Swimming with Sharks was George Huang’s directorial debut after Robert Rodriguez encouraged him to quit his job at Columbia Pictures and just make a film. Rodriguez had just sold El Mariachi to Columbia, and they stuck up a friendship that lasts to this day. It’s based on the experiences he and his friends had working as assistants to big Hollywood producers such as Joel Silver and Scott Rudin. George worked for Silver, and acknowledges that while he was quite the screamer, to Silver’s credit he did “get things done.”
Watching the film in 2021 is a markedly different experience than it would’ve been back in 1994. First, you have Kevin Spacey playing the horrible, abusive studio executive Buddy Ackerman, which with the multiple allegations of sexual assault currently against him gives the performance a level extra of ickiness. (The same can be said for one of Clint Eastwood’s more underrated and underappreciated films, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, where Spacey played a semi-closeted rich gay man who uses his privilege and power to escape the consequences when he murders his lover.) Obviously, Spacey has not killed anybody, but it’s a interesting parallel to the fact that Spacey seemed to think he was immune to any consequences of his apparently shady actions.
The other thing that makes the film very fascinating to watch in 2021 is that it really lays out just how widespread this kind of toxic masculinity is in Hollywood—but as Huang found out when he toured the film, it wasn’t just Hollywood but pretty much every industry. Huang’s writing is where the film really shines: it condemns the behaviour, but not in a overly heavy-handed way. Even his avatar Frank Whaley’s Guy, the young writer turned assistant, has by the end corrupted his soul in a desperate attempt to get revenge on his employer. The film revels in the black comedy and absurdity of the behaviour and situations, but never is actively endorses or finds pleasure in the sadism of its characters the way that a film that taps a similar vein, In The Company Of Men, seemed to do.
Swimming with Sharks remains one of the better cautionary tales about Hollywood to come out of the ’90s. Despite its low-budget, first-film trappings, it’s elevated by performances from Spacey at his most slimy and Frank Whaley’s everyman. For Whaley, who has worked steadily in film and TV but mainly as a character actor this remains probably his signature role, and sadly an all too rare leading role for Whaley. I was so excited to see him pop up in Hustlers, where he plays one of the businessmen the strippers hustle in that film. Benicio del Toro also appears in an early but small role near the beginning of the film.
Fabulous Films’ Blu-Ray is a worldwide debut and is the first UK release to include all of the Region 1 Lionsgate Special Edition extras. This includes three commentary tracks—solo commentaries from Spacey and Huang, plus a third joint commentary with Huang and Whaley—three featurettes, and seven deleted scenes with commentary from Huang. It was one of the nicer non-Criterion special editions of the mid ’00s, so it’s great for UK audiences to have the whole package with the added bonus of an HD transfer!