Combustible Celluloid

Interview with David O. Russell

The Fourth King

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy David O. Russell Movies on DVD

David O. Russell has been sneaking up on us from behind for five years now. He made a small splash on the indie scene in 1994 with Spanking the Monkey. In 1996, he made an indie/mainstream comedy with Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette, Flirting With Disaster. Both of these movies were admired and respected. Neither was a huge hit and neither really blew anyone away like films by indie directors Joel Coen, Quentin Tarantino, or Kevin Smith. But now the world will hear of David O. Russell and they will be impressed.

His new film Three Kings is blowing away everyone who sees it. In a barren movie landscape it feels like something new. It's the story of four soldiers (played by George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Spike Jonze) at the end of the Gulf War who break into a bunker to steal a pile of stolen gold for themselves. Instead they end up rescuing Iraqi civilians from their own army. Strangely, the movie has tested even better with women than with men. The movie has a look and feel and sound that rivals Saving Private Ryan. And, as with that movie, there's Oscar talk in the air.

Russell (The "O" in his name stands for "Owen") came to San Francisco recently to speak with journalists about his new movie. Oddly enough, he looks a little like Ben Stiller, but more reserved. He seems very careful in choosing his words, and he videotapes us as he talks. "I have 60 hours of tape from the beginning of this thing until now. Maybe I'll cut it all together and make something out of it."

"I've always wanted to do an action film where a guy got a splinter," he begins, referring to the scene in which Spike Jonze gets a splinter just before planting a bomb. But Three Kings is not just an action film. "A movie like this is very rich for me because it has many different faces to it. You could make a trailer from the first part of the movie and it would look like a comedy. You could make a trailer from the middle part of the movie and it would seem like an action movie." For example, Russell describes the several explosions in the movie, which are all done in one shot. "To me that's more real. The car's blowing up on this guy, and we just park the camera. Of course the producer says, 'we gotta run three cameras!' But if I cut three ways, then it just looks like an action picture. Your brain has referenced that as a cartoon. If I want to make you awake to it in a different way, I've gotta cover it a different way. I don't want to have action that suddenly feels like we went into an action movie. I want it to feel like the fabric of the rest of the movie."

"When I started, I didn't know that anyone else was making a war movie, and then I found out that Spielberg and Malick were doing it, and I didn't care, because I thought, 'that's territory we've been over a million times,' even if they do it brilliantly. Nobody's doing this."

Russell researched the Gulf War for 18 months to make sure he had specific details right. He even wanted a specific look for the film, based on newspaper photographs. "If you look at the color Xeroxes from the L.A. Times or USA Today. This is the first war to really have color pictures in newspapers. And they have this color Xerox quality to them, which is very contrasty, and kinda blown out, and the colors really pop. So that was what we saw for the look, because I think it's a really beautiful look. And it also seemed to be the look of that war. I kind of like that digital look. Maybe I'll do the next movie on digital. Because I spent a lot of money making it look like it's digital."

On top of that, the movie is loaded with consumer culture. "This was the first war where guys had their CD players over there, and some guys had Watchmans and were watching the war on TV, and cell phones, and all the stuff they stole from Kuwait, which is one of the richest countries in the world."

Oliver Stone was known for making his actors go through boot camp to train for his war pictures, but Russell didn't feel that was necessary, though he did pay attention to his advisors. "We had three military advisors. One was a Sergeant-Major Special Forces guy, who had died during production, perhaps due to chemicals he was exposed to in the Gulf. Really good guy. He was in Vietnam. Tried to steal a six-ton gold Buddha from a temple. Amazing guy. He and George really hit it off. The other guy was a trained Navy Seal--also a Gulf veteran. And a Colonel who was the sheriff of Sierra Madre, California, who was the Sergeant-Major's commanding officer. His name was King Davis. We had to hire him because his name was King. They took the guys shooting a bunch of times, they gave them the lingo. Then they had a four-day mission. We built our sets and they did an assault on the town. But they didn't sleep out there or anything. They slept in the Holiday Inn."

"We also had three Arab advisors, cause you want to get the language right, get the religion right, the graffiti. There were two guys in our cast who personally defaced like 300 murals of Saddam. And those murals are for real. Those are taken from real pictures. They make him as everything; a doctor, with children, everything."

Unlike the stream of Vietnam and World War II movies of the past 20 years, Three Kings is the first movie about the Gulf War; a war that happened in most moviegoers' lifetimes. "A strange warfare with an ambiguous ending," Russell says. Yet, the movie begins when the war ends. "The war to me itself wasn't very interesting. What was interesting was the moment everybody stopped paying attention. And that was very fertile for making a movie. They broke out the yellow ribbons. Meanwhile, these guys are partying -- drinking liquor out of mouthwash bottles, because no liquor was allowed in Saudi Arabia -- and 60 miles away there's a democratic uprising. Which to me, was a mind-blowing opportunity for a movie that felt like M*A*S*H (1970) in some parts, and really powerful drama in other parts. Because you start out with the M*A*S*H partying, they go for a joyride, and now they're in the middle of something more serious. It has to become a very human fable for me, at the end. There's a face. It's not a computer grid of a bomber. It's some guys who hate Saddam as much as we do."

