On an unseasonably warm November day in a cozy corner of the Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca, the director David Russell was speaking confidingly over coffee. Soon, his new movie American Hustle would arrive on the awards circuit — just this week it took honours at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle, where it won best picture.
But as Russell, 55, eyed an oncoming tray of sweets (“Wow, that’s a lot of cookies”), he wasn’t speculating about the fate of American Hustle as much as marvelling at the long, circuitous, sometimes punishing road it took to get here.
To hear Russell tell it, the whole thing started at MoMA. In 2002, the Museum of Modern Art invited Russell to inaugurate a new series featuring young filmmakers, honouring a career that ignited in 1994 with Spanking the Monkey, a daring, offbeat comedy about young adulthood, incest and identity. In short order, Russell followed up that auspicious debut with the equally well-regarded Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings.
It was on the heels of Three Kings, a whip-smart, hyper-kinetic Iraq war comedy starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, that Russell was invited to MoMA, an honour he was reluctant to accept. “I said, ‘It feels like I’m getting too much attention too young. I’ve only made three movies, and I don’t know where I’m headed,’ “ he recalls telling his hosts. “I felt that it would be bad luck, and it was bad luck.”
The museum event, as it happened, was emceed by Lily Tomlin, who had appeared in Flirting With Disaster. She then co-starred with Dustin Hoffman in Russell’s next movie, I Heart Huckabees, an “existential detective story” that found the filmmaker — who studied English and political science at Amherst College — playfully splashing around the philosophical conundrums and theoretical loop-de-loops that had long fascinated him. Some critics cheered Huckabees for its idiosyncracy and willingness to take risks; others maligned it for maddening self-indulgence. (Later, I Heart Huckabees would become the source of instant web notoriety for Russell, when on-set footage of him profanely berating Tomlin became a viral YouTube sensation.) In any event, audiences were indifferent, and so began what might fairly be described as the Danish Prince years.
“A period began where I was over-self-conscious and over-thinking things too much,” Russell says now. “You start down certain paths, you do the same thing as before the bubble burst, [so] I did a project with Vince Vaughn, because I just love his voice. I spent a lot of time working on that only to go Hamlet, so we decided not to make it. Don’t ever go too Hamlet, that’s what I say.”
By “go Hamlet,” Russell refers to the pondering, second-guessing and temporising that are seen in many quarters as the artist’s prerogative. Meanwhile, his marriage was ending and his son, Matthew, was grappling with the symptoms of bipolar disorder. A political satire called Nailed, which Russell wrote with his close friend Kristin Gore, wasn’t completed. He began taking work-for-hire as a writer, that glittering night at MoMA a now-cautionary reminder of just how quickly life can circle back around and bite you in the backside.
“It’s like, okay, you’ve got to pick over everything and change your mind 50 times and torture over things, and then you get brought to your knees financially and emotionally, until you are writing to survive [and] support your family,” Russell says. “And you now have two households, and suddenly it’s not as easy as you imagined it would be. And Sydney Pollack offers you a chance at a writing job, as a writer for hire, to adapt Silver Linings Playbook, which I adapt as a job — no promises of directing. Everything is different now. The guy who was honoured at MoMA is a humble person happy for a gig.”
Russell was “wood shedding,” as he describes it, writing scripts for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Old St. Louis, another Vince Vaughn picture, “and eventually Mark Wahlberg sends you a film that you couldn’t get the first time or the second time around because your stock had dropped. But because you’ve been good to him, he comes back and says, ‘I think we should let you try this.’ “
That film, of course, was The Fighter, a scrappy, spirited boxing drama about a washed-up athlete that found Russell hewing to his familiar spontaneous shooting style but in service to a story that felt deeply personal and imbued with new, higher stakes. The film, which earned Oscars for stars Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, was widely hailed as a triumph, with Russell’s own comeback story uncannily echoing the arc of the film.
Having survived his own bruising sixth round, the writer-for-hire on Silver Linings Playbook was able to cherry-pick that very film as his next directing project.
