At Last, David O. Russell Is Making The Films He Was Meant To Make
Filmmaker David O. Russell first talked with Fresh Air's Terry Gross back in 1994, and two decades later, he tells her: "It's taken me 20 years since I first spoke to you to really make the films that I think I was meant to make, and to be at the level of filmmaking and storytelling and writing that I think I had ever aspired to."
Russell directed and co-wrote the movie American Hustle, which is nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture, best director and best original screenplay. It's tied with Gravity for the most nominations. Russell's previous two films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, also received nominations for best picture and best director.
American Hustle, set in 1978, is inspired by the Abscam scandal in which the FBI worked with a con artist to set up a sting in which someone posing as an Arab sheik offered bribes to politicians. The politicians who accepted the money were arrested. Christian Bale plays the con man, who along with his partner, played by Amy Adams, is busted by an FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper.
On how he doesn't want to "break the spell" during filming
I knew that [the role] would be exciting and enticing to [Bale] — to lose himself in this person, that's what actors who love characters kind of live for. They can take some part of their own soul, some part of my soul and the screenplay's soul, and who they think the real character is ... [and] it becomes this amalgam of a human that they get to live in, like in a trance or like a dream during the movie. Jennifer Lawrence has described it as "a high"; Christian describes it as like "a waking dream." ...
[When we're shooting] I'm in the room with the actors and we don't call "cut" because I don't want them to break the spell that they're in. I just want it to get deeper and deeper. I'll just keep directing take after take while the camera resets or keeps moving through the room and they kind of stay in character whether they're talking to me or not.
On what "hustle" means to him
The word hustle to me is not just at one level. Yes, there's one level of a hustle where someone is just outright deceiving you and it's just heinous. That's not the thing that interests me. What interests me is all the levels of: When are we sort of kidding ourselves? When does hustling actually get you through the day? You say to yourself, "Well, I can do this." Whistling in the dark, you know what I'm saying? That's a great skill to have. There's going to be many a day where you're going to need to whistle in the dark or you're just not going to make it.
On Christian Bale's comb-over in American Hustle
It's his own hair, he combs his own hair, it's a comb-over ... they have like some kind of wool that people can put in there, on their head, they can glue it to the top of their head. I mean, I watched many people — my dad's friends and even my dad construct themselves. To me, what that scene is about really ... it's not just his hair, it's really what the whole movie is about — which is about the fragility of identity. I think identity is fragile. ... I think love is also fragile and is living and shifting, like shifting ground under your feet.
On the way he lights the set
If you walked onto our set you wouldn't see a lot of lights or anything. It would look like you're walking into a room or a house because we light from the ceiling, like a soft source from above or from the windows, a natural soft light that can still be very beautiful and have different levels to it. ...
But it's fast — it's fast for them to do it and it's not going to take up our shooting time and it means the actors and I can pretty much go anywhere in the room. [We can] keep redoing the scene, in a way, until we feel like we've gotten some very exciting versions of it because sometimes we get different versions because sometimes you don't know if it should be done hotter or cooler or quieter or bigger. That's part of the exploration of the instrument of cinema and characters and voices — is to play them at different levels.
On what makes characters interesting
What makes me interested in any character is their heart and their soul. I'm not interested in small-time criminals per se, I mean Silver Linings was a little different ... because to me, De Niro's character was kind of doing bookmaking on the side. My grandfather on my mother's side was a bookmaker for most of his life, out of a diner on Canal Street in New York, and I don't know that he ever considered himself a small-time criminal, you know?
In Silver Linings ... [De Niro's character] was ... as superstitious and OCD as his son [Bradley Cooper], in some ways — or had his own rules of craziness, which many people have about their rituals ... especially in betting, or especially in sports. That to me was interesting, because look how that's like sanctioned craziness, whereas a different kind of craziness lands you in a mental hospital. ...
I'm interested in predicaments that can create local, specific characters that I can be riveted by. ... You start out and they're in a lot of trouble at the start of the movie, and they spend the entire movie reckoning with the trouble they're in, and who they're going to be, and who they're going to love, and how they're going to live.
On his son's bipolar disorder and his film Silver Linings Playbook
It's very powerful. That's why the energy you put out ... you should try to make it good energy, because it infects everybody around you. ... If they're playing everything on 10 ... not 3, not 4, but 10, that's like loud emotional music in your house and sometimes you flee your own house. You flee your own child. And you try to lock yourself in a room. There's a whole manner of ways you learn how to deal with it. ... I like to think of it as something that everybody must deal with but a deeper version of it. And that's why I like to think of ... [Silver Linings Playbook] that way, that it's just a more bold, operatic version of what many people go through.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, David O. Russell, directed and co-wrote the movie "American Hustle," which is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It's tied with "Gravity" for the most nominations. Russell's previous two films, "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter," also received nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.
"American Hustle" is set in 1978 and is inspired by the Abscam scandal, in which the FBI worked with a con artist to set up a sting, using someone posing as an Arab sheik to offer bribes to politicians. In "American Hustle," Christian Bale plays a con man, who, along with his partner, played by Amy Adams, is busted by an FBI agent, played by Bradley Cooper.
The FBI agent coerces them into working with him on a sting he's setting up to go after politicians. Let's start with a scene from early in the film, before Christian Bale's character, Irving, and Amy Adams' character, Sydney, become partners. After they kiss in one of the dry cleaning stores he owns, he takes her into his office and explains the scam where he really makes his money.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN HUSTLE")
AMY ADAMS: (As Sydney Prosser) Why'd you bring me here?
CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Irving Rosenfeld) This is getting to be my main business, my growing business. I help get loans for guys who can't get loans. You know, I'm their last resort.
