I’ve been kicking around the idea for a kind of director profile segment for a while now, and with 2013’s Oscar nominated American Hustle still being talked about, I decided that there’s no time like the present. For our first “Director Spotlight,” I’d like to talk about David O. Russell, who manages to attract no shortage of controversy both in his personal life and on the job. Despite the negative details that tend to surround his life and work, one can’t deny that Russell is one of the most talented filmmakers working in Hollywood today.
Russell was born in 1958 in New York City to Bernard and Maria Russell. In 1992, Russell married Janet Grillo, with whom he had one child. Russell and Grillo separated in 2007, and Russell became involved with his current parter, Holly Davis—with whom he also has one child-shortly thereafter. In 2012, Russell became the subject of controversy when he was accused of sexually assaulting his teenaged niece, though the charges were later dropped.
In 2002, Russell became a board member of the Ghetto Film School, located in The Bronx, New York. Russell used his Hollywood clout, by no means ineffectual after the critical and commercial success of Three Kings in 1999, to bring fellow filmmakers and funds to the school. The objective of the school is to support young black and Latino filmmakers in a historically underprivileged community, and, with Russell’s support, the school has grown in scope and size over the last few years and currently remains in operation.
To date, Russell has directed eight feature films, including Spanking the Monkey (1994), Flirting With Disaster (1996), Three Kings (1999), I Heart Huckabees (2004), the unreleased film Nailed, The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and American Hustle (2013).
Beginning with the filming of Three Kings, David O. Russell has developed a sort of characteristic, visual shorthand that is at once difficult to pull off and refreshingly unique. Russell employed several handheld cameras and Steadicam shots in order to give the film a more realistic, journalistic feel. Likewise, he shot a majority of the film on Ektachrome transparency stock which was then cross-processed in color-negative chemicals, giving the film “the odd color of the newspaper images of the Gulf War.” Apparently, such a technique makes the actual, physical film notoriously difficult and unreliable to develop—so much so that many labs refused to provide insurance in the event that the transparency stock failed to develop properly.
In the case of Russell’s 2010 film, The Fighter, a similar technique was used. According to Russell, “the crew used actual cameras from that era. They were sort of a Beta camera that gives a very certain look, and we actually hired the director from HBO and his crew who had done those (Micky Ward’s) fights to replicate them shot-for-shot.”
Russell has a characteristically individualistic technique when it comes to filming action scenes as well. According to Wikipedia, all of the explosions in the film were shot on a single camera, as opposed to the typical action movie technique of shooting an explosion with at least three different cameras. When asked why he chose to film in this manner, Russell responded, “To me, that’s more real. The car’s blowing up on this guy and we just park the camera. Of course the producer says ‘We gotta run three cameras!’ but if I cut it three ways, then it just looks like an action picture.”
George Clooney and the Three Kings Controversy
Prior to the filming of Russell’s 1999 picture Three Kings, Warner Bros. had some serious reservations about financing an auteur project for $45 million. Likewise, the studio worried that the film’s political overtones would offend American sensibilities and also pushed for the erasure of some of the film’s more violent scenes. Warner Bros. proceeded to condense the shooting schedule from the original eighty days into only sixty-nine days. In addition, the budget for the film was cut drastically from $45 million to $35 million. Accordingly, Russell no doubt felt the pressure of the new budget and schedule changes weighing down on his directorial shoulders.
As filming progressed, Russell become increasingly susceptible to emotional outbursts and, according to Clooney, Russell began physically and verbally harassing the crew. Clooney, like the consummate gentleman that we’ve been led to believe that he is, took it upon himself to defend the crew members against Russell’s tirades, reportedly attempting to placate him by saying “David, it’s a big day, but you can’t shove, push, or humiliate people who aren’t allowed to defend themselves.”
Numerous altercations between Clooney and Russell followed. On one occasion, which would later prove to be the most physical encounter between the two, a fight started when an extra was having trouble throwing Ice Cube’s character, Sergeant Elgin, to the ground. As the story goes, Russell became frustrated after multiple takes and, in what some seem to remember as a blatant physical assault while others seem to recall an instructional exercise in how to properly toss someone to the ground, Russell proceeded to violently throw the extra down. Clooney stepped in once more, recalling that “we were trying to get a shot and then he went berserk. He went nuts on an extra.” Apparently, Clooney and Russell began shouting at one another before the encounter devolved into fisticuffs. Russell reportedly head-butted Clooney, while Clooney, in turn, grabbed and fastened his grip on Russell’s throat.
At that point, it was reported that Second Assistant Director Paul Bernard, driven to his wit’s end by the incessant fighting between Clooney and Russell, simply set down his camera and walked off set, effectively quitting then and there.
Later, after filming had concluded and both men had entered into an uneasy truce, Clooney reported that he felt no ill-will towards Russell and that “We made a really, really great film, and we had a really rough time together, but it’s a case of both of us getting older. I really do appreciate the work he continues to do, and I think he appreciates what I’m trying to do.
Russell’s 2008 project, Nailed, started out as a political comedy co-written by Russell and Kristen Gore. The story centers on the fictional Alice Eckle, who is accidentally shot in the head with a nail gun, inexplicably causing her libido to sky-rocket. Uninsured, Eckle travels to Washington in a desperate gamble to fight for the rights of the bizarrely injured. In Washington, Eckle meets a corrupt congressman (because aren’t they all?) who takes advantage of her crusading and wildly out of control sex drive, all while she entered into her own tentative career in politics.
The film, which was interrupted four times during it’s initial filming, eventually fell victim to the mighty, iron fist of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employee (or IATSE) who shut down the production because the crew was not being paid for their work. Jessica Biel was slated to play Eckle while Jake Gyllenhaal was portraying the antagonistic congressman.
It is unclear if Russell will ever chose to finish the project, though it is highly unlikely that the film will be released, at least for the foreseeable future.