. With the rise of peak TV, Mike is thinking instead of a movie why can’t we do this as a series? That’s something we are toying around with now, we are hoping to bring to life, but first we have to get out of the legal ensnarement.

Obviously, some people won’t watch the movie because Kevin Spacey is in it. How do you navigate using it in your classes?

I’ve used it once, and this was three years ago, before the truth about Kevin came out. Honestly, there are so many other great filmmakers out there to use as a reference. The only reason I pulled mine was to show how this is what happens with you cross the 180 line with a camera, and how difficult it makes for editing, but that you can also use it for effect, to discombobulate the audience. And that’s kind of what we were trying to do in the very final scene with Frank, and it seems like Kevin is screaming at Frank from both sides of the frame. I couldn’t off the top of my head think of, like, a Kubrick clip to steal from and show the class, I just popped mine on. It’s hard for me to watch the film because all I see is my mistakes. and I should’ve done this, should’ve done that. It’s a lot of self-incriminating stuff whenever I pull up my clips, I don’t think I could with a straight face show it to my students as a paragon of filmmaking and screenwriting when they are so many other great filmmakers and writers like Dan (Waters) that I teach to screenwriters instead.

Ian Schultz

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One thought on “Interview with George Huang – director of Swimming With Sharks

  1. Great interview. I remember seeing Swimming with Sharks when it first came out on VHS. Absolutely fascinating film back then, even now. And having read Rebel without a Crew I always remember Robert Rodriguez’s appraisal of George and telling him to go make a movie. Cheers for this! -Tony-

    Liked by 1 person

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