Director David O.Russell – Will he ever return to his past glory

September 2010 By Philip Berk

The Fighter is one of the year’s best movies telling the true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and his older brother Dickie Eklund. 

Over the years this project has attracted the likes of (director) Darren Aronovsky, and actors Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, both of whom were eager to embody one of the strangest characters ever to step into a boxing ring.

The role finally fell in the hands of Christian Bale, and after seeing the film it’s impossible to think of any other actor playing that role.

Mark Wahlberg was always intent on playing Mickey and enlisting his good friend David O. Russell to direct  his dream has now been realized. 

Russell of course is the controversial director of Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, Spanking the Monkey.

When you interview David O. Russell don’t expect a coherent story. I trust he listens to his actors more than he does this interviewer.

Q: Talk about the choreography of the fight scenes. We’ve seen fights in other iconic movies, like Rocky and Raging Bull, but you’ve found your own style here.

A: Mark (Wahlberg)  was trying to get this movie made for many years. Thank God Ryan (Kavanagh, head of Relativity, who was seated in the back of the room) finally had the chutzpah to finance this picture. Mark trained all the time; he wanted to look like Mickey Ward. He’s the ninth of nine children, as is Mickey Ward. We took whole sections of the actual fights, we used the actual commentary in the movie. We used Larry Merchant and Roy Jones and Ray Lampley — all those (sports) guys, their actual commentary, because you can’t do better than that. Mickey Ward was the kind of fighter who went six losing rounds, taking five punches to give one. That’s what gave him so much heart. He’s the opposite of his brother. But then, in the 6th round, he’ll knock the guy out. Announcers had been writing his obituary for six rounds. You can’t recapture that in a performance, so we took the actual commentary. Larry Merchant sounded like he just slapped Mickey in the face, burying Mickey for six rounds. We also took whole sections of choreography. Mark felt strongly we should shoot it HBO style, which meant eight cameras. We also used the actual beta cameras that they used in that era, 1990, which gave it a certain rougher look, and it also meant that we could accomplish this in three days, which is a very short time to shoot all these fights. Mark didn’t want to keep doing it too many times, cause then you do get hurt.

Q: During his training Mark actually partnered with real fighters. Is that true?

A: Mark is a very real person from the Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, John Garfield school of acting. Mark is going to play himself squeezed into another character, so he loves hanging out with those guys, because he’s very similar in background. They’re all from the streets, and that’s why we shot in Lowell, (Mass.) because we wanted to be with the real people. I was very grateful when Mark brought the project to me, because I feel kind of humbled and grateful just to be part of it. It’s a beautiful story, and that’s what made me want to do it. When I saw the real people in interviews and I read about them, I felt that they had a quality that was so riveting that I could listen to them for hours. Whether it’s the bleach blonde mother, the seven bleach blonde sisters, the crazy talkative brother, or the very quiet brother who never says anything negative about anybody, who takes all the punishment, which is how he fights. He’s take five punches to give one. Dickie the older brother bobs and weaves like Muhammad Ali. Authenticity is what made me want to do it and shoot it in a raw way, handheld, steadicam—to feel the sweat of the people, to feel their red faces and to feel how real they are. It’s easy, as George Lucas said, to make someone feel pain or suffering, that  never impresses me. As George says, “I’ll just wring a kitten’s neck and you’ll feel something.” What is harder to do is  when you can feel the love for someone who has done a lot of bad things, and make them charming. Dickie is beloved in that down, and Mickey loves him. You didn’t want to feel halfway through the movie, “What is this knucklehead brother bringing the idiot back in for? I don’t care about either one of them.” But, no, they love each other, and they help each other, and that’s why we care for them

Q: The film almost has the feeling of a reality show. Cinema verite doesn’t really describe my response to it,  where you placed your camera. We were right inside a world that we’ve never seen before. Talk about your technique, and how you did those scenes. It was almost as though we were watching a newsreel.

A: There’s a documentary within the film, so I like to shoot in a verite style. I’m allergic to cranes and dollies and tripods, I don’t know why. I like to shoot the way my son shoots with his little flip phone, and so, we shot that way.  The documentary about Dickie that became a documentary about crack, I thought that was such a great tool for me to have as a filmmaker. I loved how Woody Allen has used it in Husbands and Wives. When you have interviews, you have this feeling of just talking to regular people.

Q: How do you set up your shots? You say it’s all handheld, I didn’t notice that. I thought it was very controlled.

