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David O. Russell Discusses "Three Kings."

We feature an interview with screenwriter/director David O. Russell. His movie Three Kings is being re-released for the holiday season. His other movies include Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on December 23, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 23, 1999: Interview with John Powers; Interview with David O. Russell; Review of John Harbison's opera "The Great Gatsby."


Date: DECEMBER 23, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 122301np.217
Head: The Holiday Season's Best Films
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

Lots of new movies have opened for the holidays. On today's FRESH AIR, we talk with our film critic, John Powers, about the new movies and get his recommendations of which ones to see.

The movie "Three Kings" has been rereleased for the holidays. It was on "Time" magazine's list of the 10 best films of the year. It's set in Iraq just after the Gulf War. We'll talk with the writer and director, David O. Russell, who also made "Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting With Disaster."

And our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, reviews the new John Harbison opera, "The Great Gatsby."

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Lots of new movies have opened for the holidays. Our film critic, John Powers, has seen them all, so we invited him to talk about them and give us his recommendations.

I think perhaps the most-advertised movie of the season is "Man on the Moon," the Andy Kaufman story starring Jim Carrey. What did you think of it?

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: Well, actually I had two thoughts about "Man on the Moon." The first is, it's an extraordinarily shallow film. It's a film that's supposed to be a biopic of the comedian Andy Kaufman, and what you learn about his life is virtually nothing. And the film's insight into his life is almost completely worthless. I mean, I -- it's hard to imagine a film about somebody's life that would reveal less about the life than "Man on the Moon."

If you look at it as a biographical film, it's a failure. If you look at it as a kind of weird concert film, it's a great success. Jim Carrey impersonates Kaufman with uncanny brilliance. And what you get is a version of Andy Kaufman's greatest hits. So if, like me, you had been driven crazy years ago during the months and months and months that Andy Kaufman spent doing his wrestling shtick, what's funny is, in this film, that shtick now takes 15 minutes, and it really seems funny.

So if you don't go expecting to learn anything about Andy Kaufman, you may well have a good time, and you'll see a really good performance by Jim Carrey. If you expect more than that, you'll probably be disappointed.

GROSS: What did you think of Milos Forman's direction?

POWERS: Actually, I thought the direction was energetic but sort of sloppy and TV-style, really. I expected something a little grander. And it's quite possible that he directed it in this way because Kaufman was essentially a television phenomenon, so that to not do a big bombastic "Amadeus"-style direction is probably a conscious choice on his part.

I think there's nothing particularly special about the directing. I think almost all of it goes back to the fact that Kaufman was funny, and that Carrey's very good as Kaufman.

The film doesn't even ask any of the essential questions you might ask. For instance, you know, was what Kaufman did really interesting, or was it just a sort of higher form of gotcha? Which is to say that there are times, watching this film, you think of -- that he's rather like one of those conceptual artists from the '70s and '80s whose work was essentially empty but produced a very impressive immediate effect.

And that would be a question a film might address. For instance, how does Andy Kaufman compare to Richard Pryor, whose work was about a whole bunch of other stuff? But the film is so shallow it never gets into anything like that.

GROSS: John, for people who expect to see just one movie during the holidays, what's your best recommendation?

POWERS: I think the best of the holiday films is "The Talented Mr. Ripley." I've seen all of them. And the one that surprised me the most and seemed to me most to offer the kinds of things that I want from a holiday film was that film.

I mean, one of the strange things about Christmas and the Hanukkah season, Terry, is that you get all these films that don't seem very appealing. You know, there are two prison movies that are two hours and 45 minutes and three hours long. There are two grim literary adaptations, so you get to see Irish drunks in "Angela's Ashes," and you get to see Japanese people sent to internment camps in "Snow Falling on Cedars."

And then you have "The Talented Mr. Ripley," where you have this unbelievably good-looking cast involved in a good story, written by Patricia Highsmith, where they're wandering through Italy. And you think, This is the film I want to see. I want to see the attractive people doing cool things in a place I can't get to.

It's the one film that's sort of an old-style Hollywood film. And I liked it enormously.

GROSS: Is it faithful to the novel, and do you care?

