David Russell

Bradley Cooper, left, talks with director David O. Russell on the set of "American Hustle." (Francois Duhamel / Columbia Pictures / May 8, 2013)

Toward the end of "American Hustle," the new film from comedy-drama laureate David O. Russell, a man describes his hard-won epiphany. "The art of survival," says the character, a con man played with toupee-ish shiftiness by Christian Bale, "is a story that never ends."

The line articulates one of the central motifs of the film — the need for self-narrative — while offering a telling peek into the mind of the man responsible for it.

For the last two decades, Russell, 55, has had one of the movie business' wildest careers, donning guises like most people put on shirts: edgy wunderkind, hothead flameout and, lately, Oscar-nominated auteur with an unlikely box-office touch. There may not be a modern American director as well versed in the art of survival or its ongoing demands.

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As he pulled all-nighters over the last few weeks to finish "American Hustle," his spin on the '70's crime picture that also stars Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams and arrives in theaters Dec. 13, Russell has sought to write the next chapter of his own survival memoir. "Hustle," loosely based on the FBI's infamous Abscam sting three decades ago and co-written by Russell, concludes a Woody Allen-like four-year, three-movie burst that began with underdog boxing picture "The Fighter" and continued with bipolar-themed romance "Silver Linings Playbook" last year. Both movies became hits and earned Russell director Oscar nominations.

Though the pictures differ — the latest is a comedic crime caper with a slight hair fetish — they compose a psychological snapshot of sorts of the man who made them, a portrait of a troubled mind in search of an on-screen exorcism.

"Each one of the people in these movies begins in a place where their lives are in shambles," Russell explained. "They don't know if they want to be who they are or if they want to live as they are. And that's how I felt back before these movies."

To find that redemption, he said, he has sought something romantic, vulnerable, un-Russell-like. "What I've discovered making these three films is that you need to have the magic of the things you love — of the people you love or the restaurant you love or the neighborhood you love. You need to find that and put it in the movie. Otherwise it's just telling stories."

Russell has just finished eating dinner in a Hollywood Hills mansion-cum-postproduction studio. It was here, with Los Angeles sprawling beneath him, that he first began meeting with Adams and Cooper to discuss "Hustle." Lately he has been hunkered down in what he calls "the submarine" — a downstairs editing suite.

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He arrived several hours late for the interview ("DT," said one member of the crew. "David Time"). When he finally burst in it was with a mixture of apology (he was at his younger son's school and lost track of time) and boyish enthusiasm. ("No other director wears his heart on his sleeve like David," said Cooper.)

He insisted on food for his support staff and for a journalist, even kneeling on his knees to look a reporter in the eye. Russell is hyper-attuned to — and expressive about — all sorts of small details, even the positioning of a chair in a room, a useful skill given his profession though, one imagines, a tiring tendency on set.

Back from the brink

It was just a few years back that Russell was down and out, nearly a decade removed from a hit (1999's "Three Kings") and most famous in certain circles for (a) a fistfight on the set of "Kings" with George Clooney and (b) a video in which, to the shock and delight of YouTube viewers everywhere, he threw a tantrum at Lily Tomlin on the set of 2004's "I Heart Huckabees."

Not seen in that video were the personal problems Russell was grappling with around the time of "Huckabees": divorce from longtime wife and filmmaker Janet Grillo, money struggles and troubles with his then-11-year-old son, who has a bipolar condition.

He started taking a series of writings gigs to pay for his divorce, movies he didn't want to make or knew he never would make. It led to nothing but despair, a half-finished directorial effort ("Nailed," a Washington, D.C., satire he walked away from midway through) and a bad reputation.

"I was adrift in those years," he said. "I lost my direction, and I didn't know what story I wanted to tell or why I wanted to tell it."

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That started to change when he came across Matthew Quick's novel "Silver Linings Playbook" around 2008. Already preoccupied with bipolar disorder, he decided to adapt the novel, about a thirtysomething man with emotional troubles. Writing the script, he said, was an act of catharsis, personally and creatively. But with his checkered past and spotty box-office reputation, Russell couldn't get it made.

He managed to land a gig directing the stalled "Fighter" — Darren Aronofsky had just dropped off and Mark Wahlberg, that film's driving force, had the rare positive "Huckabees" experience and pushed for him — proceeding to turn it into a hit. Harvey Weinstein, who owned rights to "Silver Linings," was suddenly sold on Russell's vision.