David O. Russell arrived a little late for the meeting last Saturday, but he wasn’t empty-handed. The director and writer of “American Hustle” brought a mint-green cooler bag large enough to contain a human head. He passed the bag to share it with Bradley Cooper, one of his stars in “American Hustle.”
“I bet I can tell you what’s in here,” the actor said before unzipping it. “Definitely broccoli.” Sure enough, he reached in pulled out a baggie of raw broccoli. Maybe these guys have been spending too much time together.
Mr. Cooper, 38, and Mr. Russell, 55, had just spent Thanksgiving together, too, something they also did when “Silver Linings Playbook,” their prior film collaboration, was wrapping in November of 2011. That movie, which starred Mr. Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, opened last fall, earning Oscar nominations for both men and a win for Ms. Lawrence. “American Hustle,” with Mr. Cooper amid a supergroup cast, opens Dec 13.
“He’s my brother,” Mr. Cooper said, unloading other goodies from the snack bag.
“Open that up, Coop, what is that?” Mr. Russell said. “Oh, that’s really good for you. Sweet potatoes cooked in coconut oil.” Then: an unmarked jar of puréed vegetables, garlic and chili powder.
“Oh yeah, that’s what I need,” Mr. Cooper announced, unscrewing the lid, inhaling, then drinking the green liquid.
The two men sat in a little room next to an auditorium showing an advance screening of “American Hustle.” Every so often, the film’s soundtrack of 1970s hits swelled and seeped through the thin wall. Now playing: Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
“American Hustle” is set in 1978, based (in some authentic ways and some completely made-up ways) on the Abscam sting, in which the FBI snagged members of Congress for accepting bribes from a fake Arab sheik. There really was a fake Arab sheik (a gift from the screwball-comedy gods). There really was a con man named Melvin Weinberg, called Irving Rosenfeld in the movie and portrayed by a barely recognizable Christian Bale, whom the FBI caught and recruited to help them lure bigger fish. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Irving’s sassy Long Island housewife Rosalyn, is based on a real wife, but her key role in the movie is courtesy of Mr. Russell’s script. Amy Adams’s Sydney Prosser, Mr. Bale’s partner in crime and extramarital love, is invented.
There was a real pompadoured Italian mayor of Camden, N.J. (played by Jeremy Renner) who got himself embroiled in the fiasco. Mr. Cooper’s character, FBI agent Richie DiMaso, who recruits the cons hoping to advance his career, is an amalgam of feds from the Abscam tapes and a lot of imagination.
The movie, though, which was co-written by Eric Singer, is really about how people sometimes scam each other and themselves. There are intentionally a lot of mirrors and forged artworks in “American Hustle.” In an early voice-over, Irving says “We’re all conning ourselves one way or another to get through life.”
Mr. Russell: “What interested me was far less procedural and historical and much more human and character-based. How they love each other and deal with each other. I look at the entire move through the perspective of every character, as if it’s their movie.”
“Which is rare,” Mr. Cooper said.
“Is it?” Mr. Russell asked.
“Oh, just watch movies,” Mr. Cooper said.
Now playing through the wall: the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”
“I can tell you when I got involved,” Mr. Cooper said. “We were in postproduction on ‘Silver Linings.’ And we were spending basically all our time together. We developed an even stronger bond in the post of ‘Silver Linings’ than in the filming. I didn’t want it to be over. Then this thing fell in his lap… we started really tripping out on this Richie guy.”
They decided that Mr. Cooper’s Richie character wouldn’t be a generic FBI straight man. He evolved into a likable, in-over-his head mook with some weird habits, like chewing on his tongue. They phoned each other and did Richie lines. “You’re gonna f—in’ do it!” Mr. Russell yelled, in an angry voice not his own.
“He sent me a bunch of stuff to look at,” said Mr. Cooper. “There’s footage on YouTube of the real sting. It’s Anthony Amoroso [an undercover FBI agent], and it looked to me that he had permed hair. He actually didn’t. But I called David and said: ‘What do you think if this guy has a perm?’ It was just an idea, and then David went, ‘Oh yeah. The guy curls his hair because he wants to be just like black baseball players like Dock Ellis.’ And he showed me this YouTube of [Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher] Dock Ellis.”
“He wore curlers around the dugout,” Mr. Russell said.
“Richie is a child,” Mr. Cooper said. “Every move he makes, when he has the ability to make a choice, it is like out of eighth grade. He takes Amy in the bathroom stall, he throws her against the wall, lifts her dress, then falls back and says ‘I like you.’ When he talks to Stoddard [his mopey FBI boss, played by Louis CK ], the relationship is like ‘Please, Dad…Please, Dad?’ ”
There’s a scene where FBI agents are celebrating a success, and Mr. Cooper as Richie does a mocking impersonation of the Louis CK character. It gets laughs from the other agents, so he does it again. He appreciates that Mr. Russell didn’t cut the second impersonation.
During shooting, Mr. Cooper said, the director “stays very close to the camera. He’s like in the scene with you. He’s behind the couch talking to you.” Just about every frame was shot on heavy, mobile Steadicams, which follow actors to give the movie a constant kinetic feel.
The film’s music is like FM radio on a vintage receiver, nothing post-1978 (Now playing through the wall: Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Live and Let Die.”). A disco scene at Studio 54 allows Mr. Cooper to go Travolta and dance, like he did in “Silver Linings.” Mr. Russell parachutes into the 1970s: suburban kitchens with pistachio princess phones on the wall and plastic honeycomb spice racks on Formica counters. The film’s makeup artists not only gave Mr. Cooper a perm, they installed prosthetic sideburns on Jeremy Renner’s cheeks and fake chest hair underneath Mr. Bale’s gold chains.
Mr. Cooper said when he put it all together as Richie, “all of a sudden it’s 1979, and I’m four years old, and my uncle is coming in to fly the kite with me—and him just looking like a god, with the chains and the hair.”
“Ernie?” asked Mr. Russell.
“No Tom, his older brother, who was like The Man,” Mr. Cooper explains.
The two men have been together a lot recently, though in short bursts. Mr. Cooper has been working on another movie, in Hawaii.
“The guy’s working constantly,” Mr. Russell said.
“I’m working all the time,” Mr. Cooper said.
“You want yogurt?” Mr. Russell said.