A: We define the shots, and the steadicam makes it steady. We had a great operator, and a great DP. We say, “Here’s how the camera is going to go,” we rehearse it, and we only had three takes in 33 days. You map it in an organic way, I don’t know how else to answer the question except to say that what interests me the most is that raw feeling. If you’re inspired by the people to capture that raw feeling, you don’t want to mess it up. For instance, we had two scores. Jon Brion did a score, which was wonderful. But it wasn’t for this movie. It didn’t feel as raw as the film. So, Jon pointed out the great tracks we have fit the film would work better, because those tracks are the tracks of that town and those people. Hoyte Van Hoytema, the cinematographer whose name I like to say, this was his first American film. He did Let The Right One In. He’s a great artist in his own right, and a great person. I’m very happy to work with him, and I’ll do it again. He shot a series in Sweden called When Is Now. It was shot black and white, kind of handheld. It’s sort of Hamburg in the 60s, like when the Beatles came to Hamburg. I saw that and said, I want to work with this guy. Let The Right One In has a very different light, it’s hard top light, and it’s very cold and stylized. This is very warm and alive. I also like a big depth of frame, like when someone’s right up in the frame and then behind him I can see Sarah way at the back of the room, and suddenly Sarah comes forward. That’s what it’s like being with nine siblings. There’s always some movement in the back and way in the foreground. It’s like breaking in a baseball mitt. You kind of develop your style with your cinematographer. (director) Alexander Payne came last night and he quite liked how we shot the film. He said that he took note of the operator because when you get an operator that you can share a language with, that’s heaven.

Q: Unlike other boxing films, where the camera’s usually inside the ring, you stayed outside and kept a distance. Talk about that.

Q: Well, again, that was practical. As I said, we only had three days to shoot the fights We had eight cameras. We hired an HBO crew. The HBO director, who directed the fights in the 90s, set those cameras. We had 79 hours of fight footage. The hard job was in the editing room, telling the story of the fight in a compelling way. It was like Michelangelo, you have to chip away the stone, and sometimes you leave way too much stone in there. You have to find the key elements of each fight. That first fight was the bane of my existence until we finally found it. Then it became my favorite fight. Once we cut it properly, with the cameras  outside the ring,  that can work for you if you play it properly. If you play it improperly, it will feel dead. But I think it feels real, like an HBO fight. The ring card girl falling over the ropes, the fight that breaks out in the stands, the family on the sidelines. Shooting up into those lights, all those elements feel like you’re watching an actual HBO fight. When we did the smaller fights,  Mickey’s comeback fights, I got to go inside the ring and stylize them more, which of course, as a filmmaker, I loved.

Q: The heart of the movie is the family, the mother, the sisters

A: I love the sisters. That was something I really focused on, because I was fascinated with them. They’re like this Greek chorus, they’re like a gang. That’s what the story was to me: a bleach blonde mother with seven bleach blonde sisters training two brothers, and here comes a tough bitch girlfriend bartender who says to the brother, “You’re not getting served.” And now the family reacts like a gang. That’s the movie, and then the brother decides he wants the family and the girlfriend in his corner. The cop was played by the real cop, he lived all those experiences. So this is a man who has a cop in his corner and a criminal in his corner. The criminal and the cop do not like each other, yet Mickey took from the cop a sobriety and a discipline. From his brother, he took an inspiration and a belief in his hero. Once your older brother is your hero, no matter how much he messes up, he cannot stop being your hero. Mickey could never fight as well as he could if his brother wasn’t there for him, and that’s why he wanted his brother back when he came out of prison.

Q: Having eight or nine writers (on the credits) and seven or eight producers, how disconcerting is that as a director?

A: All those producers wanted  the best movie possible. The beautiful part is that ego didn’t take over, they all wanted us to do our thing, they wanted me to do my thing. They wanted out of the way. It was all in service of the movie. Everybody brought something different to the table. (Producers) David (Hoberman) and Todd (Lieberman) had developed the property for a long time, and were very loyal to it. Ryan wanted  us to make the movie within their financial model. Mark championed the project for many years, so if you let the creative thing lead, it’s not going to happen.

Q: How much did you contribute as a writer?

A: I worked very closely with Scott Silver. I don’t know how to make a movie without doing drafts. I did drafts with Scott leading up to production, and then as you get onto the set, you can’t keep talking about it, you just gotta go do it.

Q: were you okay with actors improvising?

A: Sometimes, people freestyle a little bit. But once you call action, people are happy to do what’s on the page.

Q: Talk about the humor in the movie.

