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David O. Russell Explains His Mental Health Advocacy, His Screenwriting Secrets, and Why 'American Hustle' Won't Be Like 'Argo'

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire July 2, 2013 at 11:08AM

In a lengthy discussion with Indiewire, Russell addressed his second career in activism, anticipated some of the discussions surrounding the themes of "American Hustle," and explained exactly why he makes the kinds of movies he does.
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David O. Russell in Nantucket.
Eric Kohn David O. Russell in Nantucket.

David O. Russell had a lot of reasons to smile this past weekend at the Nantucket Film Festival. On Saturday, Russell was the center of attention several times: First for a packed crowd at the Dreamland Theater, where he discussed his filmmaking in a public conversation with Chris Matthews, then at an intimate lunch with several younger filmmakers in which he revealed secrets of the trade, and finally at a worshipful awards ceremony that evening, when fellow festival guest Glenn Close presented Russell with the festival's Screenwriters Tribute.

While Russell is still gliding on the popularity of last year's "Silver Linings Playbook," which has turned him into an activist for the mental health community, he's also got a new feature slated for awards season fervor: "American Hustle," currently in post-production and scheduled for a December release, revolves around the seventies-era exploits of Mel Weinberg (Christian Bale), a real life financial con man, his British partner in crime (Amy Adams), and the FBI agent who exploits them (Bradley Cooper). "He's not your usual federal agent," Russell said during the Matthews talk. "He's from the outer boroughs and is every bit a character as they are. They find themselves working for him, running cons for him. It's really about how their love affair has been dishonest up until this time."

Russell also drummed up hype for Bale's performance, for which the actor gained weight and donned an unflattering combover to look the part. "The combover's kind of breathtaking," Russell said. "When you see these people in the trailer, I think the feeling will be, 'Oh my god, who are these people? I want to get to know them.'" That was a central theme as Russell discussed his work over the weekend: Characters drive his movies more than plot. "My job is to make you love them in spite of all their sins," he told Matthews. "I always start out thinking, 'These people are just despicable,' but when you get close to them, you can always find out how they're very human and very lovable."

The next day, as the festival wound down, a chipper Russell sat down with Indiewire to elaborate on that point and several others in a lengthy discussion. Seated before a shiny new table at Stephen Swift Furnituremaker, a store owned by the sister of Russell's music supervisor Sue Jacobs, Russell addressed his second career in activism, anticipated some of the discussions surrounding the themes of "American Hustle," and explained exactly why he makes the kinds of movies he does.

At last night's event, many people talked about the reverberations of "Silver Linings Playbook" in the mental health community since you were partly inspired by your son Matthew's struggles with bipolar disorder. Your activism has continued long after the release of the film, and you were honored by the McLean Hospital in Boston for your efforts earlier this month. At what point does this turn into a full time job?

It could become a completely full-time job, as could building the post-graduate program for kids who are not college-bound but want to work their way into internships and professions and do it in an inspiring, creative, supportive, therapeutic environment. That doesn't exist, so I'm going to be helping to build that for all those kids who are coming of age. For example, I'm trying to build in-roads for theater companies in Connecticut for Matthew, who's doing a post-graduate year in Connecticut but he wants to branch out. McLean has started to do that stuff. That could be a full-time job. It's a huge need that needs to be creatively fulfilled.

"Everybody in American has to survive emotionally and financially. It's a place of continual reinvention that goes all the way back to the very beginning."


What's the gestation period for this initiative?

Because I've been on the board of the Ghetto Film School, that it would be helpful to make more specific paths for every vocation for those kids. That's what they want -- to go off-campus and begin to put their feet in the water. That's what needs to be built. McLean is doing some of that themselves. I like working with them on that. It turns out the guy who runs McLean went to college just a few years behind me at Amherst, Dr. Rouch. So that's an impressive place.

Does this kind of ripple effect from "Silver Linings" inform the kind of movies you want to make going forward?

It does. It's kind of amazing that a year later it's still happening. I still have people who come up to me and want to talk to me about it. There's more of this: The Fountain House [a New York-based organization for mental-health support] and NAMI [the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which Russell promoted on Oscar night]. Every family's trying to do what they can. NAMI has a magazine and they gave me this silver ribbon that I then ended up speaking about on the red carpet of the Oscars. It's good to be involved in these things. I love work; I love filmmaking. In Spike Jonze's documentary about Maurice Sendak, "Tell Them Anything You Want," he says his happiest hours are when he's working. I can understand that. It's wonderful to be doing work when you feel focused and you know what direction you want to go in. On the other hand, it's been nice to come here to Nantucket and get to know all these people -- to get to know Glenn Close and talk with her organization. It does affect the kind of films you make into the future. But I don't know if every film can be like that. It's kind of a funny thing.

I'm trying to figure out if there's a social activism hook for "American Hustle."

Yeah, you can't do it for every film. [laughs] Some of my favorite films don't have any such social activism hook, from "The Wizard of Oz" to "Raging Bull." Hopefully the stories are just potent.

Well, in the case of "American Hustle," a movie about con artists and FBI agents, I wonder if its release this year will inform the current conversation raging about intelligence efforts post-Edward Snowden.

Oh, that's interesting -- "American Hustle" having an effect on a larger conversation about American intelligence. Thematically, the question of how this is right and when is it right -- certainly, you could spend a lot of time trying to do surveillance and sting a lot of people, especially people in the government. To me, the interesting thing is the emotional line for these people, that it's so personal. I'm interested in the personal lives of these people and how it changed them and the emotional impact it had -- which is pretty huge, massive, shattering, life-changing for all these people -- in many cases for the better, and in others devastating and not for the better. I don't know if it will become a part of that larger dialogue. I really want to make indelible characters like we did in "The Fighter." To me, the larger theme of that is how everybody in American has to survive emotionally and financially. It's a place of continual reinvention that goes all the way back to the very beginning.

Next: A new stage in Russell's career.

This article is related to: Interviews, Features, David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Nantucket Film Festival, Festivals





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