David O. Russell Three Kings Interview

07 January 2009

'Three Kings' oddball auteur explains how to make a humane, darkly comic, politically astute, kick-ass, anti-war Gulf War movie

'Three Kings' oddball auteur explains how to make a humane, darkly comic, politically astute, kick-ass, anti-war Gulf War movie

There seems to be some confusion as to just who is interviewing whom when David O. Russell meets the press. On the road promoting his wildly creative Gulf War dark comedy-drama-action flick "Three Kings," he shows up to our interview 20 minutes late, his eye in the viewfinder of a digital camcorder as he looks up to introduce himself, then looks down to make sure he gets a good shot of me in the LCD screen viewfinder as I return the courtesy.

It quickly becomes apparent that this camera is his constant companion on this trip. He's documenting every interview it seems, and he's not shy about turning the tables during our 45 minutes together, picking up the camcorder and asking question of his own when the mood strikes.

Tall, dark and introspective, the infamously oddball auteur's look a bit like a Easter Island statue with more rounded features, looking oh-so-stoic and taking long, mid-sentence pauses to formulate his replies.

But from time to time he'll get excited, tip back in his chair and speak so rapidly that whole paragraphs comes out like 160-syllable words. He'll break into uproarious laughter, too -- like when he hears his film compared in quick succession to both "The Wild Bunch," which has similar themes and plot advancements, and "Rio Bravo," which featured two singers-turned-actors (Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson) just as "Three Kings" does ("Marky" Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube).

"That is hilarious!" Russell howls. "Hold on, hold on. You gotta say that again," he says, aiming his camera and taking a bemused narrator tone. "This guy just told me the whole thing came from 'Wild Bunch'...(and now) it's 'Rio Bravo!' S**t, I gotta watch 'The Wild Bunch!' I have not seen 'The Wild Bunch' and my producer has been all over me for it."

So did he have any films in mind while making this kick-butt flick with a stealthy anti-war message?

"Mostly, I thought a lot of 'M*A*S*H,'" Russell says, although he acknowledges a debt as well to "Kelly's Heroes," a late-1960s World War II comedy in which an AWOL tank unit goes pillaging for German gold.

The same soldiers-wanting-to-get-rich-quick gimmick is used as the jumping off point for Russell's dramatic, personal and darkly funny variation on the war movie genre, which follows gold-hunting American soldiers behind Iraqi lines where they become involved in an insurrection against Saddam Hussein. Better known for extremely quirky dark comedy like his first two films, "Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting With Disaster" (this is his first big budget, studio flick), Russell takes a very different approach to his shoot-'em-up, looking to throw in odd little life-like details, which he's likes to joke about, into what another director might just shoot as a straight action scene. This is where our conversation starts.

Have you always wanted to do an action film?
David O. Russell:I've always wanted to do an action film where a guy got a splinter. (An insider-joke grin passes over his face, enjoying this reference to a odd little moment in the movie.)

Was that the first thing you wrote?
It was one of the first.

Yet this movie isn't all goofing and unusual details. There's a distinctive anti-war message in there.

It's hard to be supportive of war. It's hard to say war is a good way to do anything. Especially as it evolves to a silicon chip war, which makes it very antiseptic, which I think is even more frightening, that you can sell people the notion that was can become cleaner.

That's why this movie really begins when the war ended. Because the war itself -- to me -- wasn't very interesting. The war was six weeks of bombing. What was interesting to me was the moment everybody stopped paying attention. That was very fertile for making a movie. Nobody paid attention to that part.

Everybody broke out the yellow ribbons, these guys are partying, and meanwhile, 60 miles away there's a democratic uprising -- which to me was a mind-blowing opportunity for a movie that felt like "M*A*S*H" in some parts and a really powerful drama in other parts. Because you start out with the "M*A*S*H" partying, these guys go for a joy ride and now they're in the middle of something that gets more serious.


(These events) naturally go that way. It naturally bends the genre. You start out with this loose rodeo of everyone hanging out, drinking liquor from mouthwash bottles because no liquor was allowed in Saudi Arabia. Then they got into this freaky action-adventure, which I wanted to do in a different, more human way. It has to become a very human fable for me at the end, with a face, not a computer grid on a bomber.

