‘American Hustle’ director David O. Russell is into characters, not con artists

Credit: Getty
“American Hustle” director David O. Russell didn’t see it as a ’70s film.
Credit: Getty

“American Hustle” could be classified as a “Goodfellas”-type movie: a period setting, reckless behavior, cool shots, pop song montages. But director David O. Russell didn’t see it that way.

“I didn’t try to think I was doing the ‘70s, just as I didn’t’ think I was doing boxing [with ‘The Fighter’]. You just think you’re doing people,” he explains. “When I go after a picture, I’m moved by the characters first and foremost.”

The same goes for his other films, including “The Fighter.” “People say that’s a boxing movie. I never thought of it as a boxing movie. They ask if I watched other boxing movies. Other than having ‘Raging Bull’ ingrained in my head, no. I didn’t think of it as a boxing movie. I thought of it as a character movie.” Ditto “Silver Linings Playbook,” which some people called a romantic comedy. “My head would snap every time I heard that term.”

The film stars Christian Bale and Amy Adams, veterans of his past films, as con artists goaded by the feds into an operation to bust the Jersey mafia and connected politicians. (It’s based on a real operation, dubbed “ABSCAM,” from the 1970s.) But while he takes glee in the larger-than-life hairpin twists of the tale, narrative wasn’t what interested him “The idea of a cynical conman is not as interesting to me as people with real hearts,” he says. The characters’ plight was what really got him going. “Everyone I know has had to survive and adapt and decide who they were going to be.”

There aren’t many real bad guys in his films, too, even when, as in “American Hustle,” they’re all shady. “I give the characters what I love,” Russell says. He cites the song that kicks off the film: “Jeep’s Blues,” a blaring number from Duke Ellington’s “Live at Newport” that instantly draws Bale and Adams’ characters together. “That’s one of my favorite tracks. I thought those two would love that song. It says everything about them. They’ve chosen lives of elegance, like Duke Ellington.”

Russell loves using songs, like “Jeep’s Blues,” that are just slightly off the beaten path. He also loves ones that aren’t taken seriously. He cites a moment in “The Fighter” when Bale and Melissa Leo’s characters sing along to the Bee Gee’s classic of misplaced sincerity, “I Started a Joke.” “That was a song that was mocked when I was an adolescent. But when I grew up I realized that’s kind of an amazing and beautiful song. It’s profound. To have him and Melissa sing that became a beautiful, poetic moment between them.”

Directing also means working with actors. Russell has directed three Oscar-winning performances. Both Bale, who won for “The Fighter,” and Jennifer Lawrence, for “Silver Linings Playbook,” return, this time trapped in a dysfunctional marriage. They improvised one of their key scenes, after they realized the one that was scripted wasn’t working.

“What I love about these actors is their athletic passion. They’re willing to get into these characters, and they’re willing to move,” he says. The actors, as in his other films, are encouraged to go all out, to yell and step on eachother’s lines, creating a sense of just barely controlled chaos.

He crafts their characters along with them, too. “I feel like I’m auditioning for all of my actors, when I go to their homes and talk about the characters. It inspires me to create a character with the richest range of behavior.”



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

Thousands protest in New York over Eric Garner…

The Reverend Al Sharpton led thousands of chanting but peaceful activists in a march across Staten Island on Saturday to protest the death of Eric Garner.

International

Egypt calls for Gaza ceasefire as fighting rages

Egypt called on Israel and the Palestinians on Saturday to halt fire and resume peace talks, but violence continued unabated.

National

SpaceX rocket terminated in Texas test flight

A Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 rocket suffered an anomaly shortly after launch on a test flight, triggering its automatic termination system.

Local

MAP: New York City Street Closures August 22,…

The Percy Sutton Harlem 5K and NYC Family Health Walk-a-thon and Pakistan Day Parade and Fair will cause traffic delays and street closures in New York City this weekend. Plan…

Music

Arcade Fire concert review, Massachusetts, Aug. 19

Arcade Fire take the opposite approach of "Shut up and play the hits," and it works in their favor on the "Reflektor" tour.

Television

Recap: 'The Knick,' Season 1, Episode 3, 'The…

The third episode of Steven Soderbergh's "The Knick" finds Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) meeting an old flame and other characters embracing self-destruction.

Music

Webcast: Watch Polyphonic Spree live on Sunday Aug.…

Polyphonic Spree singer Tim DeLaughter sits with Metro Music Editor Pat Healy for a chat and then the big band performs live. It begins on Sunday at 9:30 pm

Movies

Matthew Weiner on directing 'Are You Here' and…

"Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner discusses his movie "Are You Here," his history writing comedy and the tiny movie he directed in 1996 you can't see.

NFL

3 things we learned about the Giants in…

The Giants claimed the Snoopy trophy in a battle of MetLife Stadium tenants Friday night. But more importantly, the offense finally showed some life in…

NFL

3 things we learned about the Jets in…

The Jets lost the Snoopy Bowl, 35-24, to the Giants, losing the trophy and local bragging rights.

NFL

Fantasy football draft guide: How to draft your…

Many are wondering if we’re entering a new age in fantasy football drafting — one where running backs take a backseat.

NFL

Jets vs. Giants: 3 Giants storylines to watch

The Giants have plenty to work on as they reach the dress rehearsal preseason game Friday night against the rival Jets.

Wellbeing

Asics is giving away free gear around NYC…

Asics wants to see you on the court - and in the stands for the U.S. Open, which begins Monday - by giving away free…

Sex

Big weddings may lead to long-term happiness

Dreaming of a big wedding? A new study indicates that the longer your guest list, the happier you’ll be in the long run. l A…

Sex

Online dating for every generation

Frank Jackson and his mother Maggie are like lots of modern families: They have dinner together regularly, keep each other updated on their lives —…

Wellbeing

Going green could be the key to getting…

If we could just pursue the things that would actually make us happy, we could help the environment too, according to a New York researcher.…