The Redemption of David O. Russell
In career purgatory after a brush with Clooney, a YouTube moment and a box-office bomb, the director of the ‘Fighter’ lays bare his lowest points and how he came back.
Seven years ago, David O. Russell’s life collapsed.
The director had been riding a wave of back-to-back hits with 1994’s Spanking the Monkey, 1996’s Flirting With Disaster and 1999’s Three Kings — the latter drawing raves for turning a simple story into a meditation on madness and war.
Then a tirade against Lily Tomlin on the set of I (Heart) Huckabees went viral; word spread that he’d held Christopher Nolan in a headlock; previous reports of a near-fistfight with George Clooney inflamed his bad reputation; and Huckabees, a bewildering misfire about “existential detectives,” tanked. This brilliant director’s career seemed to be over.
“It took awhile for it to sink in — a couple of years,” he says. “But it really sucks to be knocked down, and you certainly have to take stock of yourself. I was in a ditch; I knew I had a mountain to climb.”
Instead, he fell off it altogether. Helped by producers Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, he cobbled together $22 million to make a satire about health care called Nailed, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Biel, which ground to a halt before the film even wrapped — somehow adding to the impression that hiring Russell meant trouble.
Broke and recuperating from a bitter divorce, struggling to pay two mortgages and the education bills for a son with learning challenges, scraping by on writing assignments alone, Russell and his future looked bleak.
And then Mark Wahlberg came to the rescue.
The actor-producer, who had worked with the helmer on Kings and Huckabees, launched a full-scale assault to hire him for The Fighter, his long-gestating real-life story of welterweight boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, after its original director, Darren Aronofsky, dropped out.
“There were a lot of battles initially,” Wahlberg admits. His fellow producers, David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, signed on once they heard Russell’s pitch and financier Relativity Media agreed to back him for the $20 million-plus picture. But Paramount, the movie’s distributor, hesitated.
“I asked everybody to speak to them,” Wahlberg recalls. “In the end, [writer] Scott Silver may have tipped the balance. He said he’d waive his fee to work with David. He wasn’t interested in anybody else.”
Russell got lucky. And he knows it.
With the movie a critics’ darling, the director has earned an Academy Award nomination and seen actors Christian Bale and Melissa Leo become Oscar front-runners.
Sitting over lunch at the Getty Museum, where he’s researching Uncharted, an upcoming project based on the video game about treasure hunters on the quest for El Dorado — playing with a rosary around his neck, fidgety and almost goofy in a boyish way — he reflects on how much things have changed.
“Those were horrible years,” he says. “I climbed all the way up, and it’s a long way down. I found out the hard way.”
He tries to hold back, but the words gush forth as he explains how his post-Huckabees struggles collided with “my divorce years, when I moved into a different house, and then my kid had to go to a new school in Connecticut. That was the most traumatic experience, losing him. It just killed me. And then I was like, ‘Where did everybody go?’ ”
He adds: “You have to be especially careful to be humble and wise. But when you get banged around, you have to be OK with that. You have to be, ‘OK, I’m just glad I got to make the film.’ ”
Which is ironic for a man who never set out to make films in the first place.
Born in New York and brought up in Mamaroneck, N.Y., Russell, 52, was the son of an Italian-Catholic mother and a Russian-Jewish father, first-generation Americans whose family name inexplicably changed three times in just a few decades, from Markofsky to Rosenthal to Russell.
His father was a salesman for Simon & Schuster, where Russell’s mother had worked as a secretary. They met at 18 and had a passionate and volatile relationship.
“They were this traveling road show, always arguing or discussing something in this fully emotional way,” Russell says, brimming with the memories. “They could have this argument about cheese! My dad has a terrible thing about the smell of cheese, so my mother would torment him and put it in his face. They had this whole thing going on, The Maria and Bernie Show.”
Hearing this, one understands Russell’s connection to Alice Ward, the willful but difficult mother played by Leo in The Fighter.
“I totally related to Alice through my mother,” he says. “I took pages from her real-life behavior and put them directly in the film. My mom was a hell of a person to argue with. She had an explosive Italian temper. When I was 14 and big enough, I grabbed her wrists and said, ‘You can’t do that anymore!’ ”
It was his mother who inculcated Russell’s love of film. “My mom would talk to me about movies endlessly,” he says. “About Bette Davis and Clark Gable and Rebecca and Hitchcock. It was like magic enchantment. She took me to see the films that really shaped me.”
Describing favorites like Chinatown and Shampoo, Russell breaks into character, eagerly citing their dialogue. But as a teenager, he never thought of making movies himself. Instead, he dreamed of writing or going into politics, as his mother had through the League of Women Voters.
