It was as he was lying on the floor of the director David O. Russell’s house, reeling from a painful eye injury, that Jeff Baena ultimately evolved into a screenwriter.
Of course, that had long been the goal. Baena had grown up in Miami, regularly attending art-house cinema there. He had seen Russell’s debut feature, Spanking the Monkey there. Later, Baena went to NYU for film school, and upon graduation, packed his bags for Los Angeles. After serving as a production assistant on a few Robert Zemeckis films, Baena responded to what he recalls as a "sort of vague, obliquely written" email inviting applicants for an assistant editor position to "a filmmaker."
Some time later, Baena was at his apartment, where his friend had a large laser disc collection (this was 1999). Baena decided to pop in Flirting with Disaster, Russell’s second feature, one of Baena’s favorite comedies. The instant he put the movie in, he got a phone call. The person on the other end of the line said he'd gotten Baena's application. And then he identified that mystery director. "I’m from David O. Russell’s office."
"Are you kidding?" asked Baena.
Baena soon sat down to an interview with Russell himself. The interview, Baena recalls, was weird. Russell asked Baena at one point about his theories on the JFK assassination. At another point, he put Baena on the spot about the French auteur François Truffaut. Baena liked Truffaut, mostly, but went on a long spiel about how he felt he could occasionally be manipulative and too self-aware.
"Truffaut is my favorite director," said Russell, straight-faced.
"He was trying to destabilize me," says Baena. "A lot of people have weird experiences with him. I think he was protecting himself. He didn't want to get too close."
Baena got the job, which had him driving all the way across the city daily, from Baena’s home in Los Feliz to Russell’s home in Brentwood. At first, he worked the evening shift, picking up where the principal editor left off on a documentary project. Working from Russell’s home, Baena naturally got to know Russell, his then wife Janet Grillo, and his son Matt. Russell's initial instinct to not get too close eroded. "I got absorbed into their life," says Baena. "When you work with David, there are no boundaries. David sort of expands like a gas to fill whatever space he occupies."
Even so, a year and a half in, Baena hadn’t made any big moves toward his ultimate dream: to be a writer-director like Russell. That is, until the day after Baena had a really weird dream.
Baena had been working for Russell for nearly a year and a half, when one night he had a vivid dream. In the dream, Baena was driving in his car, when he passed a "big white sphere that was also a motorcycle." Baena drove past the sphere, clipping the edge of it. Then, in the dream, a green truck lost control and rear-ended Baena.
Baena woke up, got ready, and began to drive to work. Baena got as far as the corner of Western and Franklin avenues, when suddenly, a green Pathfinder hit Baena from behind. "Exactly like the dream."
Baena was okay, it seemed—just shaken—so he continued his journey to work, where he told Russell all about the dream. "He fixated on the white sphere, more than the accident/premonition thing," recalls Baena.
As the day progressed, Baena’s eye began to hurt a little bit. Then it began to hurt a lot. Then it became agonizing. Finally, Russell’s wife Janet insisted she take Baena to a doctor nearby. It was a good thing she did: Debris from the accident had gotten caught beneath Baena’s contact lens, damaging his cornea. Had he waited another day, the doctor said, he would have needed a transplant.
It was still the middle of the day, and Baena couldn’t drive home in his current condition. Nor could his girlfriend, who was at work, come to pick him up. So it was decided: Baena would come back to David and Janet’s home, where they’d look after him for the day. Baena lay on the ground, in pain. Needless to say, he was unable to tend to his usual editing duties.
Russell sat with Baena and, perhaps to pass the time and take his mind off things, began to talk to Baena about an aspect of his business he usually didn’t discuss: writing. A production company had optioned a book about a man going through a list of people he’d wronged, seeking them all out, and apologizing.
Russell talked the idea out with Baena. What did he think? Russell offered one idea for the character’s journey, then Baena chimed in with one of his own. Soon, the two were riffing off each other’s ideas until the sun set. "We had a really good flow," recalls Baena.
The next day, Baena didn’t report to work—the doctor had ordered him off work for a month. But Russell called Baena, and the two resumed the dialogue over the phone. Soon enough, Baena was cowriting a script with David O. Russell.
Though that particular film didn’t pan out, Baena and Russell’s cowriting vibe continued. "He was super-generous, creatively," recalls Baena. "He allowed me to advocate for any ideas that were in conflict with his ideas. We were on the same wavelength, had the same style and interests. He was really a soul mate, as a cowriter."
One of the four scripts they cowrote was 2004’s I Heart Huckabees, which Russell directed. (The first draft was 325 pages; it took a year to hack it down to 117.) Around that time, Baena began to strike out on his own, writing the zombie comedy Life After Beth, which would wind up being his debut feature as a director.
Baena has been operating on his own ever since. His latest, Joshy, which tracks a strange weekend that winds up being a cross between a bachelor party and a wake, was received warmly at Sundance this year.
It all stretches back to a strange dream, an eye injury, and a professional relationship whose tenor suddenly changed. "For him to consider me a collaborator at all gave me such a confidence boost," recalls Baena of those first days of cowriting with Russell. "It allowed me to have the feeling that I deserved to be there, as opposed to just riding someone’s coattails."