Tell me about the casting...

I cast people who I think feel real and think feel right for the part and have a passion about it. George Clooney had a passion for the part. He pursued it. He got a hold of the script before anybody gave it to him and he made a case for it. He was coming off of "Out of Sight" and was trying to put some of the weaker pictures he'd done behind him, and wanted to work with stronger filmmakers. I was happy to work with him because he'd done strong work in "Out of Sight" and I felt he was ready to do it again.

Same thing with Mark. I thought Mark was fantastic in "Boogie Nights" and he has that amazing quality of being a regular guy, who also won't take any s**t, who also seems very sweet. He also is very serious as an actor, which I didn't understand, and I think more people will increasingly understand. His ambitions are equal to De Niro's, and I think people will get that as he builds his body of work.

Cube was the first person I cast. I wanted either him or Charlie Hayes, who played third base in the '96 World Series Yankees. I think now he plays for the Giants. He's not an actor, but I love his energy. He's very focused, quiet, solid, intense, no nonsense. Cube has that in spades, and that's how I cast him. I loved him in "Boyz in the Hood" and I thought he really hadn't had an opportunity since then to do some serious acting, which is what he wanted to do, which is why there's no songs of his here. He wants to separate himself as an actor and take it seriously.

All these guys have acted before except Spike Jonze. How was it directing another director?
Spike is more of a friend of mine, so he had my ear more. Cube (who is also a director) and I didn't know each other as well. Having Spike around inspired me to try harder to be more original, and that was good.

I know George Clooney is a trouble-maker on the set. What's the best practical joke he played on you?
I'll show you. You'll have to come over here and turn your back.

Uh, oh.
(Russell dips his fingers in the water of an ice bucket on the buffet table in this hotel conference room, pretends to sneeze and flicks the water on the back of my neck, then starts laughing.) But George did it with a spray atomizer. (He also) we went around squirting everybody's asses with water bottles so it looked like everybody wet their pants.

(Laughing) OK, back to business. John Ridley has a "story by" credit, but you wrote the script. Was this your pitch to the studio or was it something that came to you?

After I made "Flirting With Disaster," (the studio) opened their log to me, and I saw one line that said "a heist set in the Gulf War." I was researching a turn of the Century mystery for myself at the time and I couldn't stop thinking about this one thing. I got this L.A. Times book that was day-by-day of the war. I saw the Bart Simpson (a doll, strapped to a HumVee grill in the film). I saw hundreds of soldiers being stripped in the desert in this bizarre ritual of taking prisoners, which I thought was so funny and odd. I saw green Cadillacs and other things that were taken from Kuwait. And I thought, God, I could go nuts in this in this environment and nobody's done it!

The more I researched it, I thought, there's a story here that hasn't been told. Then I got the military advisers and they told me they saw guys in tears at the end of the war watching the siege of Al Nasiriyah, where a democratic uprising had taken the city, but then got crushed. These kids were confused. They said, "I don't understand. We're supposed to have just beaten this guy and know we're sitting by while he crushes this movement."

So all that came into my head. I went down that road and I never read Ridley's script because I didn't want to pollute my own ideas. Since then I've been told it's more of a straight-ahead action picture.

So you still haven't read that script, but you had to give him credit because you took on the project from his idea?
Exactly. I mean, John gets credit where it's due. I mean, the germ of the idea I took was his. That wouldn't have happened if I hadn't seen that.

You did about 18 months of extensive research, and then knocked the film out in like three...

Well, production was probably four months, but I think the script is the most important thing. For me, you really make the movie in the script, and that's what makes me the authority on the set is that I've got the script in my bones. I know every cell in it. I've layered it, I've felt it. You've got all these people out there, dozens of crew people and actors, and they're all looking at you, and if you haven't got it figured out by then -- you can figure some things out on the set, but I don't know. I wouldn't want to do that.

Some things come up on the set that are good, that are very serendipitous. But I think all the work is done in the writing.

