Acclaimed filmmaker David O. Russell (Three Kings) and award-winning actor Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) have worked together a total of three times: on the 2010 boxing biography The Fighter, the 2013 black-comedy crime film American Hustle, and the new period mystery film Amsterdam, to be released into theaters next week.
During a recent press conference in promotion of Amsterdam, Bale and Russell spoke about developing the movie together over a period of five years, the process of creating the story and the characters, and how Bale’s real-life British grandmother inspired a significant part of the film.
“Christian and I were very interested in creating original characters that we would want to hang out with,” began David O. Russell. “[Characters] that he would love to play, and I'd love to be around, and other characters that we'd want to be with who are original. Characters we've never seen before, characters we've never seen him be, or Margot [Robbie] be, or John David [Washington] be, or any of these [actors] be before. That's where it began. We started with a doctor, and we started to learn from history the unusual circumstances of this doctor and his two best friends. We wanted to have three best friends who were fixers, who could handle any situation, who went through something together. Something epic, something that would be fun to follow, and inspiring to follow, and also shine a light on some history that we had a hold of that many people don't know, [that] we didn't know, as we discovered it. And we met in a diner over the course of about five years. Margot joined in maybe three or four of those years, and other people joined in over those years as part of the conversation.” “A lot of eggs, a lot of coffee,” agreed Christian Bale. “It was fun to meet several times a week,” continued Russell. “As a writer, being alone for 30 years of writing, it's nice to be able to go talk to a friend or colleague or collaborator to grow it together.”
“I was involved with it for five [or] six years,” added Bale. “But I feel like, this is your entire life you've been working up to doing this– the wisdom of how to deal with adversity. The absolute love of people who deal with pain and suffering in their lives with optimism and hope. Not becoming broken by life, et cetera, and I was just delighted and have so much gratitude to David for inviting me along for this epic journey.” “These are characters who are based on some historical [personas], who went through tremendous things together,” said Russell. “And I think, as Christian pointed out, all of my movies in some way have been about this. Whether it's The Fighter, or Silver Linings [Playbook], or American Hustle, or Joy– they're about outsiders who find their way, and find reasons to love life in spite of whatever it is they're facing. That's what the notion of Amsterdam is: what do you love about life and each other that you live for? [Margot’s character] made this art based on [a real] artist. It could only have come out of someone who pulled bloody metal out of John David and Christian[‘s characters] Harold Woodman and Burt Berendsen during the war. Everyone makes very specific pacts with each other. They have a friendship pact that's very specific.”
“[Christian] immerses himself in every aspect of the character, and everybody [in the cast] does. Christian's character is based on an actual guy named Dr. Shields, who was the officer who joined that regiment and introduced these two guys under very unlikely circumstances. Me and Christian would look at these big pictures from the period, of people partying in huge dance halls, and we'd go, ‘Look at these two people dancing together. I never heard their story. I don't think anybody recorded their story.’ Or these three friends, I never heard their story, because a lot of history's not recorded. So we took some recorded history that's explosive and fascinating, that's our secret plutonium for any filmmaker to share as a dramatic tool. But we then invented our own friendship of those who were never really recorded, and the people they got to meet along the way, who are all these people on a journey to save themselves. That was the invented friendship of the greatest freedom they ever had, and fun they had together. That made life worth living for all of them. When they faced death, they said, ‘Let's live.’ Which was based on your grandmother's story from the Blitz, as I recall. What did she say about the Blitz?” “That it was the best time of her life,” replied Bale. “Because she truly lived for each day, absolutely.”
“Like any great filmmaker, David is very unique,” said Bale about why he continues to work with Russell. “He's very special. He has his own perspective. It's what makes great filmmakers fascinating, and he's one of the greats. I love that we met and that he invites me back. [Robert DeNiro has] done more– this is his fourth; I've done three. But every time we work together, we get ten more days on the schedule.” “Yeah, The Fighter, we had 30 days. American Hustle, we had 42 days, and this one we got to 50,” agreed Russell. “Next one, 60, hey,” joked Bale. “But on this I was just really grateful that David invited me along for the whole journey. From sitting in diners writing on napkins and being gobsmacked by actual events in history that we'd never heard of, listening to music, watching documentaries, reading books, inventing these characters. It was a joy from beginning to end.” “There's many drafts of the script that I bring to everybody,” added Russell. “I probably wrote at least ten scripts.” “No, I counted at least 14 in my kitchen cupboard,” countered Bale, laughing. “So there's a lot of writing that goes on, continued Russell. “It would make a cool novel, because there were really dope sequences that I didn't get to do. Some really cool scenes that I would like to put in the novel version. There's a lot of writing that happens, and then you have to pick and choose. Then it continues on to the day of shooting.”
“These guys are just desperate to save themselves,” says Russell about the lead characters in the film. “This poor guy– like many great heroes I love, [he] gets beat up and knocked down everywhere he goes and his eye falls out. His eye falls out about three or four times in the movie. That was a [running joke] we invented. So it's all these layers of experience that they're trying to get through to find the truth and save themselves and most of all, cherish and rediscover their friendship. Part of the reason why we loved getting together at a diner every week for five years, is because we liked focusing obsessively on a story. As many artists I've met have liked to say, isn't it fun to live in a story that you're either reading to your child or reading with your friends, and sharing it? So we were creating a story we were sharing obsessively. I'm so happy when I'm living in a story that I'm creating, or work of art I'm making.”
When asked what represented the location of Amsterdam (an idyllic state of being) in his own life, Christian Bale had this to say: “I think my Amsterdam is when you have to become so obsessed in a healthy way with something that you can't think about anything else. I get that in great environments. I get that from working with David and all of these guys. I get that from wonderful filmmaking experiences. I get that from my family. And I get it from motorcycles.” But what about David O. Russell’s Amsterdam? “I recently spent about six months in Thailand. I rediscovered what peace meant, at least in my life, because of that place. I pride myself and [try to] be respectful and humble and all that. You can't out-respect those people out there. Whatever they're going through, they're always going to take time to say hello, and make sure you're okay. From the crew members I worked with to just the everyday living, working people, I've never experienced that kind of peace. It was some of the best sleep I've ever had on a consistent basis. So I’d say Thailand, and the elephants there. I found myself in a therapy session with an 85-year-old elephant just telling them all my problems. And for some reason, I feel like she understood me. That whole experience was my Amsterdam. Time stood still.”
Amsterdam opens in theaters on Friday, October 7th.