You never know what you're going to get when you talk to David O. Russell. Once known as a hot-tempered director who gets into fist fights with his cast members while on set, Russell is still someone whose mind races from here to there to everywhere, but these days it's not anger or fear pouring out, it's passion; ridiculous amounts of passion for the characters he's creating and the stories he's telling. Thanks to a string of critical hits including The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle, Russell seems much happier with his work than ever before.
Hidden somewhere in each of those three movies is a piece of a filmmaker once lost that is now found, with much of his recent success resting on the shoulders of characters Russell has known his whole life -- he just hadn't discovered them yet. We spoke with Russell about this newfound love of his work as the writer-director was en route from New York to Europe to begin promoting American Hustle across the pond, and our unconventional conversation began with us pitching Russell a T-shirt based on our favorite scene in the movie.
Movies.com: One of the best scenes in the movie is the microwave scene. You should print T-shirts based solely on that scene.
David O. Russell: [Laughs] Which line? How would you do it?
Movies.com: Keep it simple. Just a T-shirt with a picture of a microwave, and above it you put the words “F***ing Science Oven.” I would wear the hell out of that.
Russell: [Laughs] I love it!
Movies.com: It’s a great scene, and it’s only one of so many funny, quotable scenes in this film. What’s your favorite scene?
Russell: Oh boy, that’s a tough one. I love when they’re in love and they’re dancing, from the dry cleaners to the hotel. That’s very magical to me. I also love the scene where Amy [Adams], Christian [Bale] and Bradley [Cooper] are all talking in the apartment. Where Christian says, “I’m like the Viet Cong. I was in, I was out, I was there the whole time – you didn’t even know it.” What I look for first and foremost is characters. They don’t just fall off trees – like in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, it’s the characters I grab onto. And the characters need to find themselves in a doozy of a predicament that’s going to really mine all of their emotions and show us everything about them. So this [story] is a doozy of a predicament, I can safely say.
Movies.com: You're a big fan of movies like Goodfellas and Raging Bull, and American Hustle certainly feels like it has lot of Scorsese-isms in it. Was he an inspiration to you at all when making this?
Russell: He’s a great filmmaker and a great master, and I would be hard-pressed to find any filmmaker working who hasn’t been affected by his work – especially if you’re from the New York area.
Movies.com: Were you in New York when the whole Abscam thing happened? What do you remember from that time?
Russell: More than Abscam itself, I remember the period. I remember my dad; I remember his comb-over. I remember he was into WINS radio and he’d listen to it when he shaved every morning. The dignity of my father, who was a salesman his whole life, and the men and women in his world, and how elegant they were. And they were middle class, yet so elegant. I remember there was an innocence and a love of certain music, and that’s what I drew from when I created this world of the ‘70s. I’m not interested in making a cynical picture about cynical people. I think there’s more than enough heartbreak to go around in any story like this. I’m interested in the people and the enchantment that gets them through it. How they survive and what magic they have that’s worth living for.
Movies.com: You mention your father and how much of an inspiration he is in your work. Is he also the one behind the middle initial in your name? What does the O stand for, and is there a story behind it?
Russell: No, that was actually my mother. My dad’s middle name is David and my middle name is David. And I have a son who has my dad’s name as his middle name, so that’s the connection there. The O was a name my mom plucked in there; it’s Owen. And I began using it because there were two other people in my college who had my name, which was strange because I had never encountered that before. They were both named David Russell. I was getting confused with all the other David Russell’s all the time, and I didn’t want someone to think I was David S. Russell, so I decided to use that and it kinda stuck.
Movies.com: You not only draw on your family for inspiration, but you've used them in your movies, too, right?
Russell: Oh yeah, my relatives were all over American Hustle. The guy who smashed into the table with De Niro is my cousin Richie, who’s married to my cousin Bonnie. They were a treasure trove for me. They all live in Long Island and work at the airports – they’re a treasure trove of humanity for me.
Movies.com: When you’re basing a story on something that happened in real life, at what point do you decide that it’s better to fictionalize the events versus telling it just like it happened?
Russell: Pretty much immediately, because for me it’s about the characters. It’s about the opportunity to create characters who I find operatic and amazing. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m not looking for anything else. So the opportunity is that these are characters who existed – these people, one in Long Island with the kid, one in Manhattan in the apartment, and the FBI guy in an apartment. I gave [Bradley Cooper’s character] a mother and the fiancé, which Bradley and I delighted in filling in the life that he had woken up into. The guy from the Bronx with the glasses is real. The guy from Miami who spoke Arabic is real – and he actually did speak Arabic, so that was true. The mayor – the guy from New Jersey played by Jeremy Renner– was a real mench, whom I loved. I grab onto characters. It’s about the people. What motivated Irving [Bale] and his women was not this scam operation or pure commerce, it was what they thought was living the dream of their lives. That’s why I gave them Duke Ellington. My goal was what Duke Ellington calls "beyond category," and that’s something that is special. You’re aiming for something that’s beyond category. The people were beyond category, and the way they’re living is beyond category. So this [real-life] predicament allowed me to do all of that.
Movies.com: Are these three films – The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle – the reason why that Uncharted movie never happened? Did you make a conscious decision to take your career in a more personal direction versus riding Hollywood's blockbuster franchise chain?
Russell: Here’s what happened with that. The reason I made The Fighter was because I went through a very difficult period in my life, and that was the only thing that delivered me to that. I went through a divorce and my ex-wife and I were trying to take care of my son, who faced some issues, some bipolar issues, which are very demanding, and I kind of lost track of what stories I wanted to tell in the middle of all that. That already started to happen a little with I Heart Huckabees, so here comes Mark Wahlberg who gives me The Fighter – a film I wouldn’t have looked twice at – and I could look in the eyes of the characters and they know that I know what they’ve been through emotionally because I’ve been through these things in my own life.
What heartbreak is, what challenge is – what having to pick yourself up is. So I was now in this new world of storytelling and characters, and I suddenly go, "Good grief, of course!" I was like, "Oh my God, this is something I could do for awhile." I have a lot of exuberance and love for these people. So that started it.
Movies.com: Is that why you dumped Uncharted? You didn't want to be that kind of filmmaker?
Russell: Oh, about that. So check this out. I do The Fighter, and after I do The Fighter I’ve arrived again in Hollywood, you know. You’re only as good as your last film. So I’m alive again! I’m getting called in everywhere for meetings. I’ve been a working man, I work to make a living; I take writing assignments. So I take a writing assignment to write this Uncharted film, because I have to support my family. I live from picture to picture, regardless of what anyone’s fantasy of Hollywood is.
Movies.com: In Hollywood terms, that's paycheck to paycheck...
Russell: Yeah, I never found that pipeline, so I’m just picture to picture. So I take the Uncharted assignment, and suddenly I’m like, "Okay, I can do this, but I’d want to do it my way." But then I’m out doing Q&As for The Fighter and people are coming up to me, shouting, "Nathan Fillion!" Is that the character or the actor? That’s the actor, right?
Movies.com: Yes, correct. He is an actor.
Russell: So they’re like, "Nathan Fillion has to play the guy!" And I’m like, "What are you talking about? I’m the filmmaker here and it’s going to be Mark Wahlberg." But guess who was right? That kid was right. Not me! [laughs] The lesson I learned from that was that I’m not that filmmaker with the franchise, Jack. That was the end of that. I also wrote a draft of 2 Guns that I thought I was going to make and didn't. But those were my last two experiences, and now I’m like that’s it for me with that stuff. I’m just going to do what I was meant to do, and that is these films.
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