With his films “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” elating audiences the past two years at AFI Fest in Los Angeles on their way to Oscar gold, director David O. Russell is without a doubt in stellar standing with the festival and its many attendees. That consistency to quality—especially in Russell’s recent string of crowd favorites—is why he and a swath of his contemporaries gathered in the Egyptian Theater on Friday night to celebrate the helmer’s work and unique cinematic approach. Amidst a host of technical issues—uncomfortable chairs were swapped, mics cut out—Russell also screened the first six minutes of his new film “American Hustle,” which also had to be restarted due of sound loss. You can read our impressions of the deeply funny, manic footage over here, but first we’ve compiled a few highlights from the director’s wide-ranging, insightful talk.
Russell Is Well Aware of His Current Career Hot Streak, And The Trial-By-Fire Success of His Filmmaking Methods
“I feel like I’m very focused right now in the kinds of films I want to make,” Russell said on-stage during a 90-minute retrospective of his work with moderator Janelle Riley of Variety. “It feels like a story that goes three films deep, I think in ‘The Fighter,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ and now ‘American Hustle’. I think that’s the thing that makes the happiest. The thing that makes me least happy is when I don’t know what kind of story I want to tell, which I have experienced.”
Since his 1994 debut feature “Spanking The Monkey”—which starred a young Jeremy Davies (cast from “a Suburu commercial” as the director said)—Russell has perfected a loose, emotion-based blend of performance, visuals, and editing to truly get under the skin of his characters and the intimacy of the moment. From the frustrated couple played by Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette in “Flirting With Disaster” to the explosive Ward clan of “The Fighter,” he’s also brought a manic truth to the depiction of family, and Russell points to shooting on film as a major contributor to that process.
“The way I like to shoot as a director is to plan the way I want to see the film composed with storyboards or shot lists, and then to use preferably Steadicam or handheld to find those compositions in that room,” he said. “Then, I get the actors to almost forget what they’ve prepared, and to forget any notion of a performance. We shoot 20-minute film mags. The reason that’s sometimes better than digital is because it is going to run out, and the actors know it’s going to run out. So it’s burning, but I’m not going to ever stop and let the makeup people in to fix the actors and let them breathe.You’re in it.”
Filmmaking 101 Can Be Taught With 30 Minutes of “Chinatown,” and Jury Duty is God’s Gift To Screenwriters
Russell revealed that even though he made his first film at age 13, shooting the streets of New York with a 8mm camera for a school project, a filmmaking career was never an aspiration early on; literary ambitions followed him instead, and after college he became a political organizer alongside odd jobs, like bartending and teaching an SAT class. But he remembers a period in his late-teens that got him hooked into the possibilities of film.
“The girlfriend I had in high school’s father owned a United Artists theater in New York, so we could go with as many people as we wanted, as many times as we wanted,” he said. “It was like crack. We would go and watch ‘Chinatown’ seven times, ‘Shampoo’ five times, ‘The Godfather’ ten times. So I would memorize sections of films, and that way I taught myself, in particular with a certain sequence in ‘Chinatown’ that I could actually recite right now. And that’s what I tell the interns that come to work with me in my office: I have the secret to all cinema and it’s from the moment that Jack Nicholson goes up to the orange groves to the moment he’s in bed with Faye Dunaway. That’s pretty much all you need to know.”
In 1987, Russell made his first short film, “Bingo Inferno,” which was followed by the 1989 effort “Hairway To The Stars” starring “Prizzi’s Honor” actor William Hickey. However, another short that Russell was planning was stuck in the writing stages. “I wanted to make a short film, that later became ‘I Heart Huckabees,’ about a guy who sits in the back of a Chinese restaurant with microphones on every table to surreptitiously listen to everybody’s conversations, then write perversely personal fortunes for each of the people. I tried to write that into a feature—about two years. I probably wrote about 20 versions, but it just wasn’t happening.”
During this creative block, Russell was called to jury duty, a task that he calls “God’s gift to writers, because you get out of your day job, you get paid by your day job…and you get paid by the state of New York.” While waiting for his jury assignments, he gained the opportunity to re-assess his flailing script and start another that would eventually become “Spanking The Monkey”.
“I’m reminded of what Woody Allen said. You know, he’s written many scripts that get to page 70, and then that’s it, man. That dog won’t hunt. It’s not going to go 90 pages. So this nasty little story about the summer that my mom had wracked her car with a little bit of a drinking problem—I thought that is just a filthy, horrible, angry thing that I’ll write for myself. It didn’t count; I just wrote it for myself like it was pornography. It came right out.”
