Interview by Roger Durling with writer/director David O. Russell
DURLING: Please welcome writer and director David O. Russell! (Applause)
RUSSELL: Thank you for that very warm welcome.
DURLING: Thank you for coming back. I can’t believe it has been a year since you were here with Silver Linings Playbook. And now you’re back. You just keep topping yourself. I mentioned when I had introduced you that there is quite an amazing evolution as a director that I see in this cycle of three films, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and this film, with characters that are evolving and reinventing themselves. Can you talk about that?
RUSSELL: Yes, again thank you for having me. I love being here. This is a temple of cinema.
DURLING: It might be a temple of cinema, and we worship David O. Russell.
RUSSELL: We worship the god of cinema. It is what we aspire to, in the passion for cinema and for life. That’s what saved my life many times, just as Irving and Sydney say Duke Ellington’s music saved their lives many times. That was a piece of music that I have been holding onto for thirty years, that has saved my life. These things just help you get through life and make you feel good when life can be very, very, difficult. So to answer your question, I would say that I feel blessed in the sense that all of my life and all of my work has been in preparation for what has become the last three films. So that’s what I feel, and I feel fortunate because it didn’t have to happen. I didn’t plan it or expect it, but it came together on its own. It’s like when something is ready at the right time, just like in these movies–the way things present themselves through the typical human path of stumbling and mistakes, difficulty and persistence. I would say that my earlier films were films that I was proud to make, but I didn’t have the direction that I feel now. I say these are the kinds of people that I want to make movies about, these are the kinds of stories, these are the kinds of songs. I know exactly what it is. And that is why we leapt on this from Silver Linings, because it was these characters at that moment—and to do it on a bigger canvas, so…
DURLING: All of these characters are flawed characters. But you have such fondness for them, even with warts and all of their problems. I can feel that you love them, and you make the audience fall in love with them.
RUSSELL: Yes, that is a kind of filmmaking. There are so many different kinds of filmmaking. We are a very blessed society to have so many different kinds of filmmaking, for all different tastes. And I admire and respect so many of them. But this kind of filmmaking is what you just described for me. I finally felt that this is what I can do decently, and that I can bring my feelings to the love of those characters in that way–with the music, the way they talk, the way they live, their personal lives. The way they listen to music and live is as magical and important to me as the story. The story is like a fire that keeps propelling them through life and what they’re facing and stumbling through with great intensity. That is very important to me. But the magic and enchantment of who they are, which they may not even be aware of, is equally important to me. And that was a discovery for me as a filmmaker that started with The Fighter.
DURLING: I think you answered my next question, that you could have done a movie about the Abcsam scandal based on the procedure and details. Instead, you focus on the characters as opposed to just the facts.
RUSSELL: Yeah, I mean I’m not the right filmmaker to make a great procedural story about historical events. That is not me. There are many other great directors to do that. My strength is to get personal with the characters, and go into their humanness. The Fighter was based on truth. And we also had to condense and fictionalize parts of the film to get to the essence; to make a statement about characters that, when I first encountered them, I wasn’t sure I liked at all. I was sort of repelled by them. But I came to love them very deeply. I had written Silver Linings before The Fighter and after struggling for years, after Huckabees and losing my way. Other filmmakers have confided to me has happened to them. Alfonso Cuarón and Paul Greengrass have said, “Yes, directors don’t speak about this enough.” It is hard to keep the inspiration and your vision clear. You can suddenly feel you have too many choices, or you don’t know. It all comes down to this, as I was saying to you before. It is what Christian Bale told me in his back yard, when we seized on this story. What we loved about this story was that it was not merely a story of people who had committed cons, but it was a story about who the people were in their hearts. All of these people more or less have a lot of good heart in them, in spite of all the mistakes and things that they did. And if not, we wanted to create characters that did have heart, because those are the characters we love. And Christian said to me that he knew he was going to die for this character that we love, Irving. He was not like anyone we had ever seen, or anyone he had ever done. He herniated a disc changing his posture. He became three inches shorter than Bradley Cooper, and he is the same height as Bradley Cooper. He gained all of that weight. He always goes farther than I expect him to go. But what we loved is that Irving is a director. Irving is like a director of a film, a director of a theater company. And the larger metaphor is that we are all on tours of our lives. Every day, when you get up and go to work and face your family, however normal or ordinary it seems, there is a narrative that you are living and telling yourself, that you are either digging or wobbling on, or that you feel is a lie or that you’re tired of. Or it is a narrative that you need to refresh, and that is the larger idea that interested us. That idea was attached to these people. This is me imitating Christian Bale, imitating Bob Hoskins. Okay? So Bob Hoskins and Christian Bale told me when we were talking about Irving and his art of living, that Irving teaches Sydney and Richie that “It’s not from the ears up, is it, mate? It’s not from the ears up. That screams fake. You can’t do it. It’s from the feet up, isn’t it? It’s from the feet up when you act.” And so that is how Christian approaches acting. But that is how Irving approaches everything, even the false things in his life. What I could love about him was that he approached them with extreme meticulousness and passion. And that was a redemptive quality to me. That made him not just a bad guy but someone with a soul. You know?
