Interview: David O. Russell Talks Incest and Music in ‘The Fighter,’ Plus ‘Uncharted’ And Other Projects From The Past
Posted on Sunday, February 20th, 2011 by David Chen
As I mentioned yesterday, I recently had the opportunity to speak with David O. Russell, who directed The Fighter, which was my favorite film of 2010. We chatted about a variety of topics, including themes of incest in his work, his musical choices, plus some of the other projects he’s worked on in the past and will be working on in the future. Thanks to everyone who submitted awesome questions for this live Q&A!
Russell seemed like an incredibly cool dude, who’s had somewhat of a rough time of it in Hollywood until recently. I wish him the best on his next projects. Below is the audio of our conversation. Hit the jump for the full transcript, which has been edited for clarity.
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Thank you so much for having me on. It’s great to be on and it’s great to know we went to the same college.
Well I was actually going to start with a question about that. So you attended Amherst College. I also attended Amherst. We actually shared at least one professor. It’s a good school but not particularly well known for producing critically acclaimed big time movie directors and I’m wondering if you can talk briefly about how it is you got from Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts all the way to Hollywood.
Even back in high school I was sort of the person, sort of the ringleader, who would start something. In high school I started a newspaper and when I got to college I was still sort of that person. Amherst, I guess, was a great place where you could get confident reading a lot of smart books and talking to a lot of smart people including Barry O’Connell, who’s a fantastic professor.
I came out there with the twin desires to either be a fiction writer or do the kind of political organizing that President Obama had done when he was out of college and out of law school, where you get into communities and try to improve housing or help them build a community organization that’s going to be able to stand up and make things better. So that was all the stuff, the do-good stuff and then the writing, that I was into when I came out of there.
What did you major in, just out of curiosity?
What would you guess would be the two majors of those two things?
[laughs] I don’t know, I would say political science?
Alright, yes, I didn’t even know that, I didn’t even look that up!
You win a toaster oven and it will be coming to you today with a year’s supply of bagels, which was the one time I tried to make money in college, which I wasn’t very good at. I had friends who were doing crazy business in Philly selling notebooks and school supplies and I needed some cash. A friend of mine, John Sachs (sp?) and I decided we would offer parents to order fresh, warm bagels for their kids every morning. So we’d then have to borrow a car every Saturday night, because we didn’t have a car, and drive down to Springfield, go to the bakery, get these bagels, bag them, deliver them from dorm to dorm and the only thing I had to show for it at the end was that I was able to pay my dad back the money he had loaned me to do the whole venture.
Well that was the beginning of your entrepreneurial activities, but I’m wondering –
Let’s call it the independent spirit.
That’s what I mean to say, yes. So how did you break into movie making?
I always loved movies. My mom was a huge movie person, my dad and I would stay up late watching Peter Sellers and Woody Allen and Mel Brooks movies, but my mom would always talk to me about the great films she had cut school to go see when she was a kid in Brooklyn. She would always take me to the movies. I just think I lived in movies. I took them very seriously when I would watch them. I would become very enchanted and my whole mind would be captured by them and I would think about them for weeks and live in them for weeks and pretend I was the person in the movie and think about that a lot. And I grew up on some fantastic movies, like the great movies of the 70’s and the early 80’s.
When I was in Maine working as an organizer we started using video equipment. That was the first time I picked up a camera, to document some really bad slums and some bad housing conditions. It was a documentary that I first did that we presented to the city of Lewiston, which is actually a lot like Lowell [Massachusetts], and that’s how I kind of instantly recognized the people in The Fighter because I had lived in Lewiston and worked with the mill workers and these really great people who were hard working and had a lot of personality and really lived hard. I had lived there for about a year.
So from that picking up a camera as a community organizer, that eventually led to you making your first film and then Three Kings eventually, right?
Well there’s quite a bunch of steps in between. I had a lot of day jobs, I was a waiter and a bartender. I was with the former governor of California last night and I was telling him that at Caroline Kennedy’s wedding I was a bartender in Hyannis [Massachusetts]. I remember seeing him there and he said “Oh my god, I can’t believe it.”
And so I was writing these short films and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. It took me a little while to figure out what stories I could tell or wanted to tell. And I would argue it wasn’t even really until The Fighter that I really found the things I want to do a lot more times, which [are these] raw and real [kind of] people that I kind of just love watching and listening to, for a long time.
