Again, this is a tale that beggars belief—but Huang is convinced of its veracity. “I’m very convinced,” he insisted. “There was a lot of throwing going on.”
The penchant for hurling objects at helpless staff was one of details that made it into Swimming With Sharks, as you can see here…
Swimming with Sharks, independently produced and later distributed by Trimark Pictures, was marketed as a comedy, but it plays like a revenge horror film, with the naive assistant, Guy (Frank Whaley, Career Opportunities and “Big Brain” Brett in Pulp Fiction), gradually succumbing to the malevolence of his boss, played by a sneering, venomous Kevin Spacey.
Spacey’s presence adds an extra layer of “yikes” to the movie today, given the allegations of serious abuse circling the actor himself. But when Swimming With Sharks debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1994, Spacey was still a relatively bit player—a year away from his star-making role in The Usual Suspects, best known for scene-stealing work as the bitter office manager in Glengarry Glen Ross.
“Kevin Spacey, when he agreed to do the film, he said to me point-blank, ‘Look, I don’t think anybody outside of Hollywood’s going to see this movie. But that’s okay, because I think everybody in Hollywood will watch this movie. And that’s why I’m doing this part,’” Huang said. “I’m going, ‘Okay, so…nothing about the great writing?’ It was a very calculated decision. He knew this was going to be a huge talking point among everyone in Hollywood: ‘Yeah, they’re all going to see me. It’s going to be a great showcase.‘”
Spacey was right. Huang’s script alone caused convulsions throughout Hollywood, particularly since he was known to have been a studio assistant himself. The aspiring filmmaker’s project became the subject of intense industry gossip: Who was the real Buddy Ackerman?
Silver was the obvious suspect, given Huang’s time in his office. But Silver was a famously messy producer, not a buttoned-down studio executive like the character. Huang’s other former boss, Josephson, had a job that matched, even if his demeanor wasn’t like the villain’s in the story. Huang and Josephson had met when they both worked at Silver’s office.
If anything, Huang said his script led Josephson to be even more cautious about the way he did business—having a kind of Christmas Carol effect, with Huang himself as Bob Cratchit. “Barry, when he read the script, he goes, ‘Wait, this isn’t about me, is it?’” Huang said. “Even to this day he’s still really apologetic and goes out of his way to show, ‘No, look, look, I’ve turned over a new leaf.… He goes out of his way to not be that guy anymore.”
Josephson, who went on to produce Enchanted and the TV shows Bones and The Tick, confirmed that the movie did have that impact on him. “It certainly had me consider that I was on, or about to be on, a potential path that needed to be avoided at all costs,” he told Vanity Fair. “It was always so surprising to me just how many people would be entertained by and enamored with the bad behavior of certain of these people.”
“When I was on the receiving end of ‘getting killed,’ the degradation and belittling was so personally painful…I could never,” he added. “I had a great therapist at the time that helped me process the pain of the narcissists around me. It always had me feel so terrible for the person on the receiving end, and even worse of course when it was me.”
While Silver’s behavior was nowhere near as bad as the stories Huang heard about Rudin, he said life in Silver’s office was still demoralizing. “Joel was a taskmaster. You would be at the office 24/7. You weren’t allowed to leave to even go get lunch. He had a fridge that was stocked with frozen dinners and said, ‘That’s what you’re going to eat. You can just help yourself to something and microwave it,’” Huang said. “I remember the real treat was when, if Joel happened to be out of the office, one of us would run across the street from Warner Bros. to the Taco Bell there. That was the real treat! ‘Oh, my God, this is great! Oh, my God, we get Taco Bell today!’”
It’s not the same kind of abuse as slamming a staffer’s hand with a computer, as THR’s story about Rudin alleges. But it’s an example of the low-grade misery that permeates the lower echelons of Hollywood. “Even to this day I can’t eat frozen food,” Huang said with a laugh. But there were highs to the job too.
“To Joel’s credit, in the ’90s, he was getting stuff done. He always had a movie that was in prep, a movie that was shooting, a movie that was in post, and a movie that was premiering. Juggling that many projects, and that many people, yeah, it was incredible,” Huang said.
Did Huang consider Silver abusive? The question gave him pause. “He’s definitely a yeller. He’s definitely a screamer,” Huang said. But being such a movie fan, he had a found way of dissociating from the verbal tirades. “My first encounter with Joel Silver was through the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” said Huang. “There’s that opening where Roger Rabbit blows a take, and the director comes up and starts screaming at him. And that’s Joel Silver.”
It’s literally him. Silver played the role as a cameo in the 1988 film. “When he was screaming at me, I was just going, Oh, my God, this is so cool! This is just like Who Framed Roger Rabbit! This is so awesome!’” Huang said. “I was sitting there grinning. [Silver] goes, ‘What the fuck are you smiling about?’ I think I was a little more naïve, a little more Pollyanna: I’ve got the guy who was in Roger Rabbit screaming at me! But for a lot of other people in the office, yeah, he gets discouraging. You’re giving up your whole life, you’re trying to do your best, and if one thing goes awry, yeah, it’s your fault.”