March 26, 2014

Learn How David O. Russell Writes & Directs Movies in This 'American Hustle' BTS Video

While David O. Russell and American Hustle were nominated for 10 Academy Awards, they came home empty-handed on Oscar night. Most of those involved with the film are no stranger to nominations, but it's the work involved that gets them even remotely near the statuettes in the first place. In this terrific behind the scenes video for American Hustle, learn how David O. Russell and the rest of the crew approached their work on the film, and what it takes to put together a movie of this caliber.

A lot of the more interesting stuff about technique comes around the 17 minute mark and later, but here are some of the biggest takeaways about David O. Russell and his style:

  • Looking to build characters and worlds
  • Knows the voices of the characters, and their mannerisms, so that any story idea is coming from a real place, since it's from the DNA of the character
  • Wants strong female characters
  • Lights for 360 degrees so that people can move in the environment, which keeps everybody on their toes
  • Never sits at the monitors and doesn't have a trailer, so there is no down time on set
  • There is a frenetic energy that comes from doing things this way that can push people to give their all
  • Doesn't care about breaking traditional notions of technique, things that are wrong by conventional methods, so you get a sense of invention on the spot
  • Doesn't want actors to be precious about their performances, because he can't be precious about the screenplay or the direction
  • He is there to be moved or tickled, so if he feels it, then the movie feels it

The last few I think are some of the most important. You just can't be too precious about anything when you're making a film. It has to be a collaboration with the actors. As David says, both you and the actors may have choices about how you see things, but there are plenty of times when one of those choices is completely wrong, so doing things multiple ways if possible can help get the best of both worlds.

In the end, you have to get a certain amount of coverage to actually complete the film. If you get scene one "perfect," but you had three other scenes to get to in the day and it's already been 12 hours, the whole process is going to end badly.

It's also important to be moved by whatever you're doing. If your movie doesn't affect you the way you want it to affect an audience, it likely won't.

What did you think of American Hustle? Having seen this BTS and the movie, what do you think about the process and how it contributed to the final product?


Your Comment


love the articles you are posting and it inspired me to shoot my first feature film after making 9 short films.
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Please contribute.
Thanks :)

March 26, 2014 at 5:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

Moosa Saleem


March 26, 2014 at 6:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Awesome article. Definitely feel this style alot. Feeling what your actors are there to do by being in the mouth of the dragon like he is just feels right. If you are lucky enough to have crew and can pull yourself away to watch the actors be the characters its beautiful.

Lighting 360 is interesting, sounds like fun to do if I had the space Im filming in for long enough. But the china ball on the boom following the steadicam OP is something Im definitely stealing. Friggin brilliant.

March 26, 2014 at 8:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

Chris Hackett

Just so you know - that's how 99% of reality TV (with a 1x1 instead of the ball) is shot too :-)

March 26, 2014 at 9:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Yeah I've been doing that with a china ball and boom op since Ryan Connely showed us how on FilmRiot.

July 28, 2014 at 9:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Personally, I'm not a big fan of "American Hustle", I found the movie pretty shallow. The best thing in it is Bale and his more balanced character. Looking back to the 90's and seeing all his movies after "The Fighter", David O. Russell seems to me a director who could be a Paul Thomas Anderson type, but couldn't improve on his original style and stepped back for a more superficial way to direct.

You can see there is great tips to get from the video (and this article), but there is something lacking, just ->my opinion <-. That frenetic edition at the beggining of the movie, with fast camera movements towards the actors, and that kind of stuff is not consistent; random overreactions (for me) by some characters; a cameo of a great actor and a wasted character; some scenes seemed pushed to try to create something iconic and so on. You can get all great ideas and techniques and not fulfill all the story potential. This is what I learned better with the movie, because you can remember how were the director's early movies and feel it could be more genuine (no pun intended with the movie's theme). There were people I know who said the movie is great because the director is the "new" Tarantino with the "O. Russell crew" and my face was like "Wha-what? How about the story?".

I believe is not by chance the movie lost all the 10 nominations. Maybe my comment is a little more harsh than I intended. It's a good movie, yes, but not one I would get to learn something. I learned more with Robert Rodriguez "El Mariachi". I hope you could understand what I had to say.

