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Oscars: David O. Russell on “The Fighter,” his cast, and the marathon that changed his life

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: These are better days for David O. Russell.

His latest film, “The Fighter,” is also his highest-grossing picture to date (with $82 million in domestic grosses, and counting). His work behind the camera on the boxing biopic – which stars Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale as combustible Massachusetts brothers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, respectively – earned Russell Best Director nominations from the Directors Guild of America, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and the Academy — firsts on all accounts for the talented filmmaker.

But it wasn’t always wine and roses. Russell has endured conflicts over the years. And while most occurred behind the scenes on the sets of his films – from a scuffle with George Clooney on “Three Kings” to a screaming match with Lily Tomlin during “I Heart Huckabees” – these blowups somehow made their way to the mainstream media.

Russell earned a reputation, though one must assume that guiding actors Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams to Oscar-nominated performances with “The Fighter” goes a long way toward reversing the negative label affixed to this gifted storyteller. Still, that history is one of the reasons why, in previous interviews, Russell has made a parallel between his own Hollywood career and Ward’s second chance at success. It’s one of many topics we got into during an exclusive Q-and-A between HollywoodNews.com and Russell, the Oscar-nominated director of “The Fighter.”

HollywoodNews.com: First off, congratulations on the film’s success. It has been a wild ride so far, and things only appear to be heating up.

David O. Russell: It has been a blessing, and a great story to be a part of, and a great film to be part of.

HN: A friend of mine approached me the other day about your film and said that while he thought he was going to a boxing film, he ultimately was swept up in the human drama and romance in the film. It must have been important for you to nail those elements of Micky’s story.

DR: It was extremely important to me. I really loved the romance. I loved these people, and the inadvertent way that people are funny, you know? That’s what makes me want to get up and make films every day. And there was a true romance in this story that was not in the script that I had inherited. Scott Silver then worked with me to push it toward where I wanted it to be so that it would be big enough where I could attract an actress of the magnitude of Amy Adams. I gave her 20 pages that we had reworked. It had the kissing scene at the movies, and it had the girl fight from the porch. I showed it to her, and she was in.

HN: I’m glad it had the awkward art house date scene. That’s one of my favorites from the film.

DR: I believe that it did, yeah. And I know that when I was sitting with her, I pitched her all of the scenes that I wanted her to do in the movie. Her character is pivotal to the whole story because she’s pivotal to Micky. I just loved turning Amy out. Not to talk like a pimp, but we turned her out in a sense where she showed a side of her sexuality and toughness that she had never done in cinema, and that it a privilege for a director, when you get to have an actor who is so gifted and ready to do that. And I love that scene, because there was a little bit of a debate about whether it was going to be “Belle Epoque” or another movie that they’d go see, and we ended up settling on “Belle Epoque.”

HN: I’m glad you mentioned being interested in how funny people can be. I don’t know if you mean it as “humorous,” but I did find myself laughing at the Wards in certain scenes without knowing for sure if you meant the tone to be funny. Am I reading those scenes properly?

DR: Oh, that’s just how I see the whole thing. That’s what I love about real people. They fascinate me, whether it’s my own relatives from the outer boroughs of New York or people like the Wards and the Eklunds. You just look at them and think, “Oh my God, these are amazing people.” They are unpretentious. Everything’s on the surface – their loves, their hates, their anger … it’s all playing in real-time. They’re just being human, but it’s funny. In this very committed and raw way, they’re very much just being who they are, and that, inevitably, cracks me up. That’s what makes great characters. If I look at the movies that I love, from Mr. Scorsese or any of the other great directors, it’s because there are characters that you love watching and listening to.

HN: One of your characters happens to be Lowell, the town where Micky and Dickey are from. Tell me about shooting in Lowell. You obviously wanted to capture the town’s local flavor, and it starts right away with that colorful tracking shot that practically opens the film.

DR: That was intentional. I wanted to plunge you into the town. I wanted you to feel the sweat, and feel the people’s hands slapping your back. I wanted you to smell the beer coming out of the bars along the street, and show the people coming out of the stores scratching their lottery tickets. I just wanted you to feel like you were right there. I do love the place. I still go back there and hang out. Everyone in the town is related to the Wards or the Eklunds. It’s very special to have a relationship with a community like that, and to be admitted to it. We got our permission slip first through Mark Wahlberg and then through the family, and I’m not giving it up.

HN: You talked about showing us another side of Adams, but so much is being written about the performances you coached out of Bale and Leo, as well. Tell me about your process of working with each of these talents to develop the characters we end up seeing on screen.