A: You can’t escape it. When Dickie talks, it’s just funny. When the sisters are there with their hair, just staring at someone saying, “That’s how it is.”  it’s funny. When I interviewed the real Charlene, the other people arrived to be interviewed, the real Dickie and the real sisters. When she saw them, the hair on the back of Charlene’s neck stood up, and she stood up and said, “I got to go,” and I said, “well, we’re not done.” She said, “I can’t be in the same room as these people.” So, these conflicts live to this day. That’s something that’s funny but also painful and riveting, If you’ve ever been in a family — my mother is Italian-American. Big, colorful personality. My father, Russian-Jew, big colorful personality. A lot of action, These families reminded me of my own relatives from the Bronx or Brooklyn. You go to a Thanksgiving and it was a three-ring circus.

Q: How would you describe your directing style?

A: As a director, you need to know what you want to say. It’s like a song. Dustin Hoffman taught me that the rhythm and the melody of a song is a legitimate direction, and I thought from the classic Lee Strasberg school that  was bad direction. Like, I would tell Amy or Melissa to lower their octave, go three octaves lower, talk like a dude. Amy was so happy to shatter her Enchanted personality, and it was a real discovery. Tone is personality, song is character. If she lowers her voice three octaves, she is a different person.

Q: Your checkered past precedes you. You’ve had run-ins over the years with a lot of industry people.  How do you handle a situation where you’re making  a major movie with big stars  the film is not completed  it’s shut down and it’s never going to be released? What does that do to your ego?

Q: Well, I think it’s fair to say that I was humbled by the last few years of my career. But that just made me stronger. It’s like any good story that we watch in movies. Dickie was humbled, but it made him a better person. I was humbled. I love things in (I Love) Huckabees, I don’t think it came out as well as I would have liked it to, but I became a better writer. I got divorced, I had financial needs. There’ no time to navel gaze. You need to see the matrix and tell it. That’s what I tell writers. I work with  kids in the Bronx, and they ask me, “What’s your best advice as a writer?” And, to me, the worst thing you can have as a writer is too much time on your hands. So, the humility and the financial needs of the last few years was like putting a gun to my head and saying, “Tell the story, tell the story, tell the story.” And you have to tell it from a real place. That was good for me, not have Nailed finished. That was bizarre. My career, in some way, was part of this country’s history. I came up with the Sundance boom of Bill Clinton. I was out there with Jim Carrey and he decided to buy everybody drinks. Everything was booming, and then everything contracted during that Madoff collapse. I had this Madoff-like finance year. I was working with one of the Gores who had a strange collapse, it was all this weird collapsing. You’re like Mickey, take it on the chin, you pick yourself up, and you keep going. The Woody Allens of the world and the Bob Dylans of the world all teach me that you don’t look back, you have to just keep moving. God gives you a gift and you’ve got to keep going, keep working. And no one can ever take that away from me. So, by the time I’d written The Fighter, I had kind of forgotten about Nailed. It’s like, when you get divorced and remarried, you don’t want to think about the old marriage too much.

Q: So it had nothing to do with the script not being ready and they had to pull the plug?

A: Not Nailed, we shot a lot of it. We shot most of that movie.

Q: But not all of it.

A Because the guy kept running out of money. They were doing a shell game where they kept moving the money around. It was bizarre, ask Taylor Hackford about it. They did it to him, too.

Q:  Christian Bale is amazing in the movie. Did you encounter any of the famous personality issues that we hear about?

A: Having been painted with that brush myself, I can say that I felt a kinship with him. We were both very determined to not let any of that get the better of us. He’s a good guy; he was a doll to work with. He is an extremely hardworking actor, inhaling Dickie for him was liberating. Christian in  real life is more like Mickey. He’s a quiet person. Mark is more like Dickie, he’s a little bit of a devil. And, so Christian inhaled Dickie, which made him very talkative, and very social. He stayed in character all the time, and talked to everybody all the time. Whereas, usually, he would just never talk to anybody, cause he’s very private. He’s a very intense private guy, but I think that was really fun for him.

Q: How much direction did he need?

A: You talk about how you want him to play the character and what Dickie is about, and that’s what he responded to. I told him I loved Dickie and I wanted people to love Dickie. In an earlier incarnation of the movie we  had other people who were going to make it  extremely dark but that was not terribly interesting to me. The only thing we did have to do was to modulate the voice. When you have a big character like that, if it’s too big or too real, you don’t understand anything he’s saying. For the first couple of weeks, I said, I don’t understand what you’re saying, because he was talking so much, so fast, like Dickie. His response was, “Don’t take my character away,” and I said, “well, nobody’s going to understand your character,” but then he totally agreed with that. Melissa (Leo), too. When it’s a big character, you can get too big.”

For the record, David thinks nothing of giving an actor direction in the middle of a take.

Melissa Leo welcomed it.

Christian quickly put a stop to it.