DURLING: Well, I’m not sucking up to you because you know how much I adore your work. But it pains me to hear you talk about I Heart Huckabees and to talk about your work as having lost your way. I Heart Huckabees and everything that led up to this is part of the journey. With the characters in this movie, I find their reinvention–the part of the American Dream that this movie talks about, that we are capable of reinventing ourselves–to be why I find it so personal. That yes, we have made mistakes in the past, but we reinvent ourselves, and there is a chance to move forward with that reinvention which you have done.
RUSSELL: Yes, And I have great respect and gratitude for all of those actors of those films. And I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t been there. And that is the mystery of life and every journey. You know you gotta go through it to get to where you are. I just mean that personally for me, it is a process of maturity, for me to feel that you can go three films deep with a certain theme, in a particular way, with a particular feeling. Do you understand?
DURLING: And one of the things that is wonderful in this movie, that you had in the earlier films but is more crystallized in this one, is the search for identity with all of these characters asking themselves, “Who are we?” and “How are we getting through things?”
RUSSELL: In The Fighter, Silver Linings or American Hustle, at the beginning the characters’ identities are at a complete state of crisis. In the first act they do not know if they want to live, if they want to continue to be who they are, and if not, they are not sure how or who they will become in order to continue to love life or live life. The entire movie is a reckoning with who they have been, the choices they have made, and what they are going to do. And that is the crucible under a lot of pressure that produces fantastic human behavior I have developed coming from instinct and less from my head. You develop an instinct and you wake up and you have an inspiration and you say, Amy Adams is going to be in curlers and she is going to smash a mirror over Bradley Cooper’s head when he is unable to really accept her revelation of her true self. He was more in love with her invention, and he couldn’t quite handle it. As much as he was desperate to have a new life, he was so enchanted by her. He wanted to become Irving in some ways. You wake up and you have an instinct or inspiration. You say “Jennifer Lawrence, you are going to wear yellow cleaning gloves,” and she says, “Where is this scene going?” and I say, “I’m not sure yet.” But I know that Rosalyn has to get many people who are afraid of change, which I can personally relate to, and many people sometimes have to get up a lot of gumption and anger to move themselves to the next step, because you are stuck. And so Rosalyn singing Live and Let Die became that push for her. You know these are all things that come from instinct when you have a certain enchantment and love affair with the characters. There’s a tone, when you dial into that pitch, and things will come to you. That is part of why I was able to do this song from that movie.
DURLING: Yeah, and it was preceded by one of the most poignant moments which is Rosalyn holding that set of bills and saying, you know I am so afraid of change. And of course Ms. Lawrence delivers those lines so powerfully. I think you have hinted a little about the script. Do you develop the script with the actors as you’re filming, or…?
