The hustling started a year and a half before David O Russell’s American Hustle hit cinemas. Jeremy Kay speaks to the director and producers about the film’s high-speed, high-stakes production.
It is May 2012 and Sony has already planted its flag for American Hustle’s US release more than 18 months down the line.
Annapurna Pictures founder Megan Ellison has just come on to co-finance with the studio and as her sales company Panorama heads to the Croisette, it is make-or-break time for the FBI sting story then known as American Bullshit.
Ellison, Chuck Roven and his Atlas Entertainment producing partner of 20 years Richard Suckle and fourth producer Jonathan Gordon do not say it but must be thinking it: please do not let the title become a curse.
Where to begin with the variables? For starters, few of the international buyers in Cannes can be familiar with the subject matter of Abscam, the FBI public corruption operation in the 1970s and 1980s that put congressmen and a New Jersey mayor behind bars.
Secondly, there is David O Russell, the mercurial talent brought on to rewrite Eric Singer’s original screenplay and direct the piece.
It is too soon to tell whether The Fighter has signalled a renaissance for Russell, but as the rosé flows on the French Riviera one thing is certain: he is back in the US, knee-deep in post on an ensemble romantic comedy for Harvey Weinstein that nobody has seen called Silver Linings Playbook.
And he has not written a single word of American Bullshit.
But the producers and the savvy team at Panorama have aces up their sleeves: a compelling vision statement from Russell and a tasty actor package of Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper.
Bale was first to sign on, having worked with Roven on The Dark Knight series and with Russell on The Fighter, which earned him the best supporting actor Oscar earlier in 2012.
Cooper, despite being somewhat unproven outside the broad comedy genre, is blessed with A-list looks and charisma to burn. Let the Cannes games begin.
Hustle muscles in
Fast forward to January 2014 and in one potentially game-changing week, American Hustle has claimed three Golden Globes including best film - comedy or musical, garnered 10 Academy Award nods (adding to its 10 Bafta nominations) and scooped the SAG ensemble cast award.
Panorama’s Kim Fox and Marc Butan pre-sold the entire world back in May 2012, including a slew of markets to Sony’s worldwide acquisitions unit.
Buyers loved the script and were drawn to the actors. After Cannes everything snowballed. Roven and Suckle will say it was a fun ride, but it was not in the slightest bit easy.
“It started back in 2009,” says Suckle. “Eric Singer and Chuck [Roven] and I had just finished The International. We were in New York talking with Eric about what to do next and I asked him to pitch me and he told me about Abscam.
“Eric and I tracked down Mel Weinberg, who was the inspiration for Irving [Rosenfeld, Bale’s character]. We flew to Florida to get the life rights and set it up at Sony for them to develop. Eric wrote the screenplay in 2009.”
The result was a Black List script that for a brief while attracted the attention of Ben Affleck. Roven notes that at that time the story was “more of a procedural”, dealing with the relationship between the lead FBI agent and the character based on Weinberg who worked with the authorities.
Russell got involved that same year. “David and I had been trying to find something since Three Kings and we had remained friendly,” says Roven. “He read the script and called to say he wanted to get involved. When David gets involved, he’s one of those iconoclasts who makes unique signature films.
“David wanted to explore the character interactivity and this idea, this theme, that we all are con-people in our professional lives and sometimes in our personal lives, including ourselves. Also there was this idea of re-invention.”
Russell and his ideas excited the producers but he was a busy man and would not deliver the rewrite until the eleventh hour.
“We didn’t get a script from David until close to December ,” says Roven. “We got some pages. David wrote a long script because he likes to shoot a lot of dialogue and different versions. He knows what he is after but he is very spontaneous and he likes scenes to have a lot of range.”
After the pre-sale stampede in Cannes, the producers had busied themselves fleshing out the cast. The catalyst was Bale’s signature being first on the list.
“When David rewrote the script he had actors in mind,” says Suckle. “He called Amy [Adams] and she signed before even reading the script. So did Jennifer [Lawrence] and Jeremy [Renner]. It was great that there were so many David O Russell alumni and Jeremy fitted into that so naturally.”
The heat is on
By the end of 2012 everything was hurtling towards a mid-February production start in and around Boston.
However, Silver Linings Playbook had become a critical darling and that caused a problem as Russell went from being immersed in post-production earlier in the year to being sucked up in the awards-season brouhaha for that film.
“He [had done] this very extensive rewrite while he was promoting Silver Linings,” says Roven. “The good news about that was he was promoting Silver Linings with Bradley [Cooper] and Jennifer [Lawrence] and talking about this interesting script.”
“It was stressful,” says Suckle, “because when you’re getting ready to make the movie you want the film-maker’s undivided attention. David’s got incredible bandwidth but he had to be promoting Silver Linings.
“There was a tremendous amount of juggling because we were prepping the movie and he was working on the script. We pushed our start date from mid-February, which put more pressure on us because we knew we had the December release date.
“But time is always your friend and we knew in order to make the best movie we wanted to give David ample time up front.”
As far as Russell was concerned, que sera sera. “It was really meant to be,” says the director. “Movies get made when they’re supposed to get made. I wanted to make Silver Linings before The Fighter but I couldn’t get it made and I didn’t have the heat to get it made.
“Everything had this enormous momentous force leading us to make [American Hustle] at this moment. The story was coming together.”
Production began finally in March 2013 and ran for about 40 days. “We went with Boston, well really the suburbs of Boston - Worcester - because they have great buildings of the period,” says Roven.