ADAMS: (As Sydney) You're their last resort. These interest rates are north of 12 percent and heading to 18 percent.
BALE: (As Irving) That's right, smartypants.
ADAMS: (As Sydney) (Bleep) Jimmy Carter.
BALE: (As Irving) (Unintelligible) Jimmy Carter.
ADAMS: (As Sydney) Well (bleep) Nixon, really, and the war and the deficit and all of that (bleep).
BALE: (As Irving) You're so smart, you are.
ADAMS: (As Sydney) Thanks, kid, but how do you get them the money?
BALE: (As Irving) Well...
ADAMS: (As Sydney) You don't, do you? You don't.
BALE: (As Irving) These guys are lousy risks. I can't get them a loan. But I get my fee, $5,000.
ADAMS: (As Sydney) Five thousand? You take $5,000, you don't give them anything?
BALE: (As Irving) All right, these are bad guys. You know, they've got bad divorces, gambling habits, embezzling, all that (bleep). You know what I mean?
ADAMS: (As Sydney) Everybody at the bottom crosses paths eventually in a pool of desperation, and you're waiting for them.
BALE: (As Irving) How about we...?
ADAMS: (As Sydney) We?
BALE: (As Irving) How about it? Sydney, Sydney, I'm sorry. That was too much. I went too far. I didn't want to upset you. Sydney, please, I'm sorry. I know it ain't for everybody. Oh God I love getting to know 'ya.
GROSS: David O. Russell, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Both in "Silver Linings Playbook," where the Robert De Niro character is a kind of smalltime bookie, and in "American Hustle," where, you know, two of the main characters are running a con, you're interested in, you know, like smalltime criminals. And I'm wondering what makes you interested in those characters.
DAVID O. RUSSELL: Well, what makes me interested in any characters is their heart and their soul. I'm not interested in smalltime criminals per se. I mean, "Silver Linings" was a little different for me because to me De Niro's character was kind of doing bookmaking on the side. My grandfather on my mother's side was a bookmaker for most of his life out of a diner on Canal Street in New York.
And I don't know that he ever considered himself a smalltime criminal, you know, but I just love people - in "Silver Linings" it was more of an oh, he was interesting as superstitious and OCD as his son in some ways, or had his own rules of craziness, which many people have about their rituals of their work or their superstitions, especially in betting or especially in sports.
And, you know, that to me was interesting because look how that's like sanctioned craziness, whereas, you know, a different kind of craziness lands you in a mental hospital. I just found that interesting.
I'm interesting in predicaments that can create local, specific characters that I can be riveted by. So that was true in "The Fighter," where there was also a criminal, the Christian Bale character, or "Silver Linings" or "American Hustle." There are characters who are very local, very specific, and they're in predicaments that cause them - they start out, and they're in a lot of trouble, and they spend the entire movie reckoning with the trouble they're in and who they're going to be and who they're going to love and how they're going to live.
The emotional entanglements are what interest me as much as the financial or criminal entanglements.
GROSS: Can I get back to that your grandfather was a bookie who worked out of a diner on Canal Street? Was he alive when you were old enough to...
RUSSELL: No, I didn't get to see it. He died like the year I was born. But he was sort of worshipped by my mom, and I heard her talk about him a lot. What else did he do? He ran a diner. He ran a couple of restaurants.
GROSS: Oh, it was his diner?
RUSSELL: Yeah, it was his diner, yeah.
GROSS: Oh, on Canal Street. Wow, that had to be interesting.
RUSSELL: Yeah, I know. See? See what I'm talking about? You know, so like my - or like one of my producers on "The Fighter," Jeff Waxman(ph), had a family on Long Island that had like a candy store and a diner, and it just - every time he talks about it, and his father recently passed away, it's just it's so much love and light for the local characters and Lefthand Louie and all these guys who were in this - I just love - I just think, I find an enchantment in these local places.
I think that sometimes things that people overlook, or if you said to them isn't this great, they would look behind them and go what are you talking about because they're in it, and they wouldn't know. But if you tried to take it away from them, they would say, oh, this is special.
GROSS: You write great dialogue, and you've talked about how you like your dialogue to be almost like music, like a song. But there's a few lines I especially like just as outstanding lines. And these two lines get to the scam that the Christian Bale character is running, and the scam is that people come to you who are desperate for loans and can't get it anyplace else.
And you say you're going to do your best to get it for them. You charge them $5,000 for your consultancy. Then you decide you know, you just don't qualify for the loan, but they never get the $5,000 back. So he just keeps collecting all these fees.
And so he says to one of - the Christian Bale character says to one of these guys my fee is nonrefundable, like my time.
RUSSELL: Just like my time.
GROSS: Yeah, it's a great line. And another one - you know because wants - everybody who really desperately needs this money wants these loans, and the more he says nah, I don't think you're going to qualify, the more they want it.
RUSSELL: The more you say no to people.
GROSS: He says the more you say no to people, the more they want in on it. So can you talk a little bit about coming up with those lines because they seem perfect for the character. They're very colorful, very concise.
RUSSELL: The first line I think is a line that the actual guy said, that Christian Bale and I interfaced with a little bit, Christian more so than me. There's a lot of specific language you pick up when you're in Lowell, Massachusetts, or, you know, Ridley Park, you know, outside Philly, Upper Darby or in these neighborhoods in New York around this Mel Weinberg character. So he said that line.
He says he actually breaks up like this, and my fee, just like my time, is nonrefundable, which is a great line. The other one I wrote, which is I find it to be true. I find human behavior to be fascinating that the more you say no to people, the more they want in on something. I mean, that's how Madoff happened because, you know, people said, you know, he said no to a lot of rich - well can you get me in? Can you get me in? You know, then you've got to get in. It's just crazy.
