Filmmaker David O. Russell has energy and enthusiasm to burn. “The Silver Lining’s Playbook” director is three for three now in his new era that includes “The Fighter” and his latest picture, “American Hustle” (review here). Starring the spectacular all-star cast of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner on top of supporting turns by Robert De Niro, Louie C.K., Jack Huston, Elizabeth Rohm and many more, Russell’s latest is a colorful 1970s-set New York dramedy that centers on a con man (Bale), his partner (Adams), and the FBI agent who nabs them and puts them on the hook to cooperate in what becomes of the biggest conspiracy stings of that era that involved, mayors, senators and other government officials.
But “American Hustle” is barely a con man movie. That’s “the blowtorch” that lights the movie as the director likes to say. Inside the colorful players, their tricked-out 1970s hairdos and slick costumes is a cast of characters all trying to survive, all doing what they can to fit in the world; reinventing themselves to the point that often they don’t know where the lies end or begin. It’s an entertaining, funny and thematically rich too with some of Hollywood’s top thespians selling every note with laughs, drama and soul. High off some positive reviews (including David Denby whom the filmmaker noted had never given him a good notice), Russell was off a mile a minute, ping-ponging from idea to idea and I was just trying to play catch up. We spoke about “American Hustle,” the impressive “waking dream state” that Christian Bale acts in, personalizing stories, jazz, music and much, much more. It was just Russell’s world and I was only visiting.
Your friend Spike Jonze recently said acting in “Three Kings” made him understand how embarrassing acting can really be.
[Laughs] Right. My whole set is really about making the actors feel that I'm in there with them—they're not alone in being silly or exposed or vulnerable. I'm not standing on the other side of the monitor, I stand next to the steady cam and I feel the emotions, say the lines with them. I feel that if I'm being emotional or silly far worse than they could be, that sort of takes the stink out of the room because anything they do is going to be better than what I’m doing and they're going to be liberated. As Christian Bale said [in the New York press conference] which dropped my jaw when I heard him say it—“the waking dream thing” he said. Bradley Cooper and I spent a lot of time with the guy and we were wowed, we'd never heard him say anything like that before.
Because Christian’s working on another level that achieves the act of the waking dream in character, right?
Yes. He described it so perfectly and then Jennifer Lawrence picked up on it because they all go into a trance in some way and he goes on dreaming. Everyone goes crazy when they dream. You think of the movie as an opera. There's like five different worlds and characters and it's almost like these songs, these arias about their lives. [Christian said] when you dream you're allowed to have a crazy opera and then when you wake up everything gets composed again and civilized. But acting he said is license to live that opera, to live that crazy dream, to just walk around in it, it's a waking dream. I've never heard it described so well.
It sounds like Christian transforms in a way that maybe few others do.
Absolutely, he is his very own singular creature. Duke Ellington, one of my heroes, is the one who said this: You're looking for something that is beyond category. That is what the most sublime thing can be. People would say "The Fighter" is a boxing movie, and I didn’t know what to say because I never once thought about it like that. If ‘Silver Linings’ was a “romantic comedy,” my head would snap. I see how it works at that level, but I just thought about it being about those characters. So when you do it from “the feet up,” as Christian says in the movie, in these trances that these guys are doing [pause]…
And cast against type.
And they've been cast against type, which makes everybody emotional. The actors think they have everything mapped out and that's all off. It's all a new thing with these people, it's a new emotional slate, a new canvas so they have to immerse themselves in our world. They can't bring some other idea they had to it, it has to be our world.
What was the blowtorch that caught your imagination on fire when you read the original script?
Oh, it's a doozy of a predicament. Firstly, the characters are not easy to find. Secondly, they're in this predicament which is so rich, twisted and lends itself to so many different experiences that I think are elemental about how we live and how we have to survive. Even if you’re not in this jam, you can relate to it.
It looks bleak for them.
They're in a situation that's complex, but they themselves are—I can create them as the most soulful people I can, and they have to deal with all the predicaments and that's going to reveal color after color of them. It's the kind of predicament that is soul-oriented to me. It’s a life or death situation. That's how I treat every story. Every character; even in the last two pictures.
“Some of this actually might be true.” What a great, funny and wry title card.
It's the most accurate way to describe it. I wanted to make a story that was cinema, that went to the themes that interest me. I got this story from [co-writer] Eric Singer and [producer] Charles Roven, who I made “Three Kings” with. I said, “These are really good characters, could I please, with your permission…” I would only do it if I could remake it as I've done these past two movies [rewriting the script]. They said yes, so I said okay. That was that. Sometimes you write script from scratch, but sometimes you have to write a page one [rewrite].
You’re directing it, so you have to personalize it for yourself?
It's just how you see the picture, it's not an ego thing. If you hear a song a certain way you're going to have to be the one who has to write it down. I don't think somebody else can write it down. It's a very specific way of storytelling.