AFI Fest: David O. Russell Sneaks 'American Hustle' First Scene: 'Everybody Plays Against Type'

Frank W. Ockenfels 3
David O. Russell

The director gives his tribute audience a brief sneak peek at his latest film. "I want to focus on the characters more than an event," he says.

At the Nov. 8 AFI Fest tribute to David O. Russell, the director screened the first six minutes of the hotly anticipated American Hustle, which stars Christian Bale and Amy Adams as con artists working for federal agent Bradley Cooper.

The audience chuckled at the first words in the clip: "Some of this actually happened," and again when Bale, somewhat resembling Tom Cruise's fat Les Grossman character in Tropic Thunder, laboriously and hilariously prepares a bald man's elaborate comb-over, as America's tune "Horse With No Name" plays on the soundtrack.

VIDEO: David O. Russell's 'American Hustle' Debuts First Full Trailer 

Then he joins brassy British-sounding con woman Adams, her braless breasts barely contained by an open shirt, and Cooper's irritably high-strung Brooklyn federal agent to sweet-talk a mayor (Jeremy Renner) into accepting an attache case stuffed with cash, to the tune of Steely Dan's "Dirty Work." Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Bale's wife, did not appear in the clip, but at the prescreening party at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, she said, evidently referring to the film, "I come in with a big pow!"

Despite hours of horrifying sound problems that provoked Russell to walk out of the event briefly, muttering, "No way!" the clip played well the second time it was screened, when the sound worked. Russell graciously returned to acknowledge the applause. Though it's hard to tell how the whole film will go over, the first scene clearly resonated with the AFI crowd.

Russell noted that American Hustle, a potential Oscar magnet that opens Dec. 13 (and Dec. 18 in wide release), is in the style he discovered with 2010's The Fighter and developed in 2012's Silver Linings Playbook -- a character-based piece rooted in a real story. "The Fighter was a great revelation to me, about these people, the way they talk, their behavior, their emotion, their romance, their heartbreak," Russell said. "In Silver Linings, I took the true story and put my own life into it. In American Hustle, I took some of the true story and made it personal and fictional, so it became a movie."

Asked what that meant, Russell replied, "It means that I want to focus on the characters more than an event. In American Hustle, there was an event in the '70s where a Bronx-born con artist and his partner in crime -- that's Christian Bale and Amy Adams, a woman from England, or supposed to be from England -- were forced to work for the federal government, and they taught the government how to con, and how to create a theater to draw other people in, based on what their hopes were. And this was during a recession. So I wanted to make it about those people and their love affair, these two characters, and Christian's wife, really -- that's Jennifer -- a very, as she describes her, 'a Picasso of a passive-aggressive.' Jennifer was very excited about playing someone wildly different from who she's ever played, a real housewife of Long Island."

"Everybody [is] playing against type," said Russell. "Jeremy Renner, who's very guarded typically, play[s] a big, open-hearted Italian mayor of a New Jersey community, who wants to do anything for his community. There's a real romance between him and Christian Bale as well. And Louis C.K. -- I'm probably answering too many questions." In fact, Russell didn't answer very many questions about American Hustle, but he well explicated his previous career under Jenelle Riley's gentle interrogation.

When Riley asked what more we can expect from the film, Russell grinned and said, "Well, there will be sound!"