Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
As far as I'm concerned, director David O. Russell has a perfect record, 5 for 5, beginning with his weird, dark 1994 comedy SPANKING THE MONKEY, followed two years later with the beautifully satirical FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, both of which he wrote. But it was with 1999's freakishly good and groundbreaking Gulf War story THREE KINGS that the world really got a taste of Russell on a big scale. It was also the film that paired him for the first of three time with actor Mark Wahlberg, who showed the world his most humorous side to date in 2004's underappreciated I HEART HUCKABEES.
It's almost inconceivable that Russell didn't get another movie released for six years after HUCKABEES, but it wasn't for lack of trying. In 2008, he got well into production (some say it was nearly done, but critical story elements remained un-shot) on what sounded like another great satire, NAILED, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jessica Biel, Catherine Keener, and James Marsden, when the financing suddenly vanished, and the film went into eternal limbo. As Russell put it, between this incident and a reports of on-set fighting on his THREE KINGS and HUCKABEES sets, his stock was decidedly down. But back into his life came Wahlberg and his passion project, THE FIGHTER, which not only got Russell's stock back up, but earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director and the film itself can't stop winning awards for its actors.
THE FIGHTER has been out long enough that you don't need me to recount the plot or the story behind it. What I love is that millions of people have gone into it thinking it was nothing more than a well made boxing movie and have come out realizing the the film's strength is in its family drama. Plus, there's some really great boxing sequences in it as well. Since Russell has spent the better part of the last couple of months talking about THE FIGHTER, I tried to come at my questions with more some personal observations mixed in with some of the standard questions Russell is probably sick of answering. But it's clear to me that he's immensely proud of every aspect of the production and the accolades and validation he has received from critics and peers.
It sounds like his next project, UNCHARTED: DRAKE'S FORTUNE, based on the video game, is well under way, although having to attend all of these awards ceremonies has seriously cut into Russell's screenwriting time. I had a tremendously satisfying time talking to Russell for near a half hour, and in that time I found him engaging and willing to talk about anything. Please enjoy my talk with David O. Russell…
Capone: Hi, David. How are you?
David O. Russell: Hi, how are you?
Capone: Good. First of all, congratulations on the Oscar nomination. I want to make sure I get that out of the way right at the top.
DOR: Thank you so much. We don’t want to get it out of the way yet. [Laughs] We’ve still got two weeks left.
Capone: What does that nomination mean to you? Is it a sort of redemption of some sort?
DOR: Let’s just say I was on the mat, and now I’m back up on my feet where I intend to stay. It means the world to me and it means the world to me to be part of the competition in a year with a lot of really good films. I really believe in our film enormously. I love our film enormously, and that to me is the greatest privilege of all.
Capone: Plus it has got to feel pretty good too that your actors haven't been able to stop winning awards for the last few weeks.
DOR: Yeah, well God bless them and may they keep on. They deserve it. I think their heart and soul are all over the film and I think every film has something different this year to offer, so it’s a pretty subjective call.
Capone: Are you in any way disappointed that the Academy didn’t recognize Mark’s [Wahlberg] performance? I think a lot of people mentioned that when the nominations came out.
DOR: I’ve spoken to two of the greatest actors of our time, Sean Penn and Robert DeNiro, and they both, without any prompting went on in great, passionate detail about Mark’s performance and feeling that he got stiffed. But Mark himself has been very gracious about it, and as a producer, he's extremely happy for all of us and for the film, and he knew he was taking the less flashy role, so I don’t think he’s that surprised that this is how it went and the quieter performances often don’t get the recognition they deserve, but that’s okay. Some of my favorite performances of cinema and favorite films, not only weren’t nominated or won at the time, so it’s not like this is a science.
Capone: The Academy doesn’t very often recognize those kind of very stable, central people in the center of that chaos, around whom the more colorful characters revolve.
