To meet the compressed post schedule and deadline of a set release date, director David O. Russell needed three editors for American Hustle, his comedic and fictionalized take on one of the most intriguing political corruption scandals of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Editor Jay Cassidy was on the film from day one. He had previously worked with Russell on Silver Linings Playbook. Because the director shot that film on location in Philadelphia, Cassidy did not meet him in person for almost two months. That gave the editor a unique way of getting to know the director and his preferences.
Russell works closely with his cast, talking to the actors as he shapes the performances on set. “I got to know him and see what he was as a filmmaker, not through any direct conversation with him, but by listening to him talk to the actors. It was a huge advantage to meet David that way because you really saw what he was going for from his heart,” revealed Cassidy. “As you have probably heard, he tends to shoot long runs of the camera and reset, so you hear the interplay between himself and the actors. When a director is working with the actors at that level, there is no filtering in terms of the emotions that are going on in the scene. There is no filtering of a director’s feeling towards what’s happening. You heard what he was saying to the actors and what was moving them and where they were developing the character. It is rare when you see the process that way.”
Cassidy took that experience to American Hustle, which he described as, “much more of a trip out onto thin ice” because the characters were not immediately likeable with their exaggerated behavior, wardrobe and the hair. “Everybody is going out into a risky place. If you don’t care about these characters, this movie is not going to add up,” explained Cassidy. “Understanding what David was going for in terms of the emotion of the character, that strips away a lot of the artifice that happens in making a movie. You can see the tone that he is going for. That did not vary. That made it very easy for us to make decisions. The question of what the movie was or should be was never an issue.”
Crispin Struthers, who worked with Russell on both the Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, joined the team about four weeks in. Alan Baumgarten came onto the production towards the end of the forty-one day shoot. He had heard the company might be looking for a third editor. A mutual contact knew Cassidy and put a word in for Baumgarten. He was hired after a phone interview with Russell and started work on the film without personally meeting the director, much like Cassidy’s first experience.
When Baumgarten started, the other editors encouraged him to cut the scenes long. They all worked closely, sharing cut sequences and giving each other notes on an almost daily basis. “We tried to keep it so each of us had big blocks of sequences that we took ownership of,” shared Struthers, “It pretty much stayed that way from our first cut through to the end.” Baumgarten continued, “It was great to share those ideas and thoughts. It was good that we stayed with it all the way through because we knew the material so well.”
Working through the scenes during production, together the editors would find what they thought the director was looking for. They would also make different choices, edit alternative versions and try different approaches that Russell indicated during discussions on set. Occasionally they would get calls from the director explaining his ideas. Through post the team kept rebuilding and reworking the scenes down to each reaction or moment. “The way David works is that he is always challenging us to find better moments or more truthful honest performances,” said Baumgarten. “He has a great BS meter if there is anything that rings false.”
Because he wants options in editing, Russell shoots with editing in mind. The director tries different pitches of intensity, varied approaches to performance and multiple line readings, sometimes even rewriting dialog as he shoots. This range of options afforded the editors a variety of ways to sculpt the material. “He continues to rewrite in the editing room, which is not uncommon, but it’s very much the way David works,” said Baumgarten. “He will also cover different story beats, sometimes in different scenes or sections of the movie. We will have options to decide when and where to play certain scenes. That of course will have a ripple effect. Those combinations were interesting to play with.”
For the film to work, the audience has to feel Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) fall in love during the first act of the movie. They have to believe the two are truly attracted to each other, even though Irving may not seem attractive when you first look at him. “The audience has to become their biggest fans. If you don’t, nothing else is going to work,” said Cassidy. “The big challenge of this movie is to really care about the plan and what Irving is going to do. Their romance is in jeopardy.”
Baumgarten agreed, “Making the film work because of caring about these characters and understanding the complexity of their relationships, was a wonderful achievement. We were off and running when Jay cracked, and to a large extent, put that whole beginning together. We had a magical opening that was really great.”
How to weave the back-story flashbacks into the film was a bit tricky and evolved during the course of editing. “We did some flashbacks in an almost fill-in-the-blanks kind of style where we would fold a scene or part of a scene into another scene to illuminate or illustrate something that had happened,” shared Baumgarten. “It was not completely a flashback, but it was a way of compressing time and in an economical way, revealing something about a moment that had been suggested.”
Over the course of the long weeks and late nights, Russell went from room to room working with each editor. The director was very clear and had so many ideas that it was a pleasure to work with him. The team used all the time available to make each scene and the overall film better. “It was basically about keeping all the balls in the air and making sure the audience has an emotional investment in each of the characters,” Struthers reiterated. “What David responds to with all of us is that we all work with passion. He has written this great script and he gets performances out of the actors that are second to no director. We’re all there to fully service this wealth of material.”
The success of any good editorial department relies on the talents of a good post crew, in this case, first assistant Mike Azevedo, second assistant Mark Scovil, music supervisor Susan Jacobs and music editor Phillip Tallman.