David O. Russell is a filmmaker on fire, telling compelling stories about fascinating characters that are completely flawed and human. With his last three films – The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle – receiving 25 Oscar nominations between them, and his actors giving star-making performances in their roles, it’s no surprise that he was recognized as the Outstanding Director of the Year at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF). Collider was there to cover and attend the event, and we’ve compiled the highlights of what he had to say, both on the press line and during the Q&A.
While there, writer/director David O. Russell talked about what this ride has been like for him, when and how he started making films, how he learned the craft of filmmaking, the affect Sundance had on him, how starting out with short films led to him making his first feature Spanking the Monkey, weaving spiritual insight with comedy, writing such strong female characters, why I Heart Huckabees was a transition film for him, why Nailed never got released, adding a sense of enchantment and romance to the stories he’s telling now, how blessed he feels to work with Jennifer Lawrence, what change means to him, and what’s drawn him to the longer storytelling format of television (he’s currently developing a 13-episode series for ABC). Check out the in-depth interview after the jump.
DAVID O. RUSSELL: You know, it’s a very humble blessing. The only way you can do it is by staying humble and staying a craftsman. If you just work on your craft hard, that’s your only hope of doing anything worthwhile. It just makes me want to stay devoted to the craft. It’s very easy to not land these creatures on the runway. You’re making a cinema, and we’ve shown that there can be a cinema about people. It’s a living cinema. It makes money and it gets nominations. I now have to live up to being worthy of that and keep doing that. I want to keep that alive.
Which is harder, having to get through awards season or actually directing a movie?
RUSSELL: It’s a great privilege to direct a movie, period. That’s how I feel. I had a tough period, right after I Heart Huckabees, where I had to help my bipolar son get on his feet. I stopped making movies for a couple years, so I feel privileged to make movies, to start with. And then, The Fighter was really a discovery for me. These are the people that I’m meant to make movies about. They’re people I know and love, and they’re from my heart. It was very clear to me, for the last three movies. So, that’s a privilege. And if you get to be a part of what are regarded as some of the best movies of the year, and you get to be with your colleagues, I take that seriously. I’m humbled by that. Frankly, I’m happy to participate in it. I get to listen to Jennifer [Lawrence] make jokes about it.
Do you actually enjoy the awards campaign process?
RUSSELL: Yes. What’s not to like about it? You can’t force a movie to happen. Movies happen when they’re supposed to happen. Everything happens in God’s time. I really believe that. I wrote Silver Linings Playbook several years before I made The Fighter, but I couldn’t get it made because I didn’t have the ability to get it financed. I was fortunate when Mark Wahlberg, who I’m very grateful to, enabled me to make and direct The Fighter. That movie was meant to be. I said, “I know these people. These people are like the people in the family. I love these people.” You may laugh at that, but I think they’re wonderful people. And then, Silver Linings was meant to be made after that.
After I made The Fighter, Harvey Weinstein said, “Okay, now let’s make Silver Linings.” The whole cast changed. Originally, I had other people in mind for that cast. I got to rewrite it. The Fighter made me a better filmmaker. I fell in love with that neighborhood thing and that home thing that Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper had with Jennifer [Lawrence] and the great Jacki Weaver, and that made that film better.
And then, American Hustle was a story brought to me, thanks to my agent. The cinema that I make is a cinema about people, emotion, humanity and passion. It’s not just about what they struggle through, but what they live for. That’s what I love. The music they love, the people they love, the clothing, the hair and the life that they love. That’s what I discovered I love, when I came back from my unwanted hiatus from cinema. And studios aren’t saying, “Yes, let’s make these character-based movies.” They’re a little scared, if there isn’t a robot or it’s not animated or there isn’t a gun. Guns help, for some reason. But, Sony finally came aboard. It was a blessing, and it was exciting for the actors to have made it. So, I think you should love awards season, or you shouldn’t be in this business.
When and how did you start making films?