Do you ever see yourself directing something you haven't written?

Uh, I fantasize about that because it sure would be a lot easier, you know? I do look at screenplays that get sent to me, but I haven't seen anything yet that I just said, "Wow."

Warren Beatty said to me that it's as hard to read a screenplay as it is to write one, and I agree with that. You know, I was sent "Good Will Hunting." I didn't get it, you know? I was sent the book for "Fight Club." I didn't get it. I didn't connect with it. Beatty told me Robert Towne ("Tequila Sunrise," "Without Limits") read the script for "Reds" and didn't get it. Told him it was a catastrophe.

It's hard to read a screenplay. I would love to have one come through that I connected with, but it hasn't happened yet. But I know that when I write it, I totally know it.

So what kind of characteristics are you looking for when you read other scripts?

That's kind of a long question to answer. What do I look for when I read a screenplay? It has to be something that captivates, that I find is extremely interesting, and I don't know how to explain that to you without telling you everything I find interesting.

I can tell you about screenplays I thought were interesting. I thought "Being John Malkovich" was a very interesting screenplay. Spike was shooting that while we would meet on the weekends with this camera (gesturing to the camera he's been training on me now and again). I wrote that part with him in mind and we would shoot the scenes to see if he really do it. Then we'd show the scenes to Warner Bros. And when we were satisfied that we could do it without destroying our friendship, Warner Bros. said "OK, but it's his first time acting. You don't have a lot of first in this movie."

But I liked that he was a first-time actor because that brings a good energy to the set. It gets everyone on their toes. There's somebody there who's new to it and that throws everybody off a little bit.

Was your friendship ever tested?
Sure. There were moments where we disagreed about different ways to do things. Then we would fly home to L.A. for the weekend and talk about everything.

In the movie Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg have this ongoing debate about whether Lexus or Infinity makes a convertible...

I knew that consumer culture was going to be a big part of the movie. Everything I read about the war showed that this was the first war where, you know, guys had their CD players over there, some guys had Watchmans and they were watching the war they were in on TV. And there was a lot of stuff stolen from Kuwait, which is one of the richest countries in the world, and all the goodies of America are over there, from blue jeans to lime green Cadillacs.

Did you go through any of the boot camp stuff with the actors?
I spent a lot of time with our military advisers, but I didn't think it was necessary for us to do that. Here's what (the actors) had: They had three days of going shooting, (the military advisers) got them comfortable with the M-16, they gave them the lingo of the war, then they had a four day mission where (after) we built our sets, they did an assault on the town and stuff like that. But they didn't sleep out there. They slept at the Holiday Inn.

So what was it like working with all those advisers? Not something you've done with your other two movies, obviously.
Boy, we had a lot of advisers on this movie! Well, you want to be historically accurate. If you're gonna go out there and say "Look at this freaky adventure, and a lot of this is true" you gotta have your facts straight. So we had the three military advisers, we were constantly checking gulf information with researchers, and we had three Arab advisers because you want to get the language right, you want to get the religion right, you want to get the graffiti right. There were two guys in our cast who had personally defaced like 300 murals of Saddam.

I have to ask you about the gut cam (Russell shows a bullet wound from the inside on a couple of occasions). How did you hit on the idea of the gut cam?
Well, the whole approach I took to the bullets in the movie was that I tried to make each bullet alive (because) the audience has been numbed to bullets. So, number one, that means fewer bullets. If you have hundreds of bullets, like in other movies, you're going to be numbed.

Which is why all the guns were on semi-automatic throughout the picture?

That's exactly right. Sort of a Sergio Leone feeling, where one bullet has a big impact. I write at a friends' houses sometimes because it's less lonely, and there's a friend who is an emergency room doctor, and I was asking him, "What does a bullet actually do?" and he described it to me. I said, "What's the weirdest wound?" and he described that particular wound (used in the movie). You can get a wound that doesn't kill you. A bullet goes through your lung and you can walk around, but the air is leaking out of your lung every time you breathe, so your own breathing can kill you because your own breathing will crush your organs. It will turn into a balloon in there. And they have to puncture it to let the air out. So he told me those two things, and I said, "God, that's never been in a movie. I'd like to do that."

