Interview: David O. Russell; director of The Fighter.

Interview: David O. Russell; director of The Fighter. By Simon Miraudo.

David O. Russell emerged in the 1990s as one of the most exciting young filmmakers of his generation. He spent a decade refining his craft – culminating in the masterpiece Three Kings – and then found himself in ‘director jail’ for much of the 2000s; the result of some bad decisions, bad luck and famously bad on-set attitude. He returned late last year – fittingly – with underdog tale The Fighter, about down-and-out boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his crack-addled brother/trainer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). A box office hit and seven-time Oscar nominee, the film has proven to have the restorative powers of E.T.’s touch. Russell picked up a Best Director nod for his troubles, returning him to his rightful place in the Hollywood consciousness alongside contemporaries Spike Jonze, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan.

I spoke to Russell ahead of the impending Academy Award ceremony. Although he was much more contrite and complimentary than I had expected from the man who got into a punch-up with George Clooney and screamed wildly at Lily Tomlin, he still displayed the frankness, passion and humour that characterises his films. We discussed the evolution of The Fighter, his work on the video game adaptation of Uncharted, and his “low point”: the period preceding The Fighter in which he struggled to get his film Nailed funded, and saw production shut down … nine times.

SM: First of all, congratulations on yours – and the film’s – Oscar nominations.

DOR: Thanks. It’s a big deal for us and we’re very grateful.

SM: This has been your first real run on the awards circuit. How have you found the experience?

DOR: Pretty wonderful. I mean, it just feels fantastic to have made a film that people feel, and that people feel is special, and to be included in a group of very, really good filmmakers. I’m really glad to be a part of it. I’m savouring every moment of it to be honest with you; I think more now than I would have when I was younger to be honest with you.

SM: That’s excellent. You came onto this project in late 2008/early 2009 I believe. A lot of work had been done on the film for three, four years before that point. What is it like to board a project when there has been so much work done prior? Or do you just consider it a clean slate when you arrive?

DOR: I kind of always have to come in and do my thing. That’s the only way I know how to make a film, you know, is the way I see the vision and feel the rhythm and feel the characters and feel the music of the story. So I told this to Mark [Wahlberg] piecemeal, and he was working on it with other people, and I was working on other things, and he said ‘Geez, I like your ideas so much. Why don’t we try to get you to direct it?’ And I was a bit of an underdog story myself. Your stock goes up and down in this town, and my stock was a little lower at the moment due to a couple of years that didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped. So Mark fought to get me in there, and I was always presenting my vision of the film, and my vision of the film was very specific. There was a kinetic energy to it that I bring in the way that it’s shot, and in the way the dialogue happens, and the way the scenes flow. It was all re-written with Scott Silver and myself to make it that. The women came into much greater elite, because I really put, probably, double the focus on the women, so that Amy Adams would come on board. That romance was really central, and I wanted every bit of it. And that was not in the previously existing version. The sisters and the mother: more prominent. The sisters in particular were not really an entity in the previous version; I saw these as amazing characters that made this world what it was. The musical touches such as Dicky singing in the car with Alice [Melissa Leo] is a scene that I invented to indicate the romance between that mother and her first son, and how they could always melt each other. So much more. The movie within the movie. The HBO movie; I seized upon that as a cinematic structure that we should exploit by interviewing all the characters and townspeople throughout the picture as a device. I thought it was fantastic to make the thing feel all the more real, and gave us those amazing bookend moments, which we were able to create on set, which were not even in the script. They became the opening and closing of the film.

SM: Interesting. Well, that kinetic energy that you were talking of, I think it’s really exemplified in the first scene, where you have Micky and Dicky walking down the street in Lowell. But I understand the film originally had a different first act, where Dicky fought Sugar Ray Leonard.

DOR: Yeah, there was a whole, almost 30 pages of Dicky in the 1970s. I wasn’t convinced that was the best way to begin the film, and I also knew we didn’t have the budget at the time to do that. We had to get the script down to 108 pages from 130-something pages. So, that had to go. And that gave us a cinematic challenge, with our Oscar-nominated editor, of economically hitting you with a lot of emotional character and local stuff in the first five, ten minutes of the film. You have to learn who Dicky was, who he had been, who Micky was, and where he was in his life, that there were the sisters and the mother, that there was a whole town that had embraced them, that they were working class guys working on a road crew, that Dicky was still living in the past, in a pipe dream of his past, that he really did fight Sugar Ray. I mean, all that was made into a cinematic, montagey scene-by-scene opening that had to achieve all that, instead of having another 30 pages.