“And with just the few days we had in New York, we were able to make [the whole shoot] look like Camden, New Jersey, Atlantic City and Manhattan.”
“I have made over 30 movies and I would say in general shoots are stressful situations because whether you’re a $10m movie or a $200m movie, every single day costs a tremendous amount of your budget on a comparative basis,” Roven says. “You are trying to get things done but sometimes the best laid plans … you can have all kinds of things go wrong.”
They had scheduled one day of shooting outside the city to allow for the Boston Marathon. As it turned out the events of April 15, 2013 would become more chaotic than anybody could have imagined.
Russell was shooting in Worcester when two bombs made from pressure cookers exploded at the city marathon and left three people dead and hundreds more injured.
“Obviously that was a very sad and frightening situation for the citizens of Boston,” says Roven. “We found out about it like everybody else did, because we had not been shooting in the immediate vicinity.
“But in the following days [the authorities] got close to capturing the [bombers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev] and they told everybody to stay inside for a day, so we could not shoot.”
The production made up time on what was already a tight schedule. Lawrence, winner of the Academy Award for best actress earlier that year for her role in Silver Linings Playbook, had to race through her scenes in two weeks as there were reshoots required for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire before she would zip off to do X-Men: Days Of Future Past for Fox.
Robert De Niro, another veteran of Silver Linings Playbook, meanwhile had come on board just before the shoot and Russell rewrote his scene - a tense exchange between De Niro’s mobster and a fake sheikh created by the Feds - to allow the veteran to deliver his lines in a single day.
Living in the story
For Russell, the interminable writing and re-writing is par for the course. “I love to write,” he says. “I’m always writing because that’s who I am. I’m happiest when I’m living in a story.
“I wanted to see Amy [Adams] create a character I had never seen her do; the same with Christian, Bradley, Jennifer, Jeremy, Bob. Every single one of them had to create momentum and affinity for it. We all jumped in and were very excited to be there together with each other. That was very exciting for the actors. I feel pleased it happened on this picture.”
So was everybody who got to witness the magic happen. “It was wonderful having all these actors in one film,” says Suckle. “As a producer I felt every day I was watching the all-star team. That was an incredible pleasure because I knew we were going to have something special.”
The results speak for themselves. Starting with The Fighter and moving on to Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Russell’s intimately personal trilogy of reinvention and survival has garnered more than $500m at the worldwide box office and 11 acting Oscar nominations.
He is arguably the greatest US director of actors working today - for the second year running, his film has nominees in all four acting categories. Plus Bale and Adams earned a supporting actor prize and a supporting actress nod respectively for The Fighter (while Melissa Leo claimed best supporting actress honours).
The fizz between the actors is almost palpable. “There was a tremendous amount of energy,” says Suckle. “David shoots an entire magazine of film and doesn’t like to shout, ‘Cut!’. He is talking throughout. He might walk into the frame sometimes, or you will hear him talking off-screen, giving directions. David shoots 360 degrees so he can go anywhere with it. Everything moves incredibly fast. David likes to keep things flowing.”
“We used the shortest schedules because you’re not given long studio schedules,” says Russell. “So I used that immediacy and knew we had to go with instinct and come from our hearts and shoot every scene like it was our last - like it was life or death.
“You build each character from the feet up. People say [American Hustle] is a ‘70s movie. I never thought that. People said The Fighter was a boxing movie; Silver Linings a romantic comedy. No.”
“David is looking at his last three films as something of a personal trilogy,” says Suckle. “The characters in these films have their reckonings. It’s really about characters who are trying to survive and figure out things in their lives. In some ways this is the completion of a trilogy of characters who are very salt of the earth; it’s all about reinvention.”
Russell considers the essence of this so-called thematic trilogy. He pauses - a rare event - and jumps back in.
“Part of it has to do with the cinema we have created with The Fighter,” he says. “That was the start of a period after I had lost my way and couldn’t get a story together and was helping my son with his bipolar issues.
“I got that clarity and that was the biggest gift and it had a propulsive energy to it. The actors feel that energy and that’s why the Oscars and Bafta are very important because audiences react and people want to come back.
“I wanted to see Amy Adams like I had never seen her before and [the same with] Jennifer Lawrence,” Russell says of writing their characters. “It’s scary as hell but it’s a good scary.
“The underlying essence of [the last three films] is passionate people surviving and living. There are great catastrophes and romance in all their lives.
“It’s the reinvention. The story of people surviving and reinventing themselves and the operatic range of behaviour, enchantment. I cannot put up with any of the heavy stuff in my own life unless I have things to love.”
American Hustle’s road to awards success
Academy Awards Ten nominations
Costume Designers Guild Nominated for excellence in period film
Baftas Ten nominations
Art Directors Guild Nominated for excellence in production design for a period film
American Cinema Editors - Eddie Awards Nominated for best edited feature, comedy or musical
London Critics’ Circle Three nominations
Writers Guild of America Nominated for best original screenplay
Directors Guild of America Nominated for outstanding directorial achievement in feature film
Producers Guild of America Nominated for outstanding producer of a theatrical motion picture
Screen Actors Guild Won for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture
Broadcast Film Critics Association Thirteen Critics Choice awards noms, four wins including best acting ensemble
Golden Globes Seven nominations; three wins for supporting actress, actress and best motion picture, musical or comedy
AFI Awards Nominated for movie of the year
Palm Springs Film Festival One win for ensemble cast award
New York Film Critics Association Three wins for best film, best screenplay and best supporting actress