David O. Russell is telling a story. "Did you ever have to find a way to survive," he asks, "and you knew your choices were bad?"
Sorry, scratch that. Russell, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind last year's Silver Linings Playbook, didn't actually say those words. They were spoken by Irving Rosenfeld, the lovelorn con man played by Christian Bale in Russell's nervy new 1970s comic drama, American Hustle. But Russell wrote them, and they spring from his own experience. And besides, when you're discussing a movie about people deceiving themselves and each other – a movie that begins with a title-card teasing, "Some of this actually happened" – you don't want to let the facts get in the way of a good story.
And this is a good story.
It goes something like this: Once upon a time in the mid-1990s, Russell was an indie-film darling, a Sundance-born prince admired for Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster, screwball black comedies that came overlaid with helpings of existential angst. But they were minor box-office successes, and in the ensuing years he acquired something of a reputation for prickliness and on-set battles with the talent: There was a head-butting incident with his Three Kings star George Clooney, and a nasty verbal assault visited upon Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees, which an anonymous onlooker thoughtfully YouTubed for posterity.
Worse, the studios never really understood his unconventional films. (Or, if they did, they never knew how to market them.) So by the time the talky, sprawling, navel-gazing Huckabees belly-flopped into theatres in the fall of 2004, Russell had worn out his welcome.
There were troubles at home, too. His son struggled with bipolar disorder. In 2007, Russell and his wife divorced. For six years, he failed to get a feature made. He needed to find a way to survive, needed to reinvent himself.
So when the formulaic boxing picture The Fighter came across his radar a few years ago, Russell fought for it, and then made it his own. For the first time, he emphasized empathy over irony, burrowing deep into the rust-belt reality of Lowell, Mass., and its rough-edged locals. The picture received seven Oscar nominations, including one for Russell's direction; and won two, for supporting actors Christian Bale and Melissa Leo.
Russell leveraged that success into what he calls "my most personal film," Silver Linings Playbook, another story of survival and reinvention, this time about a man (Bradley Cooper) with bipolar and anger-management issues, grasping for a happy ending. That film received eight Oscar nominations (including one each for Russell's direction and writing); Jennifer Lawrence won the best-actress trophy, cementing Russell's unlikely reputation as an actor's director.
American Hustle is the capstone to this new chapter of filmmaking, fusing his old films' restless intelligence and love of screwball with that new-found humanity. Brashly entertaining, it is a big-hearted ode to the country's post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, oil-shock anti-glory days, when its citizens fashioned glamour out of collapse. Loosely based on the late-1970s Abscam corruption investigation, in which the FBI used a fake Arab sheik to ensnare a handful of congressmen, the film centres on a pair of con-artist lovers (Fighter alumni Amy Adams and an unrecognizable Bale) who are strong-armed into assisting the feds in a sting. Cooper is an FBI agent who falls for Adams's character even as he pressures her for help, while Lawrence tears up the screen as Irv's unstable Long Island housewife, whom he calls "the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate."
Once again, Russell's rare alchemy is intoxicating the critics. On Thursday, the film scored seven Golden Globe nominations, including one for each of its starring actors. It opens across Canada next Friday.
If the plot is a doozy, the reinvented Russell insists his primary interest lies in the characters. "The predicament is a terrific predicament, it gives us enormous opportunity to deal with theme and emotion," he said in a phone interview this week, one day after the film's New York premiere, as a car whisked him to the airport. But he recalled that, when he sat in Bale's backyard more than a year ago and the two men traded ideas of what the film could be, they sought to focus on the "opera of ordinary people who are living passionate lives.
"There's a lot of love and a lot of romance in it. Those are things that I never would have predicted would be at the heart of what I'm doing in filmmaking or storytelling."
On-set, most directors maroon themselves far from the action, watching scenes unfold on video monitors. Not Russell: He speaks to his actors from just behind the camera, even as a scene is rolling. He also shoots his rehearsals, then treats each successive take as part of an organic process, in hopes of building to something that ignites the screen. "I would say about a third of it evolves or changes, as better ideas come to us," he says.
Russell's producers acknowledge that the process can be thorny. "Any time you're dealing with a creative force like David, who is fundamentally looking for that energy of free-flow creation, there are going to be challenges," says the veteran producer Charles Roven, who also worked on Three Kings. The entire film crew, from the director of photography to the props masters and set dressers, "have to be prepared literally on the fly to deal with the fact that, in take one the scene may end at the door, and in take three they may end at the window."
Part meticulous planning, part improv and gut instinct: This is the process that works for Russell, like one of his characters reinventing themselves on the fly. This is what he's doing when he visits his actors' houses, as he did while writing the American Hustle script, auditioning for them with snippets of dialogue; this is what he's doing when things go awry, as when Bale, who had initially committed to the film, briefly pulled out to devote more time to his family. When that happens, "You're suddenly saying to your financier, 'Hold on! It's gonna be okay! Don't go anywhere!' And you're going between actors' homes, keeping the dream alive," says Russell. "That's constantly happening."
So even though Bale's Rosenfeld – 40 pounds overweight, hunched, hidden behind aviator shades, and sporting gold chains and an impressive comb-over – looks nothing like Russell (or, for that matter, Bale), it's hard not to see him as the director's stand-in. At one point in American Hustle, Irv is advising an FBI agent on how to act like a sheik. "You gotta sell it," he purrs, sounding like nothing so much as a movie director coaching an actor.
Russell accepts this comparison, but says that trying on different personas isn't limited to those in the movie business. "My dad was a salesman," he says. (The elder Russell was an executive with Simon & Schuster.) "Every day he would wake up, 6 o'clock, and have the exact same ritual of turning on his transistor radio in his bathroom and shaving – and I would hear the whole thing every morning, and every day he had to put his spring in his step, and go out and face the world, and support our family. And it never ended for him.
"And likewise, when I was growing up, I loved my life, but then you have to become a high-school student, and then you have to figure out who that's going to be. There's a lot of miscasting and misfiring and failed attempts and failed performances, and you're like – 'I don't understand! I was a kid 10 minutes ago playing stickball, and now I don't know who the fuck I'm supposed to be.'"
That sense of swirling uncertainty lasted a long time. "I would say, even into my 40s I don't think I had as much of a handle on that, even as a filmmaker. I feel like all of my life and all of my filmmaking was leading me to the last three films, to what I was really meant to be and do. That meant that whole time I was trying on different things."
All of which brings to mind another line from American Hustle: "The art of survival is a story that never ends." The line is spoken by Irving Rosenfeld. But of course it belongs to David O. Russell.
All in the Family
Russell's desire for authenticity is one reason he casts his films on the East Coast. He grew up in Larchmont, N.Y., about 30 kilometres north of Manhattan.
"A lot of my relatives are in the film," he says, including one man whose character breaks up a tense nightclub scene when he drunkenly crashes into a table. He's married to my cousin Bunny. He works at an airport," says Russell. "[Those people] are a treasure trove of rhythm and life to me."
He wants, he says, to capture "the people, the rhythm, the talking, making them real. Getting into the details of how they behave, the music they listen to."