Is there a recent filmmaker who has enjoyed a more impressive career rebound than David O. Russell? Before “The Fighter” in 2010, Russell’s career was in tatters, and in danger of flatlining for good. But that shrewd melding of “Rocky”-style boxing saga and family psychodrama marked a magnificent return to form, and was duly recognized with seven Oscar nominations and a pair of wins for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. It was followed last year by “Silver Linings Playbook,” which propelled Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to new career heights, performance-wise, and brought Lawrence her own Oscar.
With “American Hustle,” which goes into wide release this weekend, Russell shows off his renewed vigor with the most ambitious and virtuoso feature yet in what he calls his “comeback trilogy.” Having been named Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Circle and garnered seven Golden Globe nominations, “American Hustle” which charts the 70s Abscam scandal through the amorous and combative engagements of four desperate but enthralling characters, could be the film that brings Russell his own, first Oscar statuette. He’s in the running for picture, director, screenplay and editing, if not nominations for his superb actors who made significant contributions to the end results.
On his “American Hustle” campaign promo tour, Russell dropped into the Dubai International Film Festival, where his seventh feature was the closing-night film, and sat down for a chat with TOH. Despite arriving only hours earlier from London, Russell, who brings a spiky reputation into interviews, was in an open, relaxed and jovial mood.
The opening sequence, with Christian Bale’s character Irving meticulously crafting his combover, is fantastic. It sets the tone that this is a movie about characters, and about who people want to be in their lives.
That’s what Christian and I wanted the whole movie to be about, all of us. I inherited a script that I rewrote. I wanted to make this about the characters, not the events. The events are secondary to me. I want it to be about their love lives and their hearts and their survival and the theme of reinvention. I like to feel the passion that people feel for life. Even if they’ve made terrible mistakes and are having to reckon with them, I love that they love someone or they love Duke Ellington or they love their hair. It’s very vulnerable and human to me. My father had a combover so there’s something very endearing about it to me.
The performances are all great, but it’s a career-best from Amy Adams.
If you have formidable women, that’s a nuclear weapon for a movie. I discovered that with “The Fighter.” It was exciting for me to go back to all of these actors and say, “I want to do something you’ve never done. Amy, you’re going to be as raw as you’ve ever been, as vulnerable and as glamorous and sexy. I want people to see you like they never saw you.” I wanted each of them to be like that. I think the dynamics between these four characters were electric. Everybody was excited to work together. It made the set exciting.
One review has called the film “a sincere meditation on insincerity.” Would you agree?
That’s overly simplistic. It’s also kind of a paradox. These characters aren’t just insincere, they’re also sincere. They sincerely love each other. Irving sincerely loves his kid and his wife, even though he wants to kill her. He sincerely loves Duke Ellington; he sincerely loves elegance. Duke Ellington created himself — he was a butler’s son — and these characters have all created themselves too.
As someone remarks in the film, “You believe what you want to believe.”
“Silver Linings” is the same thing. So is “The Fighter.” “The Fighter” is, “Who do you believe you are? Do you believe you’re in the shadow of your brother?” He had to take that step to say, “I’m going to dare to be greater than my brother was, and I’m going to dare to break away from the family.” You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing, even if it’s just to survive. It’s what’s required of being a human being. These films are a little more operatic than life, but I prefer that. I like that they’re out there, with big emotions and big scenes and big characters. It’s muscular. That’s the cinema that I’ve embraced.
How did you rediscover your filmmaker’s mojo?
By being humbled and brought to my knees. By being told, “This is your last chance to tell a story or we’re going to drop you off this cliff.” Because I would never have made “The Fighter” ten years ago. I would have gone, “I don’t get it. It feels like a story that’s been told before. Who cares?” Whereas I said to myself, “Look closer. Look at the people. Oh, the sisters; the mother; the brother… that’s interesting to me.” And I realized how humbling it is to have the opportunity to make a movie at all. You should kiss the ground to be able to make a movie every time. Cherish it and get your head out of your ass. I often use sex or eating as my metaphor for making a movie. What’s your favorite food?
Off the top of my head, let’s say shrimp.
So this is how you have to be as a storyteller, with one story and then every story. Here’s your shrimp. How do you like it? You’re excited about this shrimp, aren’t you? Eat that shrimp. Great. Now, eat the shrimp again but eat it like it was the first time, okay? Now eat it again. No, eat that fucking shrimp. I want you to love that shrimp. I’m not feeling like you’re loving it. You have to write it like that, you have to direct it like that, edit it, talk to you about it. That makes you have to love it, otherwise you’re not going to be able to do that. It makes you deep.
Part of being back in the game is that your films are being showered with critical praise and awards. What does this kind of recognition mean to you, following your own line of thought about cherishing the whole experience?
You don’t think about that; you just want to try to do really good work. And if that happens, then that means — I don’t know what that means. It’s nice. It’s exciting for everybody who’s involved in the movie. When we did it with “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings,” it wasn’t expected. With this one, it was expected so that was a lot of pressure. It was more like, “I pray we can do something really good.” The only way you can do that is if you keep turning around and saying to yourself, “Are you sure this is good? Try harder. I’m not feeling it.” Eat the shrimp. You have to stay hungry.
In the back of your mind, though, you must be feeling optimistic that “American Hustle” will be your third film in a row to collect at least one Oscar.
It’s always exciting to me emotionally if you do get acknowledged. But the people who don’t — that list is just as distinguished. When we were landing in London and the Golden Globe nominations were coming out, everybody was saying, “Maybe we’ll have exciting news when we land.” I’m really superstitious and I said, “Look at me. We got nothing.” As soon as you start to expect it, you’re screwed.
Your recent work, and “American Hustle” in particular, is drawing comparisons to Scorsese at his best. Is he an influence and inspiration?
You know, he’s a great filmmaker and to not be influenced by him would be impossible. I am a fan for sure. But I’d also like to think we’re doing something that is, as Duke Ellington said about what he aspired to in his music, beyond category. We’re trying to bring characters and stories that are beyond category. I would never call “Silver Linings Playbook” a romantic comedy. When people said that, my head snapped. I said, “Wash your mouth out with soap.” Or they say “The Fighter”‘s a boxing movie. That’s not how I thought of it.
Is “American Hustle” a comedy?
It’s funny but it’s also heartbreaking. It’s an opera to me.