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.
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.
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.”
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.
As he hit the hustings to promote “Silver Linings” a year ago, Russell began revamping a story then titled with a somewhat more emphatic noun following “American.” Between interviews, he would take his pen to Eric Warren Singer’s Black List script about the Abscam sting, in which a number of high-profile New Jersey politicians were brought down for taking bribes. Several name directors, from Michael Mann to Jay Roach, had been interested in making it. The film was essentially a procedural, surprising in its details but hardly remarkable in its concept.
Russell had a different idea: What if he used Abscam as a backdrop to tell a story of complex characters? What if he turned a story about men attempting to swindle one another into a story of reinvention and even redemption, the kind he and his on-screen surrogates had been exploring for several years?
He brought back Bale and Adams, who had jump-started his comeback on “The Fighter,” as well as Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, with whom he had just made the movie closest to his heart.
There would be similarities to their previous collaborations: Bale would undergo a serious physical transformation, this time as two-bit con man Irving Rosenfeld, gaining weight instead of losing it. Meanwhile, like his Pat Solitano character from “Silver Linings,” Cooper would again play a loose cannon of sorts, the fictional FBI agent Richie DiMaso. As femme fatale and Irving/Richie love interest Sydney Prosser, Adams would again go against her girl-next-door type.
And Lawrence, as the big-haired Long Island housewife Rosalyn who’s married unhappily to Irving, would play a similar blunt-talking, independent-minded paramour as she did in “Silver Linings” (though the role is a significant commute from her quiet heroine in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”).
Several months later, Russell was in Boston shooting the film with Sony Pictures and financier Megan Ellison onboard what was now called “American Hustle.” The budget: $45 million.
For a con-man movie, “Hustle’s” plot is relatively simple. After Irving and Sydney are caught running their low-level cons by the hot-shot Richie, the pair begin working for him, running scams in New York and New Jersey that will bring down prominent politicians. The tone and texture are harder to describe. “Hustle” has the warmth and romance of “Silver Linings” — like many Russell movies, they contain a family, real or surrogate — as well as the actorly transformations of “The Fighter.”
But it also has some weird moments reminiscent of “Huckabees” or even the screwball aspects of 1996’s “Flirting With Disaster.” If, thematically, “Hustle” is of a piece with Russell’s recent more mainstream work, it also shows that his eye for the absurd remains.
Bale’s Rosenfeld is inspired by the con man Melvin Weinberg, who had a similar life arc, and Cooper said he drew from several agents to play DiMaso, giving him a kind of stunted-adolescent spin. “What I liked most about the character is that he’s trying to be this big deal agent, but he’s really like an eighth-grade boy. He tells a woman, ‘I really like you,’ and stomps his feet if he doesn’t get his way,” Cooper said. “When do you ever see a character like that except in a David movie?”
Russell believes the story has a timeless resonance, particularly in its exploration of the theme of conning, which he describes as just the other side of confidence, suggesting that it is essential even for good people to survive.
The director was influenced by the 1970s New York world of his childhood (he grew up in the suburbs north of the city), specifically by moments from his own home. When Russell was young, his father, a publishing executive, was the victim of a wave of corporate consolidation, unable or unwilling to play a sharpie game that would have kept him his job.
The episode tore away a veil for the younger Russell, eventually creating in him a certain feistiness, and he’s channeled both his frustration and his reaction to it into this film. His own fight to become a sharper industry player continues, he said.
“I don’t think strategically, and it’s been to my detriment,” said the director, who is next contemplating a movie based on Lamar Waldron’s JFK book “Legacy of Secrecy.” “It just takes me a little longer to realize that, OK, if I do this then it means these people will do that, and I need to be conscious of that.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be good at the strategizing,” he added. “But I do think I have a more positive outlook in general, and that helps.”
Of course, Hollywood is filled with filmmakers who say they’ve changed, and it’s unclear how fully we should buy it when they do. Producer Charles Roven, who has known Russell for more than 15 years and made both “Three Kings” and “Hustle” with him, said he has but in a nuanced way.
“Just because he’s calmer or more good-natured,” Roven said, “doesn’t mean he’s any less intense.”
Almost everyone comments on the essential Russell quality. Adams calls Russell — who often will vocalize suggestions to actors in the middle of a scene while a camera is rolling, with his voice taken out in postproduction — “the world’s first Method director,” embodying on set the quirks of the people he’s making a movie about. “I know it sounds crazy, but that’s what happens to him. On ‘The Fighter’ he had this Boston directness, and on ‘American Hustle’ he had the manic energy of Irving and Richie.” In part that was because of the manic schedule: Russell shot this movie in a scant 42 days.
Much like the colorful and challenged America he depicts in his movies, Russell follows in a tradition of directors with complicated histories. In his hard-charging, vision-at-any-cost approach there are shades of David Fincher. His grounded comedy can evoke a more adult-oriented John Hughes (had Russell been around then, one could imagine a not-dissimilar version of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” coming from him).
If he has mellowed, has it come at a cost? When Russell joined the ranks of a generation of exciting young American filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh in 1994 with “Spanking the Monkey,” a coming-home movie about a teenager with a dark twist involving incest, he did so with a dark, perverse streak.
Several years later he followed it with the satiric cynicism of “Flirting With Disaster,” which with its mixed-bag of dysfunction took the family comedy and ripped from it any sweetness. And in 1999, the post-Gulf War tale “Three Kings” took a look at the conventions of the war film and discarded them, eschewing the band-of-brothers vibe of most combat pictures to make selfishness and greed its operating principles.
These last three movies have led him in a different direction. Though they all have Russell’s sideways humor, there is also a lot more sweetness. Even in “Hustle,” Irving and Sydney are madly in love, and if their profession is hardly noble, their emotions are heartfelt.
There are those who would see in it a softening if not a selling out, a comment on the toll of middle age or, perhaps, the requirements of Hollywood. Russell says this is a choice not born of laziness but its opposite.
“Ten years ago I would have not wanted to say that I was motivated by love. I’d have wanted to be thought of as darker, tougher, crueler,” said the director, who has a young son with his current girlfriend, Holly Davis. “But life can make you feel plenty bad. Look, I can do things in cinema that will really ... you up, that will really make you feel horrible. But it’s much harder to do the opposite, to show not just pain and heartbreak but enchantment and romance and magic.
“You need to fill your life with that every day.”
In “Hustle,” Irving is dealing with his own change about what’s important, even as he, like “Silver Linings’” Pat, needs to convince others of his metamorphosis. “These are characters deciding this is going to be their new narrative and everyone else is going off the old narrative. Everyone else would say, ‘I’m not convinced yet.’”
Russell paused thoughtfully. “I relate to that very strongly.”