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Starting with 2010's "The Fighter" and continuing with last year's "Silver Linings Playbook," the director, whose previous films include the Iraq War-set heist movie "Three Kings" and metaphysical screwball comedy "I Heart Huckabees," has managed to make movies that are critical and commercial sensations. These are movies that regular people love just as much as cultural commentators, and both groups tell everyone that they have to see the new David O. Russell movie.
The latest of these miraculous inventions is "American Hustle," which incorporates the true-life FBI sting operation Abscam with larger-than-life characters, played by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Louis C.K. It's a wonderful movie, one of the year's best, and we were more than thrilled to get to sit down with Russell, who discussed the importance of female characters, how "American Hustle" caps off a trilogy that started with "The Fighter," that horror script he wrote for Eli Roth, and how Chris Tucker supposedly introduced him to composer Danny Elfman ("Edward Scissorhands").
Moviefone: How did you get a hold of the script and what were your thoughts as to how to make it your own?
David O. Russell: Well, I mean, my focus as a filmmaker started with this new chapter, with "The Fighter," on characters who live these emotionally operatic lives and reinventions. That started there. Fortunately, I had written "Silver Linings Playbook," which I got to do after "The Fighter" but I had written before. And it's hard to find these characters. Charles Roven and I had worked together on "Three Kings" and I always ask everybody -- what have you got, anything with great characters? And he had this story that he had worked on with Eric Singer and I read it and the thing that made me want to work on it in the first place were the characters. So I asked him if I could work on it and make it my own, as I had done the last two movies, and they said yes.
I started talking to my actors, who I had pitched in all of these roles. So I would go to their homes and I would get very excited about it and these larger ideas, when I would talk to them about it.
You've talked about it being the third part of a trilogy.
To me, people who are very accessible and distinctive and their emotions are raw, they're not very ponderous people. They're living in a very raw way that I find immediate and cinematic. So yes, these are more of those people. And find themselves in a doozy of a predicament. And it also has a lot of romance, which is everything to me. I've discovered, to my surprise, that I love romance and I love characters who love romance. So that's also consistent with the three.
Stylistically, there seem to be some connecting threads as well. Your free-floating camera is back, and, although there's not a similar shot in "American Hustle," there's that extreme pull-back that's present in both "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook."
Where it zips down the street?
And there's another one in "Silver Linings," when Bradley and Jennifer are kissing.
Oh wow! That's the same shot. On a golf cart. You're right. No, we didn't find a place for that. We'll put that one in the next movie.
It's amazing you were able to pull this off in such a short amount of time, too.
It's the biggest movie I've ever made. But you've got to strike while the iron's hot. And if fortune is giving you energy, in the form of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence or Christian Bale and Amy Adams or Louie C.K. and Jeremy Renner, that energy begets energy. So, coming out of those films, there was an opportunity to work with these actors and we seized it. It's hard to get this many amazing people into one window where they can all go to their powers and put them in scenes together. It's electrifying to me. The desire to make that happen was very exciting. That drove us through what was a tighter schedule.
Did you ever worry about missing your date?
How close did you get?
We kind of had an idea a couple of months ago that we were going to be all right. You know what I mean? I like to test the film and see how audiences are reacting. I want the characters to speak to the audience, and I want the audience to love the film. And we did that and we said, "Okay, this film can be finished this year," because civilian audiences were responding to it. They embraced it. Because until then I didn't know. You always think, but you never know. You might think it's fantastic and you love it but you never know until you talk to some people who aren't living inside of it.
This movie is filled with amazing source music, but it also features a score by Danny Elfman.
It's a very source-based movie but he did some amazing, key pieces of music, as he did with "Silver Livings Playbook."
Is it true that Chris Tucker set you up?
Wow. That's the first time I've heard that. Why does Chris Tucker know Danny Elfman?
Because of "Dead Presidents."
Well, I love Chris and Chris might have had a role in there, but I don't know. I honestly can't remember.
Is Elfman someone who you're looking to re-team with?
Well, I want to re-team with both: I want to work with Chris Tucker again and Elfman is now definitely a part of our process. We have a team that has a rhythm and we always end up in Danny's studio. We took all this source music, and he knew it was going to be very source-y. But he very brilliantly put in the first score that starts the picture, when Irving leaves the suite to chase the mayor. It's a perfect bit of score that fits the rest of the movie and the craziness that's going on inside of these people. And he does that a bunch of times.
Speaking of going forward, we saw that "Nailed" recently got an MPAA rating.
I don't know anything about it. I haven't seen anything about it since, like, 2008. It's out of my hands. It's not something I know about or are a part of.
You also recently sort of offhandedly mentioned that you had written a horror movie for Eli Roth. Can you elaborate?
I think it's exciting to work with Eli. And I think it's exciting for us to meet in the middle with what I do with characters and emotion and psychology and what he does with his audience who loves him -- and he loves freaking them out, which is what he does. I'm a working person and sometimes I write scripts to earn my living. And that's one I wrote for Colleen Camp, a producer, and we thought, "Geez, this should be turned into something." And Eli felt the same way. I think he's going to do it and it'll be interesting whatever it is. It'll be scary and psychological. He's got to do his thing, but if he steps into the world of characters, it'll be really interesting.
Compare it to another horror movie.
He likes to talk about "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." And I also like to talk about "The Others." What a great f*cking script that was. Did you watch that movie?
That movie blew my f*cking mind. I'm not typically a horror fan but halfway through I was like, "Oh, wait. They're ghosts." Isn't that one of the greatest reveals in history?
You're also working on the JFK movie.
I don't know... I mean, it's a subject that I've always been a savant about my whole life. But I don't know what I'm going to do next. I know that I'm going to make a picture about characters and emotion, which is what I've been doing and I should be so lucky to work with these actors.
Well, I wanted to ask you about female characters.
That's the way! Starting with "The Fighter," I realized that they were the secret to the meat of what makes something so special. The women were what really drove me -- the sisters, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams. I helped encourage the creation of those roles. And Jennifer. I loved Jennifer and Amy being two strong women in very different ways. I mean, Jennifer going toe-to-toe with Christian -- this is what I live for! I think that women, in many respects, have an intelligence that mystifies men and I find that fascinating. Women can tell men something right to the man's face but he won't realize it until he wakes up the next morning on his *ss somewhere. It's just because women's brain works differently. I always said Jennifer was the smartest person in the movie. I love writing for women.
It's sort of fun for you, because you've taken these actors who were in the previous movies and given them such different roles. Is it fun tweaking the David O. Russell players?
It's very exciting! It's great to say to an actor, "Hey, let's do something that you've never done before." It's fun for them and it's fun for an audience. And that means it's going to be scary for them. Because that's a risk for them.
Are there any actors from your previous movies you'd want to bring back into the troupe?
Oh, I'd always love to work with Mark [Wahlberg], at one time or another.
Speaking of Mark, recently you said you were disappointed with "I Heart Huckabees."
Listen, there are a lot of people, like Jennifer, who love that movie. And listen, your films are like your children. I'm grateful for that film and love the characters in it. I would say that I wasn't as dialed in emotionally, as a filmmaker, as I would have liked to be. So I think it could have been a better picture. That's just my opinion. You're allowed to do all kinds of things and sometimes you don't always hit it.
"American Hustle" opens nationwide Friday, December 20.