This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
David O. Russell digs into a large canvas tote bag, yanking out books, CDs, notepads and pens, straining the seams of his black three-piece suit (one of five identical J.Crew suits he wears each day).
There are DVDs of Orson Welles‘ The Magnificent Ambersons and Stanley Kramer‘s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; a paperback called The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, from the writings of Epictetus; a thank-you card from Russell’s lawyer, Bruce Ramer; a half-finished bottle of raw, unpasteurized, gluten-free, kosher Kreation juice; a Uni-ball Vision Elite (“That’s my pen of choice; it’s like butter,” he says); and bags and bags of organic food — broccoli, apples, vitamins, you name it. “Jennifer Lawrence is always stealing my food,” he laughs.
Then he strikes gold: two big white notepads, scratched and scrawled with ideas for his next script. This is not a conventionally formatted screenplay, not even close. Words streak across each page — notes about a field backed with light; musings on “the simple facts of life and death, important watchwords for me”; snatches of scenes, snippets of dialogue, glimpses of characters — a smorgasbord for the brain, written in lightning, his sentences tumbling over each page in ways as complicated and chaotic as Russell himself. Thus his films begin: with a host of notions jostling for attention on this lined paper, accompanied by random musings the director dictates to himself whenever they occur. “I’ll just start talking, me in a car, I’ll be telling the movie as I see it, and then I will transcribe it,” he says, because “I got tired of being alone in a room for 20 years.”
These days, there’s little chance of that. A decade after his career stumbled with I Heart Huckabees, Russell, 55, has resurrected himself thanks to three hits within four years — The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle — with two acting Oscars for the first of these (Christian Bale and Melissa Leo) and nominations in all four acting categories for the others.
He is no longer the man as famous for his scuffles as his films, the director whose conflicts with George Clooney and Lily Tomlin became Hollywood lore. He’s newly confident and joyous, insisting he has trammeled the angst he once wore on his sleeve and basking in the admiration of actors and fellow directors alike.
“What makes him great is twofold,” says his friend Spike Jonze, the writer-director of Her, with whom he often stays in New York. “One is, his brain is incredible; he’s got an incredible mind, he’s incredibly smart. And on the other side, whatever he’s feeling, he expresses.”
Such praise might give Russell cause to sit back; rather, it’s revving him into high gear. Perhaps it’s the freshness of this acclaim — or perhaps his innate anxiety — but success is just pushing him to go ever further and faster, as if he lives with that immanent sense of danger his peers know too well: That all this could end.
And so he exists in motion, lurching from lunch with Diane von Furstenberg to a visit to LACMA to a trip to his editing room to a Q-and-A in Santa Barbara — not just trailed by glory but also by a flotilla of publicists and cars — while juggling a young son, nearly 3, fielding calls from Sony’s Amy Pascal, developing two new TV shows (one at ABC, the other a crime drama he’s producing with Harvey Weinstein), writing a new movie — and talking, talking, talking, as if he must or the world will stop.
Nobody can talk like Russell. Over a day and a half with this reporter, he brims, bubbles and bursts with words, alternately exhilarating and exhausting.
He talks about Barry Diller, to whom he once slipped a screenplay in his 20s when working at a Rupert Murdoch bash: “I’d go be a bartender at Murdoch’s house, at Jacqueline Onassis‘, at all these houses on the Upper East Side. The guys who founded Blue Man Group, we were all bartenders together and waiters.”
He talks about his borderline attention deficit disorder (“I’m an ADD guy, kind of a little; I’m not a stranger to the notion”); he talks about Weinstein (“I love Harvey; he’s so passionate”); he talks about writing every day, plowing on for years without recognition: “I wrote several scripts, and I would write them 20, 30 times [to] find out how many ways I could write something and make it better.”
He talks about running into ABC’s Paul Lee at the Golden Globes, where he teasingly suggested that Lee’s son should pitch him, rather than his dad. “He looks young enough to be his son,” says Russell of the executive. “I was doing a bit: ‘Which one is the son?’ So I made the son say his line, and it worked.”
He talks about his love of movies and old stars, especially Katharine Hepburn, whose life story he reads over and over, intellectual comfort food. “She has a frankness that I think you would find refreshing,” he says. “She is very critical of herself. I just love her whole thing.”
And above all, he talks about his new film, American Hustle, a madcap comedy about con men and crooks who get caught up in the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s, which resulted in the conviction of six U.S. congressmen and a senator. The movie was named best comedy/musical at the Globes and jointly leads the Oscar field with 10 nominations, and merely thinking about its characters brings him close to tears. “I just have such adoration for them,” he says. “And they crack me up and they break my heart all at the same time.”
“He doesn’t have a filter,” says Lawrence, who won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook and might reteam with Russell on a new movie in which she would play Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano. “It’s what I love the most about him. He’s the only person in the world other than my family where we can yell at each other or send each other pictures of our toothbrushes: We were texting, and [I was saying], ‘You’re so annoying!’ And he texted me a picture of his toothbrush! He is pure creativity and so endearing and lovable. I don’t know how to say somebody is a maniac, but you love it.”
