News & Politics

“American Hustle” Director David O. Russell on Movies and Making Them Personal

Plus: He talks about his Washington past.

Director David O. Russell at the American Hustle premiere earlier this month in New York. Photograph by Debby Wong /

Before Hollywood fame and fortune and multiple Academy Award nominations, American Hustle director David O. Russell was a Washington intern. He worked at the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation and lived in Georgetown one summer. He says he’s always been “enchanted by Washington,” but will he make a film here? “We’re getting closer,” noting that his previous film, Silver Linings Playbook, was shot in Philadelphia. “I see the romantic side of it,” he says of the nation’s capital, but “as I get older that becomes harder to hold on to.” He said he’d want a story about the people who live here, to be “in their homes and lives.”

Until Russell comes up with his Washington movie, Washington can settle in with his latest creation, which is, in its own way, a Washington movie. American Hustle begins with the message: “Some of this actually happened.” It is loosely based on ABSCAM, the post-Watergate bribery scandal of the 1970s and early 80s that resulted in convictions against a number of elected officials, including a United States senator, six House members, and state and city officials in New Jersey and Philadelphia. The characters are colorful, on the edge, loud, but also romantic and endearing, resulting in dream roles for a company of actors.

In the new film, which opens here Friday, Russell reunites with stars from Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, including Jennifer Lawrence, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Silver Linings, Christian Bale, who won Best Supporting Actor for Fighter, and Bradley Cooper, who was nominated for Best Actor for Silver Linings. The cast is rounded out by Amy Adams, who was nominated for an Oscar for Fighter, and Jeremy Renner, making his first appearance in a Russell film. The film has already received several Golden Globe nominations, for the director and actors, and is expected to do well in the Oscars race, as well.

Russell was in town for a private screening Wednesday evening and took some to talk to Washingtonian. Here are the highlights from our conversation:

On working with the same actors over again: It’s very special. I treasure the trust I have with the actors. I can write for them like a band or a singer. It’s a privilege to get them to take a risk they never took before, and it’s exciting to put them in combinations they haven’t been in before.

On the awards season: You can’t think about awards. It’s not a good way to think. You have to think it’s fortunate to make the film, and if it’s true—something that came out of their hearts and your heart—that’s hard to do. But you do root for people. You want your people to feel that what they did landed. That’s my responsibility. I feel I have to deliver for them.

On making it personal: American Hustle is personal in the sense that it’s probably as personal as The Fighter. I was never in a family of fighters, but I was definitely in a family that was operatic and had sides. That is personal to me. Beyond that, it isn’t personal for me except the question of reinvention for me is a very deep theme. An archetypal theme. In all these movies love, of life, of Duke Ellington, of your kid, or each other, I have to have that or can’t do the movie.

On the unique and incredible motion and vitality in his films: I like cinema. Cinema is about motion to me. I like to feel the motion of the emotion and the movement of the camera. That also includes something very romantic. For example, Amy Adams and Christian Bale dancing across Park Avenue. These people are living their dream. We played music as we were running down the street, “Parisian Thoroughfare.” It was so magical to be doing that on a day in May. That’s what I live for.

Are his actors improvising or following the letter of the script? We don’t really do improvisation, per se. Everything is scripted . . . carefully, and discussed, every beat is discussed. They are doing the script. It starts to feel loose because you don’t call cut. They are in this altered state of the scene for a long time, which is why it feels otherworldly, but it’s not really improv per se.

About whether American Hustle is a comedy: I’ve always been surprised how people categorize my films. I do what Duke Ellington does, it’s beyond category. I think it’s funny, funny and heartbreaking, but I would never call The Fighter a boxing movie or Silver Linings Playbook a romantic comedy. There’s an ear always for the human comedy and the human tragedy.

Advice for Washington authors who dream of getting their books made into movies: You have to find somebody who is passionate about it. Try every one and every thing. Things happen on [their] own timetables. There’s got to be showmanship with how you open the kimono. You have to create excitement that will create a kind of enchantment around your book. The more you wait, the more you want something, the more magical when you get it.