David O. Russell’s latest film, “American Hustle,” is very loosely based on the Abscam sting operation of the late ’70s/early ’80s that resulted in the conviction of several congressmen and a New Jersey state senator, among others, on bribery charges. But try drawing parallels to the actual events and the producers will hedge their bets every time.
In fact, the film begins with the qualifier “Some of this actually happened,” an indication that the filmmakers took the theme of hustling and ran with it as a metaphor for survival.
“All of these characters are hustling in their personal lives and in their professional lives,” says Charles Roven, a producer on the film along with his Atlas Entertainment partner Richard Suckle, and Annapurna Pictures chief Megan Ellison. “But they’re extremely relatable to a lot of people, because if we’re all truly being honest, we’ve definitely got shades of both and so do those characters.”
Adds Suckle: “What attracted David to the project is a very specific theme about survival. The character of Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale) does what he does because he needs to do it in order to survive. And that’s really what everyone does in the movie, each in their own unique way of course.”
Atlas got involved in the project in 2009, when Eric Warren Singer’s script, originally titled “American Bullshit,” had been making the rounds and ended up No. 8 on the Black List of unproduced screenplays. Russell came aboard in spring 2012, when he was in post on “Silver Linings Playbook,” for which he would eventually earn Oscar nominations for writing and directing.
Two actors from “Linings,” Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, form the core of “Hustle,” along with Bale and Amy Adams, who both starred in Russell’s “The Fighter.”
Whereas Singer’s treatment was focused more on the actual events, Russell’s reworking made the drama more character-driven.
“I come in and I write in my voice,” Russell says. “Eric was very, very helpful in getting me into the world and laying out the bones of the script. And then I took the characters into a fictional place.”
Bale’s inveterate hustler is based on real-life conman Melvin Weinberg, who was recruited by the FBI to participate in a sting operation as it was shifting its efforts from organized to white collar crime. Jeremy Renner plays the mayor of Camden, N.J., who is attempting to raise money to build a casino and is lured by Rosenfeld and FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) into a scam involving millions of dollars and a fake Arab sheikh.
A portion of the film shown at Annapurna’s production office offices reveals many of Russell’s trademarks: colorful performances from actors who’ve disappeared into their roles; rapid-fire dialogue delivered with a shadow boxer’s elan; messy relationships and divided loyalties that threaten to implode at any minute; and tension that runs so thick you can cut it with a knife.
In one amusing scene, Bale’s Rosenfeld is hawking a painting that looks like a Paul Klee. “Is this legit?” asks the prospective buyer. Rosenfeld’s response: “Let’s just say it’s missing from Spain.”
In stark contrast to his emaciated crackhead in “The Fighter,” Bale sports a severe combover and a paunch to rival De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in the closing act of “Raging Bull.” Bale gained between 40 and 50 pounds for the role.
Shooting lasted 42 days over the spring, the majority of which took place in and around Boston, including the suburbs of Worcester and Malden. “It’s very hard to find whole blocks that look like parts of New Jersey or New York from the ’70s,” Russell says. “And you can find them there.”
The Boston Marathon bombing in April held up production for a day but added dimension to the shoot. “It made things feel more emotional and more intense,” Russell says.
The producers are cagey about the film’s budget. “When you take a look at the cast and you take a look at the period and you take a look at the wardrobe and the costumes and the set dressing, I think we made the movie incredibly efficiently,” Roven says. “It’s definitely eight digits, not nine, and it’s not a lot of eight digits either.”
When pressed with a $40 million-$50 million figure, Roven responds: “I’d say that’s a good zone.”
The film reps the second collaboration between Russell and Roven, whom the director calls “a very smart, intense, detail-oriented guy who was not afraid of anything from a line budget to a location to an acting choice to set — everything, every dollar. That’s why he’s so successful. No detail is too small.”
Controversy surrounding heated exchanges on the set of their first film together, “Three Kings,” suggested an autocratic helmer in over his head, which Roven chalks up to the pressures of high-stakes filmmaking. “The fact of the matter is, you’re always fighting the money and the clock, so therefore it can be stressful, and sometimes, when you’re trying to make sure to get the work done, it can just cause you to say something that actually wasn’t meant the way it was heard,” he says.
Among the biggest challenges for the filmmakers on “Hustle” was corralling all the principal talent in a timely fashion. “Jennifer Lawrence had the most confined time because she had to leave to do the next ‘X-Men,’ ” Roven says. “Bradley had the third ‘Hangover.’ ”
“Amy was going off to do a movie with Tim Burton (‘Big Eyes,’ in which Adams plays the painter Margaret Keane).”
In addition, a February start date was moved back since Bale had just come off the Terrence Malick film, “Knight of Cups,” last fall (stills from that shoot show Bale looking fit and trim). “And then David Russell’s Oscar campaign for ‘Silver Linings’ caused us to move the dates a little bit,” adds Roven. “It was just complicated.”
Such complications are par for the course when dealing with, as Russell puts it, his biggest project to date.
“When you make a movie like this you have to be very imaginative about your locations, your budget, and Chuck is very game for any of that,” Russell says. “He always has an opinion and he’ll talk it through with you, and if you go to the end of the line and say, ‘Look, we just differ on this,’ he’ll defer. I’m happy to be pestered, though. I want all the ideas to