Even more of a critical and commercial hit than The Fighter, Silver Linings earned another Oscar, for lead actress Jennifer Lawrence. (It received seven additional nominations, including for best picture.) Immediately, Russell plunged into American Hustle, a stylish, anarchically funny caper set against the backdrop of the FBI’s Abscam corruption investigation in the 1970s.
The film, opening on December 20, stars Lawrence, Bale and Silver Linings star Bradley Cooper as highly fictionalised versions of some of the scheme’s real-life principals. The movie possesses a larky, slightly wild energy, punctuated by a mesmerisingly unhinged supporting turn from Lawrence. But it also speaks to Russell’s re-invigorated sense of sincerity: An oft-repeated catch phrase, “from the feet up” is the director’s shorthand for the kind of truth, authenticity and big-heartedness he now strives for and insists upon in every project, regardless of genre or real-life roots.
With The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle, Russell has created what he considers a trilogy of films animated by the very defeat and tenacious will to survive that characterized those years in the mid-aughts, when he was grappling with the same obstacles and self-deceptions as his protagonists. “I feel like everything was preparation for these three pictures,” Russell says enthusiastically. And, whether it’s the Big Bout in The Fighter or the Big Dance Contest in Silver Linings or the Big Sting in Hustle, Russell has vigorously embraced the kind of unapologetic sentiment and sheer exhilaration — what he calls “enchantment” — that he might have pooh-poohed as a more self-serious young auteur.
“I discovered things about myself as a filmmaker that I wouldn’t have told you 20 years ago,” Russell readily admits. “That I believe in romance, if you come by it honestly. And I don’t believe any story is a cliche if you do it from the feet up… Let me tell you something: If you’ve lived it, it’s not a cliche.”
Charles Roven, one of the producers of American Hustle, last worked with Russell on Three Kings. He notes that, in many ways, Russell hasn’t changed: He’s still unafraid to take the counterintuitive path, finding drama in humor and vice-versa. He’s empathetic. He doesn’t like hearing the word “no.”
“When he has a vision for something, he always goes for that,” Roven says. “But the way he goes about getting there now is a bit different… He catches himself and will say, ‘Let’s start over.’ He’ll catch himself if he’s going down a road that may be leading towards a result he didn’t intend a lot sooner than he used to.
“Part of his process is to be constantly trying to learn from his past, particularly in areas where he maybe could have done something better or smarter,” Roven adds. “I think that he’s just gotten more mature.”
For Russell’s part, he’s now perfected a way of working — from choosing material to filming his actors with a constantly moving Steadicam, talking to them through their takes to create an intimate sense of immediacy — that’s given him a new lease on his career, if not life itself. His famously structured-but-spontaneous shooting style has created an informal repertory company of actors — including Bale, Cooper, Lawrence, Amy Adams and Robert De Niro — who, in the case of Hustle, agreed to work with him on the basis of a simple pitch. “De Niro said he hadn’t had this kind of challenge in 25 years,” says Silver Linings and Hustle editor Jay Cassidy, “since working with [Martin] Scorsese.”
The result is a recent cinematic oeuvre that feels both liberated and deeply grounded in Russell’s own life, even when he’s telling other people’s stories. It’s the people — not the plots themselves — that matter, he says. And if he doesn’t instinctively recognise those people — if their stories don’t chime with his own voice and values and sense memories — he’ll pass.
“That’s how I felt when I saw that world of the people in The Fighter, “ he explains. “You meet the people and you say, ‘You know, this kind of reminds me of my mother’s Italian Brooklyn relatives, or some of my father’s Bronx relatives. Wow, interesting.’ You dial into that rhythm: Oh, I love the plaid couch, I love the cigarettes in the ashtray like my mum’s were. I love how they talk to each other, how they laugh, how they fight.’ That’s [what I brought] into Silver Linings, and now with [American Hustle], I’m going to do that here.”
The guy who was honoured at MoMA is still humble and happy for the gig, but now he’s electrified, as if he’s just discovered a secret that he can’t wait to share. “I have a thing I’m doing now,” Russell says, sounding almost surprised that, after all these years, Hamlet has finally staked his claim. “It’s like a song comes to you that says, ‘This is the song you should be singing.’ “