Prior to 2010, David O. Russell made four interesting, unique, and memorable films – 'Spanking the Monkey,' 'Flirting With Disaster,' 'Three Kings,' and 'I Heart Huckabees.' But until 'The Fighter' was released last December, the filmmaker had unfortunately become most strongly identified with a series of on-set confrontations with cast and crew members, not only overshadowing his considerable artistic achievements, but jeopardizing future opportunities to create more of them (artistic achievements, that is). But two months, seven Oscars and $86 million in box office receipts later, Russell is deservedly back in the position of talking less about his personal track record than his professional trajectory, which will soon include an adaptation of the video game 'Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.'
Moviefone caught up with Russell via telephone last week to discuss 'The Fighter,' and how it helped redeem not only his career, but his creative confidence. In addition to addressing the ways in which the film repaired his reputation, he revealed some of the specifics that helped him key into its characters and story, and offered some observations about what 'The Fighter' taught him that he's taking with him onto 'Uncharted.'
Moviefone: I don't question your creative integrity making this film, and I don't mean to ask an indelicate question, but coming into 'The Fighter' how much was there an interest in proving "I can still play well with others?"
David O. Russell: Well, I don't think it's any secret that I've gotten a little bit of a reputation with some stuff that people paid a lot of attention to and I didn't want it to happen ever again. I had a couple of bad days on a set which I think painted me unfairly, which I think is also true of Christian Bale, by the way – I think he was painted unfairly by what happened to him. But no, I think there was trepidation about me, if that's what you're asking; I wasn't like where I was after 'Three Kings' – I wasn't in a position where I am now. I'm now in a better position which I respect and I'm so grateful for and treat with nothing but respect, so I don't want to go back in any way. I intend to leave that there. But Mark has always been my friend. Mark has always stood up for me, and he believed in me and he got me my second chance and I'm really happy that I was able to deliver for him and for everybody in the cast and make a film that we all could be proud of.
There was a lot of industry talk about the project you were working on previously and how it fell through, and I have to imagine that might affect your confidence. At what point during the production of this movie did you feel that you had regained that sense of confidence or that you were experiencing that second chance?
I knew pretty much as soon as we set foot on the set, because I knew that we had very special material, and I knew that I had a very confident handle on it and felt very clear about it. That's really one of the best things you can feel as a filmmaker, as a writer, is that you feel really clear about the raw emotional content and the way the story is going to go and the way the characters are going to go. I had a really clear vision of it, and Mark knew that I had that, and that made us all feel really solid. We were so happy to have these stories and these characters, and we just wanted to respect and do the best we could in portraying them with as much heart as we could.
Then we edited with Pam Martin, who did my first film with me and who is also nominated for an Academy Award, which I think is completely deserved – I mean, I think this film is very well edited. We worked very hard on it together for over nine months to find exactly the right beats to economically orchestrate this ensemble of really 12 characters, five principals and seven sisters - you've got the father Jack, the mother Alice, the two brothers, and Charlene, and then you've got these seven sisters. So I just feel that we orchestrated it and it came together really nice and once we started to screen it for people, we knew we had something very special. So I already felt like I was back on firm ground and firm footing just from when Mark and I really he heard and said let this guy tell us what vision it's going to be.
Mark was developing the film for several years. What was it important for you to focus on or emphasize to make it your own?
Well, there were many things, starting with I see a story how I see a story. When I came in, Mark said, "let's let David tell the story how he sees it," so as a producer he wanted me to do that. So there was a lot of things, because I make a film the way I'm going to see a film, starting with the energy of the film – I do things in a more kinetic way with an ensemble, and a more kinetic way that it is shot, and a more kinetic way that it is acted. So that you have this intense emotional and rapid-fire interaction with all of the characters, including the sisters, who were not featured in earlier versions, and including the Amy Adams character, which was not really featured in the earlier version – the romance, which was not prominent in earlier drafts. All of those things were very important to me. Alice as a centerpiece to me was something that I wanted to focus on, and women in particular, and the rhythm of how we saw the story, and the humor in these people and the charm that's in their hearts was not part of the story.
Those are all things that I saw and brought to it, the texture and the humor and the emotional intensity. And then when you add to that the movie within the movie, the HBO frame that was around the film that we used to interview the brothers on the sofa, we interviewed people on the street, it was a device we used throughout the film because it was true to the documentary HBO made about these people at that time. Those were a handful of the things, as well as the music, and the musical voice of the film, was extremely important to me – sort of the whole identity that it did not have. The charm of Dicky, that was something that wasn't there; Dicky is a very dark character in earlier incarnations, but that's only one part to him. That's not the totality of him, and that's what Christian and I agreed upon right out of the gate, that we had affection for Dicky and wanted to feel that affection in the film.
Do you find that there are discernible patterns in your creativity that you applied in 'The Fighter' that you've previously employed in earlier films?
Well, I think that that every director tends to have a rhythm and a music that they call their own, and I do have a rhythm of a way I like people to speak or interact, and I think that was in 'Huckabees' and I think it was in 'The Fighter' as well. Mark and I agreed that we did not want to have a checkerboard of different Boston accents, and they don't complement a performance, they can actually separate an actor from the raw emotion that the audience is going to feel. So we said, let's not make a big thing about the accents; let's do what Mark's doing, which is no more, no less, and every actor in the film to their credit I thought really did that in a way that was perfect and not distracting. But I guess in terms of that whole rhythm of talking and acting, that's the rhythm that everybody got in the first week of shooting of how I felt this world should be and how it should go, and everybody stepped up and made it come alive.
On some of your older films, you've been very specific about the technique or approach you've taken with certain aspects of the production, such as shooting the explosions in 'Three Kings' in longer takes. As your work has evolved, especially with something maybe more science-fiction-themed like 'Uncharted,' how difficult is it to create that alchemy of the humanism of the characters with the ideas that you want to explore, and then on top of that the technical objectives that you're interested in?
They're always different. Like, you're always growing, and I would say that the bottom line for me is that I've learned to be a better filmmaker in the last few years, and this whole thing with 'The Fighter' is that you've got to see very clearly the raw emotional material of who each character is and how the story is gripping the audience moment to moment, and scene to scene, and that if you keep the characters raw and real, keep the story raw and real, and as much as I love 'Huckabees,' I think it would have benefited from a bath of raw and real and keeping it more down to earth and taking those ideas and making them embodied more emotionally, more really in the characters; I think it would have benefited that.
But you're asking about the cocktail of ideas and character. My next picture's not science fiction; it has some magical monster stuff, but it's mostly kind of an action adventure with a crime family at the center – that would be 'Uncharted.' But with 'Uncharted,' for example, I want to build on a core family like we built in 'The Fighter,' or like we see on 'The Sopranos;' I think that's really interesting, that family dynamic. That makes the characters really interesting, and then you build around that the world of business and crime that they traffic in, and that's what made me feel like I could build that world in 'Uncharted.' These are characters that are really cool that I could create and bring to life that remind me of some of the greatest family dynamics that I've ever seen on screen, while they also are going through some global crime and almost military adventure.