David O. Russell: Director with a bad reputation

David O. Russell has a fearsome reputation in Hollywood.

While the director, 55, is beloved of critics and audiences, who have lapped up films such as Silver Linings Playbook (2012), The Fighter (2010) and Three Kings (1999), he has acquired a rather unsavoury reputation for being a chaotic and sometimes abusive presence - physically and verbally - on set.

That reputation is evidently trumped, though, by his steady output of popular, award-winning films that continue to attract A-list talent, including repeat collaborations with the likes of Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, who worked with him on Silver Linings Playbook, a comedy drama about characters coping with mental instability, and Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who both appeared in the boxing biopic The Fighter.

These same names populate the ensemble cast of his new movie, the crime caper American Hustle, which has done well since opening in the United States earlier this month, and is shaping up to be one of the frontrunners going to the Oscars next year.

At a recent press event in New York, Russell thanked the cast for putting up with his unusual approach to film-making.

"The trust of these actors is everything to me. Without it, I can't do the work and we can't do this film. It's the greatest privilege ever," says the writer-director, whose auteurial calling card has been his irreverent, darkly comedic take on a broad range of subjects from the Gulf War (Three Kings) to mental illness (Silver Linings Playbook) and incest (Spanking The Monkey, 1994). Spanking the Monkey, his debut independent film, won the 1994 Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival and put him on the radar as a film-maker to watch.

Russell has developed his own trademark style of film production, which seems to involve a sort of controlled chaos on his sets, where actors are often shooting a script that he is constantly rewriting.

Russell alumni have also spoken openly about having cameras shoved in their faces and the director standing just off to the side, barking instructions in their ear or through a megaphone, often right in the middle of a scene (his voice is edited out later). That, coupled with his track record of belligerent and despotic behaviour, has become the stuff of legend.

On Three Kings, his hit satire of American troops misbehaving in post-Gulf War Iraq, he got into a physical altercation with George Clooney, who took issue with the director's bullying behaviour towards the cast and crew, which culminated in Russell headbutting the actor and putting him in a headlock.

The two have not worked together since, with Clooney once describing the director as "insane to the point of stupidity", and Russell countering by suggesting that the actor was a bit of a diva.

But Clooney is not the only actor he has had a beef with. While making the quirky existential comedy I Heart Huckabees (2004), Russell had a screaming, expletive-strewn meltdown at Lily Tomlin, footage of which went viral and sealed his reputation as a bit of a monster.

Russell's style as a director has reportedly not changed much since then, although one of his producers told The Hollywood Reporter that he "has refined his process".

Maybe this is why he appreciates performers who can roll with the punches. "I cherish the flexibility," he says of the way his American Hustle cast handled their quick, 42-day shoot. "Strapping into their characters each day and me saying, 'I'm going to try a different scene with your character today that we're going to squeeze into the schedule.'

"Not everybody is okay working like that. There are people who like to work in a controlled, methodical way."

And even though he ultimately calls the shots - and to a considerably degree, one imagines, given that he often co-authors the screenplay and has significant input on everything from the soundtrack to the characters' hairstyles - Russell has been described as an "actor's director", and is often open to their suggestions and improvisations.

It was Jeremy Renner, who plays a corrupt but lovable politician in American Hustle, who suggested that the characters break out into a drunken rendition of Tom Jones' Delilah in a bar room scene.

Adams, who plays a con artist, came up with the idea for her character to kiss Lawrence during a heated argument between the two.

"Everybody here was a storyteller the whole time," says Russell.

In addition, the director appears to enjoy close personal relationships with many of his performers, including Lawrence, who has raved about what a wonderful person he is (he did help her win the Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, after all).

That intimacy spills over into the work. Instead of auditioning them for his movies, for example, he goes to their homes "and we talk about the character". Doing this inspires him "to create and deliver for them the richest character with the broadest range of human behaviour, and who's a person you're going to remember". "Then I leave their house and write some scenes with each of them."

At the end of the day, it is his fascination with personalities that drives his films. "I'm moved by the characters first and foremost, and then their world and the story and the theme after that," he says. "With The Fighter, people would say, 'It's a boxing movie'. I never thought of it as a boxing movie, I thought of it as a character movie about these people.

"The same thing with Silver Linings Playbook. People said, 'It's a mental illness movie or a romantic comedy'. To me, it was a story about these people and that's what most riveted me."

Putting these characters in tricky situations and then seeing them react is the catalyst for the story.

"Their predicament is a great blowtorch for the characters and their world. I've come to see that I adore characters who have reinvented themselves, who are salt of the earth, who have dreams, romance and things that they love in their world.

"That is what makes me want to do it, that's what makes me want to make a picture. You have honest heartbreak and honest dreaming and enchantment."