He says it's so stupid. I think it's kind of stupid.
GROSS: Several of the main characters in "American Hustle" want to or need to reinvent themselves. The movie starts with the Christian Bale character looking in the mirror, gluing on his toupee, and it's a really awful toupee.
GROSS: And we see...
RUSSELL: It's not a toupee. No, it's his own hair.
GROSS: It's just a hairpiece? Oh, it's own hair he's combing?
RUSSELL: It's his own hair. He combs his hair. It's a comb-over that he puts one - he does put a little - they have like some kind of wool that people can put in there on their head. They can glue it to the top of their head. I mean watched many people, my dad's friends and even my dad, construct themselves. To me the movie is about - what that scene is about, really, and him making his hair is not just his hair, it's really what the whole movie's about, which is about the fragility of identity.
I think identity is fragile. I think it's got a big piece to it that is chosen or changed as the need may be. And I think love is also fragile and is living and shifting, like shifting ground under your feet. So that interests me and how everybody has that vulnerability and that fragility of who they're going to be at any time, you know, whether it's Christian Bale in "The Fighter" or Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings," you know, or Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings." You know, who are they going to be? Who are they now, and who are they going to be?
And how's that going for them? You know, how's that going for you? So I find that interesting.
GROSS: So the movie starts with Christian Bale kind of physically re-creating himself, and we see his big belly, and it's as if to say this person has to re-create himself like every day. But the interesting thing to me is that the movie's about, you know, self-re-creation, self-invention. The character's physically re-creating himself. But Christian bale re-created himself physically to play the part.
He gained a lot of weight. He has this very, like, New York accent. He took on a completely different posture. I read he actually herniated a disk because of the slouchy posture and the weight that he gained and everything. When you cast Christian Bale to play this part, had you imagined that he would physically re-create himself in the way that he did?
RUSSELL: I didn't think he would go as far as he did. That's really his decision. You know, I knew that it would be exciting and enticing to him to lose himself in this person. That's what actors who love characters kind of live for. You know, they can take some part of their own soul, some part of my soul and the screenplay's soul and the actual character that they - or who they think the real character is, the real person, and it becomes this amalgam of a human that they get to live in like in a trance or like a dream, you know, during the movie.
Jennifer Lawrence has described it as a high. Christian describes it as like a waking dream. And that's one of the reasons that the way I shoot is I like to shoot 20-minute mags of film, and I still shoot film, on a Steadicam. That's where I'm in the room with the actors. And we don't call cut because I don't want them to break the spell that they're in. I just want it to get deeper and deeper.
So I'll just keep directing take after take while the camera resets or keeps moving through the room, and they kind of stay in character, whether they're talking to me or not or whether I'm giving them lines or ideas or adjustments.
GROSS: So when you say that you have them do take after take without calling cut, do you mean take after take of the same scene, or take after take in order that you're shooting because I imagine you'd need a different setup for the next scene.
RUSSELL: Well, we tend to light - like if you walked onto our set, you wouldn't see a lot of lights or anything. It would like you were walking into a room or a house because we light from the ceiling, like a soft source from above, or from the windows, a natural soft light that can still be very beautiful and have different levels to it and is soft.
But it's fast. It's fast for them to do it, and it's not going to take up our shooting time. And it means the actors and I can pretty much go anywhere in the room. So when I say take after take, I mean to keep redoing the scene, in a way, until we feel like we've gotten some very exciting versions of it. And sometimes we get different versions of it because sometimes you don't know if it should be done hotter or cooler or quieter or bigger. That's part of the exploration of the instrument of cinema and characters and voices is to play them at different levels. That's interesting.
GROSS: My guest is David O. Russell. He directed and co-wrote "American Hustle," which is nominated for 10 Oscars. We'll talk more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David O. Russell, and he co-wrote and directed "American Hustle," which is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. And congratulations on that.
RUSSELL: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Yes, you're welcome. There's a voiceover narration that I want to play from early in the film. And this is the Christian Bale character, in part explaining how he became involved in a smalltime con game. So he's talking about his father, and we're - I won't describe what we're seeing. I'll just play what we're hearing.
RUSSELL: OK, OK.
GROSS: OK, so here's Christian Bale. Oh, oh, we can't - I'm sorry, because of something going on in the control room, I can't play that for you now. But you know...
RUSSELL: Oh really?
RUSSELL: You want me to do it for you?
GROSS: No, no, that's OK.
GROSS: I mean, you're welcome to. Go ahead, go ahead.
RUSSELL: Hold on, let me try it. Hold on, wait a second. Did you ever have to survive, and you knew all your choices were bad? I learned how to survive when I was a kid. My father ran a glass business in The Bronx. I would much rather be on the taking side than on the being taken side any day of the week, especially after I saw how my father got taken. I mean, that scarred me for life.
You know, so I became a different kind of person, you know. I became a con artist from the feet up, all the way. That's pretty close to what...
GROSS: That's good.
GROSS: So - and you shot it a while ago, but you still remember it.
RUSSELL: Well, I've watched it about 100 million times.
GROSS: OK, but I interview so many actors who have completely forgotten their lines.
RUSSELL: Well that's an actor. They do it, and then they leave. And they go to another movie in Morocco with Ridley Scott or something. I'm still in the edit room with the same person for like...
GROSS: Well, you've said that you relate to that character in part because of what you saw with your father and what happened to his business. Can you talk about that?
RUSSELL: Sure. My dad was a scrupulously honest businessman who started out in the stockroom of Simon & Shuster, the publishing company in New York City, when he was 18. And my mom was a secretary from Brooklyn, there as well, she was 18. And they met there, and they got married.
