Director's Chair: David O. Russell — 'American Hustle'
Issue: January 1, 2014

Director's Chair: David O. Russell — 'American Hustle'

HOLLYWOOD — Director/writer David O. Russell, who made his directorial debut with 1994’s dark comedy Spanking the Monkey, has since amassed a small but diverse body of work that includes the Gulf War thriller Three Kings, the existential comedy I Heart Huckabees, and the sports drama The Fighter, which earned him Oscar Best Picture and Best Director nominations. He repeated those nominations with 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, a hit drama about bipolar disorder.

His new film, American Hustle, is a fictionalized version of the real-life ‘70s political corruption scandal known as Abscam, which once again stars Silver Linings’ Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, along with Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Louis C.K. Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Russell talks about making the film, the challenges involved, and his love of post.

POST: What do you look for in a project and what made you choose this one?
DAVID O. RUSSELL: “I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble. Those are the key elements I look for. And they have a very specific world they’re in, as in The Fighter and Silver Linings. They’re a sort of community, and they’re having to reinvent themselves. So they’re in trouble of some kind, but their world also has some enchantment in it that they love. There’s love and passion and compassion in it. And then there must be a sizeable theme, and in this one it’s not just about conning people, but reinvention. When Christian Bale and I first discussed this, we were both struck by the notion of his character’s passion and the attention to detail — like a theater director or artist. And then there’s the larger question of what roles and identities everyone plays everyday, the narratives they use to get through life. And everyone has to have one you believe in, or you’re a bit adrift.”

POST: Do you see this and those two previous films as related? 
RUSSELL: “Completely. For me, this is the third part of a trio of films that all my work’s been leading up to. I feel all the others were like preparation for this.”

POST: You mention “community.” You seem to have this repertory company of actors you love to use — Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper.
RUSSELL: “I love that idea of working with the same team on both sides of the camera, and having that continuity.”

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make? 
RUSSELL: “It’s the same aim, the same voice, the same song if you will, as my last two films. You go into the humanity, and what comes can be heartbreaking and inspiring and also funny — and not even intentionally. It just comes naturally from the flavor of the characters.”

POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together and how tough was the shoot?
RUSSELL: “It was pretty tough. On each of these last three films, it’s been about briskness. You must come from instinct, and we developed a team and a style of working. We shoot nearly every frame with Steadicam — sometimes using two — and that’s because it’s unobtrusive and moves fluidly through the compositions and spaces. We had Geoffrey Haley on The Fighter and again on this with Greg Lindstrom, so two operators this time who traded off. And we used the briskness as an asset, and it makes us come from instinct and passion and intensity. We do very few takes, so everyone has to hit it right and just jump in. And that gives us a lot of energy. There’s no time to really over-think it or second-guess yourself too much. But we still have to make choices — do we play the scenes hot, medium or cool? So the actors get a chance to explore. In terms of the video tap, I don’t do the video village ever, so it was a big deal for me in production to get a reliable monitor, as I’m always standing next to the Steadicam and moving through the scenes with a very large cast — the largest I’ve ever had. So we searched until we found this pre-digital monitor that turned out to be the most reliable for the image.”

POST: Did you shoot film or digital?
RUSSELL: “Film, and DP Linus Sandgren shot the very last stock of Fuji film. And that’s very sad to me, as I love Fuji stock. There was talk about going digital, and I’m a romantic and a little superstitious, and I love shooting film. And I’ve been told by a lot of people in post that even though cameras like the Alexa are pretty amazing, they still can’t quite match the richness and depth of film, and often you end up spending more time lighting for digital. We tend to roll the mags — 10-minute, 20-minute mags on the Steadicam — and the very fact that we all know we’re burning film and it’s going to end adds to the immediacy and intensity of the process.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 
RUSSELL: “I love it. We have this great post team headed by [editor] Jay Cassidy and a great way of working. We have a rhythm that’s very creative. We get into [it] quite slowly with the material. I don’t like to look at a rough assembly, so we tend to cut it in sequences. Sometimes there’s a sequence that has been assembled and Jay will say, ‘Let’s take a look’ and it does come in handy, but in this case, we had such a short shoot — just 40 days — and we had one of the shortest posts I’ve ever had, which was added pressure.”

