WHO WROTE IT - Fifteen years ago, neophyte screenwriter Eric Warren Singer was on a plane from New York to LA. The man sitting next to him was an assistant U.S. attorney who was peripherally involved in the ABSCAM sting operation in the late 1970s and shared some interesting stories about it with Singer.
After a decade of having sold many scripts that never got made but had made him an in-demand writer, Singer’s first produced feature credit came on 2009’s The International starring Clive Owen. His next project was to be an adaptation of a Middle Eastern thriller called Damascus Gate. When several other Middle Eastern thrillers flopped at the box office that year, Singer remembered the stories he’d heard on that long ago flight and the studio bosses agreed to let him switch gears and write what would become American Hustle.
The script, originally titled American Bullshit, landed on the 2010 Black List. Ben Affleck was attached to direct at one point and had Singer do four rewrites before dropping out. Eventually, David O. Russell came on board and did his own rewrite, earning himself a co-screenwriter credit.
|David O. Russel, Eric Warren Singer|
Russell’s Gulf War heist film, Three Kings, was the subject of a bitter screenplay credit dispute. Warner Bros. had bought a script called Spoils of War and showed it to Russell while the director was in search of his next project. Russell claimed he never read Spoils, but admitted he got the idea for Kings from its logline. A “story by” credit was ultimately given to the original Spoils of War screenwriter, John Ridley, who is nominated this year for his adapted screenplay for 12 Years a Slave.
Conflict on the set of Russell's next movie, I Heart Huckabees, leaked to the internet in videos showing the director ranting at actress Lily Tomlin and calling her the C-word. His follow-up, Nailed, was shut down by IATSE four times for failure to pay the crew and is expected to never be released.
Russell has experienced a creative resurgence in the last four years. His previous two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, earned Oscars for Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, and Jennifer Lawrence. Like American Hustle, both were also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
WHAT ABOUT THE PLOT - American Hustle is one of six of the nine nominated pictures and ten nominated screenplays that are based on true stories. Along with Dallas Buyers Club, it falls in the Original Screenplay category because it was written from original research rather than being adapted from a book on its subject.
Moving Hustle further into the originals column, screenwriter Eric Warren Singer “realized very quickly that to tell the most compelling story, I had to let go of the truth to get to the truth of the characters, using the scandal and all these characters I had been researching as templates, as jumping off points to write this fictionalized version.”
The fictionalization was carried further in David O. Russell’s rewrites, turning the characters into caricatures for comedic effect. On set, Russell strayed even further from whatever fiction or non-fiction was left on the page by encouraging his cast to improvise as much as one-third of their performances by the director’s own estimate. When questioned about how those in-the-moment changes might impact the plot, Russell reportedly told Christian Bale, “I don’t give a damn about plot. I’m all about character.”
|Amy Adams, Christian Bale|
WILL IT WIN - American Hustle is nominated for ten Academy Awards, tied for first place with Gravity. As mentioned earlier, it is Russell’s third consecutive film nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. It’s his second film in a row nominated in all four acting categories, a feat that, prior to last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, hadn’t been accomplished in over thirty years. (Russell is the first director to hit the acting nomination jackpot twice.)
Hustle gives Russell his third directing nod but only his second for writing screenplay, since he didn’t pen The Fighter. In other award ceremonies this year, American Hustle’s screenplay won the BAFTA, where Gravity and the Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis ran instead of Her and Dallas Buyers Club. Three Golden Globes went to Hustle, including Best Picture (Comedy or Musical), but the screenwriting Globe went to Her, as did the WGA and Critics’ Choice awards for Best Original Screenplay.
The way things seem to be lining up, the big six categories are all virtually spoken for – Slave as Best Picture, Alphonso Cuarón for Best Director for Gravity, and acting trophies reserved for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, both from Dallas Buyers Club, Blue Jasmine’s Cate Blanchett, and Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o.
Her may lose its early lead in the Original Screenplay race as voters realize the movie they gave the most nominations to might otherwise go home empty-handed. Its surprise box office success won’t hurt its chances either. With $144 million, it’s the highest grossing Original Screenplay candidate, second only to Gravity in the Best Picture contest. After making three films in four years that have amassed a whopping 25 total Oscar nominations and three acting wins, the scripting category is Russell’s best bet at some gold this year.
READ THE SCREENPLAY - Whether you want to see how far the American Hustle actors strayed from the page or you just want to hunt for plot threads that got lost in all that top-notch scenery-chewing, you can download 153-page screenplay for the 138-minute film directly from Sony Pictures website by clicking here.
INTERVIEWS WITH THE SCREENWRITERS
Moveable Fest interview with Eric Warren Singer
HuffPost interview with David O. Russell
This is Part 9 of our ten-part series of profiles on this year's Oscar-nominated screenplays.