RUSSELL: I’m a late bloomer. There’s always hope. Never give up. And walk slowly and drink lots of water. That’s what Ken Kesey said, when I asked him for advice, as a writer. He said, “Walk slowly and drink lots of water,” meaning it ain’t a sprint. If you want a sprint, go into another business. So, I always thought I was a writer. My dad was a New York City kid who was the son of a butcher. He was an immigrant’s son, from Russia. My mom was an immigrant’s daughter, from Italy. They both met when they were 18, at Simon & Schuster, the publishing company. My dad was working as a salesman, and my mom was a secretary. Books were always a big deal in our home. They both came from working class families, but we had a lot of books in our house. I knew my dad sold books, and that was a big deal. So, I’d always wanted to be a writer.
I credit both of my parents with the quick wit and the talking and the liveliness. That comes from them and the family that I’ve known. That’s a gift that I’ve discovered, since The Fighter, that’s been right under my nose, my whole life. It’s a treasure trove of humanity. In terms of making films, I was always writing short stories. My very first film was a documentary about an immigrant from Central American to Boston, who was being terrorized for being an immigrant. I was working, in my 20s, mostly teaching reading and writing to grown-ups who couldn’t read and write, and who spoke English as a second language. It was a great thing because I got to see all of these working class communities and homes, like in The Fighter. I just was fascinated by it. I loved it, so I made a documentary about it. I made it in Boston, ‘cause that’s where I was living, and I won a cable TV award for that.
RUSSELL: You learn by trying and failing. It’s just a lot of hard work and mistakes. So, I tried to make short films, after that [documentary]. I had many jobs. I worked as a bar tender and a house painter. I just had lots of jobs, and my parents felt that my entire college education had been wasted. I made short films that were bad, but there was a place called Sundance that you could try to take them.
I went to New York from Washington, where I’d worked on a documentary TV series, called Smithsonian World. I got to work for them, as their gopher, and their cinematographer there told me that, if I went to New York, I could get a cinematographer to work for me, for free. That was a revelation to me. Now, anybody can make a movie on their phone. But at the time, I didn’t know how to do any of it. So, I went to New York and I was a waiter for rich people. I was a waiter for parties at Jacqueline Onassis’ house, and at the New York Film Festival. I waited on Martin Scorsese at the premiere at the Museum of Modern Art for Goodfellas, and I waited at the premiere of The Color of Money. I said to him, “I really want to do what you’re doing,” and he said, “I’ll have a vodka.” Mike Nichols would come over to Jacqueline Onassis’ house, ‘cause he was friends with her. He said to me, “I used to do what you’re doing,” and I said, “I wanna do what you’re doing.” So, he said, “Good luck.” That’s what I would say to anybody.
So, I learned how to make films by memorizing sections of films. I memorized a 20-minute sequence that I thought was spell-binding from Chinatown. I’m able to bring that love to the movie and the scene [that I’m doing] because I have so much love for it. The other great lesson about filmmaking is never take no for an answer, especially if you have a lot of passion and inspiration to do something.
What happened after you took your short films to Sundance?
RUSSELL: I went to New York and I got hooked up with this group of NYU film students, who were four or five years older than me, and one of them was Sally Menke, who became the editor for Quentin Tarantino. She was a great editor, who passed away, tragically, a couple of years ago. She produced my first short film. They took me under their wing and helped me. When I made my first short film, it was so humiliating to be the idiot on set who didn’t know anything, with all of these film students. So, when I made my second short film, which also went to Sundance and I’m a little more proud of, I made sure that I did every single thing myself, so that no one could take it away from me. I did every single thing, and then I felt like I had learned how to do every one of those things, from the locations to the cinematography, and everything.
RUSSELL: Well, I got grants from New York State and the National Endowment for the Arts. That was a very exciting day for me, when I got the fat envelope at the door of my studio apartment. They gave me $20,000 and New York State gave me $20,000 to make a short movie about a guy in Chinese restaurants, who had microphones on all the tables, listening to every conversation, and then he wrote inappropriate, personal fortunes for everybody. NEA liked the idea and New York State liked the idea, and they said, “Please make this short film.” That later became the existential detectives in I Heart Huckabees. But I said, “I just can’t make another short film. You kill yourself and you borrow money, and you go through this whole thing. I’ve gotta make a feature.” So, I spent two years, trying to turn it into a feature. I wrote that film, 10 different ways. It just never grew into the right feature. I thought it was going to be my feature, but it wasn’t supposed to be my feature.
