Interview: David O. Russell
“The art of survival is a story that never ends,” notes the charismatic con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) late in David O. Russell’s American Hustle—a sentiment as applicable to Seventies-era grafters as to present-day Hollywood filmmakers, especially those, like Russell, intent on marching to the beat of their own drums. In Russell’s case, make that the beat of his own symphony orchestra. And yet, at a moment when franchises dominate the release schedule and ambitious indie filmmakers struggle to secure financing, Russell has managed the remarkable feat of directing three mid-sized, character-driven movies in the span of four years. These films have earned 25 Oscar nominations, five of those his own, and exalted their ensemble casts, with Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle each receiving four acting nominations and The Fighter before them picking up three (Silver Linings went on to win one, The Fighter two). They have connected with audiences and critics alike, and rehabilitated a career that, in the director’s own, Joseph Campbell–like telling of things, had become bogged down in the belly of the beast.
Twenty-four hours before American Hustle received its 10 Academy Award nominations—including that rare achievement of securing acting nods for all four of its principal stars (Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence)—Russell settled into a booth at the Early World Café, a pointedly unfashionable West L.A. diner that could easily have served as one of Hustle’s shooting locations. Russell, who lives nearby in Santa Monica, has been coming here for 15 years, ever since his older son attended a pre-school down the street, and he’s on a first-name basis with the entire staff. “We had a place that was just like this when we lived in New York—it was called the Metro, at 100th and Broadway,” he says. “And when I found this place, I felt I was oriented.”
Russell has found his bearings in other respects, too. He is making the movies of a director in full command of his craft and in full possession of a particular vision of the world. It is a less cynical vision, perhaps, than the one that fueled his early Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, and Three Kings, but euphoric in its love of people, our major failings, and our personal victories. Over two hours, Russell, who’s as much of a live wire as any of his characters, spoke at length about his collaborative creative process, the song in his heart, and the art of surviving Hollywood.
You’ve talked about your last three movies as being a kind of loose trilogy on the subject of reinvention, about characters who are unhappy with themselves. But whereas the characters in Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter are psychologically and emotionally damaged people trying to heal themselves, the ones in American Hustle are trying to become other people entirely, either to con someone, or to feel better inside their own skin, or both.
I don’t think the characters are all that different—it’s the same thing, they’re humans who have genuine love for other people and life and are reckoning with mistakes they’ve made and charting their course. I always need to feel the heartbeat of people trying to love. It was essential that I felt that about each character in this movie as well.
Can you talk a bit about the evolution of American Hustle from what was on the page to what ended up on the screen?
[Co-screenwriter] Eric Singer had been thinking about this story for a long time, and had done a lot of the work in terms of meeting some of the historical characters and researching it. When I got the script to read, I felt that these were characters—I couldn’t find them anywhere else. I said to Eric, “With your permission, I would like to come in and go in a different direction. I’d like you to be my corner man—you know who all the characters are—but I want it to be about romance and I want to create a love triangle and I want the wife to be a remarkable character, not merely a depressed character.” I don’t have an appetite for that now, to make something that’s relentlessly dark. I said, “I want people to be enchanting and they must have a lot of enchantment and love in their world.” There’s a horror to bipolarity or a horror to trying to survive Lowell, Massachusetts, but to me there’s also the wonder and the love and the magic that some people wouldn’t even see if you said, “Look at what you have.” But if you tried to take it away from them, they’d say, “No, no, wait a second. This is important to me.”
How do you put it all together when you write?
I put everything on the table: what are the most interesting things here? You need a doozy of a predicament, which is going to then allow these people to be vastly human, with an operatic range. Then you want to get real intimate and sweaty and emotional with them as they’re living and loving in that. So it’s about them and their music and their food and their loves and their passion, and the predicament’s like a blowtorch that propels you forward. You have the FBI, which turns into this larger plan, which turns into the mayor of Camden and his world, which is a beautiful link to the salt of the earth. I feel as Irving feels when he says, “People just got over Vietnam and Watergate and you’re going to go take down politicians?” I believe in trying to respect things and find dignity in them and in not kicking them when they’re down and saying, “Isn’t everything horrible?”