To that end, Russell was concerned about making the action scenes effective. "The whole approach that I took to the bullets in the movie was to try to make a bullet alive to an audience who is benumbed to bullets. So, number one, that means fewer bullets. I write at a friends house sometimes, 'cause it's less lonely, and one friend is an emergency room doctor. I was asking him, what does the bullet actually do? He described it to me. And I asked what's the weirdest wound? You can get a wound that doesn't kill you. The bullet goes through your lung and you can walk around. But the air is leaking out of your lung everytime you breathe. So your own breathing can kill you, because your own breathing will crush your organs. It'll turn into a balloon in there. And they have to puncture it to let it out. And I thought, 'that's never been in a movie.'"

"We had this minimal sound design that I loved. We had this very spare, dense, and quiet sound. And I came back from working with the composer, and the sound mixers did their professional Hollywood job, which was to Bruce Willis-ize it. So the shootouts suddenly became KABLAM -- huge bullet! And I said, 'No! Gotta change it.' It completely changes the scene. I wanted 'pop, pop', not 'BOOM!'"

Russell, who seemed to be heading into the realm of comedy director simply stumbled upon the idea for a Gulf War movie. John Ridley, who is credited with the story of Three Kings had sold an entire screenplay to Warner Brothers, who then didn't know what to do with it. Russell looked through their log book and saw one line, "heist set in the Gulf War." "I was researching this turn-of-the-century mystery for myself at the time. But I couldn't stop thinking about this one thing. I got this L.A. Times book that was day-by-day of the war and I saw Bart Simpson, and I saw hundreds of soldiers being stripped in the desert -- this bizarre ritual -- taking prisoners. I thought it was so funny and odd. I saw green Cadillacs -- things that were taken from Kuwait. And I though, 'I could go nuts in this environment.' And nobody's done it. And the more I researched it, I thought, 'there's a story here that hadn't been told.' I went down that road, and I never read Ridley's script, because I didn't want to pollute my own idea. I'm told that it's a more straight-ahead action picture. John gets credit where it's due. The germ of the idea that I took was his."

Russell's unusual casting reminded me of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959) with its cast of musicians Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson teaming up with John Wayne. But Russell wasn't thinking along those lines. He was just casting the way he wrote the parts. "The parts were written that way. George Clooney had a passion for the part, and he was trying to put some of his weaker pictures behind him. I was happy to work with him because he had done strong work in Out of Sight (1998). Same thing with Mark (Wahlberg) in Boogie Nights (1997). He has a quality of being a regular guy, also won't take any shit, and also seems very sweet. He's also very serious as an actor, which I didn't understand, and I think more people will increasingly understand. His aspirations are equal to DeNiro's. He's friends with DeNiro. Cube was the first person I cast. I wanted either him or Charlie Hays, who played 3rd base for the Yankees in the '96 World Series. He now plays for the Giants. I liked his energy. He's very focused, quiet, solid, intense, no-nonsense. Cube had that in spades. And that's how I cast him. I loved him in Boyz N the Hood (1991). I thought he really hadn't had an opportunity since then to do some serious acting, which he wants to do, which is why there are no songs of his here."

Spike Jonze is known for his insane talent in directing music videos, like the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet," Weezer's "Buddy Holly" and "Undone (The Sweater Song)" and the upcoming feature film Being John Malkovich. Jonze and Russell were friends, but Jonze had never acted before and the two were concerned about one director directing the other. But they did some rehearsal and it worked out fine. Russell says he benefited from having Spike on the set. "Spike is more of a friend of mine, and had my ear more. Having Spike around helped me to aspire to try harder and be more original. I like that Spike's a first-time actor. It brings a good energy to the set. It gets everybody on their toes. There's somebody there who's new to it. It throws everybody off a little bit."

Russell says that in directing the movie, the key is knowing your script well. "I got the script in my bones. I know every cell of it. All the work is done in the writing." But writing the screenplay was the hardest part. He says that he would love to direct someone else's screenplay because, "it sure would be a lot easier." But the right one hasn't come along yet. "Warren Beatty said to me it's as hard to read a screenplay as it is to write one. And I agree with that. I was sent Good Will Hunting and I didn't get it. I was sent Fight Club and I didn't get it. Warren Beatty told me that Robert Towne read the script for Reds and didn't get it. Told him it was a catastrophe."

If the movie is successful, will Russell consider a sequel? "I don't think so. If somebody wanted to make a funny TV series. If somebody really smart wanted to do it..."

For Russell it was important to capture the multiple layers of experience of the war: the comedy, the tragedy, the heart, the cynicism. One scene in the movie encapsulates that, "when they burst through the door of that second bunker. Eddie Murphy's playing. Rodney King's on TV. There's a guy on a Nordic Track. There's a guy offering George Clooney a Cuisinart. The other guy's trying to offer a CD player to Mark. Open this door -- there's a guy getting tortured in here! When you shoot that, that's a half a page on the script. The producer says, 'OK, we can shoot this by lunch.' You get on the set, and that is a lot of material to photograph. And a lot of actors to direct. A lot of shots to set up. Right away, 'this is going to take us all day. Maybe two days.' Producer goes, 'varoom half of it. What's the purpose of the scene? They're walking through the room to get downstairs to the gold!' And I said, 'no, this is the movie.'

September 25, 1999

Movies Unlimtied