Behind ‘American Hustle,’ a world of passion, humanity and clarity

Writer-director David O. Russell, left, with "American Hustle" scriptwriter Eric Warren Singer.
Writer-director David O. Russell, left, with “American Hustle” scriptwriter Eric Warren Singer.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Eric Warren Singer

William Burroughs once said, “Hustlers of the world, there’s one mark you cannot beat: the mark inside.”

That quote was taped to my desk while I wrote “American Hustle,” and it served as my North Star for these characters. As the lies consume their lives, they throttle toward an inevitable reckoning with the truth and themselves.

Though they are on the extreme side of the spectrum, I think this is something everyone can relate to. We all hustle ourselves and other people, even if it’s in small ways. It’s a fact of life. For some, the inevitable moment of clarity transforms them in a positive way. For others, it cripples them.


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And for me, this reckoning cuts to the heart of the journey that Irving, Sydney, Richie, Carmine and Rosalyn are all on. Like it or not, you can never beat the truth — never. It always catches up with you eventually.

My father taught me that.

David O. Russell

What drew me to the story Eric had written is what you see in the movie from the very start: this person. Look at this person. Wow. Who is this person? Doing his hair? So meticulously. Under pressure. Walks hallway. Goes into a room. Whoa — what’s the reel to reel? Pressure. Door opens — who now is this woman? Beautiful, glamorous, confident, fierce, what is the relationship exactly? Clearly, it is intense. But it is troubled.

Oh, now who is this person coming through the door, agitated, testosterone. Bossing people, then wait, “he’s involved with the woman too?” Awkward. And now he musses the meticulously done hair of the first guy? Oh, they are in a predicament together. Some kind of riveting predicament. Is it personal, emotional? Romantic?

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But wait, there’s a briefcase of cash. What? They go down the hall, they walk into another room now and there are two more intense people, one in particular, a mayor, tense, and he leaves, the deal goes bad! He’s upset! They can’t keep him there! The others argue over what went wrong.


This world, this predicament, these characters, was specific enough, deep enough, rich enough, to show a vast spectrum of humanity, passion, love, heartbreak, reckoning, survival and, above all, the love for life — no matter what the perils and mistakes. Love for music, dance, food, each other — love of hope, in whatever twisted moment — and there are many.

A wife and son at home who could be loved, cared for — yet the wife, a “Picasso of passive aggressive karate” — an enchanting, bedeviling genius of some kind, the man’s match in many uncomfortably formidable ways.

What a world of cinema and life. That stretches all the way to deeper waters, other worlds, including the fishing stories of the Midwestern FBI boss, the ruthlessly ambitious prosecutor, the strangely Arabic speaking Miami Mafioso, his charming henchman who falls for the formidable wife. All propelled by an increasingly higher burning flame of loyalty and trouble and desire.

This is what I live for — to make movies about such worlds and a passion and humanity.