DAVID O. RUSSELL (LEFT) AND SPIKE JONZE DISCUSS RUSSELL’S CAREER.PHOTO COURTESY OF JUDE DOMSKI/MUSEUM OF THE MOVING IMAGE
When the Academy Award nominations were announced this week, The Fighter received seven Oscar nods—including Best Picture and Best Director for David O. Russell. The Fighter, the true story of Lowell, MA boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his half-brother (Christian Bale), has already won three Critics’ Choice and two Golden Globe awards.
Russell is currently being honored by The Museum of the Moving Image with its first-ever directorial retrospective. Celebrating its stunning, futuristic redesign by architect Thomas Leeser, the Museum will screen all five of Russell’s feature films (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter) through February 6 at its newly-expanded location in Astoria, Queens.
To kick off the retrospective, Russell recently sat down with old pal Spike Jonze to discuss his films. You can listen to audio of the dialogue below; highlights of the discussion follow.
JONZE: The Fighter is your fifth film. What unifies them?
RUSSELL: What I look and listen for. If this film was made by Darren Aronofsky, he’d pick different things. What interests me is when you think, “That’s an amazing person; someone I could watch or listen to for a long time”—people that kind of make my mouth hang open, like, “Who are you?” Darren’s script didn’t have the mother and sisters or girlfriend as much, and it was much more dark about Dicky’s crime stuff. What fascinated me was a strong mother and a tough girlfriend and just a world. People call it dysfunctional—I don’t like that word; I think everybody is dysfunctional.JONZE: In I Heart Huckabees, what was the central thing inspiring you?
RUSSELL: I was trying something more conceptual that, in retrospect, I wish I had made more visceral, like the parts with Mark [Wahlberg] and Jason [Schwartzman].
JONZE: And Spanking the Monkey?
RUSSELL: I was listening to Nirvana and a band that’s in the movie, Morphine, and Mark Lanegan.
JONZE: It’s about the dysfunctional relationship he has with his parents. No, I mean interesting relationship!
RUSSELL: What’s funny is my son, who is 16, I always dreaded him seeing that film. But he loved it. We had a movie night; I wanted to watch The Royal Tenenbaums…
JONZE: How many times have you seen The Royal Tenenbaums?
RUSSELL: A lot of times.
JONZE: Probably 50, right?
RUSSELL: More than that. I have this Ford Escape that has a TV screen in it…
JONZE: So you watch movies while you’re driving. The Royal Tenenbaums playing all the time.
RUSSELL: We were a little group with Wes [Anderson] and Sofia [Coppola]. Wes shared that script with me and I didn’t really get it. I said, “There’s no 375th Street in New York.” He said, “No, I’m making up New York.” The funny thing is how your feelings can change. I see so much brilliance in it, I think it’s Gene Hackman’s greatest performance, and it plays constantly in my car. How did we get on this?
JONZE: Spanking the Monkey.
RUSSELL: So my son wanted to watch that, and I didn’t; it’s going to be horrible for 500 reasons. The first half I was squirming; it’s gross emotional content. Also, it’s your first film, so every novice performance thing on the part of the actors that I didn’t catch or awkward camera thing, the way it was shot or edited; that’s too long or indulgent. I’m cringing, being forced to look at mistakes. And my son loves it because he’s an anguished adolescent: “You don’t understand how lonely and horrible it all is.”
JONZE: So what were you doing back then?
RUSSELL: I was frustrated because I couldn’t get going, as I was trying to figure out how to make films. I had various jobs, I taught a SAT class, I was a bartender, I had a day job at an office and was making short films. I got grants from NYSCA and NEA for an idea, which later became Huckabees, about a guy in a Chinese restaurant who had microphones on every table and heard every personal conversation and would write perversely personal fortunes. He was a very isolated, lonely guy, like I was in my 20’s; I lived in a Chelsea studio apartment and just went to work and didn’t have much of a social life. I got put on jury duty, which is where I learned how to write.
JONZE: You were making notes on Spanking the Monkey at jury duty?
RUSSELL: It was the best thing I’d ever written. It got me started; got me an agent, who got me my first writing job. So then it won Sundance, and I was happy just to go. I’d made it for $80,000 with the NEA money, and then the NEA said this isn’t the Chinese fortune-cookie movie, this is a dirty incest movie and I had to give the money back.
JONZE: Then Flirting with Disaster?
RUSSELL: My sister is adopted and was finding her biological parents, and I had just had a baby, which shattered my sex life, so I smashed those things up. I was into Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. Allen loved the film and invited me to meet him. I remember how confident and comfortable he was on the set, walking around talking and then he’d go, “Yeah, Kenneth Branagh, do that, and the camera goes over there; no, higher,” and he’d come back to talking to me and was so casual about it. And I admired his olive-colored corduroys. I said, “Are those your lucky pants?”
JONZE: So Three Kings [in which Jonze acted]…
RUSSELL: I was impressed by Quentin Tarantino and wanted to try something with more octane. A studio showed me script logs of one-line summaries and one was a heist in the Gulf War. I started researching it. That’s when I got to know you; I was helping to rewrite your first movie.
MUSEUM OF THE MOVING IMAGE’S THE FILMS OF DAVID O. RUSSELL RUNS THROUGH FEBRUARY 6. FIND OUT MORE INFORMATION HERE.