Filmmaker David O. Russell has energy and enthusiasm to burn. “The Silver Lining’s Playbook” director is three for three now in his new era that includes “The Fighter” and his latest picture, “American Hustle” (review here). Starring the spectacular all-star cast of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner on top of supporting turns by Robert De Niro, Louie C.K., Jack Huston, Elizabeth Rohm and many more, Russell’s latest is a colorful 1970s-set New York dramedy that centers on a con man (Bale), his partner (Adams), and the FBI agent who nabs them and puts them on the hook to cooperate in what becomes of the biggest conspiracy stings of that era that involved, mayors, senators and other government officials.
But “American Hustle” is barely a con man movie. That’s “the blowtorch” that lights the movie as the director likes to say. Inside the colorful players, their tricked-out 1970s hairdos and slick costumes is a cast of characters all trying to survive, all doing what they can to fit in the world; reinventing themselves to the point that often they don’t know where the lies end or begin. It’s an entertaining, funny and thematically rich too with some of Hollywood’s top thespians selling every note with laughs, drama and soul. High off some positive reviews (including David Denby whom the filmmaker noted had never given him a good notice), Russell was off a mile a minute, ping-ponging from idea to idea and I was just trying to play catch up. We spoke about “American Hustle,” the impressive “waking dream state” that Christian Bale acts in, personalizing stories, jazz, music and much, much more. It was just Russell’s world and I was only visiting.
Your friend Spike Jonze recently said acting in “Three Kings” made him understand how embarrassing acting can really be.
[Laughs] Right. My whole set is really about making the actors feel that I’m in there with them—they’re not alone in being silly or exposed or vulnerable. I’m not standing on the other side of the monitor, I stand next to the steady cam and I feel the emotions, say the lines with them. I feel that if I’m being emotional or silly far worse than they could be, that sort of takes the stink out of the room because anything they do is going to be better than what I’m doing and they’re going to be liberated. As Christian Bale said [in the New York press conference] which dropped my jaw when I heard him say it—“the waking dream thing” he said. Bradley Cooper and I spent a lot of time with the guy and we were wowed, we’d never heard him say anything like that before.
Because Christian’s working on another level that achieves the act of the waking dream in character, right?
Yes. He described it so perfectly and then Jennifer Lawrence picked up on it because they all go into a trance in some way and he goes on dreaming. Everyone goes crazy when they dream. You think of the movie as an opera. There’s like five different worlds and characters and it’s almost like these songs, these arias about their lives. [Christian said] when you dream you’re allowed to have a crazy opera and then when you wake up everything gets composed again and civilized. But acting he said is license to live that opera, to live that crazy dream, to just walk around in it, it’s a waking dream. I’ve never heard it described so well.
It sounds like Christian transforms in a way that maybe few others do.
Absolutely, he is his very own singular creature. Duke Ellington, one of my heroes, is the one who said this: You’re looking for something that is beyond category. That is what the most sublime thing can be. People would say “The Fighter” is a boxing movie, and I didn’t know what to say because I never once thought about it like that. If ‘Silver Linings’ was a “romantic comedy,” my head would snap. I see how it works at that level, but I just thought about it being about those characters. So when you do it from “the feet up,” as Christian says in the movie, in these trances that these guys are doing [pause]…
And cast against type.
And they’ve been cast against type, which makes everybody emotional. The actors think they have everything mapped out and that’s all off. It’s all a new thing with these people, it’s a new emotional slate, a new canvas so they have to immerse themselves in our world. They can’t bring some other idea they had to it, it has to be our world.
What was the blowtorch that caught your imagination on fire when you read the original script?
Oh, it’s a doozy of a predicament. Firstly, the characters are not easy to find. Secondly, they’re in this predicament which is so rich, twisted and lends itself to so many different experiences that I think are elemental about how we live and how we have to survive. Even if you’re not in this jam, you can relate to it.
It looks bleak for them.