DOR: And you need both to make it work. In a song, you need a bass line as much as you need the treble. Christian [Bale] and Melissa [Leo] are able to really fly big, because Amy [Adams] and Mark are so grounded and completely emotionally engaged and present. So they really helped create the entire environment that makes everything possible. I don’t think one exists without the other, really.
Capone: Agreed. This film played at a festival down in Austin called Butt Numb-a-Thon back in December, and I was asked to introduce it, because I had seen it and had written my review very early and I loved it. One of the things I told the audience when I was introducing it was, “Whatever you think this movie is about, you’re wrong.”
DOR: Oh hell, that’s a good way to put it.
Capone: Have you noticed that? People go into it thinking it’s a sports movie or a boxing movie, and I’m like “No… it’s got that in it, but that’s not what it is.” Have people been telling you that it surprised them in that way, that it’s more about a family?
DOR: To me, it was always an amazing story of this family and the romance between Mark and Amy that has fighting in it. I don’t think anybody who sees it recognizes that, and I’ve heard that from many, mostly women who have seen the film and loved it who said they don’t really care for fighting and they went and they just absolutely really loved watching the film. So yeah, we’ve heard that from many places. You can’t always control the marketing, you know. That’s [the studio's] thing.
Capone: And you can’t always control the word of mouth, which, in the case of THE FIGHTER, is getting those women to go see the movie in the first place. I’ve got to imagine this is the most women that have ever gone to a boxing movie in history.
DOR: Yeah, I think it tested very well, but it tested better with women than it did with men. That did not entirely surprise me, because I think it’s a similar thing with THREE KINGS. I think it’s the emotion and the characters that make these things that might seem sort of macho genre films not that at all.
Capone: With most of the fight scenes you present them in a way that is as if we are watching them on television. I thought that was a really interesting choice, because you’ve got the commentators; you’ve always got that HBO logo in the corner. What went into making that decision? You must have worked so closely with HBO, not just on the fight scenes, but also on the documentary re-creation. Can you talk about your relationship with them and that choice?
DOR: I love things that feel raw and real. That’s just how I love to shoot; that’s how I love to direct; and that’s how I love the scene to feel. I like the actors to not know when the camera is on or off, so that their performances don’t feel so much like performances. Instead, it feels like you walked into somebody’s living room and you are watching people who are caught up in a discussion or a debate or a moment. The fact that we had the HBO frame on the film was such a gift to me as a filmmaker, and I seized upon that. That was one of many things that I brought to the table when I came aboard.
I focused on the rhythm of the story, how I wanted to tell it with my kinetic energy, which we had also done in THREE KINGS. There was an energy from the opening shots down the streets, and the interviews were part of that as well. I wanted to be able to interview the characters throughout the film, which we did not have budgeted or scripted, and just put the people on the coach or put the local ladies of the town on the street and interview them. These were all great things that I was able to focus on, including making the Amy Adams' role a role that Amy Adams wanted to do, because before that, it wasn’t--it was more impressionistic. And the sisters weren’t as much of a focused presence. The singing with Alice and her son in the car and their sense of romance or closeness, and the music in general throughout the film--the musical voice of the film--were all things that I got to bring as a director to the picture that were things that I was happy to contribute.
Capone: You mentioned those interview scenes, it's hard to believe they weren't scripted because some of the most emotionally wrenching moments come out of them.
DOR: Yeah, the interviews were not scripted. They were not budgeted or scripted, and I was just determined to do them no matter what, and because everybody was so amazingly in character and because everybody was so comfortable on the set, and we had such a good environment, they were comfortable at like 2 a.m. or whatever time of day between setups sit on the coach and get interviewed. I was like, “I’m just going to throw questions at you,” and they became the gold that are the book ends of the film.
