As Hollywood continues to bask in the comeuppance being delivered to powerhouse producer Scott Rudin over his alleged history of screaming, throwing, and tormenting, a certain movie keeps coming up in the discussion—and it’s not one Rudin produced. Instead, he inspired it with volatile behavior that was already legendary nearly three decades ago.
The film is 1994’s Swimming With Sharks, about a tyrannical studio executive who ruthlessly berates his new assistant until the young man snaps and takes him hostage. The film has been the subject of speculation for years, and the rumor mill began turning again after The Hollywood Reporter’s recent exposé on Rudin. Now Swimming With Sharks writer-director George Huang has spoken exclusively to Vanity Fair about the role Rudin, and others like him, had in shaping the story of the acidic Hollywood comedy.
Huang was a young production assistant himself when he began writing the script, based on the atrocious things he and his fellow underlings experienced. “Look, anybody who’s an assistant in Hollywood, the only way we survived was to get together and trade war stories, and you try to outdo each other,” Huang said. “Consistently, my friends who worked for Scott Rudin would always win. Some of the stories they told were almost too absurd to be true. If I put it in the movie, no one would’ve believed it.”
Man. It's always the guy you most expect because there was a famous movie about him like 30 years ago that detailed exactly how awful he is. https://t.co/fMeabdvMlm
— Ken Tremendous (@KenTremendous) April 7, 2021
Huang himself had worked for Joel Silver, the notoriously hotheaded producer of the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard movies, who was also an inspiration. He actually felt obliged to dial back some of the Rudin anecdotes in his cinematic roman à clef. “I remember trying to put the stories in an early draft, and when [other producers] read it, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is way, way over the top. This would’ve never happened,’” Huang recalled. “I’d go, ‘Oh, but it does.’”
Rudin’s representatives did not offer comment, and a representative listed for Silver did not reply.
“The only way we survived was to get together and trade war stories, and you try to outdo each other. Consistently, my friends who worked for Scott Rudin would always win.”
The disbelief Huang experienced offers a clue as to how Rudin and others might have gotten away with their actions for so long. While trying to convince producers of the story’s veracity, Huang was repeatedly told: “‘Well…no one would believe it.’”
Still, Swimming With Sharks did manage to capture some of Rudin’s nightmarish management practices. “Just from gathering stories from friends who’ve worked for Scott, his influence is definitely in the film,” Huang said.
One of those who shared his stories for the screenplay was Albert Beveridge, a lifelong friend who’s now Huang’s manager. Back in the early ’90s, they were both in their early 20s trying to climb Hollywood’s corporate ladder. Beveridge had become Rudin’s director of development at his office on the Paramount lot around the time Huang was working for the demanding but, Huang emphasized, far less explosive Columbia Pictures executive Barry Josephson. Prior to that, Huang had toiled across town at Warner Bros. for Silver, who was renowned for his bad temper.
Beveridge had already been an assistant for several years and was not about to be scared off from his new promotion in Rudin’s shop. “Everyone warned me. My predecessor, she told me, ‘Albert—be prepared.’ I was like, ‘Listen, there’s nothing I can’t handle,’” said Beveridge. “We had a four-month honeymoon period, and then I remember the first time he yelled at me.”
Pausing to chuckle mordantly, Beveridge added: “I had never been yelled at like that before in my life. I’ve been yelled at for specific things—if I screwed up, or made an oversight, or wasn’t as meticulous as I needed to be. But I’d never been called a complete idiot and just personally insulted. He just ripped me apart.”
“I remember the first time he yelled at me… I’d never been called a complete idiot and just personally insulted. He just ripped me apart.”
The behavior depicted in Tatiana Siegel’s Hollywood Reporter piece is deeply serious—including physical altercations that in one case allegedly left a staffer’s hand wounded. In its wake, Rudin has now publicly pledged to “step back” from his Hollywood and Broadway production duties. Huang and Beveridge regard their own experiences as besieged employees with a kind of survivor’s bemusement, still unclear why there had to be such anguish and anxiety. With decades of distance, the painful memories sometimes seem ridiculous.
“At the time there was a system called Amtel that we would use. From an assistant’s desk you could type on a little keyboard—sort of the early version of texting,” Huang said of the pre-email device. “You would say, ‘Hey, Scott, so-and-so is here to see you,’ or, ‘The president of the studio’s on line three.’ But again, this is before wireless, so everything was hardwired. I remember one time my friend told me [Rudin] got so angry, he picked up this Amtel system and threw it at the assistant as hard as he could. But the Amtel, because it was wired and connected, the thing boomeranged back and hit Scott.”
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?
“When I was on the receiving end of ‘getting killed,’ the degradation and belittling was so personally painful…I could never…”
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.
“I kept extra clothes in one of the desk drawers, knowing full well I was probably going to get something tossed at me.”
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.”
Screenshot of Joel Silver as the angry director in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The Hollywood Reporter article described a now infamous episode in which Rudin allegedly hurled a potato at an employee who upset him. There is a scene in Swimming With Sharks in which Guy and his girlfriend, a producer played by Michelle Forbes, are doing his laundry and she notices the aftermath of lunchtime projectiles: a coffee stain on one shirt and a smear of cream cheese on another. Spacey’s character has been throwing food at his young assistant. Huang said that plot point was actually inspired by his time in Silver’s office, not something he necessarily heard from a Rudin worker.
“I was sitting at my desk, and one of the assistants comes out and asks to borrow a shirt. He’s got this giant cream-cheese-hole stain on him,” Huang said. “He was like, ‘There was too much cream cheese on the bagel, but yeah, now I know.’ I kept extra clothes in one of the desk drawers, knowing full well I was probably going to get something tossed at me.”
