“The first half, all I see is me as a beginning filmmaker,” Russell told the audience Friday night at AFI Fest’s 20th anniversary screening of the movie, sponsored by FilmStruck, Miramax, and IndieWire. “But the movie is like a runaway wagon, and it does just take off. It reminds me of the comedies that inspired me.”
Russell was joined by “Flirting” star Lily Tomlin, who said she joined the movie (Russell’s second) partly because she loved the director’s first film, “Spanking the Monkey.”
“When I read the [‘Flirting’] script, I laughed every time,” she said. “It was just so hilarious.”
Russell said “Flirting” was very much a movie of its time: “In the mid-’90s, sexual dysfunction and family dysfunction was all the rage.”
“Flirting” stars Ben Stiller as a neurotic thirtysomething New Yorker searching for his birth parents. He travels with his wife (Patricia Arquette) and baby to find them, but things get strained as a representative from the adoption agency (Tea Leoni) travels along.
After a few false leads that take them to San Diego and Michigan, they uncover Stiller’s birth parents (Alan Alda and Tomlin) in Arizona. Mary Tyler Moore (in one of the naughtier roles of her career) and George Segal are his adopted parents back in New York, while Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin play federal agents who are also a couple looking to adopt – a pretty unconventional storyline for 1996.
“It’s a perfect movie,” said “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner, who moderated a conversation with Russell and Tomlin after the screening.
While this week’s election wasn’t ever specifically referenced, Weiner and Russell pointed out that “Flirting” flirted with the idea of “two Americas” 20 years ago. “It was quite subversive at the time, and then not subversive,” Weiner said. “And now subversive again.”
Responded Russell: “Yeah, we’re in the middle of an America that just made gay marriage and adoption legal, and who knows now. Let’s hope that stays.”
“Flirting with Disaster” was inspired by films like “Shampoo” and “Husbands and Wives,” and Russell said he heard from “heroes” like Warren Beatty and Woody Allen after they saw it.
“Flirting” was all about “social norms people try to live that are never perfect and blowing sideways disasters,” Russell said. “The whole movie is [about] social posture, the rules of the game.”
Weiner enthused at some of the film’s memorable large and small moments, including a scene where Tomlin’s character, at the dinner table, lifts her leg and reveals a butterfly tattoo on her thigh.
“That tattoo [idea] was completely Lily’s,” Russell said. “It just happened in the middle of the scene, and it’s perfectly timed.”
As the panel began, Russell handed a bouquet of roses to Tomlin as a thank you for attending the panel. Said Russell: “I was so blessed to get a comic icon like Lily Tomlin to be in it.”
Russell also read an email from Arquette, who couldn’t attend the panel, as she’s currently at Standing Rock, joining the movement trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from drilling under the Missouri River watershed and Lake Oahe.
“I am at Standing Rock and have been asked by the chairman of the great Sioux nation and the Oceti Sakowin camp to provide compost toilets for the thousands of resisters and water protectors on the front line,” Arquette wrote in an email to Russell. “Winter will be here in one week and it can be very harsh. We are working tirelessly to get this done… I’m sorry I can’t be there.”
The 20th anniversary of “Flirting with Disaster” coincides with the 20th anniversary of two other landmark Miramax films from 1996: “The English Patient” and “From Dusk Til Dawn.”