Anna Lisa Raya is Deputy Editor of AwardsLine.
If the pressures of Oscar season are getting to American Hustle producers Charles Roven and Richard Suckle of Atlas Entertainment and Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures, they don’t show it. While they’re working hard at finishing David O. Russell’s latest film, which is loosely based on events and people surrounding the 1970s Abscam FBI sting, the industry is busy prognosticating and predicting American Hustle’s chances in the race. And why wouldn’t there be Oscar talk, considering the film’s pedigree? Not only is Russell coming off two consecutive best picture noms, with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, but the cast reads like any director’s wish list: Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Jeremy Renner. The film is set for a December 13 release, nestled firmly in the awards season sweet spot.
AwardsLine: How did each of you get involved with American Hustle?
Richard Suckle: It started (in 2009) with (screenwriter) Eric Singer. He pitched it to me, and then we pitched it to Chuck. We essentially got the (life) rights to Mel Weinberg, whose character is the inspiration behind Christian Bale’s character. (Weinberg) is the con man who worked for the FBI and created Abscam.
Charles Roven: Then we developed a really great script that was more procedural-based, in terms of the events that took place in and around Abscam. When David (O. Russell) got involved, he felt very strongly that rather than having the spine of the movie be Abscam, he wanted the spine to be character-based. So he rewrote the script and moved (it) in that direction, and it became more fictional as a result.
Megan Ellison: I stepped in when it was an Eric Singer draft, and David had just come on. I sat down with David, and he talked about how to shift it to be a more character-driven piece like most of his work. I don’t think any of us suspected the page-one rewrite that we ended up getting, which was really phenomenal. He took a lot of the work that Eric did and just fleshed out the characters.
AwardsLine: How did the producing process break down for you?
Roven: Richard and I have been working together over 20 years, off and on, so we have a shorthand. What was really great was working with Megan the whole time because you never know how that first (producing) relationship is going to go. It was extremely candid but quite supportive.
Suckle: We all have very strong personalities, and we’re not afraid to speak our minds. When we had challenges, we would talk about it and work them out together. The dynamic was one that was very natural, even though Chuck and I have known each other for 22 years. And, I have to say, when you produce with someone you don’t know, you don’t know how that’s going to roll, but it was really easy.
Ellison: It was a very fluid process. It was not siloed into specific responsibilities; it was attack it as things come up. It’s been really nice working with Chuck and Richard because I’ve learned a lot from both of them. They have very strong personalities, but that’s because they have such high standards and really believe in their convictions. They get the very best work out of people.
AwardsLine: What have you learned about the process overall?
Ellison: I’ve only been doing this for a couple years, but I know that no two films are exactly the same. You have to learn and grow each time you make a movie. And while it’s important to start with a strong screenplay and a great filmmaker, if you don’t build the most supportive pieces around him, you’re going to have a really hard time, because everyone has to carry the weight equally. And trying to do everything on your own or getting too much ego involved, there’s no room for that.
AwardsLine: Were there parts of the film that needed to be reworked to keep it on budget?
Ellison: The nature of the schedule on this film has probably been the biggest challenge overall. David was rewriting the screenplay while promoting Silver Linings, which is why he is able to have a film competing in back-to-back years. And while really impressive, it definitely put on a lot of pressure; I’ve never seen a filmmaker who could burn the candle from both ends like he did. But everyone did a ton of work to prep the film, and we shot a 178-page script in 42 days.
AwardsLine: Let’s talk about how the movie is mostly based on fiction instead of fact. Inevitably, there are always people who like to nitpick, no matter how much you talk about it being fictionalized.
Suckle: We’re not trying to report or advertise it as a true story, but Abscam happened. And there are moments and scenes in the movie that actually happened in real life. But David was interested in the characters. There’s a common theme about characters doing whatever it takes to survive and the challenges of their own lives. Obviously, these lives are uniquely different from one another, and that’s the driving force of this movie. Abscam is a backdrop to tell the story of these different characters.
Roven: The reason why the word “hustle” is in the title is because Abscam was a hustle. But this film is fictionalized because it’s about people who are doing that in their exterior lives.
Ellison: Everyone’s conning each other, they’re conning themselves—it’s happening on different levels.
Suckle: Everybody does have a resolution, and it’s subjective as to whether you think their resolutions are satisfactory—that’s one of the great things about the movie. It allows you to have a conversation about how these character issues resolve themselves within the film.
AwardsLine: How involved are you with marketing on this film?
Suckle: We’re all really very involved. We’re involved in everything, from the developing of the script all the way to the marketing, publicity and distribution plans. We never check out. Making a movie is a process, and every part of the process is important. To go this distance and not see it all the way through? That would not be being a good producer.
AwardsLine: How are you handling all of the Oscar talk that’s happening while you’re still finishing the film?
Suckle: We’re really focusing on what we normally do and putting that (talk) aside. It’s great to have it, but (it would be) great to be the dark horse that everyone’s talking about. It’s kind of difficult to do that with the cast that we have and the director that we have, so you have to just focus on finishing the movie with the time that you have and focus on making it the best movie you can. So that’s one thing that’s obviously vital. Then you have to deal with the marketing that’s coming up, and the publicity and all those other chores.
AwardsLine: So what are the next few weeks going to entail for you?
Ellison: Finishing the movie. (Laughs.)
Suckle: Locking reels, long nights and a lot of hard work. I look at it as a marathon, not a sprint. A process is a process, and each one is uniquely different, but you’ve got to treat that part of the process as important as all the others.
Ellison: One thing that I’ve learned is that films are incredibly vulnerable at several places along the way. And if you’re not on top of managing each and every part, things will slip through the cracks. It all matters.