Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Alison Herman

Promotional poster for AMSTERDAM

Host Alison Herman talks to writer and director David O. Russell about themes like love and loyalty in AMSTERDAM, his long collaboration with actors like Christian Bale, his real life work with organizations like Ghetto Film School to increase representation in Hollywood, and more.

David O. Russell is a writer and director known for films like THE FIGHTER, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, AMERICAN HUSTLE, and JOY. He has received numerous accolades for his screenplays, including three Academy and Writers Guild Award and two Golden Globe nominations, and two BAFTA and Independent Spirit Awards. He has also received multiple nominations and wins for his directorial work.

His latest project is the period mystery film AMSTERDAM, which he wrote and directed. The comedy follows three friends and World War I veterans who witness—and are subsequently implicated in—the murder of a U.S. Senator and wind up uncovering one of the most outrageous plots in American history.

The film will be released in theaters on October 7, 2022.

Alison Herman is a staff writer for The Ringer, where she writes about culture in general and television in specific. When not fighting a losing battle against Peak TV, she tweets at @aherman2006.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Speaker 1: Hello, you’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. In each episode you’ll hear from the writers of your favorite films and television series. They’ll take you behind the scenes, go deep into the writing and production process and explain how they got their project from the page to the screen.

Alison Herman: You’re listening to on Writing, a podcast of the Writer’s Guild of America East. Today we are fortunate enough to be joined by David O. Russell, the writer and director of the film, Amsterdam, among many others. Full disclosure, we do get into the full plot of the movie in the following conversation, so we recommend to protect yourself from spoilers that you listen after you have seen the film, which of course we recommend that you do.

In this conversation I talk with David about themes like love and loyalty in Amsterdam, his long collaboration with actors like Christian Bale, as well as his real life work with organizations like The Ghetto Film School to increase representation in Hollywood. We hope you’ll give it a listen.

David, thank you so much for joining us.

David O. Russell: Thanks, Alison. I’m happy to do this for the Guild.

Alison Herman: Of course. Well, we often ask our guests about their writing process or their writing routine, but my understanding is for Amsterdam it was kind of a break in routine for you. I’ve read that some of your earlier scripts were completed very quickly, like Spanking the Monkey, and it sounds like this one took shape over several years almost but I’d love to hear a bit from you about what that process was like.

David O. Russell: Well, Silver Lining’s Playbook was a script I wrote over a period of a couple of years before I got to make The Fighter, so I was happy to have that and then get to write it again, rewrite it, after I made The Fighter, cause I couldn’t get it made before The Fighter. This process probably was the longest process because it was the most ambitious and I would describe the picture as an epic comedic thriller about love and loyalty and shocking unknown history.

The start of it for me, as with some of the other pictures, is a conversation with the actors and wanting to create characters. That has always motivated me from, that’s what I always loved in movies was the characters. You walk out of the movie theater and you feel like the character, you see the world like the character for the minute, and it enchants you like a great piece of music.

Christian and I were working together on this character, Dr. Burt Berendsen. We wanted him to be an outsider as most of my characters are, an outsider with a heart and his best friend, Harold Woodman, John David Washington, who was part of the conversation. This went on for about six years, Christian and I meeting twice, sometimes three times in a diner on the west side of Los Angeles because it was exciting for us to have a place to go to and speak and create this together. The idea that they were best friends, we wanted to make a movie about best friends with Margot Robbie, Valerie Voze, the formidable, amazing, mysterious Valerie Voze. She was part of the process for at least three years. We wanted three friends, very, very good friends. The kind of friendships that one would wish for over a period of a decade or more in the epic sense, that you lose track of each other, you re-find each other.

They’re fixers, Harold Woodman and Dr. Burt Berendsen, meaning they’re up around 148th Street, which is where many relatives of mine, believe it or not, on one side of my family actually lived or had businesses a long time ago. They’re in a low rent area. One’s a doctor, one’s a lawyer, they both were scholarship guys and they’re fixers. You have a problem, Allison, you’re down on your chips whether you’re a veteran or not, these guys are veterans from the Great War. You see they’ve been through something, but they got a spring on their step, a song on their heart. They’re still loving life somehow and part of that’s from how they work together as friends to help people. I love the idea of fixers. That was the original … For medical, legal, or any issue, you go to these guys when you have no resort, no other resort. That was the first genesis of it.

They were joined together by this magical experience with Valerie Voze, Margot Robbie. Yeah. So the first part is you meet these guys as fixers, but I should let … Yeah, that’s a long answer to your first question.

Alison Herman: No, it makes a lot of sense. You’re saying that you were initially drawn to the idea of these characters who are fictional, but as the title card to your movie states, some of this really happened and there are elements of a true historical narrative as well that are sort of woven into it. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you encountered that story and how you fused it with these fictional characters that you were coming up with.

David O. Russell: Well, history’s really exciting, especially when it’s unknown history because it’s exciting to the writer and the actor and to the audience. Of all the films a filmmaker gets to make, there’s certain ones you know always hope to make. I knew that I always hoped to make a film about these friendships, these three friends who back into something huge and unexpected, that is a history that I never knew, that nobody I met knew, which has happened to me in other pictures. I would say The Third Man, Chinatown. You have the characters who are really alive and independent and fun, whether it’s Joseph Cotton or Faye Dunaway or Jack Nicholson, but then you have this thing they’re backing into that gets bigger and bigger that it took me 10 years after watching Chinatown because I was a kid when I saw it to understand it was really about the creation of Los Angeles, and then someone said to me, “Well what did you think it was about?”

I thought it was about the characters. I thought it was about their incredible independence and their toughness and their inner vulnerability and their yearning for love and their inner tragedy that they’ve experienced but their wish to overcome it in a kind of innocent childlike way. Not childish but childlike and the score echoes that. That’s what these characters are built. You’re informed by history you’re discovering, which is really great as a writer.

There is a real character like Christian’s character who was selected as a doctor, a medical officer for this unit. There was this unit formed that John David Washington’s in by a really cool person who believed there should absolutely be this unit, but they had to have officers they could trust who they didn’t think were going to get him killed. As Christian Bale says, “Is that’s supposed to be me?” Yeah, that’s you.

What they both share when they meet, Christian Bale and John David Washington, is they’re both have been sent over there in a way, they realize, to be gotten rid of. Christian feels that his in-laws, he’s married above his station to the remarkable Andrea Riseborough, have sent him over there to get rid of him. This is why they trust each other because they’re in this together and as outsiders of the main path of American history.

There’s lots in there. There’s so many historic Easter eggs in here that it would almost be fun to do a piece just about that but mostly you want to create your own original world, which we’ve done, that is enchanting. That I would say is true even when you’re doing a film like The Fighter that’s based on real people. Your main intention is to create a world of it that pulls you in right away and the characters are people you want to get to know and you love and you lean into.

Alison Herman: Yeah. You’re describing this history as relatively obscure and little known. I guess I’m just also curious how you personally first encountered some of these stories.

David O. Russell: All over the place. There’s all kinds of documentaries you can watch, they’re all over YouTube, there’s all sort of history books. I don’t want to give all my magicians tricks away. There are all these amazing sources. I think that’s for the audience to do really. I’m not here to tell people about history. I’m here to give them a fun movie that, just like when I saw those other movies I named, I didn’t go there because I wanted to learn about the origins of Los Angeles from Robert Town or Jack Nicholson. I wanted to see a movie that I thought was cool and fun and that moved me. Same thing with Carol Reed’s picture, The Third Man. I wanted to see a picture that was unlike any other picture I’d seen that was a world that was sort of exotic and amazing and the characters were very accessible but had a lot of heart and had an adventure that kind of blew my mind. That was our intention here for the love, the loyalty, the world. You want to create a world, whether it’s The Fighter, whether it’s Silver Linings, whether it’s any of these pictures, You want a world that is unique unto itself and a world you can visit when you visit the movie as when you visit a piece of music.

Alison Herman: Sure. You’ve collaborated a lot with Christian Bale over the years, obviously from Fighter and American Hustle and he was part of this project from its inception it sounds like. What in your words would you say is the benefit of collaborating with an actor in general that early throughout the process and what are the benefits of collaborating with Christian Bale specifically?

David O. Russell: I think it’s really alive. It really helps me write from instinct because the best writing comes from instinct and emotion inside of yourself and where you correlate it to personal experiences you have. We’re all walking around full of personal experiences we’ve all had, stories we’ve all had that we’re ready to tell. Sometimes you don’t realize until you tell a certain story and then all sorts of stories come out. There’s many things in this picture that are personal stories of mine, that are personal stories of the cast. I invite the cast to make it as personal, as alive as they wish to, to create a space where we can do that together over the course of the years of writing or even in production and in the editing room. Christian was in the editing room quite a lot. Margot was tremendously helpful in the editing room, she’s very smart. Jay Cassidy’s a magnificent editor and Rami Malek also spent a great deal of time in the edit room.

For a writer who been sitting alone in a room for 30 years or plus, I started writing when I was a teenager, which goes back even further, it’s nice to get up and go somewhere and to meet a kind of collaborator. That’s Christian in this case and Margot in this case and then John David and then Robert De Niro and then Rami Malek and Mike Myers and Chris Rock and Mike Shannon and a Anya Taylor-Joy sort of in that order, the conversations unfold, Zoe Saldana, and it’s a living conversation and you find things that you both really are dialed into humanly and you’re relating them to yourselves. You’re creating something that has life in it and you’re making it together and it helps you picture it, it helps you write it, it helps you create the voice for it, the voice from your own voice as a writer to the voice that the actor has to the voices you’ve created before when you’ve collaborated before. This is our third collaboration, Christian and mine, and my fourth with Robert De Niro. That’s a privilege, a humbling privilege to make something special together, to try to, and that’s what it does.