One other thing about the bullets. We had this minimalist sound design that I loved, where the sound is very spare, not very dense, even for the shoot-outs. The sound crew, in the mixing stage, had done their professional Hollywood job, which was to Bruce Willis-ize it. So the shoot out suddenly became -- BANG! BOOM! POW! -- huge bullet sounds. And I said, nope. Gotta change it. It completely changes the scene. My intention, in the script, was just to have -- pop, pop, pop -- not BOOM!

You took what I thought was a totally different approach to your action sequences. They're punctuated with a jazzy, drum solo soundtrack and you shot the explosions in tight shots of characters with the background filling up with flame instead of multiple angles in slow-motion.
Well, I didn't want to do action in any conventional way whatsoever. The whole MO here was simpler was better, like the guy getting a splinter in the middle of an action scene or explosions in one shot. To me that's more real. This car is blowing up on this guy, just park the camera. Of course the producer says, "We're gonna run three cameras." But if I cut three ways, it's gonna look like any other action picture. Your brain has referenced that as a cartoon in your head. So if I want to make you awake to it in a different way, I gotta cover it in a different way.

So that was premeditated as opposed to something you decided to do in the editing room?

Oh, totally premeditated. My whole worry was I didn't want to have action that suddenly felt like we slipped into an action movie. I wanted to it to feel like the fabric of the rest of the picture. There's a lot to the movie, like when they burst through the door of the bunker, the whole intention was to get all those layers of experience. Boom! Eddie Murphy is playing (on the stereo), Rodney King is on TV, there's a guy on a NordicTrac, there's a guy offering George Clooney a CuisinArt, the other guy is trying to offer a CD player to Mark, open this door, there's a guy getting tortured in here.

Well, when you shoot that, it's a half a page on the script. The producer says, "We can shoot this by lunch." You get on the set and that is a lot of material to photograph and a lot of actors to direct and a lot of shots to set up. Right away, we go, this going to take us all day, maybe two days. The producer goes, "Broom half of it. What's the purpose of this scene? They're walking through this room to get to the gold." And I said, no! This is the movie! It's like (Robert) Altman at his best to me, to have all this stuff coming at you at the same time.

So the producers were driving you crazy some of the time, it sounds like.
No, not really. I wouldn't want you to say that. The producers were amazing. Everybody worked amazingly hard on this. Inevitably you have certain fights. The producer's goal is to deliver the movie on schedule. My goal is to get what's in the script.

Also in the action sequences, you used a strobe effect, but I can't figure out how you did it. Did you shoot it at 16 frames a second or something?
I think it's shot at regular speed, but the aperture was at what you call a 45-degree shutter, or it might be an even smaller shutter. When you change the size of a shutter, for reasons I don't entirely understand, you get a slightly staccato effect. Each image is extremely sharp in detail. It doesn't blur. You can imagine, if the shutter comes wide open, the movement is gonna blur. But if the aperture only opens this much -- kacha, kacha, kacha -- you get sharper images, so every movement looks extremely sharp. It won't blur.

So I take, since you say you're not entirely sure how it happens, that this was a suggestion of your director of photography?
Oh, the DP offered me up a menu. In fact, he wrote it up for me. 'Cos I said to him, I want to try lots of different things in this movie, when they're appropriate. We experimented with different stock and settled on the Ektachrome and settled on the bleach bypass (skipping part of the developing process, giving the film a bleached-out appearance). We had an artillery of tools and we had to be careful not to overdo it.

The bleach bypass, was that something you decided to do to accentuate the desert? The sun and the heat?
Exactly. To blow it out. This was the first war where we really had color pictures in newspapers, and they had this color Xerox quality to them, which is very contrasty and kind of blows out, and the color is really pumped. So that was what we sought for because I think it's a beautiful look and it also seemed to be the look of that war.

Last question: What do you do with all this footage you shoot of people interviewing you?
Oh, I'm gonna put your heads on naked bodies and put them on the internet.

(Some questions in this interview came from other journalists present for the Q&A.)


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