Not a Typical Action Movie: David O. Russell on Three Kings
David O. Russell discusses disagreements over writing credits, moving from independent to studio films, and the dark heart of the movie.
By Christian Divine.
Today, writer/director David O. Russell is perhaps best known for Oscar-nominated films such as Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and The Fighter. But before these, it was his critically-aclaimed 1999 film Three Kings that arguably launched his career.
Neither of David O. Russell’s earlier independent films, the uncomfortably amusing Spanking the Monkey (1994) and the oddly hilarious Flirting with Disaster (1996), seemed to pave the way for Three Kings, a $50 million Warner Bros. summer movie starring George Clooney.
Best described as a political action black comedy (based on a high-concept script called Spoils of War by John Ridley), Three Kings deals with a quartet of US soldiers attempting to steal millions in Kuwait gold during the Gulf War. In the course of their thievery, they realize that much more is at stake as they witness the brutal aftereffects of our hypocritical foreign policy against Saddam Hussein, once our friend and the heroic centerpiece of a Life profile in the late ’60s. Times do change.
Mixing humor, pathos, and violence, Three Kings is reminiscent of ’70s films such as M*A*S*H, Little Big Man, and The Long Goodbye, where black humor and moral complexity are the order of the day. Russell also let his visual imagination run wild, filming the movie with a saturated stock, shooting action scenes in quick slow-motion cuts or depicting the effects of a bullet inside someone’s stomach.
Certainly not a typical action movie, and producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura deserves much credit for giving Russell the freedom to make a brave and impressive film. At the time of this interview, conducted in 1999, Russell had just returned from the White House after screening the film for President Clinton. David O. Russell proved to be generous with his wit, time, and honesty as we discussed Three Kings and more.
How did you get invited to the White House to show Three Kings for Bill Clinton?
It was out of the blue and a real treat, quite frankly. It was the day the test ban treaty had been vetoed so when we met, Clinton was all on fire about that. He was really eloquent. Then we went to see the movie in the screening room—which needs to be updated; it’s not state of the art. There were about thirty or forty people, people they probably feel they owed invitations.
We showed the movie and it was a real quiet house. I was dying. The humor is not like There’s Something About Mary’s humor in big block letters: HEY, LAUGH AT THIS! LAUGH AT THIS! The material is as disturbing as it is funny. So I think people were self-conscious about laughing at stuff in front of the President so they wouldn’t commit a faux pas.
Like the note in the ass. I was curious how that went over…
Right. There were a couple times where Clinton guffawed really loudly and my wife elbowed me and said, “Bubba likes that.” After the movie, to my pleasant surprise, he held a two-hour impromptu seminar about the history of Iraq policy going back to the 1920s when the artificial borders were created. He’s a bright guy and he was cool. He said, “Apart from being a fabulous movie, this is an important movie because people need to know how this war really ended.” He’s not shy about that shit.
How did you set up Three Kings at Warner Bros.? It’s a very brave film for a major studio. Did they come to you?
Yes. It was a very odd and serendipitous process: David’s Adventure in Studio Land. I thought, what would this be like, to work with something from their candy box? They opened up their logbook to me and this one log line jumped out at me, which was a heist set in the Gulf War, a script by John Ridley. A pretty straight action movie.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In fact, I was researching another script, a turn-of-the-century story, and I didn’t feel I had cracked it, so I started buying books about the Gulf—photojournalist books that had amazing images in them like hundreds of soldiers being stripped in the desert and Bart Simpson dolls on grills of cars. All this incongruous stuff. There was once a scene where they ate animals in the zoo…
So you found the log line—
It took me by surprise and eventually to everybody’s surprise, I said, “I think I want to do this.” And everybody’s eyebrows went up. Including my agent’s. They were all like, “What?” I said it’s going to be crazy textured, with all the politics and everything. To me, the heist is the least interesting part.
So I went off, researched, and wrote it for eighteen months. It was a fun scriptwriting process, like no other I’d ever done. I would make columns of things I found fascinating, and then I would build the script that way. So it’s not character-driven, which is obvious from the movie. There was very volatile material which hadn’t been put in the face of Americans about what really happened there.
I read papers, talked to veterans and Iraqis. Then I sewed together the quilt of this script. It was liberating, because it was blank as the desert, a palette where I could do a lot of different things, including action, which I hadn’t done before. I wanted to click on lots of information, like click on their day jobs, click on the wife at home, click on how this punk sees violence as opposed to how violence really is. I’ll do it and see how it works in the editing.
John Ridley has been vocal in his displeasure over credit…
He certainly has. I thought we had an amicable agreement. He was all friendly when we made the credit agreement.
You just used his premise of the heist in the Gulf.
That was all I took from his script, and frankly, that’s the most boring thing about the movie. Which in a way was an albatross, because I thought it was going to help me write faster. It was sort of the opposite.
Ridley was part of the process in the beginning?
Yeah, he sold his script. Like every other writer. I don’t understand what his whining is about because it’s the most common experience in Hollywood. You write a script, you sell it and get paid. Goodbye. You’re lucky you’re not rewritten 700 times.
If he wants to direct his own scripts, he should control them a little bit. If he thinks it’s such a work of genius, I think he’d let me publish my script. I even offered to publish both scripts in one volume.
That’s a great idea.
He won’t do it. He got paid, he got co-producer credit, he was all amicable. I wanted to publish the screenplay and then he started playing the jilted writer.
Did he see the film and have a problem with it?
Not to my knowledge.
Was there WGA arbitration at all?
No. He decided not to. I was happy to go either way because I knew I had a very strong case. I think what is truly accurate is screenplay by me, and story by him and me. With him getting first position. He said he wanted sole story credit. I said okay and he got co-producer credit.
Is this going to make you wary in the future?
Oh yeah. [laughs]
You used to be an activist, so did you purposely set out to spotlight our foreign policy?
Definitely. That was one of my main motivations. It wasn’t dealing with characters so much as I did in my other movies, it was being driven by the political charge of the material. I couldn’t believe that no other filmmaker had gone after this and I couldn’t believe that Warner Bros. was going to let me do it.
Why did they?
They were hungry to work with independent filmmakers. They’ve done it before. Joe Gerber and Lorenzo Di Bonaventura were all jazzed about working with me. They were happy to let me do my thing.
In terms of action movies, are you a fan or was it new territory?
I’m not a huge action movie fan, although the other idea that was a big motivator was violence. There hadn’t been a war film since Platoon, so I thought, “Great! I’m going to explore this territory in a totally different way.”
So while I’m writing it I find out that Spielberg and Malick are doing these epic war movies! Yet mine was contemporary and nothing like theirs. The whole process of resensitizing violence cinematically captivated me at the time. I felt that bullets had become glib and cartoonish, even in really smart independent movies, so I wanted to render their impact more real.
Sometimes I write in friends’ homes, and I have a friend who was a doctor in an emergency room. I was writing and I said to him, “What exactly does a bullet do?” We talked about it and I thought, “I’m going to write this, show this, and if it doesn’t work we can cut it later.”
I thought that was a brilliant moment. Where did this rumor come up that you used a real corpse?
This researcher from Newsweek was talking to me and saying, “How you going to market this anyway? My friends don’t get the trailer. What about this fight you had with George Clooney?” He was being really aggressive. I got annoyed and decided to take my revenge. I said that we used an actual corpse…and we had only one take using a high-speed camera to get that bullet going right through and the toughest thing was getting a light in there. So he writes the thing up and the next thing the morticians’ association is calling Warner Bros. and protesting the unethical use of a corpse. It was kind of fun. Harmless.
There’s a great scene where they destroy the helicopter with the armed football. It’s a cool action scene, but you cut away to the aftermath of the crash and it’s not a triumph at all. There are human beings in there.
That’s a scene I debated right up to the shoot, whether I was going to keep that. There were some who wanted me to nail home the point about black quarterbacks or give skin to the Iraqi guy. I was like, “No way.”