At Amherst College, he majored in English and political science and fell under the influence of Buddhism expert Robert Thurman (Uma’s father), a professor of religion.
But Amherst disappointed him. Growing up the son of working-class parents, he had been lured by its preppy ideal; once there, he veered in a more radical direction. And so, after college, he took off for Nicaragua, “because I wanted to be part of the revolution.”
The year was 1982; luckily for Russell, the revolution had ended. “But the Contra war was starting,” he recalls. Wide-eyed and innocent — an innocence that still strangely pervades him — he was sent deep into the countryside, where he discovered the shock of the real.
“It was in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “A priest was staying in this church and there were like horses and carts and holes in the walls. I go, ‘Where am I going to sleep?’ And he says, ‘Here on the floor of this f---ing church!’ And when I lie down to sleep, there’s a scorpion next to my bed, and I’m screaming to him in Spanish! He’s sleeping upstairs and I’m saying, ‘Motherf---er, there’s scorpions down here!’ And he’s yelling back, ‘You pussy! You can’t be part of a revolution!’ ”
He laughs, with the same glee for the absurd that stamps his films. “I had this whole romantic fantasy, but it was not my cup of tea.”
The Nicaraguan adventure lasted three months, then Russell came home. After stints as a typist on Wall Street, a bartender and an occasional waiter in the homes of the rich and famous like Jacqueline Onassis, Russell followed his socially minded inclinations and moved to Lewiston, Maine, to help organize for better housing conditions.
“The first video I ever did was about housing in Lewiston,” he notes.
It was only after he’d moved to Boston a year later, then relocated to Washington in 1984, working as a gofer on a TV series about the Smithsonian, that he seriously thought of making films.
One night, a group of friends was speculating about what they might do with $5 million, and Russell said: “I would make a movie.” The friends were shocked. A documentary? “I go, ‘No! A movie movie!’ ”
After two shorts — Bingo Inferno and Hairway to the Stars — Russell fell in love with the medium. But the shorts left him horribly in debt and, attempting to return what he owed, he was forced to move in with his parents, where he remained for two years.
He was in his late 20s; other friends were beginning to have financial success and here was Russell with nothing. “It was f---in’ scary,” he admits. “Because you’re gambling and it takes a lot of balls. But I was not going to say, ‘Let me get a job at a bank.’ ”
Instead, he wrote — and wrote and wrote. Yet after 20 drafts of one script, he was still no closer to having a real movie. Then, while on jury duty, “I had this sick fantasy based on one summer when my mom had a car accident from drinking. And I spun it into this almost pornographic story.”
The story, about a teenager torn between a local girl and his incestuous feelings for his mother, became Spanking the Monkey.
The movie took two years to get off the ground, and Russell only managed to make it thanks to money he’d raised through grants. The film cost $80,000 upfront, with another $150,000 for postproduction that he got from the creator of Bugle Boy jeans, but it was a huge success at Sundance and was bought by Fine Line Features, a now-defunct division of New Line, and grossed $1.4 million domestically.
Audiences loved Spanking. But Russell’s mother, now deceased, didn’t.
“She was a difficult person when she wasn’t happy in those last 20 years,” Russell explains. “She had a couple of cars she smashed up that summer, and I was there.”
Then he leans in and suddenly grabs my arm, and his eyes are moist. “If you say anything about my mother, just make sure to say that I really have a lot of heart for her. I don’t want to throw her under a bus. Even when she’s up in heaven, I want her to know how much I love her.”
RUSSELL’S FIVE FAVORITE FILMS
- It's A Wonderful Life (1946)
- Chinatown (1974)
- Shampoo (1975)
- Goodfellas (1990)
- The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Married by now to New Line executive Janet Grillo, whom he had met at Sundance, and with their young son to support, Russell moved onto his second picture, Flirting With Disaster. This time he had an almost unimaginable $6 million budget and stars like Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette. It was another hit and ended up grossing almost $17 million worldwide.
He got his biggest budget yet, $48 million, when he was invited to helm Warner Bros.’ Three Kings.
Russell had never even been to a major studio executive’s office, when he was asked to meet then-production chief Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who said, “ ‘Come look at our script logs.’ And this one jumped out at me.”
Quickly, Russell immersed himself in rewriting the screenplay and, as the project moved forward, “I started looking at the first Gulf War, with these color newspaper photographs, and they were these weird, saturated photos. And the more I researched, the more I thought, ‘This is really cool.’ ”
Shot in Arizona over 78 days, the film starred Clooney, Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Russell’s friend Spike Jonze — now known for directing films such as Adaptation but someone the studio resisted for the role of the wimpy sidekick, thinking of him as merely a video director.