RUSSELL: Well I think there is a little confusion about how I work. And it is just a lot of work. You write the script many times. There is nothing really Cassavetes about it at all, with all due respect to that great filmmaker. You write the script twenty, thirty times. You have to, I have to. To try to make a good movie, the script is the movie. So this script began with something that I began to reinvent from the beginning as I felt it. I am talking to my actors, my favorite actors. And I am auditioning for them and telling them why we are going to jump over this, jump into this together. You know? And that is how it comes alive for me. When I am at Christian Bale’s house, I am at Jeremy Renner’s house, at Amy Adams’, or I am with Jennifer, I am telling you it is going to go like this. And I’ll tell them the trailer for the movie, and I’ll also do that for my partners at the studio. Because I think they should know what they are getting into. Even when they have a script, you would be shocked to know how many studios don’t know what movie they are making. They wake up later to have made something that didn’t work and I say, “What did you think was going to happen?” So I will tell them the trailer, act out the trailer. And then they will inspire me in that conversation. It will become a dynamic where we will get inspired together and it becomes a collaboration, which then goes into the rewriting of the twenty drafts. So you have these twenty drafts, but that document is a living document. So when we arrive on the day of shooting, it is conceivable that better ideas may come to us. But there is a very strict script. It is the only way that you can make these films on the disciplined schedule that we have. Thirty-three days as opposed to 40 for this–no one cares how long it takes you to make your movie. Unless you are in the business, they just care if the movie is any good. But for me, the process adds to the intensity and the immediacy of our need to come from instinct. It is that we don’t have a lot of time to fool around and we are coming from a place of passion.
DURLING: Speaking of immediacy and passion, the camera work! At least from my vantage point, it seems that the whole room is set up for shooting. And your camera, steady cam weaves and searches for the action as opposed to anticipating the action. Am I wrong? How do you set up for shooting?
RUSSELL: Well it takes a lot of work to make things seem effortless. It takes a lot of work to make something seem like it just happened to be captured–meaning, it was rehearsed many times in the moment, and I have a shot list. We have developed a style of shooting in particular over the last three movies. We like 360 degrees, usually through what seemed to be naturally through windows, so there really aren’t a lot of lights in the room. If there are any, they are up here and very soft. And we had Patrick Murray, our gaffer, carry a china ball on a boom so that at any moment I could go like ‘this’ and he would come with me and we could wander over to this corner of the room where one of our five extraordinary actors was. And he can put this soft light right next to the steady cam. So you can go everywhere and the actors aren’t worried about the technology running the film. It is the people and their emotions running the film. And I shoot film. I’m a sentimental old fool. We shot the last Fuji stick that was ever in existence in this film; which is a little sad. But, there is something about the fact that film is burning and it is going to run out. And they know that I don’t stop. We keep going. It is like once you are in the scene, you are in the scene. We are not going to stop and reset, because you lose the energy. And then more artifice comes in, and more thinking comes in. And what did I think in my hotel room? This was bedroom perfect this morning. We don’t want what was bedroom perfect in your hotel room. We want what is going to happen right here. What you did in your hotel room was very important, just like the script was. It is very important, because you have all of that in you. Now what is going to happen is it’s going to be chemical, so I want the camera to feel human and intense in the room. I am still looking for compositions that have been shot-listed. I think the designers did a very beautiful collaboration as artists in this. The sets are beautiful by Judy Becker and I think that Michael Wilkinson’s costumes are luscious. This is the most visually lush film I think I have ever made.
DURLING: Talk to me a little about that. The set decor has a golden glow throughout the movie. There is a vibrancy in the sets.
RUSSELL: Those are the two adjectives that I use when we go to the color timing. At every step of the way is warmth and vibrancy. I like to see the blood in the faces and to feel the colors, and that is the kind of film that we are making, one that is going to have that feeling. I don’t want the color to have bled out of it. I want the sweat or the pulse of the people, so that film stock added to that, the way that it was processed added to that, it goes together with the way the actors are acting. The color palette that was selected by the designers and me is harmonized. I like things to feel a little classic cinematically, which means you rule out certain colors, and if they are going to make an appearance, it is in very selective ways, so that it harmonizes, is a little monochromatic, yet sometimes is very luscious. I mean every character had an animal that I would think of and colors that were there. So Irving had burgundies that were his, Amy had greens and blues, Jennifer had whites and champagnes, and Jeremy had these creams. Every actor had such an embarrassment of riches in the film, because each actor had