At the upbeat Santa Barbara International Film Festival best director tribute to David O. Russell, the Oscar-nominated man behind “American Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook” (who back in 2004 called Lily Tomlin the c-word to her face) had us all in stitches.
Interviewed by fest exec director Roger Durling, Russell, at an early point in the evening, commandeered the Q&A entirely, leaving the adorably obsequious Durling flustered. Unlike other Russell public appearances, when the director has gotten testy or cagey around questions about his “hiatus” from film (between “I Heart Huckabees” and “The Fighter”), the evening at SBIFF was a joyous one. Here are nine factoids from the evening:
1. Sydney Prosser in “American Hustle” was tailor-made for Amy Adams. After “The Fighter,” Russell wanted to create another role for Adams that would show the full breadth of her range. “Amy was in ‘The Master’ last year; we would see each other. She was here in Santa Barbara, I was here in Santa Barbara, so we would talk. I said, I want to create a role for you that’s going to show your entire range, the way people have never seen it before. So that’s how the part came to be. [The Santa Barbara International Film Festival] helped put this together.”
2. His first film was a documentary about an immigrant in Boston who was being terrorized in his neighborhood. “Probably by friends of Mark Wahlberg,” Russell joked. “He ran with a very rough crowd, and I met a lot of them. They ended up in ‘Three Kings’ and they’d come to his trailer and ask to take the monitors.” He won a cable TV award for that first film. He went on to say, “I made films that were bad, but there was a place called Sundance where you could take them.”
3. In his 20s, Russell waited on Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols. I went to New York and I was a waiter for rich people. I was a waiter for parties at Jackie Onassis’ house, at the New York Film Festival. I waited on Martin Scorsese at the Museum of Modern Art premiere of ‘Goodfellas.’ I said to him, ‘I really want to do what you’re doing,’ and he said, ‘I’ll have a vodka.'” At a party at Onassis’s, Russell said the same thing to Mike Nichols. His response? “I used to do what you’re doing. Good luck.”
4. Russell learned how to make movies by memorizing a 20-minute sequence from “Chinatown.” “I would memorize sections of films. I memorized a sequence that I thought was spellbinding from ‘Chinatown,’ and I could recite it to you now. I tell all the kids at the Bronx High School for Cinema, the only public high school for cinema that I’ve had the privilege of helping for 12 years, I tell them that 20-minute sequence where Jack Nicholson goes out to the land deeds bureau and sees all these names in the book of land deeds out in LA County… He borrows a ruler and coughs to cover up the sound of him ripping the page, and then there’s a whole chase through the orange groves.”
5. His first film, the incest comedy “Spanking the Monkey,” was inspired by a disgusting daydream he had. “I had this disgusting daydream based on the summer my mother got into a car crash. My mother would slap me in the face for making up that daydream. And I said, ‘that is just filthy. I’m going to write that daydream just for me.’ I was so angry, I had broken up with a girlfriend, I was broke, my friends had cars, marriages and children. I was the guy at weddings who was asked, ‘how’s that writing thing going? How’s that working out?’ But I said, ‘this thing is fucking good because it was emotional and intense and it came from a place I would never make a movie… It was messed up, and that’s what made it a good movie.'” [“Spanking the Monkey” went on to win two Indie Spirit Awards in 1995.]
6. Russell wrote a script for Dolly Parton. After “Spanking the Monkey” (1994), Russell got an agent, and Dolly Parton hired him to write a script. She had a company called Sanddollar. After the Sundance premiere of “Monkey,” Russell couldn’t get the script financed.
7. Russell says that “strong women are the secret to great cinema.”
8. Between “Flirting with Disaster” (1996) and “Three Kings” (1999), Russell originally intended to make a film about the turn-of-the-century oil industry, a la “There Will Be Blood.” Alas, his son was developing bipolar syndrome, which contributed, along with a divorce, to his much publicized meltdown during the filming of “I Heart Huckabees.”
9. He still does not want to talk about the time between “I Heart Huckabees” and “The Fighter.” While Durling poked and prodded Russell about the time between these two films — when his life was falling apart — the director nervously asked, “Isn’t it time for a clip?” Russell infamously dueled with star Lily Tomlin on the set of “Huckabees.” A few years prior, on the set of “Three Kings,” the obstreperous Russell headbutted George Clooney, who in turn tried to choke him, as alleged in Sharon Waxman’s “Rebels on the Backlot.”
He’s now a calmer and wiser man–and a superb filmmaker who is challenging Scorsese for the best director Oscar.