So, I take all these characters and I say, “I love the guy and his marriage, but he and his partner [the Bale and Adams characters] were truly in love.” Their love affair became the first driving element to me. Then it becomes very complicated. I knew I wanted to start in the middle of the story. I wanted the audience to feel like they just got air-dropped into this room with fascinating people you’d never seen before. It’s almost like the beginning of a play, with each person walking in. Everything has to be played like it’s life or death—that’s the only way I know how to make a picture. Every scene has to be treated like that.
It has to be like a song that I feel in my head. I have to make sure every single thing happens in that song, from the bass to the treble to this vocal part: Amy, Bradley, Christian, the camera movement—that all has to happen until it feels like the song of the story. In one version of the opening scene, we started on Amy, and that was a debate that went on. You must work from instinct, you must hear the music, but some things you have to keep debating right until they take it out of your hands. That’s the only way I know how to try to make things good.
How much of that song is in your head when you show up on the set?
The whole thing. New things are maybe going to reveal themselves, or things I thought would reveal themselves turn out to be not as strong as I’d hoped. That’s why I say that two-thirds to three-quarters of what’s on the screen was in the script originally. Rewriting can happen either the night before, the week before, or the day of. You show up on the day and you’re like, “This isn’t what it should be. Let me rejigger this.” I’ll say to the actors, “It’s OK, it’s going to go like this,” and then we go over any changes together either in their trailer or the van in the morning.
There certainly is a musical quality to the film—the sound of the dialogue, and the way one scene flows into the next.
I think the rhythm of each person speaking is the micro level, and then there’s the rhythm of them together, and the movement of the scene and the movement of the camera and the music. Those are all rhythms inside rhythms inside rhythms. If I’m ever insistent to actors that they do something, it’s about that—a certain language, a certain rhythm—and Dustin Hoffman taught me that it was a legitimate way to direct. Until then, I thought I was cheating or not legit.
How do you talk to actors on the set?
From the get-go, I’ll say to any actor, “If we have differing opinions, I’m going to ask you to do it both ways.” And there are a lot of times I end up in the editing room saying, “Thank God that actor suggested that,” because my way was wrong. Very often there’s an “our way” that will emerge. To me, that’s the best way to collaborate—rather than debate it, let’s try it both ways. I don’t believe in over-thinking things. I feel like you have to come from a place of instinct and rhythm and trust. I want to keep the river flowing. That’s part of the beauty of making these movies: welcome to this world where we’re making the movie at a brisk pace, and we’re all in it together.
You make the morning rounds, like a doctor.
It’s very good to do that. It’s the best way to start the day, instead of on the set with all these people and lights and all this pressure. “What are you thinking about today? What’s going on? Let me tell you what I’m thinking. This is how I want to shoot it. This is how I want it to feel.” It’s very useful.
Let’s talk about Amy Adams. Her role is really complicated.
I think her character opens up many sides of her, and I think that makes for some very alive and chemical, electric cinema. It felt raw to her, because she was vulnerable. She was playing a woman trying to figure out her life. Imagine being in that predicament—that would feel raw. I wanted that for her. For years I’d been promising her: “Let’s make a big part for you, so we can see you in all your range.”
These aren’t big-budget films with very long shooting schedules that you’re doing. Do you do a lot of takes?
I don’t want it to be too many, but we’re not going to move on until we get what we feel is very special.
There are moments when we carve out time for an important scene and we may do it 10 to 20 times in a mag of film, but we don’t say cut, we just keep rolling. In the big scene where Bradley tells Amy he loves her and she drops her accent and reveals herself, we found that it was coming off, but not as raw and real as we wanted it to be. Amy was having, I think, some emotional logic issues with why she would reveal herself to him. So during the third time around, the camera was still rolling and I pulled Bradley over and said, “Really melt her. Really tell her you love her, but don’t stop until you see it go in.” So he told her he loved her, like Bradley to Amy inside those two characters. He crouches down and repeats it until you see Amy buckle a little bit until she’s leaning forward to kiss him, which was never scripted or asked for, and she kisses him very warmly and tenderly. So she’s melted, and then it makes logical sense that she says, “You really love me? This is who I am. Let’s see if you love this.”