They’re in a situation that’s complex, but they themselves are—I can create them as the most soulful people I can, and they have to deal with all the predicaments and that’s going to reveal color after color of them. It’s the kind of predicament that is soul-oriented to me. It’s a life or death situation. That’s how I treat every story. Every character; even in the last two pictures.
“Some of this actually might be true.” What a great, funny and wry title card.
It’s the most accurate way to describe it. I wanted to make a story that was cinema, that went to the themes that interest me. I got this story from [co-writer] Eric Singer and [producer] Charles Roven, who I made “Three Kings” with. I said, “These are really good characters, could I please, with your permission…” I would only do it if I could remake it as I’ve done these past two movies [rewriting the script]. They said yes, so I said okay. That was that. Sometimes you write script from scratch, but sometimes you have to write a page one [rewrite].
You’re directing it, so you have to personalize it for yourself?
It’s just how you see the picture, it’s not an ego thing. If you hear a song a certain way you’re going to have to be the one who has to write it down. I don’t think somebody else can write it down. It’s a very specific way of storytelling.
Your last three pictures have a narrative and emotional throughline.
It’s in everything, from the way the characters flow, the story flows, how predicaments build and get crazy, become heartbreaking and get funny at the same time. I have to follow that throughline which is not easy to do by the way. So everything else is taken out of the way. It’s hard enough to do even with a blank page.
Your riffs as they were—you’ve described it as something other than improv, more controlled.
Bradley Cooper was saying to me that he really objects to the use of that word. It’s not improvisation. it’s very carefully planned. The script has been written many times, the scene has been discussed many times, it’s been blocked and planned. The shots are planned, I would say one-third to one-fourth it often becomes something we all want to evolve in some way. Together that means we’ll discuss it. Actor’s aren’t just making it up. We huddle up and we go, “What if it was more like this?” Then we go do it. That’s very different then not knowing what’s going to happen. That’s what I would call true improvisation.
You leave the room open for creativity in that sense, right?
We have a very strict thing we want to follow, that we don’t stop shooting, so once you get into the fluidity of that it stops feeling composed. It starts just taking on a life of its own. Actors may say their own words, they’re going to stick to the script. Sometimes while that’s happening you see a better direction. For example, when Bradley Cooper comes into the apartment and sees Amy Adams’ character, what I said to him, “Go say, ‘I love you’ to her.” That happened on the fly.
And that moment takes knocks her character off her feet.
I wanted Amy to then have the motivation to reveal herself. She could have just done it anyway and it would have worked. Maybe it would have even been good, but it’s much stronger once she’s leaned forward and melted. That’s on the fly. That’s how you see how to make something better. There’s an aliveness to it. I don’t want to be precious about what’s written. It feels stilted.
There’s great thematic stuff in here. As they conning others are they conning themselves. The masks, the facades, even Bradley’s FBI character is deluding himself. It makes for this great color as you say.
I would say it’s an operatic version of what everyone has to deal with. All day long. Whether in work situations or personal situations. There’s what they call placental amnesia. If women had any memory of giving birth they would never do it again. It’s a convenient survival mechanism. I’ve had to use my own placental amnesia throughout my whole life or I would have never undertaken many things. I would have never gotten married or had kids, I would have been horrified of all of the bad thoughts.
Instead you end up talking yourself into it. You leave out the parts that are really horrifying. For example, having a kid who was bipolar, never crossed my mind, yet it became one of the most amazing things that happened to me in my life. Good and bad. The most human, the hardest experience, the most heart extending. I would never have chose that in a million years, it would have scared me, just as being a father did.
It’s funny you mention this because Martin Scorsese in Marrakech said a similar thing earlier this week about directing. Suggesting that you have to block out the difficulty of it, or your desire would quickly die.
