David O. Russell's trademark longish hair is gone now, replaced by a clean, short-cropped look. But sitting back in New York City's Lobby Lounge in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel overlooking Central Park, he wears the same retro sneakers and dress-shirt-with-jacket ensemble that he's been known for since his 1994 art-house hit debut, "Spanking the Monkey." In the intervening years, the 52-year-old director has made three films of varying commercial success, each with an integrity that earned him the "auteur" label; he has erupted into two spectacularly notorious on-set freak-outs; and he walked away from a disastrous, three-year production.
It's the sort of trajectory that could earn a filmmaker a sad epitaph about brilliance wasted. Or, it could be the setup to a heart-warming third act, one in which the director comes in from the cold to strike with familiar precision. If current Oscar buzz — which in this town, is like rocket fuel — is any indication, then Russell's arc is well on its way to striking the right target with "The Fighter."
"To be humbled," says Russell, "it makes you all the more grateful to get great material. I am so happy to be a part of this."
The film is itself a comeback tale of two real-life boxer brothers, Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, from Lowell, Mass., who were nearly defeated by their own demons; in Dicky's case, drugs, and in Micky's, his self-destructive loyalty to his brother and mother (played by Melissa Leo), who were his trainer and manager.
Russell's frequent collaborator, Mark Wahlberg, had been trying to make the movie for decades. The actor, who plays younger brother Micky ( Christian Bale plays Dicky) and is also a producer on the film, had begun training as a boxer in earnest four years ago, when Darren Aronofsky was at the helm. As a friend, Russell gave advice to Wahlberg, whom he had directed in 1999's "Three Kings" and 2004's "I Heart Huckabees," particularly about lightening the mood of the film.
And while a green light eluded the project, Wahlberg counseled Russell right back; namely, regarding the director's struggles with "Nailed," a political satire of the health-care industry starring Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal. After production began in 2008, and actor James Caan left over creative differences on set, problems with financing caused several stoppages. (This past summer, Russell took his name off the film, which will be completed by another director. "You have to move on," he says.)
When the "Nailed" production went into limbo in early 2009, and Aronofsky had bowed out of "The Fighter," Russell stepped in on the boxing film. Above all, he says, he wanted to do justice to the Eklund-Wards, a working-class family of seven sisters and two brothers, in depicting them with "grab your throat" realism, but also with humor and heart. Coming in on a script that had been worked on for years was a change for Russell, who wrote all of his previous films. He agreed to shoot the boxing scenes as Wahlberg suggested, as if they were real HBO telecasts. And the director tried to "not overthink things" on the speedy, 33-day shoot.
This coming from a man who depicted existential detectives in a meaning-of-life film ("Huckabees") suggests a significant creative about-face — or, an existential crisis, even. Russell doesn't dodge the issue. "There's nothing like necessity to make you focus," he says, addressing his 2007 divorce from his wife and "Spanking the Monkey" executive producer Janet Grillo (they have a son). "I started to have to pay the bills more and double my nut."
But just because he's taken some hits, it doesn't mean Russell has lost his edge. Taking spare sips of his Cabernet Sauvignon, he's raw and uninhibited between questions, cracking jokes about Bale without his pants on and sexting producer Scott Rudin.
Russell is more id than super ego, which could help explain why he locked horns with George Clooney on the set of "Three Kings," and violently cursed out Lily Tomlin on "Huckabees." "Who does that, and doesn't feel bad about it?" Russell asks about the incidents. "It's two out of 200 days, but there's no excuse. That's embarrassing stuff that you never want to do again." (Russell says that nothing like that happened on "The Fighter." And while there haven't been similar reports from that set, co-star Leo has made mention of tensions running high during the shoot.)
Wahlberg says that Russell "has grown spiritually, emotionally," but he doesn't apologize for his director's intensity. "He likes to throw a lot of curve balls at you," he says. "And I am comfortable with that."
So much so that the two are hoping to make another movie together: an adaptation of a video game, "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune," which Russell is writing with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in mind as Wahlberg's father and uncle, respectively.
It looks to be another departure for Russell, a big-budget blockbuster, but it'll be his own script again, his own vision. "I told him early on [with 'The Fighter'], 'Don't worry, the next time we make a movie, it'll be right back to the way it was,'" recalls Wahlberg, speaking about their creative collaboration — although he should know he's presenting his "brother" a double-edged sword. After all, on "The Fighter," Russell proved he could make a highly hyped movie without incident.
Russell acknowledges the value of this detour. "Briskness keeps you out of the recesses of your own head," the director says. "There's no time for nonsense."