SM: One of the things I find interesting about your films is the way you reintroduce brutality to subjects that kind of get sanitised in cinema: for instance, war and death in Three Kings, and the act of boxing in The Fighter. Was there something you specifically wanted to address in The Fighter about the lives of boxers, or the act of boxing, that you thought had been too glamorous in other films?

DOR: We knew that we wanted to do something as real and original as we can. I had no desire to repeat that which had been done masterfully by other directors, and we knew we had a chance to do something new. This is really a family story and a romantic story that has fighting in it. It’s not a fighting film or a sports film, and that’s proven by the fact that – we tested very well with men and women, but higher with women! And women are constantly coming up to me and saying, ‘God, I don’t like fight movies, but God, I f****** loved it. The emotion and the ‘this’, and the ‘that’.’ In some ways it’s been mislabeled and I’m glad that the word of mouth is strong enough that people are going to see the picture. The fights themselves, we knew we wanted to do in a way that was more real than had been done before; as if you were dialing in on HBO and happened to come across it. So we shot it with an HBO crew; we shot it with their beta cam, from the era, the mid-90s; we added some cameras to that. Mark Wahlberg is an extremely real fighter, almost of professional quality. He trained with Micky and Dicky and many other people. So we were able to sell it as pretty raw and real. It’s much harder to make a fight compelling outside the ring. All films go inside the ring, so I knew we had our work cut out for us, but between the way we edited it, and selected Micky’s actual fights, and we took the actual commentary and just cut and pasted it into the fights – we did not recreate the commentary.

SM: Was it always your intention to end the film with the real Micky and Dicky? Was that always in the screenplay, or was it something you felt you needed to do after meeting them?

DOR: No, we always thought it would be fun to show them. We just love them so much. The film is so informed by so much love for these characters and their world. There’s nothing better than when you’re making a film when you’re completely getting off on the world and the people, almost in a reality way. It was our excitement or enthusiasm to share as much of it as we possibly could, you know, if that makes sense.

SM: I’d like to ask about a couple of your upcoming projects. I believe you’re working on Uncharted now. How do you even approach adapting a game for the screen?

DOR: Well, I have to do it … I think it’s always good when a filmmaker such as Darren [Aronofsky] is going to do X-Men, or if they get a real filmmaker to make a propulsive action franchise that has heart and soul and characters in it, because they’re the ones that I like best. That’s my intention; to try and create a raw crime family, as we did in this picture, although it would be more of a crime family operating on a global stage, working in the world of antiquities and art. I want to make a movie that will survive a long while on its own terms.

SM: In the writing process, do you find it invigorating to work on a video game, as opposed to adapting real life, or a book, or a previous screenplay? Does it pose new challenges?

DOR: Yeah. I met with the game’s creators at Naughty Dog and [creative director] Amy Hennig. I wanted them to know what I was thinking about doing, and I wanted to know what was important to them, and we’ve had many conversations about that. And I respect what’s important to them, and they respect my vision as a filmmaker. I think a video game is a world that you play as a game, and that does not really create a cinematic emotional narrative that consumes you for two hours necessarily, unless you know how to grow it into that. And if I didn’t have the ideas and the vision that I thought would be really cool to do that, I wouldn’t have gotten involved in it. And I don’t think they would have bought into it.

SM: Finally, I’d like to ask you about Nailed – a film you worked on a few years ago. Is there any progress on that?

DOR: Well, certain things were out of my hands. That whole thing … that whole situation was out of my hands completely. That was just a strange financing entity that was very puzzling and had funds and didn’t have funds and had funds and didn’t have funds. We got shut down nine times, and we were never able to properly make the movie. That was kind of my low point, before I was able to climb the mountain and be up on solid ground with The Fighter. So, I can fully appreciate the humility of the people in The Fighter, from being down myself, and be extremely grateful and appreciative of people who can pick themselves back up. Because, when that s*** is real, it is not a cliché. It is real, and you feel it. And I don’t know what will happen with that project. I know that I need to move on and keep working and keep moving forward and keep making other films. That was a very unpredictable and hard-to-define situation that it wouldn’t be wise for me to enter back into.

The Fighter is currently screening in cinemas across Australia. The 83rd Academy Awards ceremony will be held on the 27th of February, 2011.

2 Responses to “Interview: David O. Russell; director of The Fighter.”

  1. >The guy sounds like a self righteous douche.

  2. >But what did you think of David O. Russell? 😉

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