March 26, 2014 at 9:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

Rodrigo Molinsky

You sir, nailed it. The only cohesive scene is De Niro's - everyone brought their A game that day. A lot of the film is a director in love with 'acting'. There are many unintentionally hilarious scenes, like an acting class in the Valley with above average costuming.
It had THREE editors (plus Russell).
Bale and Lawrence were good, Adams was bizarrely miscast, and ol' Cooper was so far out of his depth I actually felt sorry for him.
And the 'direction', from a person who knows how to make decent films, was an odd pastiche of watered down Scorcese and the worst of Altman in the '70s. If you like that style (it can work well in the right hands) PLEASE go and watch the original films by the masters: Altman, Cimino, Cassevetes et al.
I would KILL to see that script (or that amazing story) made by someone else. ABSCAM was a cultural event. It deserves better.

March 26, 2014 at 9:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


I feel at home with you guys. I don't want to be a hater but I feel that everyone speaking so highly of this movie, and David O'Russell are trying to pull the wool over my eyes. They are the nice gentlemen at the door telling me of their faith but I can't buy it.

March 26, 2014 at 10:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Yes yes yes yes yes! He writes great characters, but a cohesive script he can not. How about the Scooby Doo ending of American Hustle? *SPOILER(?)* "Remember this character we never introduced you to? Yeah, he did it."

Also, I thought the de Niro scene was fine but I hated how they kept the same medium shot and cropped in for the close-up. The quality was noticeably worse because of it.

March 27, 2014 at 3:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


I'm glad I wasn't the only one who felt this way.

A messy, serpentine script and horrible miscasting (Louis C.K. as the police chief was the most egregious example). The only redeeming moments were DeNiro's cameo and the scenes with the mayor, and occasionally Bale's excess. Although I also found it humorous that, for a exceedingly Jewish character, they find one of the few Gentiles in hollywood to play the role.

March 28, 2014 at 4:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Does anyone know the Steadicam model used? And also that screen/board that Russell was holding, can anyone name and describe that advice to me? Looks very interesting but it's new to me.

March 26, 2014 at 10:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Why, are you gonna run out and buy one?

From the BTS footage, there are two operators using two different rigs.

Who cares what rig the operators used. If you were to hire a violinist, would you ask what violin they used? Would their answer impress you? Would you rather a famous painter make your painting with an elementary school paintbrush or a 1st year art student with the best sable hair brushes?

If your interest is to become a steadicam operator, it really shouldn't matter to you what they used...b/c if you're just starting out, you don't need a big 24v rig capable of 35mm.

April 11, 2014 at 11:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

Daniel Mimura

^ ya dick!

July 29, 2014 at 3:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Very interesting video, I agree with the above commenter that Bale was fantastic and O'Russell clearly has worked really hard in creating the world and developing three dimensional, complex characters. Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were really convincing and I can see that 360 lighting is hugely beneficial for getting in character. I thought American Hustle was extremely cinematic, very stylish, with fantastic production design, music, and camerawork. I also appreciated how O'Russell expressed a tightly focused theme throughout the production and created an atmosphere on set that allowed for experimentation.

For me the film didn't quite work overall and I think the problem was one of tone. It would have been better if it had pushed more for drama or more for comedy. I didn't find it believable enough and it was too lightweight to be a satisfying drama but it also wasn't really funny enough to be a comedy. An interesting comparison would be Boogie Nights, a film which American Hustle borrows from stylistically and which works as both comedy and drama perhaps because the characters and plot work together much more coherently and because it consciously plays with the idea that life is a comedy until it becomes a tragedy so the genre blend is mixed up in the theme of the movie. In AH I found Bradley Cooper's character completely implausible and it was difficult to care about the scam because of the pacing, character stuff getting in the way of the plot, and a lack of clarity as to how serious the film wanted me to take it.

Deserved it's nominations for Lawrence and Bale as well as the production design and costumes but justice was done at the oscars in the end.

March 26, 2014 at 10:24PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


loved the article and behind the scenes, great job joe

March 26, 2014 at 11:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

Jordan S


March 27, 2014 at 12:23AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

Joe Marine
Camera Department

I'm not a fan of the movie but I am a fan of article like these. Thanks!

March 27, 2014 at 12:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


People are harsh with there opinions. O Russell is an amazing writer/director and deserves all the praise he gets because he creates movies with great CHARACTERS and performances which are what you will follow more then just a "story" or "concept". This BTS really put a lot into perspective in terms of characters, the way he works(which is often unconventional) and obviously he's doing something right for winning awards, getting his actors awards, maybe not oscars but a nomination is still a huge accolade. Every actor he works with loves working with him and always mentions how he brings the best out of them and they are some of the BEST in the business and I believe there opinions and reviews will continue to get O Russell funding and more opportunities as reputation is key. Being a director is more then being creative, you have to be a leader, a people person, a quick decision maker, have structure, great communication and professionalism on and off the set. At the end of the day he must be doing something right, yes he is similar to Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson and the likes who have been inspired by filmmakers before them. The cycle will continue and we can all say "go watch the originals, they were the best, these guys are just copycats, bla bla bla" but as a filmmaker, knowing everything has been done and bringing something new is what it's about. And how can you make it unique? By creating fresh characters, because we all know how cliche and overused some of these movies are and if you can do better why not make a short film or a feature and stop making excuses and prove you can be just as good as O Russell or anybody else...we are all entitled to our opinions and we all have preferences but c'mon really? you're gonna take away from this guy after making one successful film after another? All completely different? The Fighter...Silver Linings...American Hustle...miles apart and unique in there own respective ways. Hoenstly at the end of the day it comes down to how bad you want it and not taking no for an answer. David O Russell will continue to make great films, and write great scripts and create great characters and direct great performances and I will use him as inspiration to tell my own stories. So this video was a great piece of knowledge to digest and understand not only his process but THE process of making an oscar nominated film in general.

March 27, 2014 at 4:05AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

Brad Watts

I disagree with you that "you will follow great characters and performances more than just story or concept". For me, story overrides everything in a film. The story you're being told is what's keeping you to want to know what happens next, keeps you intrigued, absorbed and involved in the film. Hitchcock's characters, like most earlier films, were great, but they kept things simple and performances didn't get in the way of story like they did in American Hustle. The greatest of interpretations are not worth much if they're just for exposition or standalone. And this is how I felt watching American Hustle. Great performances. Lack of story structure and intrigue. You could have taken out many scenes and still would have gotten the point of the movie. The way scenes were cut and some camera movements also took me out of the story completely, as I thought they were out of place or misused. I'm not taking anything away from David O. Russell and have a tremendous amount of respect for his work, as for everything it takes to make a movie of this caliber. But this film didn't quite work for me. I still enjoyed watching it and got a lot out of it, though. And I really admired Bale's and Adam's performances.

March 27, 2014 at 9:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Jesus, would it hurt to use a damn paragraph break?

March 28, 2014 at 4:33PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


March 27, 2014 at 2:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Whoever decided to interview the actors in front of a green screen made a horribly dumb mistake.

March 27, 2014 at 6:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


March 31, 2014 at 9:15AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Wow. I can barely make it through these "behind the scenes" videos. There is always so much butt kissing going on about how wonderful the director is to work with.. and how all the other actors were the totally best ever... ever. Is it just me or does every single actor kiss every single directors butts and all the other actors butts in these things.... shseesh.

July 29, 2014 at 12:42AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


I am a big fan of David.. Thanks for such a nice article!! :)

July 31, 2014 at 7:31AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Personally, I found "American Hustle" just about fine to watch but, even more so I liked the process of making of this highly-intricate, greatly detailed and opulent con-drama.
I somehow feel that probably that might have been the reason that the film seemed too complicated to assimilate and lost a great deal of interest, even with really detailed, dynamic character-driven narratives. Also, I would choose "Silver Linings Playbook" over this anytime, for its sheer capacity to emote a protagonist-centric multi-cast theme and plot in a palatable format.
Nevertheless, Russell's methods seem to be constantly doing wonders - both popularly and critically - so hope to see more of him, soon.

August 24, 2015 at 3:24PM

Tanay Chaudhari
Film Appreciation, Reviewing, Screenwriting (in that order)