He added, “I have to trick myself into writing, and it’s something that I use for actors as well, to trick them into acting, to stop thinking too much. I become my own worst enemy when I think too much.”
‘I Heart Huckabees’ Remains Russell’s Least Favorite Film
That cerebral danger most notably interfered with Russell’s 2004 film “I Heart Huckabees,” which threw a pair of existentialist detectives (played by Dustin Hoffman and Isabelle Huppert) into a young man’s emotional breakdown. Russell described the film as “one big party, except for maybe one day,” referring with a laugh to the leaked on-set meltdown between him and actress Lily Tomlin. “The party just went right on past that day, but then that was the day that got remembered.”
He also called the film “my mid-life crisis movie,” saying, “I was exploring these ideas of hiring someone to spy on you and then tell you about your life if you were in a crisis, like I was. ‘What do I do about my marriage? What do I do about my bipolar kid?’ But in retrospect I overthought it too much. There was too much worrying around it, and I checked out of it a little bit. If I could do the film again, as proud as I am of many parts of it, I would make it sweaty and intimate.”
“I became a better filmmaker because of it, but it was painful. It was 6 years of losing my way a little bit,” Russell added.
Russell Encountered George W. Bush At A Fundraiser While Editing ‘Three Kings’
Of his eerily prescient 1999 war drama “Three Kings,” Russell described how, through his political efforts, he stumbled upon a war that was unique and disturbing in all-new ways. “I thought the Gulf War was a weird thing that hadn’t been looked at,” he said. “I thought ‘how fascinating’—the first war with color saturated photographs on the newspapers, a Bart Simpson doll in the Humvee, and soldiers not knowing why they were there. They liberated Iraq and they didn’t see much action, they wanted to see some, and they didn’t understand what violence was. Now it’s a whole other world—there’s far too much understanding.”
He also recounted an awkwardly timed encounter while editing the film when he and some of the “Three Kings” producers found himself face-to-face with son of the man behind the Gulf War. “I went to Terry Semel‘s, the chairman of Warner Bros. at the time, and he was having a fundraiser for George W. Bush. It was about 20 people, and so when I met George W. Bush at Semel’s house, I said, ‘Hi, I’m editing a film that will question your father’s legacy in Iraq.’ “
Russell says that Bush immediately shot back, “Well I guess I’m going to have to go back there and finish the job.”
To Impress Russell In an Audition, Mix It Up and Don’t Be “Bedroom Perfect”
Russell took much of the evening praising his many collaborators and the family environment that they’ve created together, including casting director Mary Vernieu and producer Charles Roven, but he also recalled some moments with some of them that he’d forgotten. Riley reminded Russell that James Franco auditioned for the Jamie Kennedy role in “Three Kings,” while Russell joked that Christian Bale—who revealed later to Russell that he read for Spike Jonze’s role in the same film—used the Batman voice during the audition, causing Russell to unintentionally insult the actor by suggesting he talk like Macaulay Culkin.
As his consistently eclectic roles can attest, Russell revealed that likes having the “octane of movie stars being used in some way you don’t expect.” He pointed to Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Amy Adams as examples, all of whom star in “American Hustle”—again, completely against type. Said Cooper over a filmed cell phone message, “It’s intense because you’re vulnerable as an actor, but it’s when you’re most vulnerable that the truth comes out. And if you know anything about David’s process, the more familiar you become with it, the easier it is to dive right in.”
Along with that unpredictable working method comes a few conditions while auditioning actors, and Russell outlined them all out for the audience. “Prepare to do the scene three or four different ways. And be completely open and flexible to working. Don’t do what Robert De Niro calls ‘bedroom perfect’–meaning when I was in my bedroom at home in the mirror I did it like this, and then when I come to set it’s so grooved into my hard drive there’s no other way I’m biologically able to do it. Enjoy yourself. If you go in there and enjoy yourself, the director will enjoy themselves too.”
Humbling acknowledging the steps taken to his run of stellar films recently, Russell concluded his talk by noting the shift in maturity and experience that he’s acquired. “When I was in my 20s I would’ve like to have made a film that just fucked you up, and now I think that I agree a little bit with George Lucas when he said, ‘If you want me to make you feel bad, that’s not hard. I’ll wring a kitten’s neck. But if you want me to enchant you, that’s a much harder thing to do.’ ”
“American Hustle” opens December 13th in limited release and then goes wide on December 18th.
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