And he was just a very honest guy, and he - a very sincere guy and not an operator, really. You know what I'm saying? Like, he doesn't really have that gene in him. And we were very loyal to that brand. You know, when you're growing up, you know, that's what made me want to be a writer is that our house was always filled with books. Books were the most important thing in our house because that's what my dad sold, all the books of Simon & Shuster.
And it was very glamorous to me, the other side of the divide, where the editorial side was, where the writer was, you know, not the sales side. That was really the fascinating world beyond, you know, the window of where we were. But sometimes we would get to interface with it.
That's why I aspired to become a writer, and sometimes I would take my dad's book in like a little sales case and walk around the neighborhood and pretend to sell them door to door.
RUSSELL: Not that he did that. No, he went to bookstores.
GROSS: Right, right.
RUSSELL: And when we came into the '70s, you know, there was like a whole corporate thing that went down at Simon & Shuster, and his kind of group of friends who were just lovely people, you know, many guys that we know, just kind of they were out. And I was sort of flabbergasted. I said what happened? I don't understand what happened. You know, I thought you were going to be there for life, and I thought who are these other people. I don't understand what happened.
And that was a great lesson in the ways of the world, you know, because you start to hear about people you know, who you thought were on your side, and then you find out other aspects of that person. You find out about power moves and politics and backdoor deals and why decisions get made that seem unfair or not right or just to the advantage of certain people.
And, you know, so that was - that was kind of heartbreaking for me to watch, a couple of times with my dad. You know, and even into his - you know, he worked all the way up until he was 80. You know, he's still alive, knock wood, and I'm very close to him. But he - even then there are people who wouldn't pay him, you know, which just blew my mind.
So I was fascinated growing up in, of course, you know, the sincere and honest person, which I do still think is a better way to lean and to be. And I found - but I was also interested in their - the other guys. Like who are these other guys? And of course in the movie, Irving ends up much closer to the way his father was than he started the movie, but then that's interesting. That's part of the opera that then unfolds as the human - the two sides of being human.
GROSS: Obviously you didn't have the reaction to what happened to your father that the Christian Bale character has because his attitude is I saw what happened to an honest man, so I'm going to be a taker rather than get taken advantage of. But...
RUSSELL: Well, a little bit I did in the sense of being ambitious, right. So to be a filmmaker, you have to be sort of ruthlessly ambitious in certain ways. You know what I'm saying?
RUSSELL: You can't just be like, you know, the book salesman from Simon & Shuster. You know, you need to - you need to be relentless about your own, improving your own skills and work. And I would say it's taken me 20 years since I first spoke to you to really make the films that I think I was meant to make and to be at the level of filmmaking and storytelling and writing that I think I had ever aspired to.
And so you're working on your skills, but at the same time, you have to always have another move. You have to always find a way to survive. You always have to know how to, you know, keep your investor, you know, around and not lose them, you know, especially when the things are shifting around. You know, some cast members available, suddenly they're not available. That takes a lot of tap-dancing and, you know, people skills.
You have to instill confidence in people if they're going to bet on you. That's from a cast member to a studio. You can't just walk in and be scared, even though if you are scared, about what your story is. You have to show them your heart. You have to audition for them, really. And I feel that I audition for each one of my actors, and I want to be worthy of their time and their risk and their hearts.
If they're going to give the roles, I have to show my cards to them and really impress them.
GROSS: But I think you're also saying you have to display confidence even when you're not sure yourself.
RUSSELL: Yes, that's right. I'm interested - the word hustle to me, not just at one level. Yes, there's one level of a hustle where someone is just outright deceiving you, and it's just heinous. You know, that's not the thing that interests me. What interests me is all the levels of, you know, when are we sort of kidding ourselves, when does hustling actually get you through the day.
You know, you say to yourself, well, I can do this. Whistling in the dark, you know what I'm saying? I mean, that's a great skill to have. There's going to be many a day where you're going to need to whistle in the dark, or you're just not going to make it. In my personal experience through life, there's many a time where you go this is going to be OK, and, you know, it's not as bad as it looks, and I'm going to get through this, and it's - or I don't know what's going to happen, but it's - I find that interesting, the stories we tell ourselves in order to motivate ourselves and to feel positive or negative.
Even in "Silver Linings Playbook," which is very personal to me, even though it was based on a novel, because my son has faced many of those struggles, and I've had many of those scenes that are in the movie in my own house, you know, he had to - that's a luxury. Negative thinking or negative stories or cynicism is a luxury is what I learned from my son, that some people just simply can't afford.
In fact I can't afford it, and I don't think it's the greatest thing in the world for anybody to afford. And I'm happy to hold the ground of sincerity and romance and wish and love and trying with all the terrible struggles. You know, my son had to believe in silver linings, and he had to. Otherwise his life would literally be in danger. And that's how Bradley Cooper is in that movie.
So that's - is that a con? Is he conning himself? I mean, you know, Abraham Lincoln said, you know, I'm an optimist because I don't really much see the point of the other point of view. What does it give me? What does being a pessimist get me? It doesn't really get me anything.
I'd rather have a surplus of faith that keeps me inclined upwards, as Jack Nicholson once said, it's good to incline yourself upwards because it's too easy in this world to incline yourself downwards.
GROSS: David O. Russell will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote and directed "American Hustle," which is nominated for 10 Oscars. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David O. Russell. He directed and co-wrote the film "American Hustle," which is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and all four Best Actor categories.
You've pointed out that that self invention was the theme of your last three films, "American Hustle," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter." And in "American Hustle," Christian Bale's character says, you know, about the Amy Adams character, like me, she learned to survive and she knew she'd have to reinvent herself. And Amy Adams says my dream, more than anything, was to become anyone else other than who I was.