And then, I went on jury duty and got paid by the state of New York and my job. I got paid to sit and read the New York Post in this room, and daydream. I had this disgusting daydream, based on the summer my mother got in a car crash and I helped take care of her. I turned it into this disgusting daydream, and my mother would slap my face for making up that daydream. I said, “That is just filthy. I’m just going to write that for me.” It was just writing itself. I was so angry. I had broken up with a girlfriend. I was unhappy. I was broke. My friends had cars, marriages and children. I was the one at the wedding where everybody would go, “How’s that writing thing coming? How’s that working out?” And I’d say, “I’m working on it! It’s going. I’m doing it.” And then, someone would say, “Here’s Joe. He goes to the movies. Maybe you guys could talk about movies.” You become that eccentric uncle who wanted to make movies, and time is closing in on you.
So, I used that money to make Spanking the Monkey. First, I just wrote the script for myself, and then I realized it was the best thing I ever did. I said, “This thing is fucking good.” It was very emotional and intense. I did it from a place I would never make a movie from. Normally, I would say, “You can’t make that. That’s disgusting and horrible and messed up.” But, that’s what made it a great movie. I learned that what seems like the worst thing can be the best thing, and that’s true of people, too. So, that movie got me an agent. I got my first writing job with Dolly Parton. She hired me to write a script, and I was very excited to meet Dolly Parton. She had a company, called Sand Dollar. But then, I couldn’t get the movie financed.
RUSSELL: I was inspired by Gus Van Sant. I watched his first movie, Mala Noche. I said, “Wow, he made a movie about a guy who’s obsessed with a Mexican bus boy. That guy’s got big balls, if he made that movie. That’s an embarrassing topic, where I come from.” So, that was inspiring to me. I loved Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, and I thought he was such a great filmmaker. I learned from him that those things that are upsetting are going to hit a chord. You’ve gotta go deep. People who go to the movies want a full experience. If you’re not gonna give it to them with special effects or bombs, you’ve gotta give it to them with human opera. But, I didn’t know what was going to happen with that film. We made it for $80,000. NEA and New York State said, “Give us that money back. We didn’t give you money for an incest movie. We gave you money for a fortune cookie movie.” So, I had to give them the money back. But, Spanking the Monkey won the Audience Award at Sundance, which was a great thing. And then, it won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay, which was a great honor.
Your movies weave spiritual insight and comedy together. Is that intentional?
RUSSELL: That’s just how I see things. I think things that are the most dramatic or tragic can also look the most ridiculous and funny. That’s part of being human. It’s the way my parents saw things, as well. My dad introduced me to the Marx brothers. It’s useful, in some way, to keep your sense of humor.
You write such strong female characters, who are such forces of nature. Why is that?
RUSSELL: I have known many formidable women, in my time, in my own family and in the world, and they are impressive. I have great love for them. When I came back for The Fighter, I discovered that strong women are the secret to great cinema. It’s fantastic, and it elevates the whole picture. So, I aspired to write roles that are worthy of the actors, so they can show the broadest possible range. After you make a couple of movies, even with Three Kings, I didn’t know if I gave my actors enough opportunity, as I was learning to play the full range of emotion. So, I try to make sure that I do create those characters.
RUSSELL: Right after Flirting with Disaster, I was actually going to do another movie with Harvey Weinstein that I was researching, and I went to Princeton to meet these historians. It was a movie kind of like There Will Be Blood, about industry at the turn of the century and the oil fields. I decided that it was too ambitious, and then I decided to make this movie that nobody would expect me to make. So, what happened right after that war ended is when some weird things happened. Many soldiers saw no action, whatsoever, but it was declared a victory and they were declared heroes. Many of the soldiers that I met felt very strange about that. They wanted to see action.
They also witnessed Saddam Hussein repressing his people, after we had left or were leaving, and they were very upset. Many of them wept openly about that, when I spoke to them. It was very frustrating for them not to intervene, but they were ordered not to intervene. What also happened in those four days was that there was a lot of luxury cars and clothing and jewelry from Kuwait, there were gold bricks that went missing, and there was all sorts of contraband going on in the desert. It was just a surreal landscape of humanity and materialism and violence. To me, it was like a magnificent painting by Hieronymus Bosch or Bruegel. It was this crazy portrait of humanity, and that’s what made me want to do the movie.
I also really wanted to be bold, cinematically, which was another reason to make the movie. I wanted it to be kinetic. I wanted the camera to be muscular. I wanted the whole picture to propel you. That’s exciting to me, when I see it in the cinema, whether it was from Kubrick or any of my favorite filmmakers. It’s more human, more personal and more arresting to me, and less expected. It becomes more intimate and more compelling to me.
Another reason I made the movie is because I wanted it to be a meditation on violence. That meant there would only be five bullets fired in the whole movie, but each instance of violence would be profound. I wanted to take people that were treating violence like it was a video game, and show them that it was not a game and that it was profoundly human, devastating and personal.
Does your social consciousness intentionally carry through your films?
RUSSELL: In the old days, they used to say, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” You could send a telegram, which was like texting, but you had to pay per word and they would send a document to someone’s house. I don’t think you should ever try to send a message, but I am socially conscious. I just pay attention to the ironies of it, when I think it matters. I’m more interested in the people. If you’re following people, that can inform the irony. The social attitude or awareness can inform your awareness of what people are going through, if it’s ironic.
Why was I Heart Huckabees something of a transition for you?
RUSSELL: Thanks to that film, I know Jennifer Lawrence, ‘cause that was her favorite film. It was at the time in my life when the wheels were coming off and my marriage was falling apart and my kid was having these mood issues. My life became a mess. So, I don’t think I landed it as emotionally as I would have liked to. Having said that, I do like it. I was not happy myself, at that time, and I was over-thinking things too much. I could have been that Jason Schwartzman character. It reflected my life. If you are unhappy and you are over-thinking things too much, that might mean the movie you’re making is over-thinking and not too happy. So, I call that my head-in-my-ass period.
I borrow that phrase from other directors. After Darren Aronofsky made The Wrestler, coming off of The Fountain, which was his Huckabees, I said, “What happened? Your film is so good?,” in regard to The Wrestler, and he said, “I got my head out of my ass.” That’s a universal language of directors. You have to just keep your head out of your ass. Don’t over-think things, and that goes for everybody. I was over-thinking things. I wrote that film four different ways, with completely different scripts, over a four-year period, and you shouldn’t do that. It should come from instinct and you should make it from the gut.
But, I must also gratefully say that I wouldn’t change a thing. If I didn’t go stumbling through that period of my life, I would never have become the humbled person who could look in the eyes of the real people in The Fighter. They knew that I knew trouble and failure, and they trusted me to tell their story. I could tell their story from my own personal and emotional viewpoint. The Fighter was a film I wouldn’t have made. I would have said, “It’s a story that’s been told. I don’t get it.” But, there was a lot of story there.
What happened with Nailed?
RUSSELL: That was like, “How can it get much lower than getting divorced, having to put your kid in a special boarding school at a young age, and being broke and not knowing how to make a movie?” Well, it can get worse. You can make a movie that doesn’t get completed because of mysterious financing. So, I wrote a film with Kristin Gore, Al Gore’s daughter, who’s a terrific writer and a terrific person. It was based on a book she’d written, and it was a satire about health care. It was about a woman who had a nail gun go off into her head, by accident. Jessica Biel was terrific in the picture, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Catherine Keener, and Tracy Morgan was hysterical in it. And then, it didn’t get finished. It got shut down nine times, which is an existential Kafka-esque experience, in itself. It also happened to Taylor Hackford. They made a movie with Taylor Hackford, as well. And I really shouldn’t talk about it much more than that, for legal reasons, but it was really weird except that I got to know and love those actors, and I got to love the state of South Carolina, which is where we were.
How were you inspired to put a sense of enchantment and romance into your films now, that wasn’t in your earlier films?
RUSSELL: I think that’s what I always loved in cinema. Chinatown has great romance in it. So do many of my other favorite films. I just think my earlier films, in the ‘90s, had a very rebellious spirit. I don’t know why. Maybe that’s a more youthful thing. When you’re younger, you’re more likely to be rebellious and cynical, or at least I was. When I came back to making movies, I knew that the romance was essential. I love the love. I don’t love just people struggling. I love what people are struggling for. That moves me. I love watching people be loving, and I find it enchanting, magical and transporting. It’s one of the reasons that I go to the movies, and that’s why I like putting it in movies.
