David O. Russell: This becomes the inciting event in a way that it turns out to be something that he’s not really good at, a medical procedure that he’s not great at that he has to do, that becomes not only a discovery about this case in the larger world, but also about himself because his best friend, I would say at least statistically half the people in the world, this movie’s also about love and the many iterations of love and the many struggles and confusions of love, and I think you can say that half the people who make homes with love, it’s a challenge for them to figure out what the right love is for them and how to do it. We see the divorce rate.
Christian is grappling with this and his best friend Harold Woodman wants to help him out. Harold has the advantage of knowing what love is, it’s with Margot Robbie, which Christian had a front row seat to.
Once they get pulled into this opening act mystery adventure, we kind of say, “Well wait a minute, this all started a long time ago,” which is sort of a similar thing we did in other pictures. Let’s go back to where it all started, and you go back and you see him when he is young, he’s not scarred, he’s full of hope, and his in-laws, Andrea Riseborough’s family are sending him to get honored when war was considered a romantic adventure that would bring medals and prestige to Park Avenue and to your social life. This is before modern warfare had really gotten established so they thought it was going to be a romantic lark.
He goes off, he meets Harold Woodman, and then they meet in blood and metal, Valerie Voze, who they think is French, and she’s a formidable person who saves them and takes all the pieces of metal out of them and she’s keeping it. Why is she keeping it? There’s something … That’s a very unusual woman. Why is she keeping the metal? She won’t show them why she’s keeping the metal until they trade her something for it, something beautiful. Right away she’s part of their friendship pact. She makes a deal with them as well. “I’ll be part of your pact, but you got to trade me something beautiful and I’ll show you what I’ve done with the bloody medal I’ve taken out of you guys.” We get to see the most enchanting times of their lives, which is a big reason we wanted to tell the story was the great time they had and the freedom they had and the fantastic time they had living and dancing and loving life.
When you’ve been next to death, you really appreciate life and you’re probably the most free and the most loving of life. This was that time for them. You say, “What’s your Amsterdam? What is the time of your life that you can think of when, ‘Gosh, I really had a fantastic, wonderful time that I didn’t expect with friends that I didn’t expect and I can always think of that and remember that as sort of a true north, no matter what trouble comes my way,” and there is trouble coming their way, and then you’re back into the trouble. Once you see how they’ve all lived through this chapter in Europe, you’re back into the present story here and how it carries on.
Alison Herman: Yeah, it’s a beautiful concept and one of the things that comes across in the movie is this idea of cyclical history. They live through World War I and then they live to see the seeds planted of World War II. As we’re recording this, we’re recording this just a couple days after Italy just elected its most far right leaders since Mussolini, the last five years I think in American politics have seen a lot of concerns about the potential rise of fascism, which is the explicit text of Amsterdam. I was just curious if on your part, current events in addition to historical precedent influenced the idea behind and writing of this movie.
David O. Russell: Me and Christian were into this idea long before current events and then we noticed the current events were getting unusual, but we had our own story to tell with our own characters. For us, if it turns out that people have reflections about it, that’s for them to do and audiences to talk about, but that’s in no way the intention of the movie. The intention of the movie is to tell this story of these people and what they lived. It was to imagine being at this moment in time and imagine having this kind of friendship and attitude and then imagine backing into something, the likes of which you never imagined. Right now we live in a, I’d say today’s world couldn’t be more different. It’s a world of so much information, too much information. George Orwell might say, I think he did say, “You’re not going to get oppressed by a lack of information. You’re going to get oppressed by too much information so that you can’t tell which is which,” and that’s not the world this story takes place in. The world this story takes place in is a simpler world without a lot of information or technology.
Those are always the worlds I prefer. Silver Linings, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence walk everywhere and they don’t have phones because they’re not permitted to have phones because of their circumstances but I also liked that in that particular case because I think there’s something enchanting about that. Yeah, in this way, I would say it almost had nothing to do with today’s world and if it does, that’s for audiences to talk about or think about.
Alison Herman: Definitely. Beyond the sort of specific true historical events that you’re referencing in terms of regiments in World War I and the specific plot that these characters get involved in, are you someone who does a lot of research into these periods as you are writing the script because you’ve done a few period set movies in recent years, or are you someone who generally tells the story and then figures out the details later?
David O. Russell: Well, as I said before, no, we’re all about making a story that is enchanting to me and the actors. We’re all about a story that we love telling each other, as if you were sitting around a kitchen table or talking and saying, “Listen to this, listen to this story. There’s a guy, his best friend. This guy’s a doctor, he’s got this office, he’s trying to make medicine and he’s a real character. He’s a mensch, he’s a big hearted guy, and his friend is this attorney uptown who’s really solid and very careful about who he’s vulnerable with, which is why it’s so remarkable when he is vulnerable with these two friends, Christian and Margot.” It’s a story like that. We want to tell a story like that. Anything we find that gives a spark to us for characters or story, it has to be part of that story we keep telling each other, that I keep writing and writing and writing.
