When I first met David O. Russell in 1994, he had just finished his first feature film, “Spanking the Monkey,” a serious, yet darkly humorous film which dealt with the taboo subject of incest. But even back then, he was reluctant to categorize his work, saying “to call ‘Spanking the Monkey’ a film about incest, is like calling ‘Ordinary People’ a film about teen suicide or ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ a film about theft.”
Since then, he has taken on a wide array of projects that have, to Russell’s credit and his pleasure, defied categorizations. Tackling difficult subjects such as adoption, mental illness, war and drug abuse, Russell consistently injects humor and manages to find the core element of humanity in his characters. With “American Hustle,” he’s once again turned the camera on complicated characters who, like Russell’s films, defy categorization. We recently attended the “American Hustle” press conference and learned more about the process of making the star-studded ensemble piece. Then we sat down with Russell afterwards as he made last-minute tweaks to the film, which will be released in select theaters this Friday.
You seem to be interested in characters who reinvent themselves. That’s certainly been a theme in your most recent films (“American Hustle,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter”). Do you relate to that on a personal level?
I’d say I rediscovered my passion for storytelling. All of my films up to “The Fighter” and all of my living up to that point was preparation for those three films — which is to say that because of what happened in my life and the adjustment I had in my own life where I stopped making movies for a few years and figuring out who I was again. No film really felt compelling to me that I wanted to make. That’s not a nice feeling. Every film felt like ‘well, I could make this.’ That’s the worst feeling in the world. Starting with “The Fighter,” all of the sudden my eyes opened and I saw it was right in front of my eyes all the time, these characters and these worlds. To be humble enough and attentive enough to the details of these worlds to find what is, I think, sublime about them and wonderful and passionate, suddenly, I realized what I set out to do with these extraordinary collaborators.
You have now worked with a core group of actors on your last few films (including Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Robert De Niro and Amy Adams). Do you consider them collaborators? And do you hope to continue the collaboration in future projects?
They’re great collaborators. I write the roles while I’m in deep conversations with them at their homes or on the phone. It inspires me to write for them and to want to deliver a role that’s worthy of them and to let them use every range of their behaviors in new ways that will surprise them and audiences. That’s exciting to me. That makes it new for everybody. You can’t go on auto-pilot because you have to pay attention because it’s a new emotional reality. They are collaborators at that level and yes, of course, I do hope to keep working with them. It’s a privilege to try to create roles for them.
How do you work with actors exactly? Do you encourage improvisation?
Not really in the classical sense. I think that’s a conception. Everything is planned. Every thing is thought through, every shot, every bit of dialogue. What happens is maybe 1/3-1/4 of that on any idea, we kept rewriting the script. Some filmmakers perhaps never change their script. I am changing it up until the day we shoot it and then on the day, the 1/3-14 of the scene is a part that we may rethink out how the dialogue is going and may reinvent part of it. We follow the script up to then. The atmosphere on the set is such that it may feel like improvisation because I don’t stop shooting. So it doesn’t feel like a set where there’s lights because I don’t like lights on the set either. It’s lit through the windows. It feels like a place where you can go anywhere and you don’t stop shooting. That’s what I hope — that it feels alive and spontaneous. (Robert) De Niro called it an immediacy. But it’s scripted.
What drew you to the story of “American Hustle?”
These people. It’s not easy to find these characters. They’re not falling off trees. The predicament they’re in is a doozy of a predicament and it’s complicated. What interested us was the larger idea of identity that everybody faces every day — of passion in your life and whether you have it or don’t and how can you find it again? What do you do to have to talk yourself into or elide yourself into things through life – like women in childbirth, they call it “placental amnesia.” I think life is like placental amnesia. You’ve got to use it to get through your job, your marriage. You’ve got to find ways of whistling in the dark. I don’t call that conning. It wasn’t just about conning to us. It was about the larger process of surviving and living and their (Irv and Sydney’s) love for life — the fact that they had a real love and romance.
Would you call “American Hustle” a romance? It certainly has romantic elements, but it also defies categorization.
I love romances, which is another big surprise for me…that’s something I would have tried to disavow 10 years ago, but now I say, yes, I happily own that. But it also makes my head spin when people try to categorize the movies…When people said “The Fighter” was a boxing movie, I thought ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about.’ To me, I never wanted to make a boxing movie. To me, it was about these people. When people called “Silver Linings Playbook” a romantic comedy, my head snapped. I never thought of it as that. Those words never entered my brain as anything to do with this movie. It’s about those people. This is not a con movie. It’s about these people.
Many of your films — particularly “American Hustle” — feature flawed, but immensely likable characters. Are you concerned about making them likable?
That’s the only way I want to make a movie. I have to find a way to love them and make them lovable so that I can be with them. I want to love them and I want the audience, above all, to love being with them and be exhilarated by being with them. If I can’t find that, then I can’t do the movie. All the writing really is the process of doing that — of not flinching at their flaws and, at the same time, finding the best part of their hearts that you can love.