Santa Barbara Film Fest: David O. Russell Steals the Show at Tribute

The 55-year-old, who has directed three best picture Oscar nominees in four years, had the audience in stitches during a Q&A that preceded the presentation of the fest's first Outstanding Director Award.
Scott Feinberg

SANTA BARBARA – "People go to the movies because they want a full experience. If you're not gonna give it to them with guns or bombs, you've gotta give it to them with human opera."

So said David O. Russell, American Hustle's cowriter and director and 21st century American cinema's leading human opera maestro, on Friday evening during the first tribute of the 29th Santa Barbara International Film Festival, at Santa Barbara's historic Arlington Theatre. Russell, who recently received his third best director Oscar nomination in four years -- his earlier noms came for The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) -- became the first recipient of the festival's newly created Outstanding Director Award. The honor followed a two-hour-plus conversation with festival director Roger Durling and brief remarks from Russell's The Fighter star Melissa Leo.

Durling, a fan of Russell's who heaped praise on the filmmaker, went with the flow as Russell endearingly guided the freewheeling conversation where he wanted it to go -- and kept it away from where he clearly didn't want it to go, namely into discussion of his long-ago on-set meltdown that briefly became a YouTube sensation and defined him until his "reinvention" trilogy of Fighter, Silver Linings and Hustle.

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For the first half of the Q&A, Russell displayed a sort of live-wire energy not unlike Bradley Cooper's character's in Hustle; for the second half, as the conversation chugged along through each of the seven features he has directed, the 55-year-old's answers became more to the point, not unlike his Silver Linings and Hustle star Robert De Niro's, as he himself noted.

After he graduated from Amherst College, Russell said, it took some time for him to find his way. He held all sorts of odd jobs, from bartending to teaching English as a second language to serving as a community organizer in rough parts of Boston, while always consuming great movies and writing on the side. He started to share some of the 20-minute scene from Chinatown that he has memorized (he later paid homage to the scene in which Faye Dunaway bandages Jack Nicholson's nose and they fall in love with the scene in The Fighter in which Amy Adams bandages Mark Wahlberg) and also recalled being asked by skeptical relatives at weddings and funerals, "So how's that writing thing going?"

"I'm a late bloomer," Russell said — his first finished feature was released when he was 36. "[Vincent] Van Gogh didn't even start painting until he was 34," he cracked. After making an award-winning short film for a Boston television station, Russell received a grant from the NEA to go toward a feature about a fortune cookie writer — and then decided, while broke, newly broken-up with his girlfriend and serving on a jury, instead to make a film about an incestuous mother-son relationship, which became Spanking the Monkey (1994). He had to return the funds to the NEA, but he had a career.

The entertaining dramedy Flirting With Disaster (1996) soon followed, but Three Kings (1999) was the first film in which it was clear that Russell was not just a very good writer capable of making films, but a real filmmaker. But that film was followed by I Heart Huckabees (2004) and Nailed, the former of which is best known as the film on which Russell imploded and the latter of which he started but was never able to finish, and which he referred to as "the nadir" of his career. "I had a tough period after I Heart Huckabees," he granted, calling it "my unwanted hiatus from cinema." He summed it up: "I had to help my bipolar son and deal with some personal stuff. I dropped out of filmmaking for a while."

Asked to discuss that further, Russell began pouring water and avoiding the question before remarking, "Anywho, what's the next topic? We did the hiatus. I'll tell you how much I love Santa Barbara!"

Six years after Huckabees, though, Russell was back and better than ever with his "reinvention" trilogy -- The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now Hustle -- films that were about characters who reinvented themselves and that illustrated how much Russell had reinvented himself. He noted that each of them feature actors he loves (he named and heaped praise on each of them); feature formidable female characters ("Strong women are, to me, the secret to great cinema"); and are driven by people rather than plot ("I don't think you should ever 'send a message' … I'm more interested in the people").

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Now, Russell says, "I make every movie and scene as if it could be my last."

Because SBIFF is held each year right around the time that Academy members receive their final Oscar ballots, and because more than 100 Academy members are believed to live in and around Santa Barbara — including the actress Frances Fisher, who is serving on this year's festival jury — many Oscar nominees or people who hope to be Oscar nominees in the future are happy to make the two-hour trek from Los Angeles to participate in the festival, either as a tribute recipient, presenter or panelist.

Over the course of the next nine days, the fest will honor Bruce Dern (Nebraska) with its Modern Master Award; Robert Redford (All Is Lost) with its American Riviera Award; Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels' The Butler) with its Montecito Award; Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) with its Outstanding Performer of the Year Award; Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) with its Cinema Vanguard Award; and Daniel Bruhl (Rush), Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Brie Larson (Short Term 12), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) and June Squibb (Nebraska) with its Virtuosos Award. It has already honored Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels' The Butler) with its Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film at a pre-festival ceremony.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg