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David O. Russell Discusses Madden, Ice Cube and the Famous Comb Over
Tuesday, March 12, 2024


Hollywood director David O. Russell revealed during last week's Sun Valley Film Festival that he has gone "madden" about his new movie on NFL coaching great John Madden.

The movie focuses not so much on the fiery coach's tenure with the ultra-aggressive Oakland Raiders but, rather, on the story of how Madden teamed up with a Harvard programmer following his forced retirement to rewrite his fading legacy by building the world's first football video game Madden NFL, a perennial top seller.

After winning the 1977 Super Bowl, the stress of the job began to destroy Madden, Russell said.  The larger-than-life personality reinvented himself after losing his dream job to continue teaching X's and O's but in different ways. Madden, who passed away in 2021, transformed himself from a football coach to a football broadcaster as he racked up 16 Emmy Awards while commentating on more than 500 games.

No doubt the late John Candy would have been perfect to portray Madden, but in his absence Will Ferrell became the man best suited for the position, Russell noted.

"When you're working on a movie, always start with the character. The screen opens and you go, 'Holy smoke!' Madden had an incredible personality--he was like the Picasso of football. A genius in a man child...He became one of the youngest coaches to retire and he completely redefined the football broadcasting model because he made football fun to watch. In the movie you get to see the way he saw the world," Russell said.

Russell himself redefined the silver screen with such films as "American Hustle," "Three Kings," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter," racking up a handful of Academy Award and a handful of Golden Globe nominations in the process.

For that the Sun Valley Film Festival honored him with its Vision Award, which honors industry icons who have changed the industry for the better. Russell, who said he often recreates in Sun Valley, seemed appreciative of the recognition.

He not only appeared at a Gala Dinner at the Roundhouse to receive his award but he took part in one of the Festival's free Coffee Talks. Then he appeared with "American Hustle" producer Charles Roven for a screening of "American Hustle," showing scenes that had not made it into the movie and discussing the iconic film for the packed audience at The Argyros.

Russell started making short films in Nicaragua where he taught in a Sandinista literacy program and in Maine where he documented slums and bad housing conditions. He also did a short documentary on Panamanian immigrants in Boston.

His first foray into the Sundance Film Festival was as a ticket checker. His first feature film, a horror comedy called "Spanking the Monkey" that he made in 20 days in 1994 for $80,000, won the Audience Award at Sundance. It was, he said, a good feeling to be the new pretty kid on the block.

Success with his next film, "Flirting with Disaster" starring Ben Stiller Patricia Arquette, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Alan Alda and Josh Brolin, led to "Three Kings."

The satirical Gulf War black comedy starred George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube, as three American GIs who attempt to steal Kuwaiti gold during the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein.

Though it featured actual Iraqi refugees as extras, it was filmed in the desert riverbeds of Mexico using Ektachrome slide photography stock that was cross processed in color negative chemicals to  reproduce the odd color of USA Today's images of the Gulf War.

"That was the first war to have color pictures in USA Today that were super saturated. I had my comedy in it and my heart in it," he said referring to the refugees who acted as extras.

Russell admitted that he's afraid of actors: "They're like thoroughbreds. They want to do their own thing, and they're in control in front of the camera."

That said, "We were very fortunate to get George Clooney. With George I had never dealt with a big star before, but everybody was in the spirit of that film."

Ice Cube, he said, was remarkable--"such a true American original."

"I said: Did you like the script? He said: It was off the chain. I said: What does that mean? Apparently, it meant it was really good."

Russell said he watched Ice Cube eat a burrito really weirdly.

"I asked why he ate it that way and he gave me a zen master class as he replied: That's what makes me me."

Mark Wahlberg, he added, bought him a pair of baggy jeans after Cube remarked that his Levi 501 jeans were so tight that he could read his credit card.

Russell noted that his most recent film "Amsterdam," a mystery based on a conspiracy to oust President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, was not the big hit that "American Hustle" was.

"Movies about people have a narrow landing strip," he said, noting that "Oppenheimer" was the exception. "To get critical mass, you've got to knock it out of the ball park with a firecracker part that makes it a hit. With 'Amsterdam,' there was no firecracker part. When I started it I thought  it was crazy enough that people were going to love it. Then the world got crazier than the movie, thanks to COVID and everything else."

Russell said he paired the stars from "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook" to create the "American Hustle" cast that included Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper. The movie, originally titled "American Bullshit," was inspired by an actual FBI sting operation in 1978 that resulted in the convictions of a U.S. senator, six congressmen and a New Jersey mayor who took bribes involving a New Jersey hotel and casino.

When Christian Bale initially turned down the script because he was planning on having another child, Russell recruited Jeremy Renner for the role of the con artist. When Bale came back, saying he had                                                                                                                          decided not to have the child yet, Russell then had to convince Rnner that playing the New Jersey mayor who used illegal means to to make things better for his citizens was a plum role.

And that he was the only one who had the heart to play such a good-hearted guy.

"He looked at me and said, 'If the mayor is such an exciting role, why isn't Christian doing it? Why is the mayor exciting?' I had no idea what I was about to say. I said, 'The mayor--he has five kids, loves his wife, loves his community ...he's this is the heart and soul of the movie. And I realized I had just written that scene. It's a true story that the mayor gave the man played by Christian Bale a 'science oven'--what he called the microwaves that were just appearing on the scene."

Bale, meanwhile, fully jumped into his role. Not only did he gain 40 pounds for his role but he shocked the crew by shaving part of his head so that he could perform the hilarious comb over scene to open the movie, showing just how far his character was willing to go to pursue his lifestyle.

Bale had met the man his character was based on, and when he saw he had a comb over he knew he had to do that because he's so passionate about his acting craft, Russell said. That scene became the metaphor for the entire movie.

"I'm interested in how people live life and how they love people, and that's what this is about. What makes people lean into a dream? What makes people lean into an investment?"

"The characters in 'American Hustle' were interesting--they were the draw," he added.

David O. Russell said that the movie "Silver Linings Playbook," about a man with bipolar in a football-crazed family, connected him to his own family in the Bronx and prompted he and Robert DeNiro to lobby for mental health parity in Washington, D.C.

"If you've been there, there's nothing you wouldn't do. When it's 2 a.m. and your relative has blood on his pajamas and neighbors are listening in, Bob (DeNiro) and I knew what that was like. We wanted to get the focus off of (the mentally ill) because it's always on them so that's why we created Bob's gambling problem for the movie."

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