But I made a couple of short films, went to the Sundance Film Festival and eventually, with the help of my ex-wife, made a film called Spanking the Monkey that won the Audience Award at Sundance in ’94 that we made for $80,000. That’s what helped me get out of my day job.
Well you’ve certainly come a long way and it’s very inspiring to hear that someone with a liberal arts education can actually make it these days.
I would either recommend not going to college at all, like some of my many heroes, whether it’s Bob Dylan, Dustin Hoffman or Spike Jonze. There’s a lot of people who never went to college…Auto-didacts turn out to be the people who think very independently and lead a lot and think on their own, because they haven’t fallen back on college surrounding them. So, that’s a good way to go.
So if there’s one thing to take away from this interview, don’t go to college says David O. Russell.
[laughs] I think liberal arts is a good thing for becoming a filmmaker because it opens up your mind up to everything you could possibly look at in the world and it’s up to your own personality and choice to define what you focus on.
Well that’s certainly what I tell my job interviewers so it’s good to hear coming from you as well. Let’s talk about The Fighter. As people may know The Fighter was originally supposed to be directed by Darren Aronofsky and my understanding is that he left the project for a variety of reasons including the fact that the film had a lot similarities to his other film, The Wrestler. I’m very curious about what stage during the film’s production you entered as the director and can you describe how you became involved with the project?
Mark Walhberg is a very good friend [and] we made Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees together. We remained good friends and he was always telling me about this project, which is very close to his heart since it’s from a world he’s from. It’s about a family that’s very similar to his and he had actually looked up to that family his whole life. He went through a version [of the film] with Brad Pitt and he went through a version with Matt Damon and those kept falling apart, including the one with Darren Aronofsky. I kept telling Mark on the phone about a year before we made the film [that] I thought that the script by Scott Silver, which is a great script, could [have] much more of the charm and humor of these people because I could really tell from looking at the videos about them that they were a lot like members of my extended family. They were really alive and raw and funny as much as they were intense and heart breaking and emotional, but that they also really loved each other and I thought the film should really feel that.
I also thought the women in the film, were what, in a way, made it the most compelling to me in addition to the brothers because I had never seen a dynamic like that before. I had never seen this mother, you know, who was the sexy mother who had nine kids, who had this intense relationship with both sons and had seven daughters who were like her posse and also [tries to] manage these boxing careers. And then the really tough bartender and the romance, which is all true with the Amy Adams character. That was stuff that wasn’t really being dug into as much in the earlier draft and Mark eventually said to me, “David, I think I want to try to get you to make this film”. I’d had a few years that hadn’t gone great for me. I made some mistakes myself and had a few bad breaks so it wasn’t easy to get me on the picture right away. They always say you’re only as good as your last film which I guess is why there’s been some talk that the film is a story about a comeback not only for the family and the fighters but also in some way for me, so I was able to really relate to that material pretty strongly.
I watched the interview you had done for Entertainment Weekly as research for talking to you today and you had mentioned that the movie that would have been made by Darren Aronofsky is a lot different than the movie you ended up making. You mentioned just now that delving into the family relationships was one of the big things you wanted to emphasize. Were there any other major changes that you can think of from what it was originally when you came onto the project and what it ended up becoming?
Yeah, I think the whole energy of the film is completely different. Darren is a great filmmaker, but Darren’s voice is very different from my voice, so each filmmaker is going to tell the movie in their own voice. My voice I think is just different. All you have to do is look at the film. I kind of enjoy a more intense, kinetic, rapid fire feeling from scene to scene rather than one that is slower or more deliberate, that’s just what I like to see in some of my favorite films. I would say that there’s just a certain level of energy that I like and a rhythm, a musicality. I think each filmmaker’s voice and rhythm have a song all its own and each film has a different song and personality.
I think the whole rhythm of the filmmaking and the dialogue is different than what it would have been. It flows in a more emotional and staccato way. It’s interwoven and interlaced with a level of humor and emotional intensity that are based on the realism of the characters. Also the movie within a movie, the HBO documentary about Dicky, the Christian Bale character, is real and I seized upon that as a filmmaker and wanted to use that as a device in the film. Not only dramatically as a defining moment, which Scott Silver had focused on, but I wanted to also use it as a framing device throughout the film, that there was this documentary crew around and you could do interviews with the characters. So we did interviews with Mark and Christian as the characters on the fly and we did interviews with the sisters. We did interviews with local people who used to be mayor and town manager and real people about Dicky and Micky and their impact on the city, and that all got used in the movie as part of the story.
