American Hustle director David O. Russell likes sports analogies, which are actually surprisingly helpful in trying to describe his theory on aggressively spontaneous acting. “You see a batter or a basketball player when they’re stuck on something in their heads, that’s not good,” says Russell, who’s “coached” the casts of his last three movies to 11 Oscar nominations, including statues for Christian Bale (The Fighter), Jennifer Lawrence (The Silver Linings Playbook), and Melissa Leo (The Fighter). “Once you have a good focus, you want to keep it. You want to stay in that zone, so you want to work briskly and from instinct. It’s almost like a superstitious thing.”
There’s nothing superstitious, however, about Russell’s recent run of success. American Hustle, which arrived on Blu-ray on Tuesday, was his biggest box-office hit of his career. The star-studded 1970s period piece about a married conman (Christian Bale) and his lover (Amy Adams) who are manipulated by an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to create an ABSCAM-like sting to implicate corrupt government officials, including the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremy Renner), was an actors’ showcase that also included Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jack Huston. The laugh-filled drama landed 10 Oscar nominations, and Russell became the first director to ever direct a film with four actors earning Oscar nominations in each of the acting categories, twice — much less back-to-back.
Russell plans to stay in his zone. He’s currently writing another script for Lawrence, as well as “another big story I’m writing for many of these cast members that I don’t want to talk about yet.”
But he’s happy to talk about American Hustle, which character he thinks is the heart of the film, his unique approach to directing actors, and his understanding that all his success can vanish tomorrow.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Four of your actors were nominated for Oscars — the second time in a row that’s happened after The Silver Linings Playbook — but the heart of the film, to me, was Jeremy Renner’s un-nominated performance as the well-intentioned mayor of Camden.
DAVID O. RUSSELL: I don’t think there’s a performance like what he did on film. Certainly not by him. I don’t know by anybody. It just came out the way it came out. And it is the heart and soul of the center of the film. The FBI loved [Angelo Errichetti, the basis for Renner’s character] and thinks he’s a great guy to this day, so that was just very inspiring for me to write to that, because I love that kind of emotional heart in a movie. I don’t make cynical movies. So having his character in it was hugely important because his character is not cynical.
There’s a great deleted scene on the Blu-ray that must’ve been considered as an epilogue, with Carmine coming home after a stretch in prison. Why didn’t it make the cut?
It’s all about rhythm and how much the ending of the movie can take. Those [cuts] are all heart-breakers for me, because I absolutely love that scene. I felt it all emotionally. Because the real guy, Errichetti, his grandson made a video about him that he put online. It’s this white-haired, very sweet, humbled guy, and it just breaks your heart, and that was sort of the vibe of him, who he was coming out of jail.
Another thing we put on the DVD was him when the brick hit the car, which actually happened. He’s trying to show off his community and these ghetto kids throw cinder blocks from overpasses or from rooftops, and that’s a really wonderful scene. He yells at those kids, Christian Bale is trying to calm him down. To me, that was like triply heart-breaking because Christian sees how sincere this guy is.
Amy, Jennifer, Bradley, and Christian know the ropes, but Jeremy’s the newcomer to your “school.” What made you want to work with him?
I started hanging out with Jeremy during the summer of 2012, and I like it when I can connect with an actor — that’s how Bradley and I got started, that’s how Amy and I got started. The main thing: I need to find out if someone’s comfortable going against type, because that’s my favorite thing to do. And Jeremy has all this dimension that had never been in a movie. He has a huge heart. He’s very musical. He’s very warm. He has all these passions, but he always plays these badasses who don’t really display all of that. And he is also a badass, but I saw he had all this wonderful stuff — and he just started to do it on Saturday Night Live too, which was hysterical — and that’s what’s exciting to me. He decided to take a risk and enjoy it.
You have your own style of directing actors, which you’ve described as a reluctance to “break the spell” once the camera is rolling. Is there a steep learning curve for an actor?
Definitely a learning curve. We don’t spend a lot of time rehearsing; we tend to spend more time just shooting. And when it goes, it goes. It’s like, “Game on.” It’s very kinetic. We start shooting, and then you’ll do it and keep re-doing and re-doing it, while you’re shooting one 20-minute mag of 35mm film. They don’t think. They’re not in their heads. There’s no time to be in your head. You’re in the scene, if that makes sense. So that can feel a little bit intense to people who are used to doing everything very slowly and deliberately. It’s an adjustment, and Jeremy took to it and I think grew to love it. I like it because it keeps everyone on their toes.
With your last three films, beginning with The Fighter, you’re now renowned as an actors’ director. But that wasn’t always the case. What changed for you?
Oh, I just think you grow up and get more mature. I’m a lot older now. I think before, I would clam up if there was a problem, and then it would get to the point where there was too much of a problem, know what I’m saying? So that’s not good. So I just get everybody on the same page right from the beginning and say, “This is the deal, this is what we’re passionate about, this is what we want to do. We want to be like family.” Life is too short, you know. And if [actors] see the proof in the pudding, that’s what they want to do.
Some directors on a movie set bury their noses in the video monitor, far removed from the actors. But I’ve seen photos of you with your actors where you’re nearly in the shot. Is that your favorite part of the process?
I love all of it. I love creating worlds that I love and characters that I love and stories that I love. And that goes from the music to the camera movement to the rhythm of the whole thing. It’s almost like producing a record to me — like when bands still made albums. To me, I love conceiving of a whole film like that. I just get so excited about every aspect of it, and I love being there, in it with the actors to make them feel part of the cinematic experience. It has an alive feeling to it. For me, when I’m back at some video village, it doesn’t feel as alive or as immediate. The other thing that’s happened, which I’ve talked about more than enough, is how since I was reborn in the second incarnation of my career, I’m just so grateful to be there and that excitement is palpable. I want them to feel that excitement and how important it is to me. I don’t want them to feel that I’m back somewhere, having coffee or something. I want them to feel that I’m sweating in there with them.
Did you ever feel like you weren’t going to get that second chance?
Of course. That’s what makes me relate to all these characters so much. I could look into the faces of the characters of The Fighter. Silver Linings was a very personal story to me, because that’s about my son. So yeah, absolutely. That’s what keeps you honest. It’s a very special privilege to make movies. It can all go away.