Or the singing in the car was one take. I said, “I want the world to see that these two have a special bond that can be used at any time no matter what they're up against.” I thought singing that BeeGees song [""I Started A Joke"] together was a really good way to do it and I felt instinctively that the lyrics of that song and the tone of that song kind of captured a certain melancholy and a certain love and a certain irony. “I started the joke that started the whole world crying. I didn’t know the joke was on me.” The lyrics are very appropriate for Dicky and Alice and I thought it was good that it would be their song.
Melissa and Christian were so amazingly committed, I asked them to learn it, they thought it was a strange song. I said, "I think that’s what makes it beautiful,” and they did learn it, so when the day came where we had 20 minutes, I said “Did you learn it?” They said, “Yeah.” I said “Well, this is our chance, right now.” We only had one place to put the camera, which was in the back seat, and I said “That’s cool,” because sometimes some of the most powerful scenes in cinema are people’s back, so we got in and we filmed in from their backs. They were game and they were completely in the moment and so Melissa was completely emotional and Christian was so completely contrite at trying to win her back that the moment became instantly real.
I’m glad to know people responded to it, because it was much debated. The producers were very skeptical about that scene and to their credit when it was in, even though the studio still thought it was odd and maybe wanted it out, [producer] David Hoberman backed me up and he said “I think it’s inspired. It needs to stay.” I was very grateful to him for that.
Capone: I truly love, I believe it’s the final time we see the brothers on the couch just when they are sort of professing their love for each other and one or both of them start to tear up. I sat there in Austin and watch a room full of hardened film geeks cry at that moment. And it’s incredible that it was improvised, because that’s the tear jerk moment of the movie. If you aren’t crying then, then you are dead.
DOR: You know, I threw questions at them and I said “Let’s switch seats, because at the beginning when we first interviewed you, you were in different seats, and it makes sense to me now that you have switched seats, that the alpha is now the beta and the beta is now the alpha.” They did that and that was spontaneous emotion, and it does bring tears to everybody’s eyes. Even when I talk about it, it can sometimes bring tears to my eyes. There’s nothing more powerful than someone having to swallow their pride, I think.
Capone: When you start playing the re-created documentary within the film, I had such a vivid memory of seeing that documentary when it first aired.
DOR: Oh, you saw it?
Capone: I absolutely remember it, because it was the first time I had ever seen what a person on crack looked like and I was shocked. I wasn’t that young either, when it first aired, but it was kind of incredible. I don’t remember it being Dicky specifically, but I remember looking at what a person on crack looked like--sunken, like a husk of a human being, and that just freaked me out. I had never seen that before. Did Christian kind of use that?
DOR: Oh, Christian watched that quite a bit. He spent a lot of time with Dicky and Dicky’s friend, and Dicky gave him an underground tour of some of the paleolithic layers of Lowell. Yeah, I don’t know what to say. That film is just such a gift, and to use it could have broken either way for Dicky. If he had sort of pulled himself out of his spiral, he could have made it about him cleaning up, and that’s what that documentary would have been about. It would have been half about crack and half been about a guy who heroically pulled himself out of it, but he didn’t at that time.
It was great to try to re-create all of that and creating the texture of the picture was always so palpable for us, and I could always be uncompromising in how we wanted to feel sweaty and real and intimate, which I think ends up looking easier than it is to accomplish. Like my dad always said, “Joe DiMaggio always made it look easy.” Sometimes the best things end up looking easy.
Capone: I said this to the audience in Austin too, that what Bale is doing in this movie cannot even be considered acting; it’s so far beyond that I think. When you are working with someone like Christian Bale, do you ever catch yourself watching him at certain points wondering how the hell he does it?
DOR: I think I got pretty much early on what he was like, and he described me as being very sincere and very silly, that those were two qualities that we shared and that we connected on and that Dicky shares that we can put into Dicky. There's almost a childlike innocence and sincerity that’s combined with kind of silliness and playfulness that can get them into trouble and could also bring their heart out, so I saw that in Christian from day one, and we agreed from day one that the Dicky that was in the previous drafter of the pre-existing scripts was needlessly dark and one dimensional a little bit, and that his charm and his heart was so important, and I think Christian loved it and he said recently that he hoped they didn’t mind Batman being played as Dicky, because he so loved Dicky that he had it inside of him.