In the script they do high-five each other.
I think that was a draft with Troy and they punch their fists together. Then it’s something you get close to and realize it doesn’t feel good.
You took the least obvious approach. In a typical action movie, the characters would blow up the chopper and say “Spike!”
In the script, you also indicate a lot of visual directions.
That took a lot of work to translate that to the camera department.
So when you’re writing, you see exactly how you want to shoot the scene.
Yes. Then you have to make that technically happen. You have to experiment. Definitely with the shootout. When we looked at the first cut of the shootout, I didn’t think it was going to work. I said, “Thank God, we covered this normally.” And the editor says, “But you guys didn’t cover it normally.” I was shitting my pants thinking we were going to reshoot!
There are lots of cool visual touches in the film.
I’m totally a beginner filmmaker, and I’m learning. My motives were political and informational, but also visual. I’d never been so visually motivated in any screenplay I ever wrote. Any flaws in the film are attributed to this, as well as its assets. I was experimenting with being a more visual writer.
We studied these photojournalists, like Kenneth Jarecke’s book Just Another War, and it’s amazing—haunting black and white photos of the Gulf War. A brilliant book. We strove for that look in the film: a big, blank empty landscape with a person here and a truck way far away, that kind of thing. It was a little bit film school for me, so I’ll take a lot that I learned and go back to something that’s closer to my ballpark.
I think the dark heart of the movie is the interrogation scene. You get to hear the other side’s version of things. It’s horrifying what happens to Mark Wahlberg, but you can’t hate the interrogator.
One of the things that inspired me was that the war was like a computer picture from an airplane. So who are the people? It’s a dangerous thing because you can dehumanize the enemy. What would it be like to meet an Iraqi who didn’t want to serve in Saddam’s army—which most of them don’t want to and bring him face to face with an American. That was exciting to me.
Did you interview any Iraqi soldiers?
We did. A lot of the people in the movie were Iraqi and we cast them out of Deerborn, Michigan, where’s there’s an Iraqi community…. I met a lot of them after I finished the script and asked if this was right, or this. But as a writer, you’d be surprised at how many of one’s instincts are right, strictly from intuition.
I don’t know if it was Henry James who said as a writer, you should be able to walk by a house, and if the door opens for a moment and you get a glimpse into the kitchen where people are eating, then when the door closes, you should be able to write a story about that house.
Do you have certain habits to get yourself in the mood?
I have to write down all the things about an idea that excite me and I have to have the whole menu at my disposal. Sometimes I have charts on the wall. Once I outline—and I outline and outline—I have to insist that I write eight pages a day, otherwise I’ll never finish the script, or I’ll go over a couple pages a million times. Then I give it to another friend of mine so I can’t go back. You have to keep marching forward or you’ll never get it out of your head. I write longhand and then I transcribe onto the computer.
How long did it take to write Three Kings?
I had about a 200-page script after six months, but I wasn’t happy with it. I put it down for a few months before it became closer to my own version.
You gave it to the studio and they said go ahead.
At the beginning, they said, “Where’s the script? We paid you the advance and we normally expect a first draft in twelve weeks.” And I said, “That’s why most of your movies suck.”
What was it like going from indie to studio?
Warner Bros. had this great Steve Roth tradition of giving artists a lot of room. Once they got how I was going to be, they just let it be.
Three Kings has done pretty good box-office. Is the studio happy with the outcome?
They’re very happy with it. Of course, everybody gets all pumped up when the tests are good and the advance press is good. Before that, we had more realistic expectations because the movie is provocative. It’s going to make money for them, I think.
Did you make any changes after test previews?
They wanted me to take out the bullet in the cavity if the audience didn’t like it. But the audience loved it. We moved around the Nora Dunn sequences. At the White House, Clinton told her, “You were a good nail-spinner.”
What are the film or script influences on your work?
Definitely the films of the ’70s. I’m a big fan of Wes Anderson and Paul Anderson. All those Andersons. I love Alexander Payne. Chinatown. I watch a lot of movies. But I tend to watch movies I like over and over.
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