Russell avoids going into his battles with Clooney. “We’ve passed it and moved on,” he says. “I don’t believe in holding those grudges because they pull you down.”
Despite the bad press that ensued, the picture made $108 million worldwide and became a sensation. Russell was in demand. His ego grew; he thought he could do no wrong. And then came Huckabees.
The film had its genesis way back in 1990. “I’d written a short about a guy in a Chinese restaurant that was a precursor to it,” he says. “Then I wrote a telephone-book worth of scripts.” He finally shot the movie in 2003 with Wahlberg, Jude Law, Naomi Watts and, of course, Tomlin.
The result was a story many deemed pretentious and perhaps incomprehensible. Russell doesn’t disagree.
“I had too much capital from Three Kings,” he explains. “Like anything — sports, business — I was afraid to fail. But the other thing that happens is, you can get too grandiose. Those two things make a cocktail right there: ‘I’m terrified of failing and I can do no wrong’ becomes the Hollywood cocktail.”
After Huckabees, Russell launched on a downward spiral. His marriage crumbled; his son’s departure proved devastating. Projects came and went: Universal would have paid him sorely needed money to make a comedy, The H-Man Cometh, but he turned it down; then he walked away from a film version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies over budget issues. His name was absent from the screen for years.
He almost came back with Nailed — about a waitress who accidentally gets a nail stuck in her head — but its failure only exacerbated Russell’s problems.
The movie was plagued from the beginning. Funded by David Bergstein, an independent financier who has been the subject of several lawsuits, it stopped and started multiple times as the money came and went.
Shooting got under way in April 2008 in South Carolina.
“Literally, the day before we started shooting we shut down, and every week or two the crew would go unpaid and we would shut down again,” says Wick, an Oscar winner for Gladiator. “David stood at the helm of a slowly sinking ship and never lost his focus.”
Still, the negative buzz wasn’t helped when James Caan quit on his second day of filming. It expanded with rumors that Russell had deliberately refused to shoot a critical final scene in order to maintain control — something that’s categorically denied by several sources. After a year and a half of struggling to complete the movie, he gave up altogether.
Wick doesn’t blame him. “He was unflappable,” he says. “You always wonder what somebody is going to be like in the trenches, and David was perfect.”
By the time of The Fighter, Russell’s professional life was anything but perfect.
He’d been writing — as well as working on a passion project, the Ghetto Film School in the Bronx, helping kids in the projects learn about film — but his future as a director was in question. Until Wahlberg put himself on the line.
“I feel enormously grateful to him,” Russell says. “I love the guy so much. Where would I be without him? Not here, that’s for sure.”
Without final cut and with a below-the-line budget of only $11 million, however, Russell had little room to maneuver. He rarely had time for more than two or three takes and was rewriting on the fly, boosting the women’s roles while cutting a 133-page script to 108 and eliminating a 30-minute opening sequence with the young Dicky Eklund (Bale) that was designed to take place in the 1970s.
“Be disciplined,” was his mantra. “Make your choices now. Make the hard choices now.”
Thirty-three days of filming were followed by a nine-month postproduction period, reteaming Russell with his Spanking editor Pamela Martin. During this time, they created the film’s arresting opening: Having Micky (Wahlberg) and Dicky reminisce on a sofa. “The bookends of our film were editing-room discoveries,” Russell says. “We shot those interviews on the fly, when they were not scheduled.”
Unlike with Kings, Russell made fans on set.
“There were no blowups, nothing,” says Amy Adams, Oscar-nominated for her role as Charlene Fleming. “People grow and people change, and I’m not negating anyone’s experience with him, but I would love to work with him again. I want to do something wild with him!”
Even Leo, who struggled with Russell’s unorthodox style — calling out directions while shooting, jumping and shouting with enthusiasm at times — blames herself rather than him: “There I am in the shoes of this matriarch. I don’t think I am Alice, but she lingers in me in a very strong way while filming. So when I spoke to David, I probably did it a little aggressively.”
As for Russell, she says genuinely, “He is a delicate and beautiful human being.”
Russell will need these qualities as he moves forward with his next project, whether it’s Uncharted or 2 Guns, Universal’s adaptation of a comic book that he also is developing. He knows emotions can spout from him like a geyser; he knows he’s as sensitive as skin.
Still, he says: “I’ve turned a page. All those years between Huckabees and now were a very humbling process. When you get humbled that way, you just have to dig deeper and become your best self. And mean it. And stick to it. That’s how I feel, because I don’t want to go back to where I was.”