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David O. Russell, Building Movies From The Characters Up

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Director David O. Russell's latest film, American Hustle, is inspired by the Abscam scandal — the FBI sting from the 1970s, complete with an agent posing as an Arab sheik, that led to the downfall of a number of politicians.

Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Christian Bale, the movie is about that sting operation, but it's also a love story and a loving study of larger-than-life characters — with big '70s hair, wearing classic '70s polyester wardrobes — trying to reinvent themselves.

Russell spoke with NPR's Melissa Block about working with these actors to create real characters.

"It's very important to me that the characters actually love life, and love things in life," he says.


Interview Highlights

On Christian Bale's paunchy, sexy con-man character

I knew that Christian was going to be very excited about that — playing somebody that looked nothing like anybody he'd ever played before, and whose whole energy in his soul — you know, it's not just about the outside. I mean that's what makes someone a great actor, is it's all from the inside.

And that's why I think many women have said to me that they find Christian Bale very appealing or sexy in this role, which some people would say is ironic given that he doesn't look like a classic leading man. He still looks really attractive, but he's got a big comb-over and he's 50 pounds heavier, and he looks like a very regular person. And those people can be very charismatic, and that's what the Amy Adams character says about him.

As a filmmaker, I just love looking at these people and saying, "Oh my God, look at these people." You know, like when you look at my relatives from Brooklyn or the Bronx, I'm just fascinated by everything about them: The way they sound, the way they think, the way they move, the way they listen to music, the way they eat. [That's] the reason I make movies.

On creating character and the movie's '70s look

That's what I love about filmmaking — creating characters — that's what I love about working with actors, is it's a collaboration. I feel that I'm auditioning for my actors. I love my actors, and I go to their homes and I say, "This is what I think, I'm very excited about this character, and this is what I think this character could be like." And they start getting excited about it or telling me their ideas, and we kind of inspire each other. And it's all from instinct.

The hair in the movie is not just hair. ... When Irving is preparing at the beginning of the picture, that goes to that whole notion of, "Who is anybody when they wake up and are about to walk out the door?" That's what that comb-over is to him. And that's also an actor preparing.

It's my mother getting ready to go out. It's my father getting ready to go out. I mean, every morning I could hear my father shaving. My father was a salesman ... and he was putting himself on, who he had become and who he was becoming.

On his directing style, which Jennifer Lawrence called "weird and instantaneous"

Part of it is just, it's the only way I know how to do things. I make a shot list; I have compositions that I want to see. But there's a fluidity to the camera that I want, and an aliveness to it with the actors.

I don't want people thinking or doing what De Niro once called "bedroom perfect." You know, you can do something in your hotel room that morning in the mirror, and it was "bedroom perfect," but that may not be alive when you're in a room with a bunch of people.

So we have a Steadicam, because it's a small apparatus that can move fluidly through the space. And we light for 360 degrees, which means it's through natural soft sources, through the windows. And once we start shooting, I don't want to stop and have interruptions. I want it to flow so people almost forget that they're acting.

On reworking a scene in the middle of shooting

When a scene is on its feet and it's living, you know, I mean, I'm not doing that. But there are moments when ideas are happening, or moments are happening where things are not flowing. And so by saying something you can help people relax and not feel as self-conscious for being in front of a camera. You break that wall by talking to them.

You know, I stand next to the Steadicam and so they can become less self-conscious about it. Or maybe there's a better line that occurred to us. And so those are the reasons that you would interact during [a scene]. But the whole set is involved in it, even the crew. And we were moving as a unit to make it be more alive and more amazing.

On connections between American Hustle and his last two films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter

I think there's a lot of connections. You know, they're about local neighborhood people, all of whose lives at the start of the movie are splintered. And they spend the entire movie trying to find a dream and a passion that they can rebuild and buy into. So there's also romance in all three pictures, and enchantment, which is something that is very important to me as a filmmaker and I unabashedly and unashamedly own.

I think when you do it genuinely, from the feet up — see I would never in a million years think of The Fighter as a boxing picture, I would never think of Silver Linings Playbook as a romantic comedy. Nor would I think of this movie as a con picture. Because every picture, I just [build] it from the [characters]. And if it's funny, it's because they're being real, and if it's heartbreaking it's because of the same reason — that they're being real.

When you're doing it, there's a feeling of, "God I certainly love this, and I believe in this. God knows what it's going to be like when it all comes together, and if anybody else is going to feel like that way." Which is why it can be emotional sometimes if you do get a nod from the New York Film Critics or anywhere, because you say, "Oh I guess I'm not crazy."

That was the first thing I texted our actors, I said, "See we're not crazy." Because we were killing ourselves making this movie. And then you turn to each other and you say, "I don't know, I think this movie's pretty good, but I hope we're not alone." And you never know until you take it out into the world.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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