Abscam, '70s Couture and Jack Jones: The Making of 'American Hustle'
David O. Russell's latest movie, a $40 million celebration of con men and the women who (sometimes) love them, came together in a rush. Reteamed with Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams, nothing could stop him, not even the tragedy in Boston.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Rousing themselves the day after February's Academy Awards, director David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper and newly crowned best actress Jennifer Lawrence of Silver Linings Playbook jumped on a plane and headed to Boston. There, they were joined by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who had starred in the director's 2010 film The Fighter, as well as Jeremy Renner. The previous weeks had been a whirlwind for Russell and his Playbook actors as they worked the awards circuit -- whenever he could catch a spare moment, Russell, 55, also had been reworking the screenplay for his new project. Immediately, they plunged into preproduction on American Hustle, the hyperactive Russell's third movie in four years. By March 18, filming had begun. "In terms of timing, it was by the skin of our teeth," says Cooper, 38. "It was insane."
Producer Charles Roven, 64, likens the challenge of readying Russell's new film while the writer-director was in the midst of promoting Playbook to "going from zero to 60 or, in this case, from zero to 100" in just a matter of months. And that pace never really slowed down, even when, a month into production, filming had to be suspended for a day in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing as the city shut down during the manhunt for the suspects. (The company was filming in Worcester, Mass., 40 miles west of Boston, when the blasts occurred.)
Asked to sum up the experience, Russell's collaborators compare making Hustle to taking part in a grand jazz improvisation, with Russell setting down the riffs. Just 11 months after filming began, the movie burst into theaters and will expand into wide release Dec. 20. And judging by the early reactions -- the $40 million production was hailed as best picture of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle and quickly claimed a leading seven Golden Globe nominations -- Russell and his crew are heading straight back into another hectic few months on the awards circuit.
American Hustle is loosely inspired by the Abscam scandal of the late '70s and early '80s that saw the FBI mount a series of sting operations resulting in the conviction of one U.S. senator and six members of the House of Representatives. But the mechanics of the sting are really just the backbeat behind a sprawling roundelay of deception, with Bale playing fictional con man Irving Rosenfeld; Adams as his upwardly mobile mistress, Sydney; Lawrence as Irving's combustible wife, Rosalyn; Cooper as excitable FBI man Richie DiMaso; and Renner as the well-intentioned mayor of Camden, N.J., who unwittingly finds himself at the center of the scheming.
Spinning like a disco ball to a soundtrack that kicks off with some rare Electric Light Orchestra tunes, the movie is glitzier than the working-class Fighter, and its characters are even more high-strung than the manic-depressive lovers in Playbook. But, says Russell, when he was first offered Eric Warren Singer's original screenplay to direct, he saw in it the potential to complete a trilogy with those other two films, "continuing the themes of reinvention and survival from the last two movies -- and romance and love. Immediately, it was the characters who I was turning over in my mind, what happens in the hearts of those characters."
The project's genesis goes back to the late '90s, when Singer, whose credits include the 2009 thriller The International, found himself on a plane next to an assistant U.S. district attorney who had been peripherally involved in Abscam. That conversation knocked around in the writer's head for years until, working with Roven and Richard Suckle, Roven's producing partner in Atlas Entertainment, Singer began to lay out the story. Encouraged by their response, Singer spent three weeks interviewing Mel Weinberg, the convicted con artist recruited by the FBI to help it pull off Abscam, who served as the model for Bale's character. Singer's resulting screenplay -- then provocatively titled American Bullshit -- made the 2010 Black List, attracting interest from such directors as Michael Mann.
For a time, Ben Affleck worked on the project with Singer. "For me, GoodFellas, Prince of the City were the movies I was constantly going back to; the characters were always front and center," says Singer. But Affleck, according to the writer, wanted to focus more on Abscam itself, "so the film felt bigger and more substantial." By early 2012, though, Affleck had moved on, and Roven offered the script to Russell, with whom he'd worked on the 1999 war movie Three Kings. Russell, who was finishing Playbook, wanted to spin the project in a more fictional direction so he wouldn't have to worry about all those nagging questions over factual accuracy.
Bale, 39, was the director's first choice to play Irving, but the actor, who had just finished The Dark Knight Rises, was reluctant, wanting to spend time with his family. But Russell kept dangling the part. "He lives near me, and I'd leave Post-its on his door saying, 'Are you sure about this?' " laughs the director.
Eventually, Bale not only committed but decided he needed to pack on 40 pounds. "I would see David every month or so as he was writing this, and he was like, 'Whoa, what's going on? You're putting on a lot of weight,' " says Bale. "And I'm like, 'I'm doing it.' I said, 'I can't picture Irv as anything but this rotund ball of energy with his shades and his comb-over, so I want to be shaving my head and having a comb-over and all of that.' "
Meanwhile, with Sony taking the movie's domestic rights, Roven approached Annapurna Pictures' Megan Ellison, who agreed to come on board to produce and co-finance. Her new sales company, Panorama Media, took the project to Cannes in May 2012 with Bale and Cooper attached and quickly sold off international territories. By then, Russell was deep into his rewrites, holding long conversations with the actors about their characters. "I feel like I'm auditioning for each of them," he says. "I go to their homes, and we sit and we talk, and it comes alive in those conversations. They share personal things, which I seize upon and weave in."
As the movie's start date neared, Roven watched with some nervousness. "On one hand, it was awe-inspiring to see how he would burn the candle at both ends," says the producer. "On the other hand, it was stressful because it was hard to devote as much time as one would have hoped he would during preproduction of the movie. He was definitely juggling."
Russell's production team already was hard at work. Eschewing the expected '70s look of orange and avocado green, production designer Judy Becker found herself paging through a huge stack of old issues of Interior Design, where she discovered period furniture from The Pace Collection, "which had a lot of acrylic and chrome, which was so inspiring to see. Those are wonderful textures and materials to put on a set, and you rarely get a chance to do it." Says costume designer Michael Wilkinson: "We were not just dressing characters, but we were dressing characters who were dressing themselves as the people they're aspiring to be. We thought deep and hard about who these people were trying to be." He looked for vintage pieces by Halston, Diane von Furstenberg, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent and designed costumes in their style. And when music supervisor Susan Jacobs learned that Russell wanted an old-time crooner for one scene, she surprised him by recruiting Jack Jones.
Knowing that Russell likes to have the freedom to shoot a scene from a 360-degree perspective, cinematographer Linus Sandgren used available lighting and devised a light -- looking something like a Chinese lantern attached to the sound boom -- to make sure the actors' faces were always illuminated. "The girls had that type of '70s makeup, but my biggest worry was to make them look sexy," he says. "They had to look awesome." Once filming was underway, Russell called in a team of three editors -- Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers -- to cull through the material. "David's style," says Baumgarten, "is about getting the best performance for every character. The rhythms and the structure and what beat to favor are really centered about the best performances."
Having worked with Russell on Playbook, Cooper says their latest collaboration is "a bigger movie in terms of what the lens is capturing. The DP had more to work with. The clothes, the color scheme -- it was a much more colorful, creative visual style than Playbook, a more ambitious movie." But Russell's ability to somehow keep all the balls in the air was familiar to him. "The shooting style was very similar," the actor says. "Most of it was handheld. You have a crew running around with the camera, and the director is running around with the camera. It's like a sporting event. It is like no other way of making a movie that I've ever experienced."