12.08.10

'The Fighter' Director's Big Comeback

David O. Russell, the notorious loose cannon who once put George Clooney in a chokehold, sounds humbled and matured as he promotes his new movie, The Fighter.

The last time Hollywood had reason to talk about David O. Russell, he was an Internet sensation shown in leaked footage from the set of his last feature, 2004’s satire  I Heart Huckabees, lobbing props and screaming obscenities at Lily Tomlin. Before that, he was the guy who put George Clooney in a chokehold during Three Kings, a shoot the actor described as “truly, without exception, the worst experience of my life.”

There’s no sign of that raving tyrant lately, though. The director sounds humbled, matured, chastened even, as he promotes his boxing drama, The Fighter, the first of his films he didn’t write and one that finally earned him some Oscar buzz. Even his stellar cast, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Mark Wahlberg, and Amy Adams, seem determined to re-cast Russell as the man who believed in them when they didn’t believe in themselves. During a recent press conference, Bale described him as big-hearted sentimentalist and Wahlberg called him “my brother.”

“It’s a real blessing,” a surprisingly soft-spoken Russell told the room of reporters. “I’m very lucky to be here with this much talent, this much amazing raw material and these characters.”

Mark Wahlberg on ‘The Fighter’ and More The Fighter details the real-life comeback of champion welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward (Wahlberg). Initially hobbled by his troubled half-brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxing star-turned-crack addict, and his controlling mother Alice Ward (Melissa Leo), Micky finds his strength after he falls for a tough-talking bartender (Amy Adams).

Russell came to the project late, a replacement for Black Swan’s Darren Aronofsky, who left to make The Wrestler. And it was an uncharacteristic choice for him. Russell’s most inspired work ( Flirting With Disaster comes to mind) skillfully weaves some high-minded levity into relationship dramas. The Fighter, on the other hand, was a sober study of a working-class hero and his hard-scrabble clan from Lowell, Massachusetts.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I first saw the family. I thought they’d be some very harsh people that I wouldn’t want to spend 10 minutes with,” Russell said, sending images of his expletive-spewing doppelganger drifting into the distance. “I remember hearing about Micky Ward. But when I saw him, I thought, ‘Oh my God, he sounds much rougher than I expected.’”

By the time Russell was hired, the production was on its fourth script and its third Dickie Eklund (Matt Damon and Brad Pitt were both initially cast in the role). After Bale joined the film, Wahlberg, who has been friends with Russell since Three Kings, finally asked him to step in and direct.

“David was bringing something to the table that I don’t think anyone else was willing to tap into,” Wahlberg said. “He brought a level of humor and emotion that I don’t think anybody was capable of bringing to it.”

Indeed, Russell’s irreverence is evident throughout The Fighter. It works well in Ward’s chorus of big-haired, harpy sisters and their mouthy exchanges with Charlene (Adams), but at times feels too much like a New York intellectual’s take on the working stiffs in the row houses. Early reviews of The Fighter have been mixed, but even Russell’s staunchest critics acknowledge he wrested Oscar-worthy performances out of his ensemble cast.

So now, Russell’s career is suddenly making industry headlines, with him reportedly “re-teaming” with Three Kings co-star Ice Cube for a cop drama for New Line Cinema, writing and directing the videogame adaptation of Unchartered: Drake’s Fortune for Sony Pictures, and writing and directing the family drama Old St. Louis starring Vince Vaughn.

It’s a major turnaround for the director. Before and during The Fighter, Russell was mired in the political satire Nailed!, a production plagued by financing issues and, in the case of James Caan, some creative differences. Last summer, he finally pulled his name off the film.

The Fighter, by comparison, rolled along without major incident. Though there were a few touch-and-go moments. Russell is a yeller, and, as Adams told the Los Angeles Times, this set was no exception to his others in that regard. The difference was that the director had at least one formidable sparring partner: the real Dickie Eklund, who doesn’t generally back down when challenged.

“There were a couple times where we had to physically restrain Dickie from going and landing one right on David,” said Bale, recalling one particular rehearsal at Wahlberg’s house. “Dickie wasn’t initially totally understanding that sometimes putting a whole life into two hours, a little bit of license has to be taken.”

Though Wahlberg told an audience of Screen Actors Guild members last month that he’s grown accustomed to Russell’s “free spirit” and “curveballs,” Adams had to get acclimated. She recalled Russell ordering her and Wahlberg to kiss passionately their first day together on the set, action that wasn’t in the script. Then as they kissed he shouted, “Deeper! Deeper!”

“David had a very specific way he wanted [Charlene] to be played,” Adams said. “It was very challenging.”

To be fair, Russell—even at his least charming—is hardly alone in Hollywood, a town crawling with geniuses that make soul-withering demands for the sake of a vision. Just ask the actors who have worked with The Social Network’s David Fincher, Avatar’s James Cameron, and Oliver Stone, to name a few.

Even Adams admitted she was grateful for Russell’s goading. Before they started filming, Russell told her she “looked like a girl who couldn’t fight.” So Adams took boxing lessons. She studied Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull at his suggestion. All that resulted in a credible and nuanced performance, lifetimes from that bubbly princess in Enchanted.

“David’s belief that I could be Charlene, that was half of the preparation,” she said. “Just knowing that he knew I could do it made me feel like I could do it.”

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Gina Piccalo is a senior writer at The Daily Beast. She spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood and is also a former contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine. Her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.