Music was also something that I really focused on, the style of music that these guys would listen to and the kind of soundtrack that would really propel through their story and that resulted in some of the great music that’s in the movie that I think is married well to the dramatic turns.
We actually had the opportunity to ask some of our listeners what questions they might have for you and Ben here asks, “I’d like to hear about the choice to use the song ‘Here Again I Go On My Own’. Was the scene where the two brothers sing along while walking to the ring based on reality or was it just the most incredible filmmaking choice of 2010? And if it was invented, who invented it? The power of that moment where these two guys find solidarity in this song before the big moment, combined with the fact that it is a song more associated with hair metal silliness more than emotion, made it probably my favorite scene of the year and I’d like to hear David O. Russell talk about it. Any thoughts about that particular choice?
That song, the Whitesnake song, was one Micky actually used as his entrance song for many of his fights. I always want to look for the most emotional and poignant thing, such as the moment when Alice sings in the car with Dicky and they sing that Bee Gees song, which to me that was a very powerful way to show their special bond. In this case, to show the bond between the two brothers, I thought it was very affecting to see them in the tunnel, to see their emotional bond before they went out to this big event and for Dicky to be singing the song with Micky and for them to be singing it together, so that was an idea I brought to the film.
You mention that song with Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. “Jag” asks about incest relationships in your films, [one being] Spanking the Monkey obviously. But also according to “Jag”, I don’t know if this is correct, that you have said before that Melissa Leo and Christian Bale’s relationship feels in some ways incestuous, especially in the scene where Bale is singing to her in the car. Can you comment on that or is that way off base?
No, that’s absolutely true. When I was first looking at the story, I immediately said there’s an incestuous relationship thing going on here and when I was selling myself as a director, I said I want to make more of the emotion of the relationship. This movie’s in my wheelhouse because I totally get those kind of family relationships having done Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster and I really think that sort of odd bond between Alice and Dicky should really be felt emotionally and almost romantically. When you look at their family albums, Alice, god bless her after having had nine kids, is still a beautiful woman who could look like she was as much her son’s girlfriend as much as she was his mom so that is true.
I promise this will be the last time I mention Darren Aronofsky’s name during this interview –
You can mention him as many times as you want because I was happy that Darren’s credit showed up on the film right before we went to final print. I said, “What that all about?” and they said he had the right to put his name on the film contractually and he saw the film and loved it and he wants his name on it so I take it as a compliment.
Right, because you mentioned in the EW interview that you were taken aback when he called to tell you about wanting to getting executive producer credit and I kind of wanted you to elaborate on that if you could.
Oh no he didn’t call me, I saw the credit on the final cut of the film and I said “What?” And yeah, I was taken aback. But then he was very sweet about it when I did see him. He embraced me and told me how much he loved the film and I’d heard he wanted his name on there because he loved the film and I think that’s a great compliment coming from a great filmmaker.
It’s been a number of years since your last film and we’ve heard about a bunch of projects that you’ve been attached to, for example Grackle with Matthew McConaughey and Nailed as well. For some reason these projects haven’t gone very smoothly. I’m wondering if you could talk a little about these projects and are there any sort of common factors that you can identify that cause problems, do you feel like you choose tricky projects or tricky ways of financing them?
Well, we need to be specific about what’s what because people, especially in the age of the Internet, just start chucking ideas around which are not based in fact and they pretty much just get picked up as fact. They’re all different. I wrote a couple of things after Huckabees that didn’t get made and that was my own responsibility because I decided not to make them. I was going through a period where I wasn’t feeling the material and a harder period for me as a filmmaker. It also resulted in me becoming a better filmmaker and a better writer and a more instinctive one. But there was a period there where I was questioning everything and Huckabees wasn’t entirely what I wanted it to be and I was going through a divorce so I can take responsibility for that.
Nailed was a project that any of the troubles with that had nothing to do with me. Those was about the company was financing it, and this was during the Madoff era, was inconsistent. I had never seen anything like it. Our financing got turned on and off like a faucet and we were shut down nine times during the production, having nothing to do with me, just having to do with the nature of the financing company. After that went on enough times I had to move on with my life, I have a family to support and I had to move on and write other things and make other films, you know? I spent almost two years trying to get that finished and I just said ok, I got to move on.