What resonated with that in your life, the whole theme of self invention? I mean I know you feel like you've become - and you have become a, you know, a much better filmmaker although, I liked your other films too.
GROSS: No apologies needed for those films. But just in terms of like more personal things, like what, is self invention a theme that's been important in your life as well?
RUSSELL: It became one, to my great discovery, once I came back from sort of what I call my wilderness period, which is sort of after "Three Kings," which includes "Huckabees." It's a period that comprises about nine years, if you really look at it, you know, where I kind of ponderously rewrote. I've always been a writer first and I'll spend most of my life writing and rewriting many screenplays. And I rewrote "Huckabees" - five different versions. And right now I would I'm now wise enough to know I would sit back and say to me whoa, what you doing? Why don't you just instinctivel,y from your heart, grab one of these and really put your heart into it and don't be in your head too much and don't look it every way you can tell the story. You could do that forever. You know, you can tell, you have to act from instinct and commit yourself. And, you know, I learned that the hard way. You know, I think I was a little scared after "Three Kings."
I wanted to take a big creative risk and I over thought it. I wrote it in many different - it's happened to many filmmakers, by the way, that I know, many great filmmakers who are working today have told me that - they either say publically, or just to me privately, that they completely identify with that. Alfonso Corona said that to me. Spike Jones has said that to me. Darren Aronofsky has said that to me. Kim Pierce has said that to me. So, you know, it's hard to keep being a storyteller who's clear and coming from your soul, you know, that's a skill you must learn to balance and do. So I came out of that nine year period, which also included a divorce and also included helping my son get into a residential school called Glenholme in Connecticut, which saved his life and many other kid's lives, and I've been on the board of. But that's a big thing to put your 11-year-old kid in a boarding school. I would say it was actually harder than my divorce. So it meant a lot of time traveling. I live in Santa Monica but then I was over in, you know, Connecticut all the time. Where was I? In the middle of nowhere, you know, living in this hotel, you know, just so I could be close to him and see him whenever I could. And, I mean I could even cry just talking about it right now, you know.
Anyway. So you go through that whole period. And I also, during that time, also wrote a movie with Vince Vaughn that didn't get made because I, I just didn't, I did it first as a writing job. I write - I pay my mortgage by writing - so I took a writing job to do a comedy for Vince and they said would you please direct it? And I said OK, this will help pay for my divorce and for my kid's school. And then I thought I don't know and I said I don't know if this is the right movie. Then again, that was a luxury. I over thought that. I didn't make it. I then tried to make a movie with Kristin Gore, a terrific writer, a terrific person. And it was a satire about health care and that movie literally didn't get finished because the financing stopped due to mysterious reasons, you know, out of mind control. And then you think wow, this is the truly lowest I've ever been at, like unprecedented things that I'd never experienced. And by the time you come back from all that it's like, you know, I've said, you know, it's like God is saying to you, you know, if you want to do this you're going to have to really mean it and show and come up from your heart. And I just came back a humbler storyteller, you know, meaning just clearer, grateful, grateful to tell stories, telling them from instinct, not over-thinking them, telling them from the heart, suddenly seeing all these characters who had been under my nose all my life, the people I'd been embarrassed of or wouldn't...
You know, like when I first met you, on "Spanking the Monkey," you know, I think I had kind of a younger person's criticism or embarrassment about my family, you know. And now my son, that's like one of his favorite movies, of course, you know, because it's all about, you know, the young person who's, you know, the victim. And as you get older, even "The Graduate" I look at and I go, like, I'm on the parents' side more, which was my favorite movie.
RUSSELL: Now I look at "The Graduate" and I'm like, oh, what's the matter? What's - oh, god for bid, they sent you to a college and they want you to get a job. Jesus. What's - wow, poor you.
RUSSELL: So poor alienated you. I mean it's, take it easy. But anyway, so I'm saying that oh, I lost my way there. Anyway, so I went through that whole period and came out I think a better storyteller and a more instinctive storyteller. And, you know, actually, that's how I got "Silver Linings" was the beginning of the comeback to me - the reinvention - was that Sydney Pollack in the last year of his life, I was, as I said, a writer for hire. And he said David, I would like you to adapt this screenplay. I couldn't even be attached to it as director yet. And he said I can't find anybody who knows how to do this story because it's sort of, it could be very disturbing but I think it could also be human and warm, and I don't know how to make it also funny. And I said well, I do because I've lived it and I'd like to make it personal to my experience and change how the novel is. It's a wonderful novel and I'm very sorry he didn't live to see it. And then I couldn't get it made. So, you know, here I am. I'm coming back. I wrote something that's very personal to me that I was - and I never would've written before. I can thank my son for that and his mother. And I wrote it but then I couldn't get it made. So I then made "The Fighter" thanks to my friend Mark Wahlberg, you know, he gave me a chance, you know. And I was not, I was like, you know, I was not hot at that time so it wasn't easy for me to get that gig.
And he just had a lot of faith in me and I could feel that from the instinct. I loved the relationship of the women. The women became like the napalm in my movie. You know, starting from that movie I thought women are just the women are where it's all at for me...
GROSS: Wasn't that great fight scene between all the sisters and Amy Adams.
RUSSELL: That's how I got Amy to the movie, was I'd only known her for having lunch with her a few times. And everybody said Amy Adams, the princess from "Enchanted?" I mean what are you doing? Do we even need that character to be a big character? I said yes because the romance is essential to me. I love romance. That was where I realized I loved romance. When you met me on "Spanking the Monkey," I don't know, you know, I don't, but I turn - I will happily carry the banner for romance. And so...