Russell’s mania, as it were, spills onto everything — from music (he gave his Hustle cast record players so they could listen to discs on vinyl); to books (he reads several at a time, including most recently Colin Wilson‘s A Criminal History of Mankind, A. Scott Berg‘s biography Wilson and several tomes on Theodore Roosevelt); and of course film — especially such Hollywood classics as Pat and Mike and Adam’s Rib, all of which he discusses eagerly and without the least negativity.
He is equally passionate about Holly Davis, his partner of seven years, a costume designer as grounded as Russell is giddy and who accompanies him when he shoots, bringing their young son, Leo. (He also has a 19-year-old, Matthew, from his 15-year marriage to former New Line executive Janet Grillo.) “[Holly] is very soulful; she is very watchful and very aesthetically dialed in to the beauty of the world,” says Russell. “She’s quiet. So it’s like we’re complementary energies.” He adds that he adores being a new dad and has been surprised by joy in his 50s: “You thought that was all in your rearview mirror. It’s a wonderful thing.”
He’s been courted professionally by Angelina Jolie; feted by billionaires; entertained by Leonardo DiCaprio and even photographed by Robert De Niro, who seems as addicted to photography as Russell himself, a nonstop snapper of selfies. (“He’s old-fashioned, Bob,” says the filmmaker. “He makes everybody pose in a formal way.”) And yet the most ordinary things can move him, like the grilled cheese sandwich he consumes over lunch in a Brentwood diner, Early World.
“Yippee!” he yells. “Look at this evil sandwich. This is a bit of heaven. If you want to have a piece of naughtiness — oh my God! Will you do me a favor? Will you just have one bite of this?” I decline.
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His joie de vivre is contagious and a touching shift from the man I met three years ago, when he was reeling from his years “in the wilderness.” Then, he was just savoring triumph with The Fighter, his drama about boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell’s collaborator on several films until the two parted ways over Silver Linings. (The actor was in talks to play the Bradley Cooper part.) The Fighter was his first finished film since Huckabees and a new taste of glory.
Following dazzling reviews for his initial feature, 1994’s Spanking the Monkey, acclaim for 1996’s Flirting With Disaster and 1999’s Three Kings, Russell had taken a body blow with Huckabees, then been knocked to the ground when his next film, Nailed, was halted before it had finished filming, a victim of financier David Bergstein‘s woes. (See sidebar.)
After Nailed, Russell — who had grown up in a middle-class family in Mamaroneck, N.Y., then spent time in Nicaragua after graduating from Amherst in 1981; who had toiled in menial jobs such as bartending and working for a booksellers’ association — hit rock bottom, with a teenage son to support and another soon to follow.
When we met, The Fighter was beginning to heal him, but Russell still was licking his wounds. His confidence was shaky, his sense of danger palpable. (“I’m totally capable of being paranoid,” he says.) He knew he only had gotten The Fighter thanks to Wahlberg’s intervention; but when the film earned $129 million at the worldwide box office, it led to Silver Linings — a movie Russell initially had been hired just to write. That not only earned eight Oscar nominations but also got Russell an invitation to discuss mental health with Vice President Joe Biden — an issue Russell knew well through his bipolar older son.
“Silver Linings Playbook was an enormous emotional thing for me,” he says, “because it was like taking all the anguish of the experience with our son that had been an ingrown struggle and bringing it into the light of day.”
American Hustle began as American Bullshit.
That was the script developed by producers Charles Roven and Richard Suckle, along with writer Eric Warren Singer, and it loosely told the real-life story of con man Mel Weinberg, centering on his relationship with FBI agent James Boyle, an amalgam of several real-life characters in the ABSCAM scheme. Singer’s first draft would become more reality-based when Ben Affleck agreed to direct and possibly star (he was undecided whether to play Weinberg or Boyle) but changed radically when Affleck departed to make Argo and Roven brought it to his Three Kings collaborator Russell in March 2012, while he was in postproduction on Silver Linings.
“When David read the script, he came with a vision, a very specific Russell-esque vision,” explains Roven. “[He] said, ‘I love the arena, and I love this setting and the time, but I’m much more interested in expanding these ideas of reinvention and survival, and I don’t want to worry whether this happened or not. This is a work of fiction.'”
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Russell then began his distinctive creative process, talking to the cast he was chasing even while writing, chief among them Bale. Over and over, he would drive to Bale’s house and discuss Weinberg, soon renamed Irving Rosenfeld. “He’s like, ‘Why are we talking about this? Why is this worth my time? I’m not planning to work this year,’ ” remembers Russell. “So I start to tell him about it. And pretty soon, he’s saying, ‘Oh, so he’s not a handsome guy, but he’s a family guy? He’s not Mr. Cold Gangster, [but he’s] trapped with a woman whom he can’t seem to get around?’ ” Bale quickly suggested Rosenfeld be overweight — and later herniated a disc after adding 40 pounds for the role. (“He’s still dealing with that,” says Russell.)