DR: Well, you know, it’s a real dialogue and a real process. You do it together. I always have a real strong point of view, and hopefully they do, too. I think it’s good to be passionate about your characters. I also think that you have to love them at some point. Even the characters who are more dark or difficult. I think you have to have some love for them. Melissa Leo was always advocating for how Alice was doing the best that she could to raise her nine children and was not, in any way, an evil or calculating character. She just didn’t understand. She was in love with Dicky, her first son. She thought that he needed him the most. She was most enchanted with his early career. That was her flaw. The quiet brother got overlooked, and when he confronted her, she said, “Oh my God, I didn’t understand.” It just broke her heart. And that’s what my mother’s like. My mother, rest her soul, was a very passionate Italian-American woman who, if you really got through to her, she would tear up and apologize. These women are doing the best that they can. You want to have that level of love for your character. It gives them more dimension. And that’s where Christian and I agreed right out of the gate. We loved Dicky. Earlier drafts of the script had Dicky as a dark, dark dude. We have a lot of affection for him, and Christian was very relieved to hear me say that. He said, “Great, I really want to do this with you because we agree that we’re coming from the same place.” We wanted to feel this guy’s charm. That’s also how I feel about the sisters. I love all of them, quite frankly.

HN: I have to shift focus to the Oscar race. We write in-depth about the season on the site. I’m curious about your opinion on the expansion of the Best Picture category to 10 films.

DR: Wait, there are other pictures nominated? [Laughs]

HN: [Laughs] This year, yes.

DR: Jesus, nobody told me. But what is your question?

HN: I’m just curious for your opinion on the expansion of the field and, as a follow up, do you think Best Director should be expanded to 10 nominees if Picture is going to stay at 10?

DR: [Long pause] Let me put it to you this way. I do think it was better as a smaller category. But I also understand how our business is trying to spread the love as much as they can in a world of changing media and the availability of media. So I respect that, you know what I’m saying? I think they are trying to help the business.

HN: Because the Oscar season stretches on as long as it does, do you also feel extra scrutiny placed on your film as a result of the drawn-out awards process?

DR: I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.

HN: You brought up the new ways that film can be presented and analyzed now through new media. In a time where more voices can be heard regarding a film, is it harder to have your picture under the microscope for a longer period of time as it is during the elongated Oscar season? Do you feel that because of the Oscar machine, there’s more scrutiny and opinion dropped on your picture than there would be if it were released during any other time of the year?

DR: No, I have to be honest with you, I don’t read that stuff. I just try not to read it. And no disrespect to you. I love that you guys do what you do. We need you. You guys need us and we need you, and thank God you are doing your thing. And I know everybody I know reads all of that stuff, and I hear about it from them. That’s good enough for me. I’ll hear about it from my friends, my family, people in my office, the studio … They’ll say that there was a nice thing one person wrote, or an interesting thing another person wrote, or this guy wrote a very strange piece. It’s just so hard to go through it all because this is a marathon, and it just would take so much psychic energy … Am I missing some part of your question somehow, or am I answering it?

HN: No, you’re not missing it. I guess I did just want to know if the filmmaker feels the impact of the marathon. A lot of times, you can finish a film, release it in a small window, it gets analyzed, and the world moves on. In the Oscar season, we don’t move on. The picture has to linger under the microscope for a long, long time. It gets picked apart, analyzed, discussed.

DR: But wait, I’ll tell you what I think about that. It’s great! It’s fantastic. Media is all-the-more fleeting in this world, and if you can capture the national consciousness for any extended period, that is a privilege. It’s a privilege to have made something that even might do that, so if you get caught up in the momentum of the season, that double the privilege. I know that it’s rare, and you don’t know if or when it’s going to happen again, so I am appreciating every second of it. So even though it’s a marathon, it’s a worthy marathon, and one that I am so grateful to be a part of. I wouldn’t have it any other way. You never know if you are going to get the right material. And even if you do get it, you don’t know if your picture is ever going to get its shot. So this is a fantastic place to be, and I will never forget it. I’ll cherish this for the rest of my life. And that is how I feel.

HN: That’s perfect. That’s what I was trying to figure out. Because I tell you, the flip side, to me, would be devastating. I can’t imagine how a filmmaker gets the energy to pick themselves up and go back into the battle if they’ve taken their shot and missed. Like you say, you never know how it is going to turn out, and too many factors play in to a film’s success or failure. I couldn’t imagine getting that kind of energy and enthusiasm to try it again and again.

DR: But let me tell you something … you get energy from it. Yes, it’s exhausting. But look at all of the energy I’m getting from people like you and audiences. You are getting all of this energy. I ran a marathon once. I was 18, and I didn’t train for it, which is the only time in your life when you can really do that. At least, it’s the only time in my life when I can do that. I made up my mind the night before with my friend. He asked, “Do you want to run the Boston Marathon tomorrow?” And I agreed. We did it as a lark. And it shredded me. But what blew me away about that experience – which I’ve never talked about publically – is all of the energy from all of the people on the street. I guess now you have to qualify, and they won’t let people in. But in 1977, you could just run, so we just jumped in and ran. They might not even have given us a number! It was a much less formal affair than it is now. So we ran. And what blew me away was the energy of every neighborhood you ran through. Roxbury, Jamaica Plain … everyone was just giving you all of their love and energy. That was a really heavy, spiritual experience for me. It almost made you high, the combination of running and all of the people giving you their energy. That was really cool.

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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One Comment

  • February 19, 2011 | Permalink |

    O’Russell may have been high when he ‘ran the Boston Marathon’ as the route does not go anywhere near Roxbury or Jamaica Plain

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