NEW YORK – On an unseasonably warm November day in a cozy corner of the Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca, director David Russell was speaking confidingly over coffee. Soon, his new movie American Hustle would arrive on the awards circuit. But as Russell, 55, eyed an oncoming tray of sweets (Wow, thats a lot of cookies), he wasnt speculating about the fate of American Hustle as much as marveling at the long, circuitous, sometimes punishing road it took to get here.
To hear Russell tell it, the whole thing started at MoMA. In 2002, the Museum of Modern Art invited Russell to inaugurate a new series featuring young filmmakers, honoring a career that ignited in 1994 with Spanking the Monkey, a daring, offbeat comedy about young adulthood, incest and identity. In short order, Russell followed up that auspicious debut with the equally well-regarded Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings.
It was on the heels of Three Kings, a whip-smart, hyper-kinetic Iraq war comedy starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, that Russell was invited to MoMA, an honor he was reluctant to accept. I said, It feels like Im getting too much attention too young. Ive only made three movies, and I dont know where Im headed, he recalls telling his hosts. I felt that it would be bad luck, and it was bad luck.
The museum event, as it happened, was emceed by Lily Tomlin, who had appeared in Flirting With Disaster. She then co-starred with Dustin Hoffman in Russells next movie, I Heart Huckabees, an existential detective story that found the filmmaker – who studied English and political science at Amherst College – playfully splashing around the philosophical conundrums and theoretical loop-de-loops that had long fascinated him.
Some critics cheered Huckabees for its idiosyncracy and willingness to take risks; others maligned it for maddening self-indulgence. (Later, on-set footage of him profanely berating Tomlin became a viral YouTube sensation.) In any event, audiences were indifferent, and so began what might fairly be described as the Danish Prince years.
A period began where I was over-self-conscious and over-thinking things too much, Russell says now. You start down certain paths, you do the same thing as before the bubble burst, (so) I did a project with Vince Vaughn, because I just love his voice. I spent a lot of time working on that only to go Hamlet, so we decided not to make it. Dont ever go too Hamlet, thats what I say.
By go Hamlet, Russell refers to the pondering, second-guessing and temporizing that are seen in many quarters as the artists prerogative. Meanwhile, his marriage was ending and his son, Matthew, was grappling with the symptoms of bipolar disorder.
A political satire called Nailed, which Russell wrote with his close friend Kristin Gore, wasnt completed. He began taking work-for-hire as a writer, that glittering night at MoMA a now-cautionary reminder of just how quickly life can circle back around and bite you in the backside.
Its like, OK, youve got to pick over everything and change your mind 50 times and torture over things, and then you get brought to your knees financially and emotionally, until you are writing to survive (and) support your family, Russell says.
And you now have two households, and suddenly its not as easy as you imagined it would be. And Sydney Pollack offers you a chance at a writing job, as a writer for hire, to adapt Silver Linings Playbook, which I adapt as a job – no promises of directing. Everything is different now. The guy who was honored at MoMA is a humble person happy for a gig.
With The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle, Russell has created what he considers a trilogy of films animated by the very defeat and tenacious will to survive that characterized those years in the mid-aughts, when he was grappling with the same obstacles and self-deceptions as his protagonists.
I feel like everything was preparation for these three pictures, Russell says enthusiastically. And, whether its the Big Bout in The Fighter or the Big Dance Contest in Silver Linings or the Big Sting in Hustle, Russell has vigorously embraced the kind of unapologetic sentiment and sheer exhilaration – what he calls enchantment – that he might have pooh-poohed as a more self-serious auteur.
I discovered things about myself as a filmmaker that I wouldnt have told you 20 years ago, Russell readily admits. That I believe in romance, if you come by it honestly. And I dont believe any story is a cliché if you do it from the feet up. Let me tell you something: If youve lived it, its not a cliché.