Many have posited that when F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, he meant, we cannot escape our pasts. Someone who has proven that maxim wrong is director David O. Russell. As he said at the THR directors' roundtable recently, the latter half of the aughts landed in the filmmaker in a tricky place.
The challenging comedy “I Heart Huckabees” wasn’t a hit upon release, projects came and went without fruition, and the satirical comedy "Nailed," with Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal, actually shot in 2008, but the plug got pulled and it was never completed thanks to a shady financier. But the “Three Kings” director is on a critical and creative tear of late and has successfully segued into the second stage of his career that he calls more “mature.”
2010’s limber and thrilling “The Fighter” was a major comeback and was awarded as such with 7 Academy Award nominations (winning co-stars Christian Bale and Melissa Leo an Oscar each). Much of that success is being repeated this year, with the filmmaker's latest "Silver Linings Playbook," a raw, offbeat romantic comedy starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, all of whom look likely to figure, along with Russell, in this year’s awards season.
And by his account, Russell’s next project, the untitled 1970s, FBI/Abscam film, formerly known as "American Bullshit," and starring Cooper, Bale, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, will continue in the vein of this second era. Family has been his recent preoccupation and the theme has been center stage in his last two pictures. And so in the same way that “The Fighter” was more than just a boxing movie, and how ‘Silver Linings’ goes beyond mere mental illness drama, The FBI/Abscam is more than just crime flick. On the surface, it’s about a sting operation in the 1970s (called Abscam) that led to the conviction of United States Congressmen, but it’s got plenty more offbeat detours than that.
"It's a crime drama that's really about some very high end financial con artists who are very colorful, strange characters,” he told The Playlist in an interview this week. “And it's about the FBI -- but Bradley [Cooper’s] like an ethnic FBI guy from the Bronx and it's about the [eventually indicted] mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Angelo Errichetti, who is Jeremy Renner. Camden was mostly a black and Puerto Rican community at that time. Very amazing, interesting world of New York at that time. It’s very exciting."
Russell's always had a canny eye for casting actors in unexpected parts -- see Amy Adams' tough girl in “The Fighter,” or the way Mark Wahlberg took to comedy in ‘Huckabees’ -- and he’s taking a similar path with this new film, placing his heavyweight cast in usual casting slots.
"They're all going to do things we haven't seen them do in this movie, it's going to be very exciting. Renner's going to be like you've never saw him. Bradley's going to be like you never saw him. Christian will be... I don't want to give too much of it away but they're all playing real life characters from the ‘70s and they're very intense in an insane drama."
As with "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," the director says he’ll play with genre trappings and then use them as a springboard to dig deeper into the the characters involved. "This is life and death stakes for people," Russell told us. "The mafia was involved in this, it was very frightening. People's lives were on the line and it was unbelievably hairy what these characters were doing in this new movie. But I'm interested in their relationships, in their love lives, in their bedrooms, in their hearts, you know what's going on between them emotionally. There's a love triangle between Amy, Bradley and Christian. And Jeremy and Christian have kind of a very unexpected bromance because they're very similar New Jersey, New York type characters, so they really take to each other."
As ever with Russell, though, expect a vein of humor in the film too. "In real life, these things are stranger than fiction so there has to be a lot of comedy in them,” he said. “Some of my favorite films by the Coen Brothers or by Scorsese or Tarantino, those pictures are both really emotional, intense, and they're also funny and from a place of realness. It always has to be from a place of realness. Even Tarantino, even when he's killing Hitler [in ‘Inglorious Basterds’] which is unreal, it's real. It's like a gothic comic book that somehow is real. It's emotional because he puts emotions into it."
Bale, Adams, Renner and Cooper -- it’s a pretty astonishing lead cast, and the director acknowledged he's in a fortunate sweet spot that’s helped him interest A-listers like this group. "If you keep your eye on the ball and keep doing the best work you can, you get an opportunity to keep working with these people and that's my best blessing. If I can get to work with these people because that makes it alive and makes it happen so I have to keep doing my best so that I get to work with them."
"The Untitled David O. Russell Project," as the film's currently known, is set to film in February, backed by Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, and is targeting a late 2013 release. Look for more from our interview with the filmmaker soon.