GROSS: But did romance seem like too corny?
RUSSELL: Not cool.
RUSSELL: Not cool.
GROSS: My guest is David O. Russell. He directed and co-wrote "American Hustle," which is nominated for 10 Oscars. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David O. Russell. And his film "American Hustle" is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
I want to get back to something you just said, which is that...
GROSS: ...for a long time you were almost like embarrassed by certain members of your family and then you realized...
RUSSELL: Oh, that's a good idea. That's a good thing to direct to. Yeah.
GROSS: They're actually really interesting. So like what was embarrassing about that and what turned out to actually be interesting?
RUSSELL: Oh, OK. Well, first of all, OK. All right. Well, you know, it's very interesting when you're first generation. I'm second generation American. My parents are first-generation Americans. They had big New York accents and their parents spoke other languages, you know? My mother's family all spoke Italian and my father's family spoke Russian or Yiddish - and Yiddish, you know. So my dad wanted nothing to do with any of that, like a lot of first generation Americans, or did my mom. And I was in, we moved to the suburbs, right? Upwardly mobile. We will to Mamaroneck, New York, the first family to sort of move to a suburb in our family and, you know, you get to be around some fancier people and you want to knock off the rough edges, right? You know, so, you know, your mother has a Brooklyn accent. Your father has a New York accents. They are embarrassed of it, which probably is what the lesson I - that may be because they were embarrassed of it then I got embarrassed of it a little bit. They were trying to fit in. In the meantime, you'd go to visit your relatives at a wedding or a confirmation or a bar mitzvah, you'd go visit people or a funeral, and you go into these other worlds that bore no resemblance to where you lived. You know, like a world like in Brooklyn or the Bronx or, you know, Queens, you know, and it just, they were just animal kingdoms of what people spoke differently...
RUSSELL: People spoke differently, acted differently everything spelled different, everything looked different, everything, you know, different records were playing, different food and all sorts of strange customs. You know, I never, my parents wanted nothing to do with their traditions, you know, so I wasn't raised Catholic or Jewish, you know. And then when everybody in my age was getting confirmed or bar mitzvahed I was like how come I'm not - can I get one of these because my friends are getting a lot of money and they get a lot of presents...
RUSSELL: ...having a big party. My parents were like go to hell. No, you're not going to get it. We want nothing to do with God or any of that. Of course, I became very spiritual about God.
RUSSELL: Wandered far from sin.
GROSS: Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Let's get back.
GROSS: So you're talking about your family and what was...
RUSSELL: Oh, my family. OK. Let's go there. Let's cut to the chase. Let's cut...
GROSS: ...and what was embarrassing about them and what wasn't. Yeah.
RUSSELL: So I was describing the animal kingdom of these homes and...
GROSS: Yeah. And - yeah.
RUSSELL: And they are spectacular people and I'd have to go over the years, you'd have to go. Then you try to become a preppy. I was the first person to go to like a private college and I tried to - and then you real - then you meet real preppies and your like I don't think you're going to make it as one of those guys do it.
RUSSELL: You know, that's, you're not going to make it. You know, you can't really fake that. That guy's like down to the toes. He's got the real thing going - like three generations deep. I don't think you're going to carry a candle to that guy. So then you give up on that.
GROSS: So this really does get to a theme from "American Hustle," the theme of, like, self invention and what's your fake self and what's your real self.
RUSSELL: True. Good. Thank you for pointing that out, like how much should I pay you for this session?
GROSS: Oh, well, we'll work it out.
RUSSELL: Because I didn't connect the dots on that until like this minute.
RUSSELL: It's true. You're right. What's your true self and what's your fake self. Yeah, and where are you on that scale? And how's it working for you? And sometimes you got to go with the fake one, and sometimes faking it 'til make it is the best path, you know, I mean sometimes for, you know, for anybody I've known who's struggling, you know, you got to put your feet on the ground every day and say, you know, don't embrace the struggle, you're going to sink like a rock. So you've got enough struggle, you're in touch with plenty of it. So...
GROSS: But, you know...
RUSSELL: So basically - what? What? Go.
GROSS: Oh, I'm reminded of something Jennifer Lawrence says in "American Hustle," which is I don't like change. It's really hard for me. Because I, speaking for myself, I have both sides, the part that wants to like find the authentic me and reinvent myself. But I also, I'm very resistant to change. Do you know what I mean? Don't you feel like you have both parts?
RUSSELL: Absolutely. That's why wrote that line. I try to see the movie through every single character eyes. I want to live the movie as if it's their movie. And that's why the script is so long and that's why have to give the script a haircut then. You know? But I love seeing it through every character's eyes and loving that character as if they were my own flesh and blood. You know, as if they were my own person. And change has been hard for me, and yet, at the same time, you know, you know when you feel comfortable and you're in your zone. And it's a beautiful thing, you know, to know that intuitively, and to know that zone intuitively and to be able to say - 'cause, you know, my son needs that. You know, he doesn't need someone who is wobbly. You know, he needs someone to go no, no, no, no, no, just come here, just have a nice meal, this is what it's all about. Just come out with us in this is nice and you know what I mean? Isn't this nice? Isn't this better than, you know, having like an episode or, you know, being in a lot of anguish right now? Not so bad, right? You know, you got to just stay it's not so bad. Am I keeping you up, Terry?
GROSS: No. No. I want to say like your son...
RUSSELL: There's also there's a cough button but there's also the yawn button.
GROSS: No. No. No. I don't want...
RUSSELL: You should hit the yawn button.
RUSSELL: Tell me what you need me to do to be more entertaining. I'm baring my soul here.