The Grackle was a picture that was written by the guys who wrote Bad Santa, [John] Requa and [Glenn] Ficarra, really funny, smart writers. They were the guys who also made I Love You Phillip Morris, great directors too. I thought that could be really funny. I was talking about making that and getting them to do a draft when my dear friend Mark Wahlberg came to me with The Fighter. So as much as I thought that was really a funny project, if I have to pick between someone who’s a little like a brother to me and that other project I’m going to have to go with The Fighter.
Those guys wrote me, Requa and Ficarra, and they said, “Gee, now you’re really sorry you didn’t make The Grackle aren’t you?” They meant it as a joke. [laughs]
[laughs] I think you made the right choice, actually.
Well that’s interesting and I apologize, I did not mean to perpetuate –
Oh no need to apologize man, I’m happy to answer any of those questions, I just want to set them straight.
Right, right. Now last question about projects. This is from Rodrigo from The Playlist who’s asking these questions about Old St. Louis with Vince Vaughn.
Let’s talk about that. That was a really good project that I re-wrote for Vince kind of in the vein of Paper Moon. I thought I’d be making that this autumn but it’s really not up to me a lot of times. In that case a lot of it was up to Vince who decided to make the Ron Howard project instead, because we were supposed to making that, and he went off to make The Dilemma with Kevin James and that’s what happened with that. So, you know –
Yeah, sometimes things just don’t work out or don’t happen, I understand.
Well there’s still talk about making that project and we may still make it when the timing’s right. That happens all the time in this business.
I gotta ask you about Uncharted. Can you talk about your relationship with the property to begin with, had you played the games before you were approached with the project in the first place and just talk a little about that because it’s certainly one of my favorite games on the Playstation.
Ah, big game player!
I wouldn’t describe it that way, but sure.
My good friend Chuck Roven who produced the Batman movies like The Dark Knight, and produced Three Kings with me, came to me with Avi Arad who used to run Marvel Comics and who does the Spider-Man movies, with Amy Pascal, the head of Sony, and said, “What do you think? Would you like to try to create a really smart, interesting, intense franchise based on this game?” And I said yeah, let me check it out.
My son plays most of the games in our house, and I will play them with him but I’m not hardcore. I’m not going to present myself as hardcore. But I played the game a bunch of times and I also read as much as I could about the game and I met the game’s creator, Amy Hennig, who’s really cool. I started to brew together what I thought could be a really cool idea that I’d never seen in a film before…Really intense action and really intense family dynamics on a global stage. To grow a game into a movie is an interesting proposition because a game is a very different experience than a movie. You guys are playing the game, and it’s about playing the game. It’s not about a narrative embracing you emotionally. You know what I’m saying? So, I want to create a world that is worthy of a really great film that people want to watch and rewatch, so that’s what I’m working on right now.
My last question is, I don’t know if you’ve read on the interwebs but a lot of people have made a number of suggestions as to how one should go about making an Uncharted game. I wonder if you have any reaction to that, or do you even know what I’m talking about to begin with?
Well I’ve had people come up to me after screenings and pitch people they think should play the roles and I think we’ve seen that before with movies like Interview with the Vampire where there was a lot of fans of Anne Rice’s book and there were a lot of strong opinions about how to make it.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m very respectful as far as the core content and sprit of the game, but beyond that it’s my job as a filmmaker to make what I think is going to be an amazing movie. People have to trust that and let that go, I think. There’s not a bunch of movies you can point to that are made from games that are amazing movies, that stand up to time as a franchise or as [individual films]. I personally think it’s really cool when you see that someone like Darren Aronofsky is going to make an X-Men movie or to get someone such as myself to make this picture. You can be guaranteed that it’s going to be real, it’s going to be raw, it’s going to be intense, it’s going to be original, and it’s going to be propulsive. And those are all the things that I want when I go to watch a movie like that.
Well David O. Russell it’s been an honor to speak with you today. Thanks so much for joining us on the Slashfilmcast and thank you for taking time to answer our questions and those of our readers and listeners.
Thank you David for having me. Rock on and I’ll be talking to you soon I hope.
Good luck at the Oscars this year.
Thank you. We’ll need it!