And watching Christian work, here’s how it is: you see him dial into it and when he dials into it, he’s in it, and when it first started out, it’s probably like watching a great dancer or a great musician master a lick, because it can be bigger. It started out bigger than it needed to be, and then we said “We need to calibrate this and reign it in a little bit and focus it a little bit and be able to understand what you are saying.” Then once he dialed into that, he was just there, so it was like having this amazing athlete there all of the time who was completely zoned into that music and having a love affair with it really. I mean he was really having a love affair with that character, which is why think you can still hear it when he accepts some of his awards.
Capone: That’s true. I’ve been noticing some of that silliness recently in his acceptance speeches. We were talking about Mark as an actor earlier. Forgetting his transformation into this media mogul now, has Mark changed much as an actor since THREE KINGS? Have you noticed a growth?
DOR: I think has grown up enormously as an actor, as a producer, and as a man. When I first met him, he was 26 years old and running around like a rock star still, and now he has four children and he runs a television empire and a film empire and is a very astute business person and people person, and I learn a lot from him constantly. And he also, as an actor, I think is more exposing of himself. I think he is more willing to expose himself and expose his vulnerabilities and expose his emotions and let us into the windows of his eyes to feel what’s going on inside of him, and that’s what he did throughout this film. He and Amy kind of anchored the emotion that allowed Melissa and Christian to take off, so I totally have seen him do that.
We have a very trusting relationship, so when he dove into comedy, he said “Whatever you say,” and the result of that was that he got THE OTHER GUYS. As a way of acknowledging that, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have said they didn’t know Mark could be so comedic until they had seen HUCKABEES. So, we’ve got more things I think we are going to do and I think we are going to dig deeper with him. I just think “stay tuned” is what I always say with him. We are planning on working together and we are going to do more work together, and I think we are going to mine different qualities out of him as an actor, which I’m always excited about.
Capone: Before the film came out, people thought maybe you were an odd choice for a director of this kind of material, since a lot of your films before have been sort of these darkly comic, satirical pieces. Were you aware perhaps that this was a turn in a different direction from what you had been doing before?
DOR: I think I was not a natural choice for a lot of reasons, the main one being that my stock was down you know. When your stock is up, you seem like the right choice for everything, you know? [laughs] It’s just a very fickle town in that regard, and I remember when my stock was up thinking, “Gee, this doesn’t feel fair or accurate,” and when it’s down, you say also “This doesn’t feel fair or accurate.” So, I just knew that Mark had to fight for me to get the job and I think that it worked out of the best for the whole film, as he said. Matt Damon was gracious enough to say when I crossed paths with him recently, “This film again demonstrates that the right people play the right roles and make the right film at the right time,” and I think that was his way of acknowledging that Christian played that role perhaps better than Matt Damon, who had been attached to it for some time, might have and that maybe I might as a director have done the best version of the picture. That was a compliment that meant a lot to me.
Capone: When you felt like your stock was down, did chronicling this family make you look at your career and go, “Maybe I don’t have it so bad” compared to like what these people have. Were you able to draw some parallels?
DOR: I think I just felt a real kinship with them, do you know what I’m saying? I think when you're humbled, it allows you to do more real work. I just think your ego is almost always an impediment. I think that when you're really focused on the work and trying to do your best for that, and you feel the hearts of these people, because you know what it’s like to have made mistakes, and it reminded me of a lot of members of my own family, from Brooklyn and other parts of New York, and I just really felt that I knew these people and I felt close to them and I felt enormous affection for them the entire time and I still do. That’s why I regretted… Pan Martin, who is also nominated, our editor, the hardest thing was to let go of those scenes with interviewing his sisters, because we so loved them, and we did interviews with them like a Greek chorus to go throughout the film and, arguably, I think that stuff would have worked. It did work, but for purposes of the economy and horse-trading over the cut, we gave them up. They will be on the DVD, but there was a lot of affection for all of these characters.