POWERS: Yes, it is in many ways faithful to the novel. I think it plays up the homosexual side of the hero a little bit more than the book did. It's very clear in the book, but the film, because it now has a freedom that no one really had dealing with these things back in the '50s, puts the homosexual issue a little bit more to the forefront.

But what's really wonderful about the movie is the way that it captures, I think, a very Zeitgeisty thing, which is the envy that ordinary people feel when they look and see the people around them who seem to be rich and glamorous and living lives so much more rich and expressive than their own.

I mean, there's a way in which Tom Ripley, who's the hero of the film, is a quintessential American figure, the person who wants to create himself as somebody else, and that somebody else is richer and more glamorous than he is.

GROSS: Kind of what people have tried to do when they see Matt Damon. (laughs)

POWERS: Yes, well, I think one of the funny thing is, when you see Matt Damon in this film, is, he plays the not-very-famous, not-very-important Tom Ripley, who meets a rich millionaire's son, named Dicky, played by Jude Law. And the funny thing about it is that Damon, who's on the cover of all sorts of magazines for being such a good-looking guy, when you put him next to Jude Law, who's simply gorgeous, Matt Damon looks like some peasant you've pulled out of a cornfield.

And what's wonderful about the film is to watch this all-American Matt Damon figure suddenly look a bit like an awkward bumpkin next to this sleek English actor, who does a brilliant job playing an American, who wears these wonderful shirts that I wanted to buy so badly that I was actually taken out of my thoughts about the film for a moment to think, Where did you buy those shirts?

GROSS: And did you like Matt Damon's performance? Do you think that this shows something about him that we haven't seen before?

POWERS: Not really. I think it's a good performance, and I think that for the film to be great -- and I think it's not a great film -- he would have to be great. I think he gives a good performance. But I think he doesn't quite capture all the layers that one would want in the character of Tom Ripley, a character who's simultaneously calculating yet caught up in experiences, who's gleeful in his crimes and yet a big remorseful.

And while Damon is good in the film, he's not good enough to convey all of those things at the same time.

In contrast, a lot of the people around him are extraordinarily good. Jude Law's wonderful as the rich millionaire. Cate Blanchett has a terrific turn as a more or less parallel figure to Tom Ripley, which is an American heiress who's over in Europe and feels kind of out of it.

And Philip Seymour Hoffman, who seems to be in every single movie this year, has a terrific turn as a spoiled American named Freddy Miles. They're all really good in the film. In fact, they're better than Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays the love interest in the film, and who's good, but once again, caught in a role that really won't let her shine.

GROSS: Now, there are two big best sellers that have become holiday films, best-selling books, "Angela's Ashes" and "Snow Falling on Cedars."

Let's start with "Angela's Ashes." First of all, did you like the book before it became a movie?

POWERS: Yes, well, actually, I'm -- I have never read the book. It may be because I'm of Irish American heritage. But somehow I feel as if I have that book in my bones already. I don't feel any need at all to read it.

But seeing the film, I could tell that the book was much better than the film, because the best thing in the film is the narration, which clearly comes from the book. And what's rather bad and disappointing about the film is that it's a very cold and detached and prettified version of the Irish poverty that "Angela's Ashes" was all about.

You know, it's a film that has, I think, five projectile-vomiting sequences, and each and every one of them is beautifully lit.

GROSS: (laughs) Let's get to the second best seller that's been made into a film for the holidays, and that's "Snow Falling on Cedars." What's the story about?

POWERS: The story is about an embittered young journalist, played by Ethan Hawke, who has virtually no ability as an actor, so far as I can discern, who, years ago, had lost his young love, a Japanese woman, and has been carrying the wounds of that ever since.

And from this little mini-love story, the film expands out to be a commentary on social justice and how Americans interned the Japanese in World War Two. The novel was a very literary, internal affair. And in trying to capture this on screen, the filmmakers have just come up disastrously short. It may be the most inert single film of 1999.

Every single shot is beautiful in a way that's not interesting. And yet the overall effect is to make you feel as though you're somehow swimming in -- through a gift shop or something. There is nothing alive or energetic in the film at all. You simply can't believe that you could take a story that had won prizes, literary thing, and make something so dead. I mean, it's a genuinely terrible film.