You like to get right into the mix during the take. You’re not standing back somewhere by the monitor.
I’m hidden under a table if the camera is going all around the room, or I’m next to the Steadicam.
You shoot almost everything on the Steadicam, which can feel like a lazy way of shooting in some directors’ hands, but your choreography feels very precise, like in De Palma, Kubrick, Scorsese.
You have to have decisive shots. You’re simultaneously thinking of your coverage and protecting yourself, and getting the performances and the feeling of the scene, and you’re also thinking about some hero shots that you think can really make the cinema go turbo a little bit.
Do you storyboard?
Very often. It’s a combination of storyboarding and shot-listing. I tell everybody the shot list first thing in the morning and then Shelley [assistant director Shelley Ziegler] says to me, “OK, I think you’re going to get eight of those, but I don’t think you’re going to get these three.” And then I bargain with her. I say, “If I get this done by this time, then can I grab these candy shots?” We time out the whole day. We say, “This shot needs to be done by this time.” Why make it a mystery? I can’t work like that. I can say to anybody at any given time, “We need to be done with this in 20 minutes,” and if we break out of that, I want everybody to be aware, and we’re going to have to make up for it somewhere.
You also let a lot of beats play out in long takes, without coverage.
Sometimes we design a shot to be all in one, but that same shot may turn out to favor somebody. You may have matching masters—a master that’s designed around Christian and another that’s designed around Bradley, so we get these performances, but if we really need something to cut to… That’s very often why I tilt down to people’s hands while they’re talking. I also like studying people; when you talk to people, you’re not always just looking at eye level. That gives you a cut if you want to marry two takes. Or you stay on it and it gives you a nice feeling of taking the person in.
You’ve also developed a way of shooting that effectively inverts the usual ratio of time spent lighting the set to time spent actually shooting.
That’s another conversation I have early on with the DP and the gaffer, which is to say, “Listen, we need to light quickly, and make it beautiful.” And the way I try to do that is with natural, soft sources through windows or the ceiling, the way many great cinematographers have. It can be beautiful, it’s modeled, it has shades to it. Soft, natural light—I don’t like hard, slashing light. I love DPs who are artists in their own right, meaning that they think about emotion, they’re listening to the same song I’m listening to. They’re not just thinking of their job; they’re thinking of the whole song, the whole movie.
You shot on 35mm film, which may strike some people as counterintuitive for a director who likes to do long takes and keep the camera running between takes.
The last existing Fuji stock. I’m a little superstitious, and I am told by some experts who handle post that there is some unnamable quality that happens, that you can actually quantify, when you transfer film to digital. I’m old-fashioned. I like old-fashioned formality, and part of that is shooting film. I’m a little bit of an analog guy in that way. I think the movies we’re making are analog. That’s a banner I’m happy to carry.
You’ve managed to do something that is supposed to be impossible in today’s Hollywood: you’ve done three character-based movies in a row that weren’t sequels or remakes or comic-book adaptations, all of which have been embraced by critics and audiences alike.
You must do every film like it’s your final film, every scene like it’s your last scene, and that’s the only chance you have to land on that very narrow landing strip. It means you’ve really got to hit it hard from the heart. It has to be a very captivating cinematic experience on many levels. The characters have to be very soulful and riveting in a way that’s very satisfying, that makes you love and care and, before you know it, it’s over.
It’s taken me 20 years to learn that if you want to have a shot at making good art, you’ve got to commit, and then things appear to you. It’s a great act of faith.
Every day on a movie set, the movie is just beating your ass, on a micro level and on a macro level. The mountain is beating you, for the first half or two-thirds of the day, and you’re trudging on. You’re like a fighter, to mix all my metaphors, and you’re in the corner covering up like Micky Ward. Then sometime around the middle of the day, you start to land a punch or two, and hopefully by two-thirds through the day, you’re like, “I am schooling this film now.” But every day it’s almost the same thing , which is a wonderful adventure. That’s the wonderful adventure of creation.