Capone: I hope so, because the sisters clearly are what a lot of people are talking about coming out of the film. The more of them, the better.
DOR: Yeah exactly, right? Everybody came to L.A. and everybody saw how they cleaned up so nice. They give you so much mileage in terms of creating a world. They were not a big presence in the earlier draft. I did not see how you could really feel this world without them being there all of the time. That told you what it felt like. You can’t be in that town and not know what it’s like to have those sisters everywhere. They are everywhere. They have families and children. They're a great presence, and I wanted to capture that, and my mom’s extended Italian family was the same way. In certain parts of Bay Ridge, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one of her aunts. She had four aunts and an uncle and had all of these kids and cousins, and so I know what that’s like and I think that’s a very special environment.
And in films I love, such as GOODFELLAS or other families that create a world in a movie, I knew that we had sort of a special rhythm. There’s nothing better than when you are in love with the material and you just get off on it. You know, it’s something--that rare thing--like when you are speaking so someone who is just special or sublime. For some reason, I feel that talking to Dan Aykroyd is like that. I think that speaking to Mr. DeNiro is like that or Paul Ruebens or Quentin Tarantino. You're talking to people and you are like, “Wow, this person is such a singular thing. They are so just what they are. They are just what they are,” and there’s something very pure about it and something very beautiful about it, and it’s so human and you can kind of marvel at it. That’s how I felt about every person in this movie. I felt like I was there with my mouth handing open a little bit and you are like, “God, look at these people.” That’s the best thing you can have, and for me as a director, that gave me my focus. That’s what I want to make movies about in the foreseeable future.
Capone: Speaking of the foreseeable future, in the last month or two, you’ve announced that UNCHARTED is something that you are now working on. Will that be the next thing for you, or is that just one of many possibilities at this point?
DOR: That is supposed to be my next project, and I’m very excited about making that happen. It’s been hard to finish the draft in the middle of awards season, but I’ll take that tradeoff any day, and I think the producers have been very understanding about that and how special this is. But I think I could make that that into a world that has a family dynamic in it akin to "The Sopranos" or akin to other worlds. See, people will take that, and they will misinterpret it, so I shouldn’t say that. There are all kinds of gamers out there…
Capone: I think they already have, yeah.
DOR: [laughs] Yeah, they have, and so I don’t want to stir that pot. People should just wait to see what we do. You have see how happy that you are going to make something into a very muscular, cinematic world. You know, like Darren [Aronofsky] now doing an X-MEN movie. That is a special thing, and you're going to make a film that is muscular with great characters and a propulsive story that’s going to stand up hopefully to the test of time. You don’t just want to make a film that was a knockoff of a game that’s not going to be around. So that’s my goal, to honor the material, just like it was my goal with the people of Lowell and just like when Quentin took the Elmore Leonard books, you know? You’re kind of saying, “Let me do my thing please, and I want to build something that in this case was a muscular franchise that satisfies, but that has all of these amazing characters in it.”
Capone: Well, congratulations again. And thank you very much for taking the time out to talk to us.
DOR: Thank you, and thank you for having our film down there and thank you for watching it and thank you for telling me about how people were captivated by it, because those are the things that are really special to hear. That means a lot. I know that’s a tough crowd down there, and you never know. And it's good to hear that they connected with it.
Capone: They just get all soft and mushy when something good gets put in front of them.
DOR: There you go, because sometimes people are cold blooded and they like cold-blooded stuff, and I understand and respect then, it’s just a school of cinema that’s not mine. I’m so glad that they can get mushy.
Capone: Absolutely. All right, well thanks a lot, David.
DOR: Have a good one.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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