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15 Minutes With David O. Russell
The Fighter director on family, feuds and Uncharted

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David O. Russell has having a pretty good 2011 so far. Seven nominations from the academy, bumper takings at the box office and the chance to take PS3 gaming hit Uncharted to the big screen, featuring, it's been rumoured, the likes of Mark Wahlberg and Robert De Niro. So when we got the opportunity to talk with him on the phone for a quarter of an hour, we jumped at the chance. And when we were done with that, we picked up the phone. Because we're professionals like that.

15 Minutes With David O. Russell
David O. Russell on set with Christian Bale

Seven nominations, how are you feeling?
We feel fantastic - over the moon my friend.

Before you started making the film, did you feel conscious of other boxing movies and comparisons people were going to draw with other boxing films?
Well, only in a sense that I wanted to know that we had original material and I felt our material was extremely original - the characters alone, you know. 'Cos to me it's really a character story of these people and the humanity of their family and all that - and the boxing is the medium that they deal in. It's about the family; the seven sisters and the mother and the girlfriend - and that's the world that made me feel like I had not seen this before...

How did you get involved with the project? It was essentially Mark Wahlberg's labour of love, wasn't it?
Mark brought me in, yep. We had done two previous pictures (Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees), so he brought me in and I gave him my take, which was about the emotion and the romance of the women and how they interact with the men. It was about the dynamic with the family and from that point on we just took off but I know Mark had been carrying it for over four years.

It was shot in just 33 days - did you feel that added a certain kind of energy to the actual production of the film?
Yes I think it's a good way to make a movie; I like it. I think it makes it very focused. It makes you stay real and emotional and not get caught up in any kind of indulgences.

15 Minutes With David O. Russell

And with Mark bringing you the film as such, how much of the casting was already set up before you got involved or was there still a lot to be done pre-production?
Well, we cast Melissa and Christian - they were both ideas from Mark Wahlberg. I brought Amy Adams to the table, I brought the sisters to the table. I don't think it would have worked if when I met Melissa or Christian I didn't like it or it didn't work out but it really did, we just clicked when we met. So Christian and I were united in kind of our love for this character - in spite of his being a very complicated guy, who's charming as hell... but a criminal too sometimes.

And with this obviously being a real-life story, how much leeway did you give yourself when you were tweaking the script?
The Fighter has a lot of toughness and a lot of conflict to it, but I’m more about the emotion and the heart.
You want to stay true to the spirit of their story and stay as close as you can, but you have to make it a compelling narrative too. This means collapsing time and digging into emotional things that may have happened over 5 or 10 years, condensing them into one or two scenes. For example, to show how close Dicky and his mother are, we used one scene where they sing a song together in the car to show that he can melt her heart no matter how mad she is with him. Likewise the romance with Charlene - the Amy Adams character - becomes a defining thing, which it was in real life too. You know, it was like throwing a rock into the pond of that family when she came in.

There's a lot of humour to be had between Amy's character and Alice and her family...
That's all real you know. I find real family tension to be intense as well as funny - and that's how it is around them. When I was interviewing Charlene she got up in the middle of the interview and left because the sisters had come into the room... I love it - that's the best stuff.

You had Dicky and Micky on set... what made you decide to do that? Other directors - like David Fincher, for example - don't let anyone speak to their actual real life inspirations...
Well, you know, those guys are billionaires who can obviously sue them into the stone age, but with us, we wanted everyone to be happy and we were sort of part of their family, part of their community. And, yeah, the cast had some trepidation at first with Micky and Dicky being on set, but because Mark is from a very similar family as them - Mark's father served time and was incarcerated with their father, coincidentally - there was a lot of trust there. And that's what got us in with the family in the first place and I told them again and again, "I'm coming from a place of love and respect for you." It was a good thing I did love the characters and the family because, to me, it always makes a better story.

Plus, I think Fincher was coming from a much more clinical place with those guys, thinking his characters were cold-blooded when they invented this Facebook thing; I mean The Fighter has a lot of toughness and a lot of conflict to it, but I'm more about the emotion and the heart.

