Director David O. Russell describes making a film as placental amnesia — the phenomenon of women forgetting how horrific childbirth is in order to allow themselves to do it again.
“Making certain films,” Russell said Tuesday night in a live Q&A hosted by the New York Film Critics Series at Elmwood’s Rialto Cinemas, “is very overwhelming, but sometimes I have to trick myself into doing it again and again — and that’s the bigger question of conning that interested me in making American Hustle.”
Russell’s latest film, “American Hustle,” is a tour de force of what it means to con. A fictionalized story about the experience of convicted con artist Melvin Weinberg, renamed Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who was hired by the FBI to the ABSCAM (Arab Scam) sting operation targeting corrupt senators and congressmen, “American Hustle” is a captivating and hilarious depiction of the world of corruption and conning in the United States in the late 1970s, complete with a whole lot of cleavage, a whole of fraud, and a whole lot of brilliant acting.
As fascinating as the storyline is, the film, which opens with the admission that “some of these things happened,” is less about the story of manipulation and corruption and more about the individual characters — their ingenious moves and idiotic plots, their successes and screw-ups and their lies and vulnerabilities.
“American Hustle” opens in Los Angeles and New York on Dec. 13 and nationwide on Dec. 18, but Tuesday night at Elmwood’s Rialto Cinemas, the New York Film Critics Series hosted an early screening of the film followed by a live Q&A with Russell. The actual event — the screening and the live Q&A — took place in New York at the AMC Empire 25 theater but was broadcast live to more than 50 cinemas around the country where NYFCS showings were being held. This was Berkeley’s first year of hosting a NYFCS event — a welcomed addition to Berkeley’s diverse and rich entertainment landscape.
Founded in 1995, the NYFCS has become an integral part of the film community, hosting film screenings, Q&A sessions with actors, film writers, directors and various industry affiliates and organizing events that bring communities of different people together around a common interest in everything film.
Tuesday’s showing was another installment in a regular series of ongoing preview screenings aimed at engaging select audiences and sharing the experience of sitting in on a live Q&A session with somebody closely associated with the film being screened.
Various technical issues aside, the live Q&A offered a unique and engaging platform that gave attendees nationwide live access to industry affiliates — and the experience of sitting in on a live Q&A — from more than 3,000 miles away. Whereas before fans could only see film stars and directors at festivals in New York, Los Angeles or Cannes, the NYFCS event gives attendees all over the country access to live talent — an exciting and hopefully further-explored method to engage mass audiences.
During the Q&A, Russell discussed what he loved about writing and directing “American Hustle.” “This script came out instinctively,” he said. “The only way I could describe my love for the characters and their worlds is what Duke Ellington called ‘beyond category:’ something about these characters and their stories is beyond category, something fantastic.”
The Duke Ellington references didn’t stop there. When writing and crafting the characters, Russell said that he gifted Bale and Adams a record player with a specific Duke Ellington record because the album “says everything about their love, because Ellington himself was an invention of elegance, and the fact that Christian and Adams each know that piece of music says everything about each other to them.” Just as Bale and Adams’ characters fall in love and get to know each other listening to Duke Ellington, Russell hoped that Bale and Adams would get to know their characters through his album as well.
When asked how it felt working on another film in the wake of Russell’s immense success after “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” Russell said, “I don’t think about that — it’s nice that it happens if it happens because it’s very encouraging and exciting to everybody involved. But there’s a complete lack of any sense of entitlement or smugness and a great sense of gratitude and humility. You can’t think about the results. Otherwise, you wouldn’t do it — it would build up into a pressure that will make you start overthinking things.”
In earlier films, Russell had worked with all of the stars of “American Hustle.” When asked what it was like preparing to work with each actor again, Russell admitted that he felt that he had to “deliver a role that is worthy of their time. When I go to their homes, I’m auditioning for them and they’re auditioning for me. We’re having a meeting of the minds of excitement.”
Throughout the film, the entire cast comes to embody their characters so well that it is hard to discern them from ordinary people — and that seems to be Russell’s goal. “I enjoy making movies that come from instincts about people who come from instinct, living very raw operatic lives in their homes and lives,” Russell said. “They feel like operas to me.”
Russell isn’t alone in comparing filmmaking and acting to organizing an opera. Russell told a story about sitting around a table with co-stars Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale, when Bale, whom Russell calls “a quiet guy,” said that when everybody goes to sleep at night, they dream of an opera. “And that’s what acting is,” Bale said, “living and working that opera.”
The NYFCS is a unique opportunity to engage with the film and gain insight into the artistic choices, methods and practices it takes to put together a film as wonderful and as powerful as David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.”