done something they had never done before. They were each excited to do that, but there was also an animal. Like for me the Christian Bale character is like a badger, and we would talk about him as a badger, because he moved like a badger and when he took his glasses off and he blinked, there was definitely a way of connecting with him at a deeper level. He has blinking vulnerable eyes when he took those glasses off, and his way of moving was like a badger, very slow and deliberate but very dangerous. And I would say that Richie was a bit more of a hyena. Amy was kind of a lynx. And Jennifer was a bobcat or a wildcat of some kind. Jeremy was like a dog in the sense of a really big–hearted, warm dog that you could rely on. And you know, we say that some of this actually happened. Well, it is true, the things that happened, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you what was true or wasn’t true. My last movie was based on a novel, yet it was my most personal film. I took the experience of my own son and Mr. De Niro took his experience with someone close to him with bipolarity and we put it into the movie and personalized the movie. In some ways that movie was based more on fact than the other movies, yet it was based on a novel. This movie was inspired by incidents that happened and incidents that our characters could look at and listen to, sometimes on recordings. It has been molded in the pattern of what the heart is that we care about. But if I told you some things, like Robert De Niro, that is one of the things that is true. There was a gangster that was related to the Meyer Lansky family who did learn Arabic, and I felt there is just no way that this is true; that just makes no sense to me. But it was true and Bob brought all of his meticulousness to learning the Arabic and going over it with me repeatedly on the phone, just going over the whole thing with me. We made him an amalgam of three or four different people. There were so many different worlds. You’ve got the world of the Carmine Polito home, which is a very warm home with five children. My son played one of those kids. You see that home and you kind of want to stay in that home. And they had music and warmth in that home. Irving truly does fall in love with this man. He had never met a man like this, who might have put a nickel in his own pocket and made a few big mistakes, but he was very dedicated in an old school way to everybody in his community and to his family. Then you’ve got the Long Island home of Rosalyn and the apartment with Richie. It was fantastic when you meet an authority figure and you see their home and you are just shocked. You know you can’t believe that this is how the principal lives? The principal lives with his mother? Until you meet this federal agent. He is at home with his fiancée; he is backstage. Christian and I were always thinking of it in terms of onstage and backstage. You know, in a way we all have that in our lives. The backstage of Richie was a fantastic backstage.
DURLING: And your ensemble is part of your family. You have worked with Amy in the past, with Bradley, Jennifer, Robert, Christian. What was it like reuniting with this gang and working on this project together?
RUSSELL: I think we all felt it was a special thing. We’ve each made movies before and now we are being given the opportunity to do something more specific, taking a bigger risk. And I think there was an excitement about that, an undeniable excitement about it. You could feel it. Because I don’t think that Christian and Amy understood who Jennifer and Bradley were. But that was a dynamic thing that was happening as we were going into pre-production. Last year’s release of Silver Linings was ending, and they started to say, oh wow, Jennifer and Bradley are really forces. And then Jennifer and Bradley got to know Christian and Amy, who are showing up in ways they had never shown up before–and Jeremy. So it was very exciting for us to work together and sort of feel that we are this troop with two other movies in our blood. And now we are going to create a cousin of that movie. There is a feeling of solidarity. Is Anthony Zerbe in here? Stand up! There is our boy! Do you guys know who Anthony Zerbe is? He’s one of our greatest actors. Truly. It’s true! Look at all of your work. And he shows up in that scene, and it’s so much fun to have Anthony in there. He was perfect. Last year I told him that. We did, didn’t we?
ZERBE: Thank you!
RUSSELL: Thank you! When he walks into the scene it is like having a designated hitter walk into the scene. He had so much game! Because you know we say, Anthony talks about this stuff and he just goes, BAM. He is the guy. Zero to sixty in five seconds. And I love that he just doubled down really hard in that way. It was just magnificent to have him there and to see him in the hotel suite holding forth warmly and then hanging his head in shame in the car with his wife as the flashbulbs went off. Just fantastic.
DURLING: I saw the movie on Tuesday and I was driving back to Santa Barbara and Zerbe is calling me, “Did I make the cut?” I felt like saying, no you were not in the movie at all. Quickly, David.
RUSSELL: But it was wonderful as a director when you have this trick up your sleeve, You have this remarkable ensemble, and I say wait until you see this next senator, and they are saying, “What? What is happening? Who is this guy?” And then Anthony comes in and everyone is like, “Holy Shit! Who is this guy?” Half of them knew his work, and half of them do now. Who was that baseball player? He was amazing. He came in and he whacked it!
DURLING: Well, unfortunately I gotta wrap it up. It is amazing to have you here. Congratulations and big success ahead. Thank you for coming back.