GROSS: No. Well, your son is bipolar and that's why he wanted to make "Silver Linings Playbook" and - 'cause you just mentioned your son. And in "Silver Linings Playbook" when the bipolar character, who is played by Bradley Cooper, comes out of eight months after being in institution, he is so amped up. You know, he's not been taking his meds and he comes home and he's really amped up and then his parents get really amped up as a result, too. It's like his mania is almost contagious in a way that's just really bad for everybody. And I'm wondering how you dealt with periods like that, you know, and not allowing that to - either the depression or the mania to be contagious.
RUSSELL: It's viral. You know, it's very infectious, you know what I'm saying? Anybody who's been - its very powerful. And that's why what the energy you put out is it's very important, you know, that you should try to make it good energy because it affects everybody around you. You know, so - and especially if they're like playing everything on 10, you know, not every emotion on 10, not three, not four, but like 10. You know, they're like playing really, it's like loud emotional music in your house and its, sometimes you flee your own house, you know, or you flee your own child, you know, and you try to lock yourself in a room. There's all manner of ways you learn how to deal with it. It's a kind - it's something that never ends, actually, having to deal with it, having to learn how to do with it. But I just think it's - I like to think of it as something that everybody must deal with but a deeper version of it. And that's what I'd like to think of that film that way, that it's just a more bold operatic version of what many people go through.
GROSS: Well, are you willing to go to extremes in real life or do you like to just go to extremes within movies?
RUSSELL: I think I've done a little bit of both. I'm a little famous, you know, notoriously for doing both. I don't want to be, you know, but I mean...
GROSS: Like for the big emotional fight, even on the set. Yeah.
RUSSELL: Yeah, for like the big - exactly, the emotional fights and like, you know, which are very embarrassing things that you never want to repeat and make you just redouble your efforts. I remember...
GROSS: Oh, god, in the YouTube era is just the worst.
RUSSELL: The worst. And if I could have a nickel for every story I've heard about other sets, that make that look like nothing. I would love to tell you those stories. It's a fun show, actually. That would be a real fun show.
GROSS: I have to ask you a music question.
RUSSELL: Go for it.
GROSS: In "American Hustle," what the Amy Adams and Christian Bale characters initially bond around is their love of a Duke Ellington track, "Jeep's Blues" from "Ellington at Newport," which was recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival. So does that Apple has special meaning for you?
RUSSELL: Yes. That's why I write it into the script. I imagine that this couple met in '74 and...
GROSS: ...so does that album have special meaning for you?
RUSSELL: Yes. That's why I write it into the script. I imagined that this couple met in '74 and in '74 I remember vividly that Duke Ellington died. And they're the only two people at this pool party in Long Island in 1978 who know or care that Duke Ellington died and when they see that in each other it just says everything. And when she says that Duke Ellington saved my life many times, you know, he's just stunned.
You know, and he says oh, my God, mine too. You know, and they both are sort of cut from the same cloth. So that Duke Ellington album is fantastic and I've loved it for about 30 years and I keep it in my secret repository that I'm going to draw upon when I write something. And it's a magnificent - it was actually Duke Ellington's reinvention if you really want to talk about it, because he had been considered dead after the bee-boppers came in in the '40s and the '50s. And he was considered irrelevant. And then when he played Newport with new passion, with his remarkable band with amazing names like Cootie Williams, they knocked everybody out. And so that's that beautiful piece of music.
GROSS: So in some of your movies the relationships get kind of operatic, like, really big whether it's like a big love and passion or a big fight and I'm wondering if you had dramatic relationships in your home when you were growing up, like.
RUSSELL: Oh, yes.
RUSSELL: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, my mother was a very dramatic person, God bless her. She's a very smart, beautiful, strong woman, you know, who's probably the footprint for all my love of strong women and complicated women. And she taught me many things and was just a magnificent person, even if I had terrible times with her and hated her many times. I also have great love for her. She could be very operatic and tables were cleared in one fell swoop many a time, you know, into the wall.
GROSS: Oh. Like throwing things.
RUSSELL: No. Yes, but I mean like, you know, like Jack Nicholson in "Five Easy Pieces," you know, when, like, you take an arm and sweep everything into the wall in one movement. You know what I'm talking about?
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
RUSSELL: You backhand it. And you're sitting there as a kid and you're like 11 and you're like wow. You know, and you say some other stuff is going down. I mean, major stuff. But that's, you know, it's a dramatic, passionate home. My parents loved each other very much, you know, they just had a very - they just were very volatile, passionate people, you know? So I suppose, yeah, I'm dialed into that rather than the quieter stuff. I suppose that's part of my ear for dialogue and for humans.
GROSS: Would you...
RUSSELL: But they also - but they also had huge hearts. You know what I'm saying? It isn't just that part. That would be one-dimensional and boring if it wasn't part of a richer thing.
GROSS: Did you, like, listen to their fights and not only get upset that they were fighting but also just be interested in how they were saying what they were saying?
RUSSELL: Of course. Yeah. And it's, you know, you could imitate them to this day, you know. I mean, yeah. And sometimes you'd have - then you'd grow up and then you're having those fights, you know, with them. My dad was a quiet one, although the quiet ones can be sneaky. You know, sometimes they're double agents. You know, you don't know what's going on with the quiet ones. But he definitely was more - had his feet on the ground better.
GROSS: My guest is David O. Russell. He directed and co-wrote "American Hustle" which is nominated for 10 Oscars. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is David O. Russell. He directed and co-wrote "American Hustle" which is nominated for 10 Oscars. He also made the movies "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter." One of the things I really enjoyed about "American Hustle" is that watching it I felt I was watching a movie made by somebody who loves movies and loves making movies, that there just seemed to be a joy in filmmaking, a joy in, like, the rhythm of it and the colors and what people were wearing and the lines. Just like the whole energy of it, the musicality of it. Do you - God, it sounds like I'm just...