POST: The film was edited by Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, who were Oscar nominated for Silver Linings Playbook. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked?
RUSSELL: “Jay was actually assisted by Crispin, who also worked on my last two films, and Alan Baumgarten. Jay didn’t visit the set and edited in Santa Monica. He can explain how it works.” (See sidebar)

“I met David through dailies on Silver Linings, and as I was hired after they began shooting it, I never actually even met him until post, as he was shooting in Philadelphia and I was in Santa Monica. But I heard a lot of talk about his methods, and how he runs these long takes with re-sets. So you hear a lot of discussion in between the takes, and it’s a very interesting way to meet a director as I felt as though I was on the set. I felt like he was giving me instructions at the same time.

“After I began working on this last March, Crispin came on a month later, and then Alan came on a couple of weeks after that. We broke the film down into different segments and then each of us really focused on those segments through all of the post. Because there was so much material, that way of handling it just made the most sense. Certain scenes did go back and forth between us, but we kept it pretty consistent in terms of each of us dealing with specific segments. 

“We cut on Avid at Tribeca West and it was great place to work — and Michael Mann was down the hall, Oliver Stone was next door, and they were also doing Hunger Games there. So Jennifer was back and forth. And we only really finished cutting and post at the end of November.”

POST: How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
RUSSELL: “We used a surprisingly large amount — over 600 — for two reasons; First, the characters wear sunglasses a lot, so there were a lot of pesky reflections from the fill lights that we constantly had to get rid of. Then, we also had to do quite a few period adjustments, such as with cars on the street, and backgrounds. We also ran into a situation with the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan that’s under construction right now, so we had to do a lot of work with existing plates to remove all the scaffolding.”

POST: Who did them and how did you approach them?
RUSSELL: “We realized that the best way to deal with them was for us to create our own in-house team, headed by Jay. So we then combined that with various vendors for specific visual effects. We used Zero VFX in Boston, and Lola in Santa Monica did a lot of make up and hair effects, and Crafty Apes also did some shots.”   

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
RUSSELL: “I can’t over-emphasize just how important sound design and music are to me. The environment of sound from scene to scene and moment to moment is very specific, and we create enormous layers of sound. There are different kinds of silences, or dog barks in neighborhoods when there’s chaos, and I like to use ambience to actually create enormous tension that you can then suck out of the room, which we do in a very dramatic way right at the start of the film. We did a lot of interesting things in the mix to layer in sounds to create moments of energy at the start and end of scenes, when something momentous is about to happen. So as two characters end a conversation and you leave the room and go outside, we used sounds that don’t necessarily belong to either environment, to make a dramatic point.”

POST: Where did you mix?
RUSSELL: “In the cutting room a lot, and then we went to Olympus Sound, which is John and Nancy Ross’ mixing stage, where we also did the last two movies. Myron Nettinga mixed all the effects with John, who’s our supervising sound editor and also a part of our team. We get into a rhythm of doing mixes at screenings for ourselves, and it’s a set up where everyone’s involved. Jennifer, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner will come, and they all give notes — and I’ll take notes from anyone to help advance the final film.”

POST: The DI must have been vital. How did that process help? 
RUSSELL: “It’s extremely important. We did it at Efilm and you have to watch your dailies very carefully or they move sideways at the 11th hour — which happens with the mix too. For the most part we loved the look of the dailies, but you have to mother them and preserve the look. I love rich color, I love redness in people’s faces. I do not like things to feel cool. So with Jay and colorist Yvan Lucas, we sit there and go over it all frame by frame.”

POST: What’s next? 
RUSSELL: “This is the fastest I’ve ever made two films, as we were prepping this while still finishing Silver Linings. So that was a first for me, and I marvel at filmmakers like The Coens and Woody Allen, who never seem to slow down. I need to take a break now and figure out what’s next.”