Movie Interviews
11:33 am
Wed December 11, 2013

David O. Russell, Building Movies From The Characters Up

Originally published on Wed December 11, 2013 3:32 pm

Director David O. Russell's latest film, American Hustle, is inspired by the Abscam scandal — the FBI sting from the 1970s, complete with an agent posing as an Arab sheik, that led to the downfall of a number of politicians.

Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Christian Bale, the movie is about that sting operation, but it's also a love story and a loving study of larger-than-life characters — with big '70s hair, wearing classic '70s polyester wardrobes — trying to reinvent themselves.

Russell spoke with NPR's Melissa Block about working with these actors to create real characters.

"It's very important to me that the characters actually love life, and love things in life," he says.


Interview Highlights

On Christian Bale's paunchy, sexy con-man character

I knew that Christian was going to be very excited about that — playing somebody that looked nothing like anybody he'd ever played before, and whose whole energy in his soul — you know, it's not just about the outside. I mean that's what makes someone a great actor, is it's all from the inside.

And that's why I think many women have said to me that they find Christian Bale very appealing or sexy in this role, which some people would say is ironic given that he doesn't look like a classic leading man. He still looks really attractive, but he's got a big comb-over and he's 50 pounds heavier, and he looks like a very regular person. And those people can be very charismatic, and that's what the Amy Adams character says about him.

As a filmmaker, I just love looking at these people and saying, "Oh my God, look at these people." You know, like when you look at my relatives from Brooklyn or the Bronx, I'm just fascinated by everything about them: The way they sound, the way they think, the way they move, the way they listen to music, the way they eat. [That's] the reason I make movies.

On creating character and the movie's '70s look

That's what I love about filmmaking — creating characters — that's what I love about working with actors, is it's a collaboration. I feel that I'm auditioning for my actors. I love my actors, and I go to their homes and I say, "This is what I think, I'm very excited about this character, and this is what I think this character could be like." And they start getting excited about it or telling me their ideas, and we kind of inspire each other. And it's all from instinct.

The hair in the movie is not just hair. ... When Irving is preparing at the beginning of the picture, that goes to that whole notion of, "Who is anybody when they wake up and are about to walk out the door?" That's what that comb-over is to him. And that's also an actor preparing.

It's my mother getting ready to go out. It's my father getting ready to go out. I mean, every morning I could hear my father shaving. My father was a salesman ... and he was putting himself on, who he had become and who he was becoming.

On his directing style, which Jennifer Lawrence called "weird and instantaneous"

Part of it is just, it's the only way I know how to do things. I make a shot list; I have compositions that I want to see. But there's a fluidity to the camera that I want, and an aliveness to it with the actors.

I don't want people thinking or doing what De Niro once called "bedroom perfect." You know, you can do something in your hotel room that morning in the mirror, and it was "bedroom perfect," but that may not be alive when you're in a room with a bunch of people.

So we have a Steadicam, because it's a small apparatus that can move fluidly through the space. And we light for 360 degrees, which means it's through natural soft sources, through the windows. And once we start shooting, I don't want to stop and have interruptions. I want it to flow so people almost forget that they're acting.

On reworking a scene in the middle of shooting

When a scene is on its feet and it's living, you know, I mean, I'm not doing that. But there are moments when ideas are happening, or moments are happening where things are not flowing. And so by saying something you can help people relax and not feel as self-conscious for being in front of a camera. You break that wall by talking to them.

You know, I stand next to the Steadicam and so they can become less self-conscious about it. Or maybe there's a better line that occurred to us. And so those are the reasons that you would interact during [a scene]. But the whole set is involved in it, even the crew. And we were moving as a unit to make it be more alive and more amazing.

On connections between American Hustle and his last two films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter

I think there's a lot of connections. You know, they're about local neighborhood people, all of whose lives at the start of the movie are splintered. And they spend the entire movie trying to find a dream and a passion that they can rebuild and buy into. So there's also romance in all three pictures, and enchantment, which is something that is very important to me as a filmmaker and I unabashedly and unashamedly own.

