Exploring the complex inner lives of colorful characters has become something of a signature for writer-director David O. Russell. Much like his last two Oscar-nominated films, 2010’s The Fighter and 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, his latest work is less about the setting than the vivid lives of the people operating within it. American Hustle follows a con man named Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale, who gets caught up in a fictional version of the 1970s FBI sting ABSCAM. Bale is getting raves for his performance (and his elaborate combover), and Russell could earn his third directing Oscar nomination in a row.
AwardsLine: How did you change Eric Singer’s original screenplay?
David O. Russell: The romantic triangle (among Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper’s characters) was something that I wrote as fiction; the mayor (played by Jeremy Renner) wasn’t as robust. It’s about people and a community, and (doing) something that helped their town. People’s good intentions matter to me, not just their greed or their darkness. I want to know about the good part of their hearts.
AwardsLine: Were the characters already fleshed out in that draft?
Russell: The characters were all there. They are so spectacular and varied. It’s as if the world is twice as broad as it was in Silver Linings Playbook or The Fighter. And the theme of reinvention is so particular to this (time period) that Christian and I felt immediately that (Rosenfeld) is like a director. He’s also with a wife he’s not sure about, and he sees something more shiny and lovely with Edith (Amy Adams). It’s really aspirational, as were their clothes and their makeup and their hair. It was like they were structuring a theater company. The profession that he has is all about identity and presentation and survival. So it was just many people trying to survive in many different ways.
AwardsLine: You’ve been clear that American Hustle isn’t about the actual ABSCAM affair, but why did that particular setting work so well with these characters?
Russell: The economy at that time was in a very bad place. It was a different set of circumstances; the interest rates were so high you couldn’t even get a loan unless it was at 15% to 20%. That creates an environment where it would be rather easy in some ways to entrap people, by offering them money from a special investor from a foreign land. Who do you become when you’re trying to survive during those times? This was also in a time that was more innocent, a time when things were slower, more analog.
AwardsLine: It’s interesting to feel nostalgic about analog in this digital world.
Russell: Well, it’s true. Money appears out of thin air or even disappears out of thin air. It’s not just currency—everything is kind of intangible. The Internet is intangible. Almost the whole world is intangible. I was at Skywalker Ranch yesterday, and one of my favorite things up there is the old-fashioned library. It’s a very beautiful room that George Lucas created. If you happen to be looking for an old Life magazine that maybe is about an Iowa town, you might stumble across something that you never would have seen. I think that most stumbling on the Internet leads me to a guy riding a bike off his roof who ends up breaking his neck, a video that I can’t even believe I’m watching. There’s a magic in the analog world that I think is special. The longer it takes to get something, the more you value it. And the shorter it takes to get something the less you value it. Anyone who’s raised a kid can tell you this. If the kid gets stuff right away, they’re not going to respect it.
AwardsLine: As a writer and director, do you find yourself tweaking the script even while you’re shooting?
Russell: There’s new ideas coming and new evolutions coming. It’s a complicated story, so you must have the structure. When we get to the editing room, we may find that this plot point happening here is better than it happening where we originally planned it. So we give ourselves that choice. Structurally, that’s all we can do. Other than that, the scenes are as they are. There may be evolution. I would say about one-third evolution in terms of, “How could this be better?”
AwardsLine: It sounds like you enjoy blurring the lines between rehearsal and shooting. The actors are always in character on set.
Russell: Part of that is a function of the practicality of a short schedule and part of it is that no one really cares about your short schedule as long as the movie’s good. I care because it affects the process in a good way. As Mr. DeNiro said (on Silver Linings Playbook), it gave things more immediacy. It made things feel more alive and not what he called “bedroom perfect.” When you’ve rehearsed something, it feels bedroom perfect. And there’s a lack of surprise, and there can be a lack of vitality in that. We like the 360 degrees; we shoot like it’s a play. You’re never really off camera. It’s a steadycam—even if you’re off camera, it’s going to come to you. It gives a looseness to it and raises the bar for everybody, including myself. (We) find the compositions that we’re looking for and also you think, “Oh, this is a much better camera move to punctuate that emotion,” or “This is a much better line of dialogue.”