GROSS: Any guesses about why so many of the holiday movies are adaptations of novels or memoirs? We'll get to the memoir books. Well, actually "Angela's Ashes" is a memoir.

POWERS: Well, I think there are several reasons for the spate of adaptations at Christmas, and I think the big reason is that this is the time of the year when you're doing prestigious films. You're trying to win awards. And it's often thought here in Hollywood that something based on a book will be deeper or classier than something based on an original screenplay.

I think this year is one of those examples that proves this isn't true at all, so that by far the most interesting movies of the year, something like "Being John Malkovich," for instance, you know, is not an adaptation, it's something that somebody made up, and it seems much fresher than something rather tired, like "Angela's Ashes," which people not only feel as if they've read even if they haven't read, but then gets watered down, so that people who have read it will not like the film, thinking that the book's been betrayed.

GROSS: My guest is our film critic, John Powers. We'll talk more about new holiday movies after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's film critic, John Powers, is with us, and we're talking about some of the holiday movies.

Well, let's get to another book that's been adapted into a movie, and that's "Girl, Interrupted." This is based on a memoir by Susanna Kaysen, as I recall, about her stay at mental hospitals.

POWERS: Yes, it is. It's set in the 1960s, and it's about a young woman who's put in a mental hospital or puts herself in a mental hospital under great duress. And the story, which stars Winona Ryder as the -- as Susanna, more or less follows her movement from thinking she might be a crazy person who's trying to kill herself, through her development in the hospital to the point where she realizes she's ready to leave.

The book, I'm told, is quite an angry book, filled with very sharp political ideas about how young women, in particular, were thought to be crazy if they didn't want to fit the normal middle-class trajectory of the '60s. A lot of that is missing from the book -- or from the film, excuse me.

But what the film does capture is that archetypal young woman's experience of thinking that maybe she's the only one in the world who's this way, and that the entire world is insane, and that maybe therefore that means she's actually insane, and therefore she's incredibly melancholy.

Ryder's extraordinarily good in this role. It's probably the best acting she's ever done in her life. And she was responsible for getting the film put on screen, and I give her a lot of credit for it. When I'd heard about this film, I kind of groaned, because partly what happens at the holiday season is, you get lots of stories about sob sister women, you know, they're either going crazy or their families are dying or they have cancer or something like this.

And I thought this was going to be one of those films. But in fact, it's a very positive sort of film because it's about a person who thinks they're insane learning how to make herself sane.

GROSS: OK, another movie based on a true story is "Hurricane," based on Hurricane Carter's story. And tell us what the basic story is.

POWERS: Yes, well, the basic story is, there was a boxer named Hurricane Carter who was falsely convicted of a couple of murders. Bob Dylan wrote a song about it that you might remember. And the story's about his life from early on till the point when he's finally set free, thanks to the help -- to the intervention of a group of friendly Canadians, who helped reopen his case.

It's actually in many ways a remarkable story, and the shame is that somehow it's told in such a choppy and dull way that you never really get to know Hurricane Carter very well, even though he's wonderfully portrayed by Denzel Washington, and you never really get caught up in the story.

My example of what the -- what's wrong with this film would be this, that Bob Dylan wrote this very famous song about Hurricane Carter, and for some reason, the filmmakers take this inspirational song and stick it in about 20 minutes into the movie. And in some ways, that's the most resounding, memorable moment of the film. Unfortunately, there's still two hours and 20 minutes left.

GROSS: Well, Al Pacino, who's still playing in theaters in "The Insider," has a new movie for the holidays, a football movie called "On Any Given Sunday." It's also an Oliver Stone movie. Is there a conspiracy going on here in this football movie?

POWERS: Well, is it ever an Oliver Stone movie, let me tell you! This is Oliver Stone's film about the NFL, and I must admit that even though many people who I saw it with really didn't like the film, I had an incredibly good time watching it, because Stone is such a wild and energetic and want-to-please-you style director, that I thought even though it was two and a half hours, I enjoyed almost every minute of it.

