The 1970s-set crime comedy American Hustle is 55-year-old director David O. Russell’s seventh feature and stars Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as four larger-than-life characters caught up in a hugely entertaining East Coast con-artist yarn that’s heavy on wisecracks, costumes and music.
Oscar voters clearly adore both Russell and the film: for the second year in a row, a film by the director of I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter is nominated in the Best Picture, Best Director and all four acting categories (the same happened with Silver Linings Playbook in 2013). A handful of other nominations means the film will share joint honors with Gravity as the most nominated picture at the Academy Awards on March 2. We called Russell at home in Los Angeles on the day he heard the news about the Oscar nominations.
Congratulations on your film’s ten Oscar nominations. You must be happy?
Well, I’m ecstatic and very happy for my actors and all my people. [Pause] Sorry, excuse me, I have a three-year-old here swinging a big ten-foot stick knocking shit over. [Laughs] Maybe he shouldn’t have that stick? Sorry.
Were you up at dawn to hear the nominations?
Yes I was. You never know, anything can happen. An-y-thing can happen! I wrote to everybody the night before and said thank you.
You emailed your cast?
Yeah, all the cast, producers and craftspeople. I said thank you for making this film. No matter what, we made this film and we can be proud of it. Then you wake up and don’t know what’s going to happen, and if it’s something nice, that’s a great blessing. The actors took gigantic risks in this movie and to have them acknowledged in an extremely competitive year is not a small matter.
It’s the second year in a row that four actors from your film have been nominated in all four Oscars acting categories. What’s your trick?
We build the characters, and I write the characters for them. Also, I have a rhythm of the film and characters that’s in my head that I share with them. I want them to seal that rhythm with me. It’s almost like a song. I’d also say that I put an enormous amount of love into the characters. It’s very hard for me to say goodbye to them.
The word I’ve most heard associated with American Hustle is fun. Is that what you were aiming for?
For me, it all goes together. I’d never say The Fighter was just a boxing movie or that Silver Linings Playbook was a romantic comedy—I’m making movies about people from the feet up. For me, sometimes that’s going to be fun and sometimes that’s going to be really fucked up. It’s going to be all those different things, and there are going to be uncomfortable scenes too, as there are in American Hustle. But yeah, I’m going to lean into the part of it that is propulsive and has enchantment to it. If we can lean into either the pain or the enchantment, I’m going to lean into the enchantment.
Everyone’s talking about the incredible hair, make-up and costumes...
And guess what? Ironically, the film didn’t get a nomination for hair and make-up! But that’s fine with me. It’s not about that stuff. That just followed from the characters. I want to see people behave, that’s why I make a picture—because it has a life or death predicament that’s going to make it move fast, that’s going to grab you. Then I want people’s jaws hanging open, going: “Look at these people!” Whether they’re beautiful or ugly, just: “Oh my god, look a them!” That’s what makes me excited to watch any movie.
This is the third time you’ve been Oscar-nominated, following on from The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Do you enjoy the hoopla in the run-up to the ceremony?
You know, it’s a very interesting, intense thing. To be in the company of these people making great cinema is a privilege. Would it be the end of the world if I wasn’t involved? No. But that’s how audiences find your movie, see? We’ve been building this character-based cinema through three movies, and the Oscars help. It makes a big difference.
You’re also building a company of actors. Looking at the American Hustle cast: you worked with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence on Silver Linings Playbook, and with Christian Bale on The Fighter. Does that help you go further with each film?
Yes—and Amy Adams on The Fighter, too. We’ve taken a risk together, and then I want to turn around and say: “Let’s take an even bigger risk together.” You know? “Let’s use our trust and our shorthand and our knowledge of each other to make something special that we’ve never had before.” It’s a team and an intimacy that I cherish, it’s the foundation of the whole thing.
The leading Oscar nominees are so strong and different. Have you seen 12 Years a Slave and Gravity?
Of course! I saw all those movies. It’s a very, very strong year. There are fantastic, powerful motion pictures out there, all very different.
Is it even reasonable to compare these films? For them to compete?
It’s strange, they’re different worlds, but that’s the highway of cinema. I don’t know if they can be compared, but in terms of forceful storytelling or captivating cinema, they both came out the same year and I love seeing those guys around town, the directors and actors. There’s something collegial about it. It helps you look towards the future. It’s nice not to just live in your own universe all the time. It’s nice to see other people and other universes.
Have you been able to meet the directors of the other nominated films?
Yeah, you get to hang out. Spike Jonze (Her) is an old friend of mine already, and Alexander Payne (Nebraska) is an old friend. But I’ve got to know Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), and that’s a blessing. Marty [Scorsese] is somebody who I’ve known on and off over the years. It’s nice, and who knows what can happen from that? You learn things, you have conversations that are useful. You can talk to each other, help each other, I like it.
What were the new challenges for you with American Hustle, compared to your other films?
It’s a much bigger world, in some ways it’s twice the size of the other worlds. It dips into four or five different worlds. It’s a rougher world. It’s a little bit like the world in The Fighter. It’s also my first period film. The Fighter was a bit—but this was more truly a period film.
All these films I’ve made have been East Coast-based. That’s where I’m from and that’s what I know and love, and I have a very specific memory of that period, just from my own parents—they were middle-class and they had a dignity about them and there was a formality to it. To me, it was not a sleazy era, it was an era that had formality and some kind of old-fashioned glamour to it, regardless of your class. I remember people in that economy struggling to survive, it was not easy.
Will you have a speech ready on Oscar night?
I think that’s bad luck! Any time I’ve done it, it’s bad luck. I don’t think I should. I think you should know in your heart what you want to say, and if you get to say it, good for you. If not, good for you, you got to participate.
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