I think when you do it genuinely, from the feet up — see I would never in a million years think of The Fighter as a boxing picture, I would never think of Silver Linings Playbook as a romantic comedy. Nor would I think of this movie as a con picture. Because every picture, I just [build] it from the [characters]. And if it's funny, it's because they're being real, and if it's heartbreaking it's because of the same reason — that they're being real.

When you're doing it, there's a feeling of, "God I certainly love this, and I believe in this. God knows what it's going to be like when it all comes together, and if anybody else is going to feel like that way." Which is why it can be emotional sometimes if you do get a nod from the New York Film Critics or anywhere, because you say, "Oh I guess I'm not crazy."

That was the first thing I texted our actors, I said, "See we're not crazy." Because we were killing ourselves making this movie. And then you turn to each other and you say, "I don't know, I think this movie's pretty good, but I hope we're not alone." And you never know until you take it out into the world.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The new movie "American Hustle" spins around the ABSCAM scandal, the FBI sting from the 1970s, complete with an agent posing as an Arab sheik, that led to the downfall of a number of politicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN HUSTLE")

BRADLEY COOPER: (as Richie DiMaso) This is Agent DiMaso placing $75,000 in this briefcase for Mayor Carmine Polito.

BLOCK: The movie is about that sting operation but it's also a love story and a loving study of over-the-top characters, with big '70s hair, wearing classic '70s polyester wardrobe, trying to re-invent themselves.

DAVID O. RUSSELL: It's very important to me that the characters actually love life and love things in life.

BLOCK: That's the director, David O. Russell. In "American Hustle," he's working with a group of actors who also starred in his recent movies, "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook" - Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Christian Bale.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN HUSTLE")

CHRISTIAN BALE: (as Irving Rosenfeld) People believe what they want to believe.

BLOCK: Bale plays con man Irving Rosenfeld, and he's unrecognizable. The actor who wasted away to skeletal form in earlier movies is impressively paunchy in this one, with a big gut he flaunts proudly and a crazy, teased and plastered comb-over. As David O. Russell told me, that's what the real-life con man looked like.

RUSSELL: I knew that Christian was going to be very excited about that.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: You know, I mean, you know, playing somebody that looked nothing like anybody he'd ever played before, and that - whose whole energy and his soul, you know, it's not just about the outside. I mean, that's what makes someone a great actor, is it's all from the inside. And that's why I think many women have said to me that they find Christian Bale very appealing or sexy in this role, which some people would say is ironic given that he doesn't look like a classic leading man.

He still looks really attractive but he's got a big comb-over and he's 50 pounds heavier and he looks like a very regular person. And those people can be very charismatic and that's what the Amy Adams character says about him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN HUSTLE")

AMY ADAMS: (as Sydney Prosser) He wasn't necessarily in good shape and he had this comb-over that was rather elaborate. He had this confidence that drew me to him.

RUSSELL: So I knew Christian was going to love the way the man spoke, the way the man moved, the way the man thought. What I would love to do as filmmaker, I just love looking at these people and saying, oh, my God, look at these people. You know, like when you when you look at my relatives from Brooklyn or the Bronx, I'm just like - I'm just fascinated by everything about them, the way they sound, the way they think, the way they move, the way they listen to music, the way they eat. It's the reason I make movies.

BLOCK: The look of this film, I mean, everything from the font in the titles to, you know, Bradley Cooper's hair, which is done up in these really tiny rollers, he gets this classic sort of '70s perm look and all of that '70s fashion, I wonder how involved you were in all of those decisions in creating, you know, what this movie would feel like.

RUSSELL: Very involved. I mean, that's what I love about filmmaking, creating characters. That's what I love about working with actors is it's a collaboration. I feel that I'm auditioning for my actors. And I go to their homes and I say, this is what I think. I'm very excited about this character, and this is what I think this character could be like. And they start getting excited about it or telling me their ideas and we kind of inspire each other. And it's all from instinct.

The hair in the movie is not just hair. It goes to this - when Irving is preparing at the beginning of the picture, that goes to that whole notion of who is anybody when they wake up and are about to walk out the door. That's what that comb-over is to him. And that's also an actor preparing. But it's my mother getting ready to go out. It's my father getting ready to go out. I mean, every morning I could hear my father shaving. My father was a salesman, and I'd hear WNIS Radio and I - you know, through the wall. And he was putting himself on, who he had become and who he was becoming.

BLOCK: I want to talk to you, David Russell, about your style as a director and the way that you shoot. Jennifer Lawrence, who's one of the female leads in this movie and also in "Silver Linings Playbook," calls it weird and instantaneous. Robert De Niro described it this way, he says, he'll throw lines at you, push the camera over this character to that character. He says it's spontaneous and chaotic. So why don't you explain what you do and why you do it that way.

RUSSELL: I don't really know how - I mean, I'll try. I mean, part of it is just it's the only way I know how to do things. I make a shot list. I have compositions that I want to see. But there's a fluidity to the camera that I want and an aliveness to it with the actors. I don't want people thinking or doing what De Niro once called bedroom perfect. You know, you can do something in your hotel room that morning in the mirror and it was bedroom perfect. But that may not be alive when you're in a room with a bunch of people.

So we have a Steadicam because it's a small apparatus that can move fluidly through the space. And we light for 360 degrees, which means it's through natural soft sources, through the windows. And once we start shooting, we don't - I don't want to stop and have interruptions. I want it to flow, so people almost forget that they're acting.

BLOCK: If I understand this right, you have this very fluid set where you can be nimble, you can move all around. But you're also involved in there, right? I mean, if I understand this right, you're tossing lines at the actors. You're sort of right there with them reshaping dialogues, suggesting things for them to say.

RUSSELL: Sometimes, yeah. When a scene is on its feet and it's living, you know, I'm not doing that. But there are moments when ideas are happening or moments are happening where things are not flowing. And so by saying something, you can help people relax and not feel as self-conscious for being in front of a camera. You break that wall by talking to them.

You know, I'd stand next to the Steadicam and so they can become less self-conscious about it. Or maybe there's a better line that occurred to us. And so those are the reasons that you would interact during it. But the whole set is involved in it, even the crew. I mean, we're moving as a unit to make it be more alive and more amazing.

BLOCK: You've said that you see these three most recent movies that you've made - "The Fighter," "Silver Linings Playbook " and now "American Hustle" - as connected, as some kind of trilogy. How does that work? How do you see that?

RUSSELL: I think there's a lot of connections. You know, they're about local neighborhood people, all of whose lives at the start of the movie are splintered. And they spend the entire movie trying to find a dream and a passion that they can rebuild and buy into. So there's also romance in all three pictures and enchantment, which is something that I - is very important to me as a filmmaker and I unabashedly and unashamedly own.

I think when you do it genuinely from the feet up - and that's - see, I would never in a million years think of "The Fighter" as a boxing picture, I would never think of "Silver Linings Playbook" as a romantic comedy, nor would I think of this movie as a con picture because every picture, I just do it from the people. And if it's funny, it's because they're being real. And if it's heartbreaking, it's because of the same reason, that they're being real.

You know, when you're doing it, there's a feeling of, God, I certainly love this and I believe in this, God knows what it's going to be like when it all comes together and if anybody else is going to feel like that way. Which is why it can be emotional sometimes if you do get a nod from the New York Film Critics or anywhere because you say, oh, I guess I'm not crazy, you know?

That was the first thing I texted our actors. I said, see, we're not crazy, because, you know, we were killing ourselves making this movie. And then you turn to each other and you say, I don't know, I think this movie is pretty good, but I hope we're not alone. And you never know until you take it out into the world.

BLOCK: Well, David O. Russell, it's great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

RUSSELL: Thank you so much for taking the time.

BLOCK: David O. Russell directed the new movie "American Hustle." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.