David O Russell on American Hustle

The Silver Linings director on working with Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams on his new Oscar-hyped crime comedy Discuss this article

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David O Russell might be the hottest director in Hollywood right now. Coming out of a seven-year break from movies the New York filmmaker scored seven Oscar nominations (and two wins) with 2010’s The Fighter, then followed this with eight nominations (and one win) for last year’s Silver Linings Playbook. His latest, black crime comedy American Hustle, has already won three golden globes – including best musical or comedy – and was named the year’s best film by the New York Film Critics Circle. And with ten nods at this year’s Academy Awards – equalled only by Gravity – it’s a clear favourite to clean up come March 2. Each of the three movies is on the surface a genre flick – boxing movie, rom-com, real life crime – but to O Russell they form a conceptual triptych, the director returning from the long break since 2004’s I Heart Huckabees with a new and more mature style and approach, a fresh focus on character and detail.

For American Hustle, a highly fictionalised take on the FBI’s botched Abscam sting operation of the late ’70s and early ’80s, O Russell has assembled a stellar cast of familiar faces. Christian Bale and Amy Adams play a fiery con artist couple who are recruited by Bradley Cooper’s hyperactive government agent to help bring down politicians, including Jeremy Renner’s Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and mobsters, topped by (spoiler alert!) a surprise turn by Robert De Niro as a Florida kingpin. Prior to the movie’s international premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival we sat down with O Russell, and found the 55-year-old to be every inch the NYC filmmaker; dressed in a three-piece suit and dark-rimmed glasses, at turns precise and intellectual, at others airy and artistic. But always the auteur, utterly in command of the conversation, much as he commands his actors on screen.

So first of all – why did you decide to premiere American Hustle internationally in Dubai?
You want to find a place that’s exciting, that’s a new temple of cinema, and that’s apparently happening here. And I think this place is going to keep blowing up, it’s happening. Our distributor loved the idea of coming here and bringing it internationally here, because there’s a lot of excitement here. I came up with the Sundance Film Festival, that was always a destination for me – I was a ticket taker there, I made short films there, so these places are always a destination for me.

Following the tremendous success of your last two movies – The Fighter, and Silver Linings Playbook – what was it that drew you to Eric Warren Singer’s script, and the Abscam story in general?
Eric wrote a wonderful script, Eric is a terrific writer. I was drawn by the characters, I’m doing the thing I started to do which I think all my filmmaking and life has led me to and prepared me for. It’s really three movies deep now. Those characters are hard to find, and you usually need a doozy of a predicament. So The Fighter is a doozy of a predicament, where it’s a mob of sisters, one half of the family opposed to the other half, the brother – it’s very interesting. And Silver Linings, a novel that was very personal, that I adapted because I have a son that I have raised that has those [mental health] issues. De Niro has also faced that in his family, so I adapted that to make it more personal.

This, I just loved the characters, I’m from that area, the Abscam thing is a doozy of a predicament that I see as a way to serve these characters so that I can be with them. And see them in their bedrooms and how they love and how they aspire and try to survive – that’s why I wanted to make the movie. So I said if I can rewrite this as I’ve done these previous two movies, then I would love to come do it with Eric’s permission. I created the characters for each actor. I would go to their homes and speak to Chrstian [Bale], and what interested Christian and I thematically about the character [of Irving] was [that] the character is kind of like a director or an actor, he’s kind of an artist, he’s a very meticulous passionate person. Not simply a rip-off artist, that didn’t really interest either of us, as much as him being a person who loves his women, loves his kid, he loves life, he loves Duke Ellington... there’s a lot he loves about life.

Irving is very much the beating human heart of the movie.
Of course, it starts with Irving, that’s why we start with him fixing his hair – which we saw again as a thematic thing, not just him doing his hair, it was a metaphor really for whatever everybody does. Everybody has to assume [an image] – you made your hair a certain way, you got those glasses, you got that jacket – you decide how you’re going to present yourself. And sometimes you decide to change that, you think: I don’t know who I want to be, or who I am. And meanwhile you’re trying to read me, and read other people – that’s what’s interested us, that dynamic of people that change, and how they try to connect or discontent, and the passion in the middle of all that. Richie – the character of Bradley Cooper – Richie was almost enchanted by these two con artists [Irving and Sydney], he loved them, he wanted to be more like them. He was out in Brooklyn with his mum and with his fiancé [while] they had something magical going on. So he fell in love with her and he wanted to learn what Irving did, because Irving was really cool. Irving had a confidence and a way, like a theatre director, or a painter or something.

You just said you worked on the script and built the characters with the cast. So you would go to Christian’s, and Bradley’s, and Amy’s, and write their parts specifically for them?
Yes, I would go their homes and talk to them, and write what I believed was the best character for them. I wanted to deliver something that I feel is worthy of them and their time. And, I have to deliver on what I said to them: I said you’re going to get to do a fantastic character, and I have to make that happen.

It an incredible cast, the majority of who you’ve directed before, but they are each very different talents – particularly Christian and Bradley. How did you approach working with each of them differently, and was there any competition between the two?
Everybody’s very collaborative on these movies, they’re all very generous spirited, but I think being around each other had a healthy competitiveness – for me too, in that we all wanted to do better, because we were all around each other. It was very exciting for us all to be together. So Jennifer [Larwence] was excited to be with Christen who was excited to be with Amy, and Bradley to be with Christian and Jeremy, it was all very exciting – and then to have De Niro...

So they’re very different in that Christian is sort of a creature who lives in his own way and inhabits people in this waking dream. He calls it a waking dream and that’s what I aspire to do with every actor, is to have them sort of trance out, or go into [what] Jennifer calls a high; Bradley and I call it a trance, and you go into an altered place where you become another person and we don’t stop shooting until the mag of film – we shoot film, it was the last available Fuji film – runs out. So they get into a rhythm of doing the scene where you kind of forget that you’re doing a scene. And that’s what I look for.

By Rob Garratt
Time Out Doha,

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