RUSSELL: The movie is very personal to me. It’s based on a very beautiful novel, by Matthew Quick, but I’ve lived those experiences with my bipolar son and some of his friends. They’re terrifying and traumatizing, and also beautiful and humbling and human. I just love the courtship between those two. It’s such an unusual courtship, between those two misfits. The line between sanity and insanity is sometimes very blurred. They’re just people I love spending time with, so I find them very inspiring.
Isn’t Sydney Pollack the one who gave that book to you?
RUSSELL: Yes, he gave the book to me, in the last year of his life. I’m very sad that he couldn’t live to see the picture, but he took a bet on me. When I was working as a writer for hire to support my family, I couldn’t get a movie directed, and he gave me the book to write it. I didn’t know if I’d get the chance to direct it. He knew that it was a very tough tone to get right because it was very disturbing, but it could also be funny and loving. He knew that I personally had had the experience myself, with my son. When I went in and told him the pitch that I was going to write, he said that he thought I had gotten it, and he very much looked forward to seeing it.
And that film led you to Jennifer Lawrence.
RUSSELL: That was a great discovery. She’s a gift. I’m just blessed to work with her. She was the last person to audition for us. We had two people we thought were going to do the role already. She Skyped her audition from her parents’ home in Kentucky and knocked my socks off. She got dressed up like the character, and she killed a spider in her father’s bathroom behind her, during the audition. She was just a marvel to witness.
What led you to this story of survival and re-invention that you tell in American Hustle?
RUSSELL: That was what interested me and the actors and the producers. It was this question of identity and survival, almost like a theater company or like cinema, itself. Life is like cinema. It was Nabokov who said, in one of his books, “Life is the ancilla of art,” and that’s where I learned what the term ancilla means, which is ancillary or subordinate. I said, “No, that can’t be right. Art is the subordinate of life.” But Nabokov said, “No, life is the subordinate of art.” In other words, what we assert, very often can become our reality. To some degree, everybody can try to shape and control their fate, in that regard. Everybody picks an identity. Jennifer has said that, with regard to this movie, people’s idea of what their lives are overpowers and determines what their lives are because their ideas are determining that. Her character would rather die than change because change is hard for her.
What does change mean for you?
RUSSELL: I think change is life. Everybody has to put up with and go through countless operas. I’ve gone through plenty. Christian Bale has said that when everyone goes to sleep, they dream an opera that is surreal and bizarre, and acting and cinema are a chance to live that opera, as a waking dream. So, the gift of life is the gift to suffer sometimes and to embrace it, heartbreak and all. That’s really what these films are about. They’re about people who must reconcile and reckon with their lives, what they’ve been through and how they’re changing, and learn to love life. I was not terribly happy around the time I was writing Huckabees, and I can say that I’m a lot happier right now.
You don’t impose the story on the characters, but you allow the characters to tell the story. Why is that important to you?
RUSSELL: I feel that story is an excuse to show the range of human emotion and behavior that I find wildly fascinating and riveting and moving. The story serves the people, and not the reverse. You need enough story to propel it. The story is a Bunsen burner that’s keeping the kettle on the boil. There have to be life and death stakes. I make every movie and every scene like it could be my last. That’s the only way I know how to make cinema that stands on its feet. I have to treat it like that. It has to be life and death stakes. The holy trifecta of directing and filmmaking is character emotion, camera movement and music. When you hit those three, that’s magical. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s why we’re there.
With such a career in film, what made you want to do a TV series for ABC? Is it the luxury to tell a story over a longer period of time?
RUSSELL: Yeah. I think it’s really amazing to create a world that you can live in and have characters go through massive transformations, over the course of years. That’s a privilege. I know Steven Soderbergh is doing something about Typhoid Mary right now for Cinemax, which is going to transform Cinemax. And I love the work of Matt Weiner. I love Mad Men. I love Masters of Sex. There are a lot of great shows on. It’s really stepped up to the level of cinema, in a lot of ways. So, I have to try to make TV that’s worthy of that.