You start creating this character, you start creating the world, you watch documentaries, you see people in a ballroom dancing in New York and this wonderful world created by Chivo, Emmanuel Lubezki, and Judy Becker, our designer and J.R. Hawbaker, our costume designer, and Allen Maris, visual effects, we created a world that feels contemporary. Whenever I saw a period picture, I always wanted to feel contemporary, whether it was Jules and Jim or the Sting or Chinatown, it would have a contemporary feeling to it. It has to feel contemporary. You’re not in any way trying to, it must feel authentic and enchanting in its own way, but contemporary, immediate like it could be happening right now.

Having these conversations is enormously helpful. You look at all the people in the ballroom, you see two people in a picture of 500 people. Well, look at those two people dancing together. They don’t look anything like each other. I’ve never heard their story. We’re going to tell their story. How about these two best friends? I’ve not seen a lot of pictures of two best friends like that. I’m going to tell their story. This gave us the license, if you will, to know these people had lived and they’ve lived through many chapters and we can tell their story through our picture.

Alison Herman: Yeah. Six years is obviously quite a long time to spend on a single project. Were you working on Amsterdam continuously through that time or were there other projects that you kind of took on and then came back to Amsterdam? What was the sort of balance or focus over more than half a decade that this was in the works?

David O. Russell: I would say Amsterdam was the number one love that I was writing. Christian would come and go. He would get big and make [inaudible 00:14:00] and come back. He would go make Ford versus Ferrari and come back. I’d visit Margot on the set of Suicide Squad. John David made Black KKKlansmen, which I loved and helped host some events for, and that was how I met him. Bob De Niro was making many things, as was Myers and others, Chris Rock doing a lot as we know, but some of these people I’ve had the privilege to know for many years and we’ve said, “Gosh,” like a band, “Wouldn’t it be great to play together and wouldn’t it be great to harmonize together or hear you solo in our band?” This is in a way that bringing together many voices of many people I’ve known for many years, but this was number one for me.

I did work on something else for Robert and some others that may become a motion picture still and that took some time. I’m always writing. Writing, working makes me happy even though as Billy Wilder said, “It’s blood, sweat and tears.” He also said, “It’s a drag,” in the sense that as a smart person once said to me, “Did you expect it to be easy?” If you want make something good and you want it to be good and you want it to be its own thing, you can’t expect it to be easy in some way.

We had our chance to do right so much, I probably wrote, Christian keeps them in his kitchen covered and he Chivo and others would keep track of the drafts more than I would because you have to eventually pick the one that’s going to be budgeted and go into production with New Regency, which was tremendously loyal to me throughout with producers, Matt Budman and Katagas and the Milchans. There might be 14 more drafts or more and there’s a novel here. There’s other chapters that I would love to make that couldn’t go into this epic movie right now that I still would love to make. They might be a sequel, it might become a novel or something. They’re incredible chapters that we brought up even to the present day or not the present day, more like the sixties. Because those people would’ve expired probably in the eighties, the 1980s.

Alison Herman: Yeah, that was actually another question I had just because it sounded like this went through so many drafts over the years. Were there alternate structures or other characters that maybe other forms the movie took that we just didn’t get to see?

David O. Russell: This we thought was sort of the ideal structure. There were other ones. There were many. That’s sort of the advantage of writing for this long is that the actors had never gotten the chance to collaborate so long in creating their roles and being so saturated in who their characters are. Christian and Margot and John David had props in their houses during the pandemic that they were making things for their character in the movie during the pandemic and before the pandemic. We started this before a lot of weirdness started to happen in our contemporary world. This started a long time ago, six, seven years ago, so we were starting this in our own world when the world seemed a little bit level, if you will.

This structure where you begin with a mystery, I’ve always loved stories inside of stories and we did it in American Hustle and we did it a little bit in Silver Linings and we did it in The Fighter as well, that you have to tell other parts of a story that happened earlier and you have to think of an artful way to do that so the audience is ready for it and they want it. Don’t want to answer a question they’re not asking.

We start the picture with Christian in his office, this ramshackle office where he’ll sing with patients, anything he can do to help them, trying to invent medicines that have not been invented, that need to be invented but aren’t for another 50, 60 years. Pain medicines, nerve medicines to calm the nerves. Imagine having these conditions then, and this guy’s trying to come up with it back in this period. He’s experimenting, making medicines, and he’s also got a lot of people in there who need help who don’t have a lot of money, and he gets a call to meet Harold Woodman. This is the opening of the picture. We say a lot of this really happened because a lot of it really did happen. But in a good fictional story, it’ll take you a while to go figure out which parts those are.

Harold Woodman, let me go see my best friend, Harold Woodman, J.D. Washington. Meets him at a location, he’s never been new before. Right away you’re into a conversation between these two friends. They know each other well, “What are we doing here? What’s the situation?”

“Oh, Bill Meekins. Oh, who’s this? Liz Meekins the daughter. Oh my God, you’re you’re the daughter. We love your father. You brought us together in our regiment.” Wow. what a privilege to meet Liz Meekins, Taylor Swift.

“You want me to see your father? I love your father. What’s he got? A bug? I know he goes to Europe all the time on business. Let me have a look at him. Beautiful place he got here, gorgeous.” Walks in, has no clue what he’s about to walk into. All right.

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 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.


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