Yes, you have to have a great well of love for the place, the characters, the people and everything you’re doing. It’s also true of the holographic paradigm—any small part is the same as the other parts, this is true of any part of filmmaking. The overall arch of it. It’s like mountain climbing. In the morning the mountain is kicking your ass, “I am not going to survive. I’m not going to make it.” If you’re lucky, if you hang in there you start to feel like you’re getting some ground on the mountain. Suddenly the momentum shifts and you kind of start to dominate it a little bit and that’s a fantastic feeling but it always does start the same way every morning of shooting.
There’s a great musicality to this picture, the moving current of it all, that obviously tips its cap to jazz a lot.
It’s true, it’s the most musical of all my movies and I believe that has been growing with this filmmaking and storytelling. You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado either. I realize the word jazz has taken on strange connotations for a whole generation. I even bristle at the word. I almost call it classic standard American music. One of the themes [in “American Hustle”] is reinvention. Duke Ellington was reinventing himself with that Newport recording in the film. He had been kind of pushed out by Charlie Parker and all those guys. He had this fantastic band with Johnny Hodges, you could hear them shouting during the song, “Jeep’s Blues,” and it’s just magnificent. It’s beyond categorization.
There’s the Jack Jones song, “I’ve Got Your Number,” which is one of the romantic songs I’ve always loved. Jack Jones gave the Grammy to Tony Bennett at the Waldorf Astoria. So that was amazing to have him there [through the music] because that’s what the New York Pierre Hotel felt like in the ‘70s.
It’s an elegance that Amy and Christian’s characters are chasing too, no?
Enchantment and elegance. It’s enchanting to me; a little bit of magic, but it’s not so mercenary to me.
The Bee Gee’s “I Started A Joke” is really sublime in this.
It’s heartbreaking. That song was derided by me in my youth. We mocked it as the worst song ever. That’s the wonderful tipping point where you go, “I think I might love this.” That’s the genius of it, it is a beautiful song, it’s heartbreaking and [Melissa Leo and Christian Bale] sing it together in the car together [in “The Fighter”]. Likewise that [Bee Gee’s cover], “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” I would consider it operatically pushed. It’s like opera. So that’s the operatic emotion of Jennifer [Lawrence] coming out of that bathroom and Jeremy going up the stairs and Robert De Niro sitting there, all these events are happening in this opera. So that life is happening, emotion, tragedy, hope, deception, it’s all happening as people are singing and wearing their clothes in the pageantry of life. That’s something I love, there’s something crazy and beautiful about it.
It sounds like you need to make a musical.
Here’s the funny thing. If I’m in the house talking to Bradley or Christian or Jennifer like I’m talking to you, it’s just happening, it’s just flowing. Right? It’s flowing. So then I go, I already wrote it and it’s just a clerical act and I capture it. Likewise with a musical. If you said to me, “Are you going to make a musical?” That sounds really intimidating. But there are more and more musical scenes in every movie. People are starting to sing. Christian sings in this movie, Jeremy sings, Jennifer sings. I think I’m slowly tricking myself into a musical, I’m backing into it [laughs].
You’ve done this trilogy, starting with “The Fighter,” about these kinds of people and their stories of survival. What will you do next? Will that change?
I’m in love with a certain rhythm of people and story and I know it when I see it so I’m going to continue to make characters like this and I’m going to continue to work with an ensemble like this if I’m so lucky to.
I recently read that you’d you’d written a horror movie once and a sci-fi movie and I wasn’t sure that fit in with your new trajectory.
No, no, no. Those were just script jobs that I did a long time ago. There’s a part of me that feels like you can do all kinds of different movies but it’s a very beautiful thing when you hear certain music. Then you’re not pondering or searching. You already know the kind of music you want to create and listen to. That’s why I was saying to you all of those intervening years were leading to this because it’s very different to be in the other place in your career. It’s just different. I can’t say it’s better or worse. I’m certainly much happier now. I can’t say that for every filmmaker, but I’m happy living amongst these actors and characters and the themes that I love, that I’m happy to carry the banner for.
“American Hustle” opens in limited release this Friday, December 13th and begins national expansion on December 20th.