Things took a turn when Huang finished his script. Knowing it was likely filled with allusions to him, Silver took a special interest.
“Joel’s the only one who tried to interfere, because he tried to actually buy the script from me,” Huang said. “He said he was going to make it, but I don’t know, part of me was a little suspicious. It’s like, Are you really going to make it? Or are you just going to bury this?
Throughout their negotiations Huang’s doubts deepened, especially when Silver tried to convince the young filmmaker that spoofs of him, Silver, were outdated. “It was hilarious,” Huang said. “He was saying, ‘We’ve seen the Joel Silver impressions before. We saw Saul Rubinek do it in True Romance, and Steve Martin did a version of it in Grand Canyon.’ He was offering ‘fresher’ versions of, like, who the tyrant could be. It was like, ‘Yeah, it could be Tim Roth!’ Why do you say that, because he looks like Barry Josephson? What are we doing here? So yeah, his casting was all these skinny actors. He wanted to throw people off the scent and make it more about Barry, I think.”
Even after all these years, Josephson said he never knew that tidbit. “All I can say is, my suits fit way better than Buddy Ackerman’s,” he said. “So I guess Joel didn’t get it his way!”
While the #MeToo and #TimesUp uprisings have done important work encouraging people to step up and expose the Rudins and the Harvey Weinsteins of the industry, Huang doesn’t harbor ill will toward his old bosses. “I believe Joel has definitely changed. He’s a much quieter, thoughtful person,” he said. “It sort of struck me that Scott is still kind of stuck in the ’90s.”
Beveridge also conjured surprising empathy for the man who once berated him as an idiot. “He probably was teased and bullied in high school, and he was looking to throw it back when he had the chance. That’s an armchair analysis,” Beveridge said of Rudin. “But a brilliant mind…”
“If he had forgotten to yell at me for something, he would reassemble the call and then start yelling again…”
He recalled the kind of offense that invoked Rudin’s ire, like during a time when he demanded that Beveridge join him in reading scripts for as many as 20 potential projects over the weekend so they could discuss them on Monday. “I wouldn’t see people, wouldn’t go out. I would just read, read, read, read. One weekend I could only get through 16. And I told him that and he just lost it,” Beveridge said. “He read all 20! That’s what was amazing. At that time he was shooting Searching for Bobby Fischer and Addams Family Values at the same time. He was on set and he read all 20, but I just couldn’t. And he just lit into me.”
Swimming With Sharks gave them their chance to strike back. Now that period feels like a long time ago to them. “It’s an amalgamation of a lot of screamers,” Beveridge said of the movie. “Scott was notorious, but in his defense, he was much smarter than me. He was an equal opportunity yeller. He screamed up and down. I watched him take apart agents and managers.”
“At some point, when the working relationship totally deteriorated, I said, ‘Scott, I’m just a punching bag for you, I’m not doing the work. Just let me go,'” Beveridge said. “He said, ‘You have a contract with me.’ Why didn’t he just let me go?”
Sometimes the anger was inexplicable—anger for anger’s sake. In office conference calls with the staff, Rudin occasionally treated the beratings like an errand he needed to run, Beveridge said. “If he had forgotten to yell at me for something, he would reassemble the call and then start yelling again, even if it was just for five minutes. Which I found strange.”
“‘What do you mean I’ve been a complete asshole?’”
Both Huang and Beveridge decided not to continue down the career path of being a Hollywood executive. Beveridge went into management, while Huang became a writer and director; he also teaches at the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television. Huang recalled getting feedback on his Swimming With Sharks script that unsettled him—the accusation that he had become another studio douchebag.
“It’s almost cultish. You get indoctrinated into that world. You recognize why that behavior, if not so much endorsed, is repeated. Everybody goes through that sort of torture chamber in order to get to the top,” Huang said. “I remember after I’d written my script, I sent it around to some friends, and one of them actually called back and said, ‘Look, I really wanted to hate the script because for the last two years you’d been a complete asshole. But the script’s pretty good.’ I’m going, ‘What do you mean I’ve been a complete asshole?’ It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you’ve been a complete jerk the last two years.’ I had no idea. I was like, ‘Really? What? What are you talking about?’”
We won’t spoil the end of Swimming With Sharks—it’s available to stream free with commercials now on Tubi, and still holds up—but one of the themes is the peril of becoming the thing you despise. Huang didn’t want to do that.
There’s something haunting and tragic about the way these men look at Rudin now. He is vastly more successful than Beveridge or Huang, probably more successful than 99% of Hollywood. But the bulldozer personality that got him there may have cost him everything. And even when he was at the top, it doesn’t sound like those heights were ever enough.
One particular story about Rudin is as sad as it is funny. “It was few and far between when Scott was happy,” Beveridge said. “I was in my office once, and one of his assistants said, ‘You’ve got to get over here. I don’t know what to do with this.’ You know those manila interoffice envelopes with the little string on them? Inside was a check for $3 million. Back then that was a lot.”
It’s still a lot to land in your lap through interoffice mail. It was made out to Rudin from Paramount, but came with no call or explanation. Even Rudin didn’t know what it was for, although they soon determined it was a payout from Rudin’s work on the 1993 John Grisham film The Firm.
“He called his business manager, and the business manager said, ‘Oh, that’s your deferment. You Tom Cruise, and Sydney Pollack deferred part of your salaries. It must have hit a breakeven accounting point and just generated the checks,’” Beveridge said.
The result was even more rare than a surprise mega-check—a joyful Scott Rudin. “He came back and was kind of in a good mood. He got $3 million in the mail, and he didn’t know about it! He was happy.”
“It lasted about 20 minutes,” Beveridge said. “He was talking about ordering in lunch. We were gonna have fun. And then he got a call about something that didn’t go his way. The screaming started. And he forgot.”
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