Interview: David O. Russell on the Art and Commerce of ‘The Fighter’

By  · Published on December 13th, 2010

The Fighter is the perfect type of project for David O. Russell to followup I Heart Huckabees with. I Heart Huckabees was a very alienating film for many viewers, most not feeling the ‘existential comedy’ vibe. It isn’t what you would call the most accessible film, and Russell even refers to it as an experiment. The Fighter is a lot safer, on a commercial level. It’s the type of film that practically excludes no one. The Fighter strikes a perfect balance of art and commerce.

Russell and I spent most of the time in our 13-minute interview discussing this. If you’ve ever seen one of his films, then you know he shows a true love for his characters. No matter how moronic they act or how much they do wrong, David O. Russell still strives for nothing but empathy and love.

If you want to know what kind of characters David O. Russell responds to, read our interview with the man:

Going from a war heist film to an existential comedy to a sports drama is a pretty eclectic mix. Are you always searching for diversity with your films?

It’s really all about when you get a piece of material that’s fantastic, the characters are fantastic, and things like that make you very adamant. What makes good things? Bad, good ideas. Bad, good characters. Whatever seems amazing is going to make for something good. I don’t know what genre that will be, but it can be any kind of story.

All your films you can’t put in a box.

Yeah, but I think you probably get that from a few filmmakers ‐ a couple of them, at least. This one, this one was just really… I mean, you got a strong mother, seven strong sisters, and two brothers. The whole thing was just so amazing. It played to things I knew, from things of my own family to things in my work. I knew it was going to be a really interesting movie.

Similar to your other films, there’s a very kindhearted look at these characters. Are you naturally empathetic?

I always say that I think humor is the most important thing to me. I feel it in all the dimensions of what “heartfelt” means, you know? That means dark and that means light. That’s why these people, I find them… they have to be raw, but it has to be real and also have some kind of love in them. For better or worse, you have to love them, in someway. I love Dicky. I love Micky. I love the sisters. You have to love these people. Fortunately, when I met them I got a really good feeling about them.

You also never make fun of them or revel in their failures.

Yeah, I don’t know what would be good about that. I’m not into the “mean-spirited” thing. I think that’s cheap and easy to do. That doesn’t mean you’re easy yourself, but I just think you need to look at it in a real way. That includes a lot of fucked up stuff [Laughs]. There’s plenty of stuff these people lived through, and I don’t mean to revel in that. It speaks for itself. We all make our own lives difficult already.

Was it a conscious decision after I Heart Huckabees to make something more accessible?

Yeah, I Heart Huckabees was much more of an experimental movie. It was a little more “out there”, and that’s what fired up that movie. What fired it up was the feeling and wanting of that urge of taking a risk. I wanted to tell a story a little more unusually, experimental, and “out there” that was heartfelt. In this case, it was much more about raw and real regular people, even if they are extraordinary. I find the extraordinary more in the ordinary, in this case.

Would you say The Fighter is your most commercial film?

[Pause] Probably. Yeah, I guess so. I think the film came out well on a bunch of levels. It’s emotional, but also propulsive. My main thing is that I really wanted to grab the viewer, really make you feel like you’ve been grabbed by a cinematic experience. The texture it has also gets that authentically kind of mandate, which is really earned.

With films like The Fighter and Three Kings, you really balanced art and commerce. Where do the two meet for you?

[Pause] I think you kind of know, to some degree, if a film has a very visceral and human appeal. If you wanna do something in more of an artful way, then that’s cool. You can do that endeavor. I think the more you make films… it’s also great to be responsible, financially, about that endeavor. I think that’s how everyone gets their wish on a film. If you’re doing something that’s more experimental, obviously you’re going to get less money. In this case, we didn’t have a lot of money, but we did know we had hold of something that was pretty much from the gut and the heart, in a way.

It’s a very universal type of film.

You know, when we had our first preview it was with an urban audience with all kinds of people from their twenties to thirties. They were all different races. Because of that, I remember thinking, “What is this going to be like?” In the first three or four minutes, I realized they were completely at home with the characters and that they knew those characters. The characters are very real type of people that we’ve all known in one way or another. I think that’s what makes it appealing, if that’s what you’re talking about. There’s universal appeal, in that way.

Thematically, most of your films explore something very relatable: striving for happiness. What keeps you interested in that search?

[Pause] I think that’s what everybody wants. I think what makes this an amazing story is how crazy life is. I don’t know. I always quote George Lucas: it’s not hard to show you how hard life is or to make you feel the pain of that, and I think that’s kind of easy. I think that’s easy on a daily basis and is easy to do in cinema, and that’s not a judgment about any filmmakers choice to do that. I think you got to deal with what moves you. If that’s what moves you… I’ve been moved a few times in my work when I just wanted to dig into something that was dark and painful. George Lucas says it’s not hard to make you feel something painful, I can wring a kitten’s neck and make you feel bad.

I think what’s hard is capturing the full realism of a person: what makes them funny, but at the same time, tragic. Also, what makes them heroic or flawed ‐ that’s the stuff. They are these surprising and fascinating people that if you saw them you’d be like, “Wow. Who are you? Who are these people? Oh my god, I just met this guy!” That’s the stuff that’s tough to do, in a way that really feels real and aggressive. I think a part of that is people trying to find or getting happiness. If you do it the real way, it’s going to always feel real. It will also be fascinating, in some weird way, if you do it right. That’s what people are, if you get it right.

The Fighter is also about the ups and downs of a performer. As a director, how do you connect with that?

I totally connect to it. I think Micky inspires anybody who is dealing with life in anyway. I think that we all go through ‐ definitely I do ‐ similar struggles. Micky is my teacher, in terms of perseverance and humility. He’s got so much heart and humility. I don’t know how to talk about that, but you see all the stuff that he deals with in terms of his love life and his family, and how much those things can become obstacles. It’s also about how much he can believe in himself to be something, and that’s always inspiring to me if you sneak up on it in a way that feels real and dodges the clichés.

I think that’s a real inspiring thing. Micky is a great guy because he doesn’t really need to talk a lot and just goes out and does what he has to do, and that’s very inspiring to me. He can take a punch. He can take five punches to give just one. He’s a guy who can pick himself back up and put himself back together, and someone like that is always an inspiring person to me.

The Fighter is now in limited release and expands next Friday.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.