Nine years have gone by since the last time Christian Bale starred in a David O. Russell movie, but the two men were a constant presence in each other’s lives during that hiatus. Soon after their “American Hustle” hit theaters in 2013, Bale says the pair began looking for another project to collaborate on. It started simply enough: Russell invited Bale to a diner for a late night meal.
Then they did it again. And again. And again. For about five years.
Rather than shoehorn Bale into an existing script, the two men decided to figure out the next kind of character they wanted to see Bale play. The process of crafting their new film “Amsterdam” was more akin to an improvisational jam session between musicians than a structured writing process. The character they ultimately developed is Burt Berdensen, an injured World War I veteran who returns to New York after the war and devotes his life to helping other veterans. He possesses a sense of optimism and joie de vivre that’s rarely seen in a Russell character, refusing to embrace hate or bitterness no matter what ailments life throws at him.
Both men were intrigued by the character, but they still needed a story to tell about him. They put the idea on the back burner and kept working on their own projects until Russell discovered a piece of 20th century history that ended up being the last piece of the puzzle.
“I went away and made ‘Vice’ and ‘Ford v. Ferrari’ while we were doing that. But all the time David was working away on the story and I had Bert kind of bubbling in the back of my brain,” Bale said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Then there was a historical episode that had happened in America that David had learned of that I was unaware of. And he was just amazed. He called me up and said ‘mate, I gotta tell you all about this.'”
While revealing the “historical episode” at the center of the story would likely constitute an unforgivable spoiler for the period whodunnit, the film is much more of a character piece than a history lesson. The political parallels between the film’s events and recent elections are obvious, but the primary goal was to explore the way a friendship pact between three people could shape the rest of their lives. More than anything, Burt’s worldview is shaped by his battle forged friendships with a wealthy nurse (Margot Robbie) and a lawyer who served in combat with him (John David Washington).
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
“We met up, and then we started thinking about creating this triangle of friendship in these characters that Margot and J.D. and myself play. Placing them in the midst of this factual event in American history,” Bale said. “We were looking at photographs, watching jazz documentaries. And just seeing photos of people, hearing a comment made, jotting all these things down … it came from that. David’s a real circular thinker and I love the way he thinks, the way an idea will come around and come to the front for a bit and then disappear. And gradually, sort of bone by bone, we put Burt together.”
While Bale isn’t a writer on the film, his creative input was given at every turn. It was a level of collaboration that Bale wasn’t used to, and it resulted in a character that the method actor had no problem immersing himself in. “It was wonderful to be that baked in to the whole process,” he said. “By the time we came to actually start filming, Burt was sort of in my bones. I didn’t even have to think about him, because he had been there for years.”
“Amsterdam” marks the third time that the two men have worked together, but Bale is certainly not interested in ending the collaboration any time soon. Even if it takes another half decade of late night diner sessions for their next film to materialize.
“It’s a very unique experience,” Bale said of working with Russell. “David is unlike any other film director, and that’s what you want. That’s the whole point. A director brings a point of view, and a rhythm and everything, and the great ones are always unique. They’re singular. And David is that. Truly one of the greats.”
A 20th Century Studios release, “Amsterdam” opens in theaters on Friday, October 7.