Were you in any way tempted to directly mimic the actual footage from the original HBO boxing tapes?
We did! Or do you mean the celebrations? Yeah, there were a couple of moments of the post-fight celebrations that are straight from the original footage. Like when Amy pulls Melissa away from Mark's face... that actually happened - who's going to have Micky's face first? The mother or the girlfriend, when she pulls over to give him a kiss?

15 Minutes With David O. Russell
David O. Russell on set with Mark Wahlberg

Were you disappointed that Mark didn’t get a Oscar nod?
You know he’s just really happy for the film – especially as he’s the producer and the godfather of the whole thing – so it’s been his passion project for years. And Matt Damon was attached to it for a while, but that fell through, and so when he saw the picture he said, “Jesus – this just goes to show you had the right actor playing the right part at the right time.”

Mark I think feels similarly but he’s so grateful it came together. He wanted to make it for so long, you know. As for myself, as the director, you feel like the film’s father: you want every child to get their recognition. Bob De Niro – who happens to love the picture, which is a beautiful thing for us – said that he thought Mark’s performance was the most underrated performance of the year. He hoped that it would be recognised, but he knew because it was a quieter performance than Christian’s or Melissa’s that it was going to be a long shot for him. So I don’t think we were shocked but we still hoped, you know.

With repeated viewings, maybe people will really see that when Christian’s doing his thing that Mark’s also doing his thing… but in a subtler way.
Well, I think you’re right, the movie holds up to repeated viewings and The Fighter will have so many more lives after the awards season. I mean, so many of my favourite performances or favourite films never even win, let alone get nominated, so as much as it’s an honour and you want to be invited, you can’t pay too much attention to all the awards you know.

What were the reactions of Micky and Dicky when they first saw the finished product?
I mean Micky loved it as you might imagine, but Dicky was more shaken up and said “I wish I was him”, pointing to his brother… but that’s the story of the movie, isn’t it? So it shouldn’t be surprising the way he saw the movie and had a sort of reaction that could have been in the movie. He’s since come to see that it really does right by him…the HBO documentary on him made him a very notorious character in Lowell and this movie sets a much better legacy for them all because they had a lot of heartache; we had to flinch from the negative stuff.

15 Minutes With David O. Russell
David O. Russell is writing the script and directing the adaptation of the Uncharted video game

What is the situation with your Uncharted movie script? It seems such a natural game to turn into a movie…
The game is very cinematic; there’s no question about it. That’s what I’m working on real hard and I’m writing it as we speak and I’m really excited to make it. I’d love Mark to be in it, I’d love Bob De Niro to be in it; I love the idea of growing them into a cinematic family; I think that’s a really cool idea, but… I guess you’ll have to wait until you see the script.

What thoughts do you have about the love interest, Elena?
Ah, Elena. I’ve cultivated her quite a bit and I think I’ve added a lot of dimension to her so that’s all I’m going to say. I love the woman characters and the more robust they are, the more robust the movie.

From watching The Fighter, we would love Amy Adams to play Elena…
Oh I would love that too, I love Amy. I also love Scarlett Johansson; there’s a lot of great actors I think might suit. Hopefully, we’ll see how it works out with everybody who are being scoped to do that role…

What’s the situation with Two Guns?
Well that’s a picture that I think would be fantastic to make, but I would like to look at the script and then we’ll take it from there... You know, a kind of a Butch and Sundance thing but in a contemporary setting – but even weirder because they don’t really know who the other person is, you know, so I think that could be a very cool project but we have to clear up Uncharted first.

With the success of The Fighter, has this accelerated your other projects at all?
Well it certainly makes your stock go up and makes people excited that’s for sure – that’s always the nice thing. I mean you’re the same person you were the day before but in some ways with more credentials so the corporations can show that their asses are covered more. I’ve done my best to work from a place of humility – always looking over your shoulder saying, “Does this suck?” and I think that’s a good way to work. The other way to work is where you start to think, “I’m on fire, I’m amazing!” and I don’t think that’s the way to work.

We were disappointed in the office that you couldn’t make Pride and Prejudice and Zombies…
Oh, me too! I really liked that script a lot… I really thought that came out well and I wanted to do it like a Sherlock Holmes movie. I really liked Sherlock Holmes and thought like an action romance that had zombies in it could work. You know, one with the propulsive-ness of an action movie but with romance too. That’s what turned me on to that movie.

Interview by Ali Plumb


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