“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.”
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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.”