With his films “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” elating audiences the past two years at AFI Fest in Los Angeles on their way to Oscar gold, director David O. Russell is without a doubt in stellar standing with the festival and its many attendees. That consistency to quality—especially in Russell’s recent string of crowd favorites—is why he and a swath of his contemporaries gathered in the Egyptian Theater on Friday night to celebrate the helmer’s work and unique cinematic approach. Amidst a host of technical issues—uncomfortable chairs were swapped, mics cut out—Russell also screened the first six minutes of his new film “American Hustle,” which also had to be restarted due of sound loss. You can read our impressions of the deeply funny, manic footage over here, but first we’ve compiled a few highlights from the director’s wide-ranging, insightful talk.
Russell Is Well Aware of His Current Career Hot Streak, And The Trial-By-Fire Success of His Filmmaking Methods
“I feel like I'm very focused right now in the kinds of films I want to make,” Russell said on-stage during a 90-minute retrospective of his work with moderator Janelle Riley of Variety. “It feels like a story that goes three films deep, I think in ‘The Fighter,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ and now ‘American Hustle’. I think that's the thing that makes the happiest. The thing that makes me least happy is when I don't know what kind of story I want to tell, which I have experienced.”
Since his 1994 debut feature “Spanking The Monkey”—which starred a young Jeremy Davies (cast from “a Suburu commercial” as the director said)—Russell has perfected a loose, emotion-based blend of performance, visuals, and editing to truly get under the skin of his characters and the intimacy of the moment. From the frustrated couple played by Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette in “Flirting With Disaster” to the explosive Ward clan of “The Fighter,” he’s also brought a manic truth to the depiction of family, and Russell points to shooting on film as a major contributor to that process.
“The way I like to shoot as a director is to plan the way I want to see the film composed with storyboards or shot lists, and then to use preferably Steadicam or handheld to find those compositions in that room,” he said. “Then, I get the actors to almost forget what they've prepared, and to forget any notion of a performance. We shoot 20-minute film mags. The reason that's sometimes better than digital is because it is going to run out, and the actors know it's going to run out. So it's burning, but I'm not going to ever stop and let the makeup people in to fix the actors and let them breathe.You're in it.”
Filmmaking 101 Can Be Taught With 30 Minutes of "Chinatown," and Jury Duty is God’s Gift To Screenwriters
Russell revealed that even though he made his first film at age 13, shooting the streets of New York with a 8mm camera for a school project, a filmmaking career was never an aspiration early on; literary ambitions followed him instead, and after college he became a political organizer alongside odd jobs, like bartending and teaching an SAT class. But he remembers a period in his late-teens that got him hooked into the possibilities of film.
“The girlfriend I had in high school’s father owned a United Artists theater in New York, so we could go with as many people as we wanted, as many times as we wanted,” he said. “It was like crack. We would go and watch ‘Chinatown’ seven times, ‘Shampoo’ five times, ‘The Godfather’ ten times. So I would memorize sections of films, and that way I taught myself, in particular with a certain sequence in ‘Chinatown’ that I could actually recite right now. And that's what I tell the interns that come to work with me in my office: I have the secret to all cinema and it's from the moment that Jack Nicholson goes up to the orange groves to the moment he's in bed with Faye Dunaway. That's pretty much all you need to know.”