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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 11:8AM

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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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.

"Silver Linings Playbook."
With "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings," it seems as though you've moved into a new stage as a storyteller in which you create entire worlds rather than just a specific set of characters.

That's very important to me, the world. That's what's very enchanting to me, what's necessary to me, the fabric of that world. That's pretty much one of the only things we have at any chapter of our lives, the world of people and places, musics and clothes, intentions. In many of my favorite movies, those are things that I stare at and watch again and again beyond the story or the characters.

The way you describe "American Hustle," it sounds like your biggest undertaking. You made one other period piece with "Three Kings," but it was recent history; this one jumps back to the seventies.

Yes. It was very inspiring to me because things are always more enchanting through the looking glass of history. We see ourselves from a distance and somehow all the things we take for granted are slightly different. I grew up in the seventies and I thought it was a horrible times -- although I did love the Ford Administration, because the Vietnam War had ended and Watergate had ended and there was a glorious feeling of renewal and happiness. But you always felt the fifties or the sixties were more exciting decades. It's so ironic to me that now, when you look back at the seventies and say, "This decade's no good, the music's no good," it's always elsewhere. But I think there's a goldmine of style and music. I love finding hidden treasures or using existing treasures in new ways that are kind of married in a very emotional way to what's happening in the story. My dad was a businessman during that time. He worked in publishing for Simon & Schuster and then started his own company. I watched him try to survive as a businessman during those years. And I saw what happened with him when there were things that didn't work out, things that were a big deal in our household, like when there were betrayals from other companies and partners. That was all new to me at that time because you think the world is going to be a little bit more safe. I started to see how volatile it was, and how grown-ups were capable of such acts of unreliability.

That's what this movie is a cousin of -- these people in the seventies trying to survive. It's just like in "The Fighter," how fighting for your own survival in whatever your profession or life is ends up changing your whole soul, in a way. You have to rebirth your whole soul. That's what interests me. That's why the women are so important. The lives of the women -- the relationships and homes these people are making. What happens to that when all this over stuff is going down?

You've said before that  you felt a little lost after "I Heart Huckabees," the one movie you wish could've been done differently. It sounds like a lot of the ideas involving soul-searching experiences that you're talking about now were more transparently discussed in that movie, whereas in the recent films they're sublimated into the story.

I'm more interested in the people. I think if you get too close to the surface of ideas, you're not going deep into what's fascinating about the people. If you look at "Ranging Bull," in the scene where Jake LaMotta takes Vickie into the apartment for the first time, this spare Bronx apartment with one crucifix on the wall and a birdcage, just the feeling of that room is so extraordinary. That's why people visit other countries. I wanted "American Hustle" to feel like visiting another country, where the women and the men dress and behave in certain ways. That in itself is riveting. They sweat life and death through stakes that are terrifying.

What these guys go through is almost like being in a boxing ring. You're either going to get knocked out or knock the other guy out. It's also my first film that has had a women narrator. The women points of view are getting stronger in my films. Amy Adams has a very strong voice in this film -- as does Jennifer Lawrence. And Christian [Bale], you've never seen him like this before. That's exciting for me as a director and for actors as well: to become a very specific person, and you can smell and feel them. You can have some love for that person. I think the characters ended up being loved by the actors who played them. That's what excites me.

At the Nantucket awards ceremony, somebody described your films as "Capra-esque." It's an interesting connection, since Frank Capra's films are considered extremely sentimental. Is it harder to make movies in that vein today?

I think sentimentality has a more pejorative connotation of something that feels easy or superficial. I would hope to come from a deeper place involving the hearts of the characters. In real life, there are things that make you cry and things that make you feel hope and things that make you feel suicidal. That's all real. I think the reason "It's a Wonderful Life," in 1946, didn't do very well is that the dark half of that film was horrifying -- it was almost like a David Lynch film to people in 1946. But it was in the same movie where you had this upside. People knew how to go to film noir then, and they also knew how to go a comedy with Cary Grant, but they didn't know how to go both in one movie. [laughs]

So they're watching this very wholesome, family-oriented first half and all of sudden there's this horrifying nightmare of Jimmy Stewart behaving in a very dark way, running from the police and Violet is possibly a prostitute. It's a cold, bitter world and I think people weren't ready for it. Certainly both things can exist. The goal is to keep the film honest by showing the true ugliness. I would say "The Fighter" had a lot of emotion in it, but I think it was honest about the failings of people. That's the only way you can get to the renewal and rebirth -- if you truly go through the ugliness of the failure, catastrophe or harrowing problems. You're either going to go down or go up. I don't know a person alive who can't relate. Last night, I said that this [award] was for everybody that struggled, but I realized that I left that on a general note so that [emcee] Brian Williams said, "That includes all of us." [laughs] I meant, obviously, the messy ones with mood disorders, but I did compare it also to Dick Ekland, who struggled through drug addiction.