As the filmmaker progressed, other characters grew in importance, and soon there were four more jostling for attention, most amplified from the original script: The mayor (played by Jeremy Renner) who gets trapped in the FBI’s net; the FBI agent (Cooper) who lives at home with his mother and fiancee; a con artist (Amy Adams) equal to any man; and the depressed, over-the-top housewife (Lawrence) who blocks Bale’s relationship with Adams. “They all have to be woven together in a way that is frightening, surprising, heartbreaking, enchanting — all those emotions that I love,” notes Russell.
Bale and Cooper were attached early; Adams and Renner soon followed; but Lawrence joined the cast late in the game, when Russell was hurtling toward production. “I called her from location,” he says. “She goes, ‘You mean I’d get to be like a Real Housewife of Long Island?’ I said, ‘Uh huh.’ She’s like, ‘With the hair and the nails and be a really big character?’ I go, ‘Uh huh.’ She goes, ‘I think I have to do it.’ “
The actress jokes about Russell pursuing her even as they waited to learn whether Silver Linings Playbook had won at the SAG Awards. “He was really hammering it home at the SAG Awards while I was waiting for my category to be called — and I’m trying to look at the stage, and my palms are sweating,” says Lawrence. “If I hadn’t worked with David before, I may have said, ‘No, I am going to take a vacation.’ But he’s so inventive and nonstop creative. The creative process never [slows] with him; it’s this ongoing morphing.”
Finally she said yes, and shooting on the $41 million (after tax breaks) Sony picture got underway March 18, 2013, in Boston, with a few days of filming in New York. Other than a momentary hitch when the Boston police closed down the set in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, the movie was relatively trouble-free.
Russell kept making changes even as filming took place, often shouting them to the actors as he’d leap in and out of takes. “One of the major things that makes him great is how dexterous he is,” says Cooper. “I’ve never met a writer-director who can write so fast. Some [filmmakers] can be great executors but not have a power source to come up with something worthwhile. But David is like a perfectly functioning cell who has the ability to marry inspiration with talent.”
The director originally had imagined Lawrence’s character would kill herself, then abandoned that concept. “She was going to have a dark end,” he recalls. “But as I developed the character more with Jennifer, I was like, ‘That’s just wrong.’ “
Several of his more idiosyncratic ideas came as if through spontaneous combustion — like having Lawrence dance around her kitchen in rubber gloves while singing.
“We’d leave each other weird voice memos about ideas,” she remembers. “Then he came into my hotel during rehearsals, and he had a vision of me in yellow cleaning gloves, dancing and singing ‘Live and Let Die.’ David will have a vision, and it will be incredibly specific and out of place, and then it turns into this amazing scene. It’s kind of a miracle how he works.”
Hearing words like these visibly touches Russell.
He’s still in that place where the wounds are fresh, the emotions raw, and maybe they always will be. He marvels with an almost childlike glee that a critic like The New Yorker‘s David Denby raved about his new film, adding that Denby’s wife even told him at a New York gala, “[Your film] made David happy.”
He can’t get over the fact he’s now getting calls from the likes of a Christie’s salesman, who told him: “Mr. Russell, I’m this dealer of Dutch and Flemish paintings, and I saw in American Hustle that beautiful Rembrandt. I want to offer you access to our private collection, ranging from $300,000 to $3 million.” Russell only half-jokes that he hasn’t even repaired his leaky roof. “It does need to be fixed. I’ve got to get a new one.”
He says one of his producers was shocked at the comparative modesty of his house at the top of L.A.’s Mandeville Canyon, high above the homes of the rich and famous. “He’s literally like, ‘Wow, you’re way up,’ ” laughs Russell. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s just call it Encino.’ Because 100 yards further, and you’re in the Valley. He goes, ‘David, you gotta get some f—in’ money, man. What are we gonna do for you to get some money?’ “
It would be nice to create a nest egg for his family, reassuring to feel danger doesn’t lurk just a film or two away. But Russell still harbors doubts; he spent too long as an outcast to believe he’s back scot-free, has experienced too many lows to believe the highs will last forever.
These days, he identifies with the pragmatism of De Niro’s Silver Linings Playbook character rather than the zaniness of his son. He has learned to keep the angst at bay, he says, while admitting, “I do feel in touch with what Pat [Cooper‘s character] says at the end of Silver Linings Playbook, that the world will break your heart 10 ways to Sunday.”
He keeps reminding himself of other words from that film: “When life reaches out with a moment like this, it’s a sin if you don’t reach back.” He pauses. “I had a chance to reach back into that well of humanity and detail and surprise and do it again,” he says. “Life offered me another chance.”
Hustle‘s Haul of Oscar Noms
1. American Hustle is only the second film since Reds (1981) to score nominations for best picture, best director, best adapted or original screenplay and in each of the four acting categories. (The other: 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook.)
2. Megan Ellison (American Hustle and Her) is only the fourth producer — and the first woman — to score more than one best picture nomination in a single year since 1951.
3. Best actress nominee Amy Adams has earned five noms in nine years.
4. Jennifer Lawrence, with her best supporting actress nomination, is the youngest three-time acting nominee.
5. David O. Russell has received three best director noms in four years: The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Only 11 other directors — and only one since 1960 (Clint Eastwood, for Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima) — have matched that streak.
— Scott Feinberg