If you look back over the collection of films directed and often written by David O. Russell - from the autobiographical “Spanking the Monkey” to the hilarious “Flirting with Disaster,” from the gritty “The Fighter” to the much-lauded “Silver Linings Playbook” - you’ll recognize that the quirky characters they’re filled with are usually even more important than the story. The same goes for his newest, the “sort of” based-on-fact “American Hustle,” set in the disco era, and presenting a fictionalized take of real small-time conmen who were caught up in the Abscam scandal that rocked Washington lawmakers.
Russell recently spoke about the film in New York.
Some people are calling “American Hustle” a comedy and some are calling it a drama. But you’ve been referring to it as a character study.
When I go after a picture, I’m first and foremost moved by the characters and their world, and then by the story or the theme. I’ve come to see that I adore characters who are reinventing themselves, who are salt of the earth, who are dreamers, who have love and romance, and who have things that they love in their world. That is what makes me want to make a picture. You have honest heartbreak and honest dreaming and enchantment. I’m not doing historical drama here. The first script that [my co-writer] Eric Singer did for this was historical drama. It was a beautiful script and it was more true to the events. But that’s for another director to make. That not my strong suit. My strong suit is character.
And you discuss the characters with your actors well before filming so they can get to know them.
Yes. It’s all about being a student of human behavior. That’s what Christian Bale and I spoke about in his back yard - about his [conman] character being almost an artist or a director. That was an idea that we loved. And how everyone is that, to some degree, in their lives. We all must look at and figure out our bosses, our coworkers, our lovers, everything. It’s a constant study of human behavior, which is always fascinating and unpredictable, and sometimes, by turns, horrible and magical. I never tried to think that I was doing a movie about the ‘70s, just like I didn’t think I was doing a movie about boxing with “The Fighter.” It’s all grounded in these people.
The two main female characters in “American Hustle,” played by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, seem to be pulling a lot of the strings of a lot of men.
I’m very into strong women characters, and the women in this picture are very smart. What I love about women is how they express their intelligence, and that it comes out in a way that completely baffles men.
Page 2 of 2 - You’ve said in the past that you’ve put part of yourself in your movies. Anything specific this time?
Everything comes from character and from what you love. I give the characters in the film what I love. Duke Ellington begins the picture of the love affair between Irv and Sydney (Bale and Adams), and Duke’s “Jeep’s Blues” is one of my favorite tracks. I thought the fact that those two would love “Jeep’s Blues” said everything about them. They had chosen lives of elegance, like Duke Ellington. They had a passion for that.
The soundtrack album for the film is terrific, and the music in the film works as its own character.
Most of the music is scripted prior to writing the scenes, and some of it was even played on the set. While you’re shooting the scene, you create a little mood. I’ll play a little music on my iPad to create a spell or break a spell. Jeff Lynne, the founder of ELO, happened to have a song called “Overture 10538,” which turned out to be the ZIP Code of where I grew up, which is a very freaky thing. He loved the film, and he opened up unreleased tracks to us, and that was just like magic. So we have classic-sounding songs that have never seen the light of day, such as “Long Black Robe” - tracks that he’s been sitting on for years.