Specific struggles -- whether it's financial struggles by people trying to make their name, like this con artist couple in "American Hustle," or as the mayor played by Jeremy Renner is, or an agent of the government, as Bradley Cooper's character is -- they're all struggling to survive and keep their identities and themselves. It gets blown up in their faces. Then what are you going to do? What are you going to do in the sixth round when you're getting your ass handed to you? That's what's interesting to me. You gave it your all and now it looks really bad. What's interesting to me is what happens next. That's what makes it a great story.

The screenplay for "American Hustle" is credited to both you and Eric Singer. How did that collaboration break down?

Photos from the set of "American Hustle." Russell is pictured at center.

On "The Fighter," I worked with Scott Silver. I had a hand in helping to rewrite that script. I thought Eric Singer did a great job on what he had written, but I'm an auteur and have to make things in my voice. He knew that and I had an upfront agreement with him that I was going to take his work, which had gotten us inside the story. I said from the start that I'd do a page one rewrite and I did. It's a very different approach. Eric's one of the best writers out there but I have this roll that I'm on, with characters, that's a very different approach. As I said the other day to Chris Matthews, someone else can make "Argo," it's a great movie, but it's not the kind of movie I'm ever going to make. I'm not interested in making a movie that's about events in such a pure way. I'm much more interested in looking at the people in their homes, with their emotions, their sex lives, their romances, their clothes, their dinners, their social lives. That, to me, becomes really intense.

Then the events are like a blowtorch under their asses that keeps the movie moving at a pretty good clip, that keeps the kettle on the boil for all those emotions and all those interactions. I'm interested in watching what they're doing in their homes during all these events. Those are two different kinds of movies. Eric was a little more event-driven, if that makes sense. Even if it was more character-driven, it's not going to be the way I would smell or feel it. He's a very smart guy and has an amazing ear. He brought me inside the 50-yard line. He brought me to that place where I said -- and Christian Bale said -- there's really something here. Let's do this.

It's interesting to hear you describe yourself as an auteur. That's usually a label applied by other people.

As soon as the word came out of my mouth, I regretted using the French version of it. What I meant was "writer-director."

But you're returning to a big studio, Sony, for the first time since "Three Kings." Studios aren't exactly known for being kind to auteurism.

That's why I like working with Megan Ellison, Harvey Weinstein, or Relativity -- those are all people who got us in the barn. Then the studio's going to take it into the world. I think studios are in a very high stakes business and if you're making character-based movies, as I am, they can -- knock on wood -- be as successful as the last two, but I see how it's perceived as a riskier endeavor by these studios that prefer to make genre pictures or pictures that are more tried and true on very seasoned paths. If something has a seasoned fingerprint on it, that's a little more unknowable to them. I want to responsible partner for them in that by making the movie on a budget with a very tight schedule, defer salaries, do whatever we have to do. That's fair. Hopefully, we can participate in the success if they take the gamble, which fortunately happened with the last two pictures. If a movie strikes a chord with people emotionally, it's exciting, it seems like people want to hang out. My goal is that audiences want to be in the movie theater with those people for two hours. To really want to be with those characters. To be moved by them. To come out and go, "Wow, I want to go back and see them again."

As a board member for the Ghetto Film School, you've shown an interest in helping other filmmakers, as you have over the course of this weekend in Nantucket. How important is that type of advocacy for you?

Yeah, I like it. I've been involved with the Ghetto Film School for 10 years. And I like being involved with the Glenholme School, and I like participating in things like I did here on Nantucket or what I did last week at the L.A. Film Festival [where Russell served as guest director]. Those things changed my life. I went with a nickel in my pocket to the Sundance Film Festival to go introduce myself to the Coen brothers or Frank Oz or Robert Redford or Stephen Frears or Gus Van Sant. These were the people who were ahead of me. From my office job, I was desperate to listen and that was how I met my first wife and had my first son. We met at Sundance. I was desperate to start my life. I didn't know how. So yes: I do believe in those communities and I like those things. I like to try and keep them as no-nonsense as possible. I ask people to just tell me what their stories for their films are. I would love it if the me now could talk to the me then. Not that I would listen.


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