David O. Russell’s on a roll with his Oscar-contending “American Hustle,” his most personal and popular movie yet. It’s smart and funny, and has obviously touched a nerve with its story of survival and reinvention during the cultural and political upheaval of the late ’70s. “I don’t care about pure dissipation or pure cynicism — I’ve gotta have the thing that people live for,” he insists. So in a recent roundtable discussion, we explored how this passion spilled over to his Oscar-nominated crew: production designer Judy Becker, costume designer Michael Wilkinson and editor Jay Cassidy.
“These characters are loving and passionate, but there are also great tribulations and troubles, mistakes and recoveries. That’s the banner of our cinema. So these guys help build all that and put their passion into it,” Russell suggests.
From Becker’s perspective, it was a great opportunity to uncover this diverse world in New York/New Jersey where glam and suburbia clash. “I think so often you can only go in one direction, but this gave us the opportunity to show the diversity of human nature and how that’s expressed through the crafts and through design and the portrayal of a world and a period,” she explains. The various homes and offices that Christian Bale’s Irving goes back and forth from, as he bounces between his girlfriend/partner Sydney (Amy Adams) and his estranged wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).
“And you see Irving change in a lot of ways,” Becker adds. “He becomes more sophisticated in taste, he becomes more ambitious and confident. And he and Sydney have this special relationship and I wanted to express all those things and a lot of other things in the sets that those characters inhabit. Rosalyn spends all of her time decorating and redecorating and layering. So we got to use some of the wonderful textures and wall papers and fabrics of the period, but really doing it to the hilt because that’s her world.
“And Sydney has come to New York from a very modest background and has built herself up to an [elegant] woman. She also had an apartment that completely reflected what was going on in the late ’70s but in a scaled down and sophisticated way. People would walk into Irving’s house (a location we completely transformed) and stare at the wallpaper and then walk into the location for Sydney’s apartment and say they wanted to live there, too.”
And it was the continuation of Becker’s use of flocked wallpaper from “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” among other things, that adds authenticity and ties together this unofficial trilogy. “You have to have great affection for the world that you’re creating in your collaboration and it’s from personal recollections of your own homes and of those you knew,” Russell adds.
Meanwhile, Wilkinson relished the very direct and intimate relationship that they all have with their wardrobes. “They’re all using their clothes as part of their hustle, as part of their reinvention, the people they’re aspiring to be,” he proclaims. And they were all inspired by the garment rack in Irving’s vault (where Hillary Clinton stored her clothes in summer when attending Wellesley College).
“And that gave way to Irving’s cocoon and then became even more metaphoric visually of the cocoon of their love with all these looks and wishes and dreams and enchantments encircling them, which are not fake or cynical or insincere. That’s the key to me,” Russell emphasizes.
Wilkinson maintains that “American Hustle” was a great fit with the fashions of the time because designers such as Halston and von Furstenberg expressed the liberation of women’s clothing. “Decades before there was lots of underpinning and structure and tailoring and Halston comes along and he creates an evening gown out of a piece of silk jersey with no underpinnings or anything. It really affects the way a woman carries herself.
“When Irving and Sydney first meet it’s about her trying on clothes, trying on a different personality, the woman she’s always wanted to be, She slips on that dramatic black evening dress and it makes her feel sexy, she’s in love. Their passions are spectacular but their flaws are also spectacular.
“And Christian putting on 40 pounds and becoming Irving really helped me because he came into the room he was suddenly walking a different way; and when he put the clothes on it made sense. And we enjoyed his sense of wanting to project himself as a man of the world, a sophisticated guy who knows a lot about art who could be trusted. And to express that we came up with a very extravagant and exuberant way of dressing that involved beautiful fabrics and his signature ascot.I think Christian and Amy created this little bubble of enchantment and love for those scenes when they’re running into the Pierre Hotel.
“For me, it was a real exploration of the art of costume design because it’s not just about making flashy, spangly costumes. Our world is very glamorous but it’s also very gritty. We saw people at their best and at their worst and their clothes help them take that journey. There were moments when Amy Adams had her black chiffon, fluttery night dress on and there’s such a heartbreaking vulnerability there that’s in contrast with her supreme confidence.”
Editorially, as an ensemble piece, “American Hustle” was a constant balancing act for Cassidy and his fellow nominees (Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten). Because of the short schedule, they divided the movie into chunks and sent them back and forth. But it was vital to get us emotionally invested in Irving and Sydney from the outset. “The first act is a complete cinematic braid and it’s two levels of abstraction because it’s narrative and voice-over,” Cassidy explains. “And it required many iterations and rethinking all the way through the editing. You don’t want to give the audience a reason to dismiss these characters. They both have to love that Duke Ellington. Then when the second act explodes out we can introduce you to Jeremy Renner, and you develop Bradley Cooper’s character, and you get all these tertiary conflicts.”
Speaking of Ellington, that too was very personal to Russell, who selected “Jeep’s Blues” as the device that sets the love story in motion between Irving and Sydney, who meet at an indoor pool party in ’74, the year that Ellington passed away. It just so happens that she also wears a charm bracelet with Ellington’s face that draws him to her.
“He sees this woman, he grabs her wrist, which is personal for me — it’s how I met Holly [Davis], my other half, and she was wearing this watch — and we invented that Duke Ellington bracelet. That was their bond. But we shortened it [by deleting her doing a Jack Benny imitation as well]. Her past was in, it was out, it was this order, it was that order. Finally, it goes into a haiku about their affection for Duke Ellington. She tells us about Irving, he tells us about her (“Like me, she had been someone she didn’t want to be”).
“That was done with the help of this crew. They’re like Navy SEALS. This movie is 10 pounds in a five-pound bag. Nobody cares. But we care because we have to put 10 pounds in a five-pound bag and then make it good. But that’s how it is in love and war.”