RUSSELL: Oh, no. Please put that in the interview.
GROSS: No, it's...
RUSSELL: I'm glad you said that.
GROSS: It may sound like I'm praising you but I genuinely felt that watching it.
RUSSELL: Oh, no. No, no. Glad - don't, don't, don't, don't, no, no. Well, that's...
GROSS: That you enjoyed doing this. Did you?
RUSSELL: Yes. I mean, you have to - I put enormous love into it and passion into it. And since it's a passionate story about people doing passionate things that are sometimes rather desperate things - you know, everything's a little life and death and the struggles they're going through are a little life and death and a little desperate. So I love the dramatic movement of the camera, you know. I love the intuitive feeling of the camera moving into a person as they're having emotions and as they're saying things.
And as that's moving, the dialogue is happening and as that's happening the song starts to happen. That's magical to me. And I play music on the set sometimes just to set the mood or break the mood and sometimes it's the music that we're going to be editing to or sometimes it's just the music I want people to feel energetically that may not be in the scene but it's got the right feel.
GROSS: What's an example of something that you use that's not necessarily in the movie but you wanted to give that energy to the scene?
RUSSELL: When Bradley Cooper was running the streets in "Silver Linings Playbook" and, you know, he's a phenomenal collaborator and a phenomenal actor who is fearless and his resources are deeper than anything anybody expects. And I think he's going to morph and he is morphing. And he's also there in the edit room with us and he's a real partner to me in every step of the shooting day and into the editing room. And he hangs around quite a bit and I'm delighted to have him as a friend and as a collaborator.
I went up to him and I said - and we have a very intuitive feeling about scenes and people and cinema and it's good, you know. And I'll go up to him and I said, listen, which actually is a Beatles drum solo from "Abbey Road." Ringo Starr's only - the Beatles' only drum solo ever, actually, is that drum solo in the medley on side two of "Abbey Road." And I said that's the rhythm that is in your head which is like a nervous energy as you're running through town. It's a hopeful energy and it's also a nervous energy as you're running through town out of the hospital, looking around the streets for your ex-wife or your wife. You want her to still be your wife.
And you're going to go to your old high school where you taught with her and you're going to go to the house you lived in with her where the trauma happened that broke you up. And that's - and that explained a lot to him, that rhythm.
GROSS: So the Oscars are coming up really soon, a big night for you, 10 Oscar nominations. When you're nominated for a lot of Oscars - I think I asked Bradley Cooper this too - like, when you know that the camera's going to be on you, like, what if you lose? You know, like, and you have to look like, oh, it's going to a great person, I'm so happy for them, whether you're feeling that way or not. Is that a really awkward moment?
RUSSELL: When that moment happens with the camera? I mean, actually, I'll tell you a funny story. OK?
RUSSELL: When I was at the BAFTAs last year sitting next to Jennifer Lawrence...
GROSS: This is another awards ceremony.
RUSSELL: Yeah. The British Academy Awards. And on the other side of Jennifer was, you know, Holly, my significant other, and at the moment that the best actress award was announced, she didn't win. The woman from "Amour" won. And I, being loyal to Jennifer, who was sitting next to me, you know, and me being sort of a demonstrative person or an emotional person, I made a - you can look it up online because it became a screen grab, right?
RUSSELL: It became a screen grab. Because Holly - at the very moment Holly leans over to go you're on camera, David. Like, be careful. Like, I was kind of going - like, if you could see my mouth it's like a Peanuts character when they're going wah. Like upside down kind of a frown, you know. It's like that's a really good, like, cartoonish frown when going wah. And if you look it up it says David O. Russell douche face.
RUSSELL: Like an ungracious reaction, ungracious reaction to Jennifer Lawrence losing the BAFTA. And it became a screen grab. And I just, you know, people asked me about it, I said what can I tell you? You know, I'm loyal to my actors. You know, I won't - I would never do that for me, you know what I'm saying? But I would do it for my actors, you know, or my designers.
You know, because our costume designer who did a magnificent job and our - Judy Becker who's done, you know, four movies with me for the production design is magnificent and beautiful. They're nominated. But I wouldn't do it for me. So I made that face for Jennifer. Weirdly, this year, like last weekend, I was at the British Academy Awards and you get praise from where you never think it's going to come and it really is a wonderful thing.
You can never expect it. I don't read reviews. I listen to Bob Dylan who just, you know, he said you can't read reviews. You know, I count on people around me, loved ones, to tell me how the wind is blowing and if there's something particularly interesting that I should hear that somebody said. I remember vividly every negative thing and there's no harder critic on me than me. So I skew that way with the work.
I don't think I'm indestructible or, you know, flawless. I think that I'm very critical of it forever. So we're back at the BAFTAs and this time Jennifer Lawrence is not there because she's making "The Hunger Games," a movie like she always is.
RUSSELL: And this time she wins, much to my astonishment. OK? So she's not there. So I go up and accept for her last weekend and took the statue from Leonardo DiCaprio and because I never - when you don't expect it is when you give a good speech. When you don't make any plans. Because if you plan a speech -- I never win if I plan a speech. And so I went up and accepted on her behalf just this last weekend and I was very proud of her.
GROSS: David O. Russell, I've really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much and good luck at the Oscars.
RUSSELL: Thank you, Terry Gross.
GROSS: David O. Russell directed and co-wrote "American Hustle" which is nominated for 10 Oscars. Here's the Ellington recording, "Jeep's Blues," the track that creates a bond between the two main characters in "American Hustle."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JEEP'S BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.