David O. Russell is the new Hollywood turnaround story

When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was Pulp Fiction (I suppose a more accurate way of saying that is that it’s still one of my favorite movies, and emotionally, I’m not sure I’m much higher up the chain than “kid”). I loved it for all the basic reasons — the use of time, the plot lines, what’s in the briefcase, “Looks like the Spider caught himself a couple of flies,” The Gimp, Uma Thurman, Honey Bunny, Ezekiel 25:17, etc. — but one of the big reasons I liked it was the John Travolta comeback story associated with it. While I’m kind of a fan of the Look Who’s Talking movies, I can also reasonably agree that three of those films was a tad much. Look at Travolta’s IMDB; one of his most notable movies immediately pre-Pulp Fiction was Chains of Gold, which co-starred Marilu Henner and Joey Lawrence. Immediately after, Travolta was getting movies like Get Shorty and Broken Arrow. It was a career turnaround. Now, 1994 was an excellent year for film — you had Pulp Fiction, and then my next two favorite movies of that year were probably Clerks (“In a row?!?!?”) and Spanking the Monkey (trailer embedded above). The man most associated with Clerks, Kevin Smith, has made an eclectic career for himself; he has a walrus horror story coming out soon-ish. In terms of Spanking the Monkey, Jeremy Davies has gone on to be an Emmy winner for Justified, and David O. Russell (he made that 1994 movie before he added the “O”) has had one of the more interesting career arcs of a content producer in recent memory.

That fight, with Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees, is probably what a lot of people know Russell for; there was a Hollywood rumor for a while that George Clooney leaked that fight video to the media, due to Clooney and Russell’s own issues from the set of Three Kings. Apparently, they got in some type of fight on the set. There’s no video of that actual fight, and different accounts exist, but Ice Cube was one of the stars of that movie and talked about it while promoting 21 Jump Street a couple of years back:

Around the early 2000s, though, Russell was starting to develop a poor reputation — and was even feared on some film sets. He purportedly put Christopher Nolan (later of the Batman franchise) in a headlock over Jude Law’s availability for Huckabees. From 1999 to 2010, he made just one feature film: Huckabees. It made about $20 million and was only the 133rd-ranked film of 2004, monetarily. (Russell’s films aren’t necessarily supposed to do well financially, but if you’re going to make one film across 10 years, you probably want it to pop a little bit.)

Now flash forward three or so years. Russell is in a totally different place. His last two films are The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook; both were nominated for multiple Oscars and won Oscars for key actors in ’em. Now, this month he has American Hustle coming out — that flick combines people from Movie A (Bale, Adams) and Movie B (Cooper, Lawrence) along with other stars (Jeremy Renner) and so far has significant Oscar buzz. Much like other 1994 directors (Tarantino and Smith), Russell is starting to develop a cadre of actors that keep coming back; in that Los Angles Times link, Adams describes him as “the world’s first method director” while saying she loves working with him. (He sometimes screams out directions to actors during takes, and his audio is later edited out of the actual cut.) It’s a far cry from his perception less than a decade before, when he wasn’t making movies.

(If you’re interested in the real-life backstory of American Hustle, it comes from the Abscam sting operation. Other big directors, like Michael Mann of Heat and Jay Roach of Meet the Parents, wanted a shot at the same storyline.)

Russell has talked on record a few times about his personality adjustments, including in that Los Angeles Times piece — saying he related to this material because a lot of what underlies the story is issues of change, being fake, what’s real, etc. He saw some of that back in his own life. He goes pretty candidly in this Hollywood Reporter interview from a couple of awards seasons ago, as well:

Now there’s a chance his next project (as a writer/producer) could be a horror film that Eli Roth might helm, so the eclectic mix of well-received projects might keep on trending up:

While I was checking out Twitter for some more context on Russell, I came across this one and wanted to share. While a lot of directors are this hands-on, this is still pretty cool:

I don’t think Russell has the Nolan-esque thing where he’s going to go from making these types of movies (i.e. Memento for Nolan) to making huge superhero films. He’ll probably stay at the character-driven, released-during-awards-season-level. But it’s amazing to think that the guy who won the Audience Award at Sundance in 1994, then seemed so promising for the back half of the 1990s, then went off the rails for about a decade, is now possibly going to get his third Oscar nomination for directing (is the third time the charm?). I love the turnaround stories, and I think Hollywood — while often a cruel place — loves ’em too. (If Edward Furlong suddenly had an amazing performance in a movie in 2014, that would probably excite you, no?) Russell is the story of the moment in that regard. Also kinda amazing that while Lawrence had a big franchise in Hunger Games, she could grab two Oscars under Russell’s direction. If only K-Stew had that type of director to — (OBVIOUS JOKE) —

By the way, IndieWire did a directors’ roundtable with a lot of the guys expected to be nominated for Best Director this year at the Oscars. It’s very interesting; give it a whirl (also remember that Stiller was an actor in Flirting with Disaster, Russell’s second film; kinda cool).

Ted Bauer