This is, I think … That’s the leading motion. Is it a really fun story to tell? Is it a fun story to hear? To have this huge thing that you’re sitting on that people don’t know is exciting when you’re a storyteller. I’m sure that’s how they felt when they made those other movies I referenced. Yeah, there’s a lot of research, but as I said, we’re here to just tell a story that we think is fun and cool and that has a lot to say emotionally about love as much as it does about events in a way and events that happened a long time ago, or as they say in Star Wars, “Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away.” That kind of gives you that enchanting fairytale, time to tell a story, which I think is what I always want when I’m going to tell a story. I didn’t know what I was going to walk into when I watched a lot of my favorite movies, I didn’t know what I was in for, and then the movie would enchant me, and then I would want to watch it and re-watch it.
Alison Herman: A question that we often ask writers who also fulfill other roles, whether it’s producer or director or actor, is kind of how or whether they switch between different modes. You mentioned earlier that writing is very solitary, but obviously the act of putting together and then operating a film set is sort of the opposite of that. Are you someone who has your writer hat on in certain respects and then switches into a different mindset when it’s time to direct? Do you let your vision or image as a director influencer writing process? How do those two roles kind of interact for you in general?
David O. Russell: Writing is in many ways the most important part of the whole process. That is the most important part. That’s where you find the voices and you find the story and you find the structure and you find the characters and you find what it feels like. These are characters who speak French, they sing in French, they sing, they do all kinds of things that we’re enchanted by, Christian and me, Margot and me, JD, everybody. You have your script and then as you go into production then this is nothing new I don’t think, you’re open to any new inspirations. You’ll shoot the scenes you’ve written and you’ll have shot listed and you’ll have prepared but then you also might go to an earlier version of the scene or you might come upon a new idea that you find more inspiring. In the edit room, you’ll then find which ones of those are the most alive.
Alison Herman: When you talk about finding things on set, are you someone who welcomes improvisation from your actors or do you generally prefer that they kind of stick to the book and you’re the one who makes those kinds of calls?
David O. Russell: We do it together. It’s a very welcoming environment. It’s a fun, welcoming environment so they know what we’re going to do, they know what we’re talking about, they know I may call out some new lines that have come to me and they know that they’re free to maybe think about what about, “Remember this draft, David. What about these lines? Or what about some lines I just thought of now?” and those are welcome as well. I wouldn’t say there’s a whole lot of pure improvisation in these films. It’s always in some sense related to this draft or an earlier draft or a conversation we’re having on the day, but they’re completely free. The advantage of being saturated in a character that’s been written for six years that many of them have lived with for several years is that they’re free to be mobile in that character. They feel comfortable in that character and can live in that character. Even if they go off book or we create a new situation, they know how to be Burt Berendsen. They know how to be Valerie Voze or Harold Woodman or Henry Norcross, Paul Canterbury, General Dillenbeck. They know how to do all these things.
Alison Herman: This is a little bit of a more general question about your background, but you have a somewhat novel background for a director in that you started your career as a political organizer and an activist and looking over your biography, I was curious if and how that has affected your work as a filmmaker.
David O. Russell: Which part of my background?
Alison Herman: The fact that you worked in politics and for political causes before you directed feature films.
David O. Russell: Well, I would say that my involvement in that, there’s lots of ways to be involved in something like that. I was involved in that at a people level and sort of an adventure level on the ground. I never worked with a politician, I was never part of that world. But when I was very young I was very interested in people and so I met many people in many communities who were extremely colorful people who reminded me of some of my relatives who were all working people and who lived in very specific communities. I was always just, as a writer and as a person, fascinated and drawn to those communities. Any of that time I spent in my twenties, which would be in Central America where there was a lot of hope, actually, for change, that obviously cycles. It cycles and cycles back into the same issue, but there was a great hope and excitement for young people at that time in some places in Central America when I was young. It was really great for me and my girlfriend to go down there and meet people and work with them and become friends with them and help in any way we could. That was that. Same thing for when I worked in New England, Maine, or other places, in Massachusetts. It was that kind of work. That again is character work, not ideological really. Yeah.
Alison Herman: Well I know in addition to your creative work, you’ve also worked with organizations like Ghetto Film School over the years that worked with underrepresented communities to help them bring into the industry. I was just wondering what your perspective on supporting creators from marginalized backgrounds is and why you think that’s an important cause to take on?
David O. Russell: It’s really fun, it’s really exciting. There are new voices. I always say to everybody I invite to join us, I’ve been 20 years in doing everything I can to in any modest way help The Ghetto Film School, which was named by the students. People always say, “Where did that name come from?” The students named it, from the Bronx and Harlem, and then it grew to be embraced, and over the years, this is a public high school program that was an afterschool program in the Bronx and started by Joe Hall and Stash Mintech and others that then became kind of a magnet school for any borough if you wanted to participate. Storytelling always motivated me as a student and so the high school graduation rate is huge at these schools because the kids are so motivated. I’m old enough now, they’ve been there long enough now that I’ve seen them become writers or filmmakers at Netflix or other places, I’ve seen them become managers, I’ve seen them become tech crew people, and it’s expanded to Los Angeles as well. It’s in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles and it’s expanded to London as well. They have opportunities that I never had, really, in terms of learning through film. I would’ve loved to have the school that they have.
When I was young, that was also what I did. I would have people I worked with from other communities, new immigrants from Central America or other places, write their narratives in English that was broken, which was empowering because then it’s not such a mystifying thing to speak English. Just like when I speak Spanish, I’m more empowered when I’m goofing around and imitating somebody because I’m less self-conscious of how correct my Spanish is If they’re just allowed to just tell their story in phonetically written English, that was something I did in my twenties. The magazine we created was called In our Own Words and it was just their stories. That was the first film I ever made was a documentary made from one of those stories, someone who would come from Panama to try to make a life here and what they’d gone through as an immigrant, what they faced, what kind of challenges they faced and prejudices and what kind of community they relied on and what kind of parties they had to help them keep loving life.
Alison Herman: Yeah, the long scope of your career is something I wanted to ask about because I think it’s something a lot of people aspire to and would feel very lucky to achieve, but it’s also something that affords you a lot of perspective on the many, many ways in which the industry has changed. My question was just having been making films since the nineties, what do you think is the single most substantive or important change that you’ve observed in making movies?
David O. Russell: There’s so many more movies now, there’s so much more content now. I think it has its pros and its cons. Just like we said about information, right? There’s so much more information now than there was 100 years ago. That has its pros and its cons. Information can be misused and listen, it’s thrilling that more people are making content, it’s thrilling that more voices are getting to tell stories and there’s no two ways about it, so that’s cool. In terms of the excitement around a theatrical movie that has, I think no secret, become more of a big superhero event and our movies were always the rarity, the movies about people in a house or in some office somewhere. Those are the rarities to become theatrical events. That has not changed for me. I’m always looking to tell these stories that are always guided by what excites me the most and this one is the most ambitious one and the most ambitious storytelling that has the most layers in it, which I’m excited about for audiences to see how much there is in it, for them to watch once and maybe watch again because it’s fun and it’s also, there’s a lot there. Just each performance in itself is something that I was privileged and grateful to write these parts for these actors and to create this world over this number of years with this group of collaborators.
You want to make one that bears looking at many times and that never changed for me. That’s always the wish. As Aaron Sorkin says, “You may hit the ball three at 10 times, which makes you Hall of Famer in baseball.” That means seven times you didn’t hit it, you wanted to. This one, I love how we hit this one, and Christian and I feel this way and so does Margot and many other members of the cast.
Alison Herman: I think we only have time for one or two more questions, but one thing I was interested in is that the last time you took a hiatus between films for about this long was between I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter and The Fighter kicked off this incredible run of productivity from you where you go from The Fighter to American Hustle to Joy. I left out, I’m sorry, I left out Silver Linings. It’s very important. It won’t Jennifer Lawrence an Oscar and everything.
David O. Russell: It’s a beloved story for me and the people who made it because it’s personal to us also. I still have people who come up to me and say, “This movie helped us with what we’re facing in our family. We have someone in our family who’s facing these challenges and the movie is a comfort to us.” That’s because our hearts went into it because some many of the people who made that movie, Silver Linings, had family members who were facing those challenges. We just made a extended cut. Bradley worked on it with Jay Cassidy when he was making A Star Is Born and we added 15 minutes that are just fantastic and we’re hoping Lionsgate will give us a chance to put it out there because that’s the issue with the tent though.
When you open up the tent, there’s so much content. Does it all become more equal? Where is the excitement and in creating something with added content? It’s exciting, I think, to people who like the film or want to discover it or rediscover it.
Yeah, this will open a period for me of new productivity. I think it was a period of incubation, writing Amsterdam, as it was leading up to The Fighter, which then led to Silver Linings, American Hustle, Joy. This, I think will lead to a run, knock on wood, grateful to be working, to another two or three films that I’m excited and ready to make and have been writing and ready to make.
Alison Herman: Do you have an idea what the next thing is yet or is that still in the works?
David O. Russell: There’s two projects I’m very focused on and there’s cast members I’m talking to, as always, who are collaborating with me already but let’s focus on Amsterdam right now. This is the one that was six years in the making and we’re happy to show it to the world. My first movie ever on IMAX, which I saw in London for the first time, which was kind of amazing to see because we made it a visual feast with Chivo and the cast and the designers.
My aspiration every time I write for an actor is to create a role that shows them in a way that that actor has never been seen before and that’s the special effect in our movies is those characters. The intention in collaborating with Christian, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, De Niro, everybody, to Chris Rock, is to create characters that people will say, “Oh, I’ve never seen this actor be a character like this.” That’s the main event and that’s the main intention as a writer and for the whole film.
Alison Herman: All right. Well, I think that brings us to the end of this interview, but you can see Amsterdam in theaters, including on IMAX now as of when you’re listening to this, and David O. Russel, thank you so much for joining us.
Speaker 1: On Writing is a production of The Writer’s Guild of America East. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer, tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw and Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writer’s Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org. You can follow the Guild on all social media platforms at WGAEast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on.