Oh, Russell: How Oscar- Nominated Writer- Director David O. Russell Finally Came Good

The Fighter: David O. Russell has overcome setbacks to become one of the most complete writer- directors of the current era

Well, I don’t want to be accused of micro-managing, but I cannot understand why “I Heart Huckabees” is on a list of DVDs considered suitable for armed-forces entertainment. That self-indulgent crap is not suitable for combat troops.  – Linton Barwick, character from Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop (2009)                                                         

While David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook may only have claimed one Oscar (Best Actress for a very deserving Jennifer Lawrence) from the seven major categories for which it was nominated , the success of the movie- artistically, critically, commercially- has quashed any suggestions that the success of Russell’s 2010 drama The Fighter, during awards season, as well as with audiences and critics alike, was a fluke. Now in his 50’s, the writer- director who once seemed to be on verge of becoming another burnt- out Hollywood casualty has become one of the most celebrated directors of the age. Along with Clint Eastwood, Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne, Russell has, on the back of both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, earned a reputation as the ultimate “Actors’ Director”. During this year’s Academy Awards, Russell achieved the rare feat of having his Silver Linings Playbook stars nominated in all four acting categories- Best Actor, Bradley Cooper; Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence; Best Supporting Actor, Robert De Niro; and Best Supporting Actress, Jacki Weaver- a feat that hasn’t been achieved in 31 years since Warren Beatty’s Reds was nominated in all four acting categories. It hasn’t always been plain- sailing, however, for the New Yorker.

In 2008, David O. Russell looked finished. Like Michael Cimino, the Oscar- winning director of The Deer Hunter, and American History X director Tony Kaye before him, Russell’s career as a director seemed doomed to suffer a similar fate, making him another Hollywood director whose erratic working methods were sabotaging his own reputation.

It was during shooting for Nailed, a political satire ( a project, which has since been put on hold after production stalled mid- way through filming), that cracks began to appear. James Caan, the notoriously tough, thick- skinned, hard- necked, Bronx- born actor was reported as having walked off the project due to “creative differences” between himself and Russell.

Caan’s beef with Russell was, of course, only the latest episode in a catalogue of incidents that had characterized Russell as a difficult director with whom actors had trouble working; an abrasive and demanding taskmaster who seemingly struggled to communicate to his actors what it was he wanted.

Indeed, the stories of Russell’s on- set tantrums were the sort of infamous Hollywood stories with which Peter Biskind has compiled several books. The oldest, no doubt, is Russell’s on- set bust up with George Clooney, the ever- genial, ever- good- natured star about whom co- stars, co- producers, co- writers and directors alike cannot help but gush with praise.

On the set of 1999’s Three Kings, Russell’s on- set frustrations became contagious. Extras and crew members alike were, allegedly, subjected to demeaning, foul- mouthed rants from the director. Clooney, for his part, claims to have extended an olive branch more than once. Having written a letter to his director about one particularly dismal day of filming, all order seemed to be restored. After an episode when Russell grabbed an extra and threw him to the ground, Clooney objected and, was, allegedly grabbed by the neck by Russell and a fracas ensued. Russell goaded Clooney into punching him and, sure enough, Clooney is said to have clocked Russell. Both Russell and Clooney are said to have gotten through the shoot while gritting their teeth.

Though Russell’s reputation as an on- set hot- head was by no means a secret, it was the uploading of a candid, on- set video from the shoot of 2004’s I Heart Huckabees that didn’t help matters. In the footage, not only does Russell destroy props like a bratty child in need of “time- out”, but he addresses lead actress Lily Tomlin with the most demeaning, humiliating and vulgar pejorative that any man can hurl at any woman. In another video, Tomlin is seen throwing a fit, frustrated at Russell’s indecision about the tone of a particular scene and his general lack of communication and direction. Her co- stars in the scene, Dustin Hoffman, Mark Wahlberg, and a sneering Naomi Watts, barely know where to look.

The enduring problem for Russell and his audience, however, was his unpredictable and checkered output. While Three Kings worked well as a satire and was the perfect springboard for many of the political and satirical movies that George Clooney would later create as an actor, writer and director, I Heart Huckabees should have cemented Russell’s standing as a fine, contemporary film- maker, more than able to hold his own with the most celebrated directors of the day. It didn’t.

Having recently re- visited I Heart Huckabees since first viewing it in on the big screen at its time of release, my feelings for Russell’s pretentious, over- written, badly edited movie, have not changed, almost ten years on. The problem with watching …Huckabees now is that it can’t quite hold its own against many of the quirk- indie films at that time, such as Adaptation and  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the latter being the film which we now know to have launched a thousand imitations. In fact, …Huckabees, which announced itself on theatrical posters as “an existential comedy”, couldn’t stand up among those films at the time. In Mark Kermode’s brilliant review of …Huckabees for the New Statesman in 2004, the noted film critic suggests that, unlike Eternal Sunshine…, …Huckabees is all head and no heart; it lacks any emotion to the point where the audience doesn’t really care about any of the characters. And as the epigraph suggests, …Huckabees eventually became a by- word for pretentious, self- indulgent, quirk- indie, arty farty film- making.

But Hollywood loves a comeback. Whether it’s a washed- up John Travolta delivering a career best performance in Pulp Fiction, Mickey Rourke putting Lazarus firmly in the shade for The Wrestler, or Robert Downey Jr. finally overcoming his addictions to fulfill the promise he once showed in Chaplin; studios, ad people, industry insiders, journalists, film fans…we all love the rags- to- riches- to- rags, again, to- riches, again, stories that are the stuff of Hollywood legend. So what inspired Russell’s return to form?

The answer, quite simply, is back- to- basics film- making. After …Huckabees, Russell became less concerned with style and more concerned with substance through character and plot. Most importantly, his post- …Huckabees output has heart, heart, heart. In fact, Russell himself acknowledges much of this in the interview embedded below; in the six- year hiatus that followed …Huckabees, during which he not only got bogged down with the mixed reactions to …Huckabees, but also went through a divorce, the humbled director found his focus through his new, stripped back approach to story and character. Quite simply, Russell now seems to be more interested in character development and the personalty that his actors can bring to each part than his earlier work would suggest.

These are all qualities, of course, that are shared with some of the all- time great Actors’ Directors. The nuanced, drama /comedy and realist drama, respectively, of Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, are enough to remind one of those great directors whose focus on character and personality have produced some of the greatest films of the last century; Elia Kazan, Frank Capra, Milos Foreman, Sidney Lumet, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby…directors who rely purely on the quality of their actors, a strong screenplay brimming with dramatic action, three- dimensional characters and arresting plot developments. In this regard, Alexander Payne may be Russell’s only true contemporary; both men are directors whose work could have quite easily existed and stood shoulder to shoulder with the best work from the last Golden Age of American cinema during the 1970’s.

Where Russell will go next is anyone’s guess. Rumors have indicated that production on Nailed may well resume, while Russell himself has spoke of his intention to work for a second time with Oscar- winner Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner on American Bullshit (working title, apparently), a story about an FBI sting operation in the 1970s called Abscam, which lead to the conviction of United States Congressmen. What Russell’s next project may be is uncertain, though two things are known for sure: David O. Russell is a great American writer- director and we are very lucky to have a film- maker of his calibre in this era of cinema.