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David O. Russell Talks 'American Hustle,' Enchantment, Opera, Musicals, The Immersion of Christian Bale & More

The Playlist By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist December 12, 2013 at 2:11PM

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.
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David O. Russell, American Hustle, Playlist exclusive

Your last three pictures have a narrative and emotional throughline.
It's in everything, from the way the characters flow, the story flows, how predicaments build and get crazy, become heartbreaking and get funny at the same time. I have to follow that throughline which is not easy to do by the way. So everything else is taken out of the way. It's hard enough to do even with a blank page.

"...tragedy, hope, deception, it's all happening as people are singing and wearing their clothes in the pageantry of life...there's something crazy and beautiful about it."

Your riffs as they were—you’ve described it as something other than improv, more controlled.
Bradley Cooper was saying to me that he really objects to the use of that word. It's not improvisation. it's very carefully planned. The script has been written many times, the scene has been discussed many times, it's been blocked and planned. The shots are planned, I would say one-third to one-fourth it often becomes something we all want to evolve in some way. Together that means we'll discuss it. Actor’s aren't just making it up. We huddle up and we go, “What if it was more like this?” Then we go do it. That's very different then not knowing what's going to happen. That's what I would call true improvisation.

You leave the room open for creativity in that sense, right?
We have a very strict thing we want to follow, that we don’t stop shooting, so once you get into the fluidity of that it stops feeling composed. It starts just taking on a life of its own. Actors may say their own words, they're going to stick to the script. Sometimes while that's happening you see a better direction. For example, when Bradley Cooper comes into the apartment and sees Amy Adams’ character, what I said to him, “Go say, ‘I love you’ to her.” That happened on the fly.

And that moment takes knocks her character off her feet.
I wanted Amy to then have the motivation to reveal herself. She could have just done it anyway and it would have worked. Maybe it would have even been good, but it's much stronger once she's leaned forward and melted. That's on the fly. That's how you see how to make something better. There's an aliveness to it. I don't want to be precious about what's written. It feels stilted.

There’s great thematic stuff in here. As they conning others are they conning themselves. The masks, the facades, even Bradley’s FBI character is deluding himself. It makes for this great color as you say.
I would say it's an operatic version of what everyone has to deal with. All day long. Whether in work situations or personal situations. There's what they call placental amnesia. If women had any memory of giving birth they would never do it again. It’s a convenient survival mechanism. I've had to use my own placental amnesia throughout my whole life or I would have never undertaken many things. I would have never gotten married or had kids, I would have been horrified of all of the bad thoughts.

Instead you end up talking yourself into it. You leave out the parts that are really horrifying. For example, having a kid who was bipolar, never crossed my mind, yet it became one of the most amazing things that happened to me in my life. Good and bad. The most human, the hardest experience, the most heart extending. I would never have chose that in a million years, it would have scared me, just as being a father did.

David O. Russell, American Hustle, Playlist exclusive

It’s funny you mention this because Martin Scorsese in Marrakech said a similar thing earlier this week about directing. Suggesting that you have to block out the difficulty of it, or your desire would quickly die.
Yes, you have to have a great well of love for the place, the characters, the people and everything you're doing. It's also true of the holographic paradigm—any small part is the same as the other parts, this is true of any part of filmmaking. The overall arch of it. It's like mountain climbing. In the morning the mountain is kicking your ass, “I am not going to survive. I'm not going to make it.” If you’re lucky, if you hang in there you start to feel like you’re getting some ground on the mountain. Suddenly the momentum shifts and you kind of start to dominate it a little bit and that's a fantastic feeling but it always does start the same way every morning of shooting.

There's a great musicality to this picture, the moving current of it all, that obviously tips its cap to jazz a lot.
It’s true, it's the most musical of all my movies and I believe that has been growing with this filmmaking and storytelling. You don't have to be a jazz aficionado either. I realize the word jazz has taken on strange connotations for a whole generation. I even bristle at the word. I almost call it classic standard American music. One of the themes [in “American Hustle”] is reinvention. Duke Ellington was reinventing himself with that Newport recording in the film. He had been kind of pushed out by Charlie Parker and all those guys. He had this fantastic band with Johnny Hodges, you could hear them shouting during the song, “Jeep's Blues,” and it's just magnificent. It's beyond categorization.

There's the Jack Jones song, “I've Got Your Number,” which is one of the romantic songs I've always loved. Jack Jones gave the Grammy to Tony Bennett at the Waldorf Astoria. So that was amazing to have him there [through the music] because that's what the New York Pierre Hotel felt like in the ‘70s.

It’s an elegance that Amy and Christian’s characters are chasing too, no?
Enchantment and elegance. It's enchanting to me; a little bit of magic, but it's not so mercenary to me.

This article is related to: American Hustle, David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook, Interviews, Interviews, Interview, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence


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