The story is a rather basic one. It's about an honorable old coach, played by Pacino, who's trying to cope with the changes in the new NFL. So there's an owner who's really more concerned about money than about football. She's played by Cameron Diaz. And then there's the rising young African-American quarterback, who won't listen to instructions, who he just can't relate to, because the young African-American athletes no longer can relate to these weird old white guys.

And you -- anyway, you get this entire built-up story that -- and what interests me about the film is that I think it's not actually about football, it's actually Oliver Stone's version of his own experience in Hollywood. I think the whole thing's a massive allegory in which he is the Pacino character, who's been around for a long time, has been trying -- has one championship, that is to say, Oscars, and is trying to do good work.

But there are all the greedy younger people above him who don't care about the work any more. And below, there are all the greedy, pushy young stars who won't listen to you. And so the whole film, I think, can be read as Oliver Stone's commentary, not just on football, but on the movie business.

GROSS: Interesting. And how's Pacino? Is he good, or is he chewing the scenery?

POWERS: Well, it's actually -- Al seems to be doing essentially the same performance he did in "The Insider." At the time that "The Insider" first played, people were saying, "hey, Al's pretty good, he might get an Oscar nomination. And then when they came out of "Any Given Sunday," people kept saying, Huh, he seems to be giving exactly the same performance in both films. I guess neither is very good.

In fact, Pacino, even when he's chewing the scenery, is usually fun to watch. And here he's a lot of fun to watch. I mean, almost everyone's good. James Woods has a nasty little part, Cameron Diaz can -- you know, once again proves that she may be the great sport of American actresses. She has a scene where she walks into a locker room and shakes hands with a completely naked athlete that I think most people will enjoy seeing.

GROSS: I'm with FRESH AIR's film critic, John Powers, and we're talking about some of the new movies that have opened for the holidays, or that are opening for the holidays.

Jodie Foster has opened in a new movie called "Anna and the King" that's based on the same story that "The King and I" is based on, the famous musical. How is this?

POWERS: Well, it's actually not very good, to be honest. I hate to keep saying that these holiday films aren't very good, but frankly, most of them just aren't very good.

This is a very, very familiar story about Anna, the English governess, who deals with the king of Siam. And this film really adds nothing to what we know of that story. This is not a story that needed to be told yet one more time.

GROSS: Plus, no songs. (laughs)

POWERS: Plus, no songs. What's interesting about it is that there's an enormous clash of acting styles between the star and everyone else in the film, which is to say that this film, which was directed by the man -- by Andy Tennant, who last made "Ever After," a Drew Barrymore film, is a film -- is content to skim over the surface of life. It wants to charm you, show you lovely scenery, and more or less carry you along with an old kind of epic sweep.

And most of the performers in the film seem to realize this. Chow Yun Fat, who plays the king, is wonderfully good as the king. In fact, this may be his star-making role in America. He's charismatic, funny, charming. He seems manly in a way that everyone, I think, like men to be.

The problem is that Jodie Foster seems to think she's in a John Cassavetes movie or something, so she goes through this movie where everyone else is swanning along, looking neurotic, haggard, miserable, breaking into tears. It's as though no one told her that this was supposed to be a Hollywood old-fashioned happy, rompy, big Christmas film.

So she's doing a serious, overly serious, in fact, dramatic performance in a film that simply doesn't call for it. And so the film is incredibly skewed. I know when I walked out of the theater, people kept saying, What's happened to Jodie? You know, it's almost as though she's somehow gotten so disconnected from the film she's in that she wasn't aware that she was acting in a movie that everybody -- she wasn't acting in the same movie that everybody else was in.

GROSS: John, are there any holiday movies that we didn't get to that you want to mention, or any...

POWERS: Well, there are coup...

GROSS: ... that you want to just mention and save for later review?

POWERS: Yes, well, there are a couple of films that should be mentioned. One is "Topsy-Turvy," the Mike Leigh film about Gilbert and Sullivan, which has won the New York Film Critics Award as best film. I didn't love the film, but it's a good film. And, you know, by comparison with lots of the other holiday films, it really looks like a great film. So I would urge people to see that. It has a really terrific performance by Jim Broadbent, who is an actor that people will know from other Mike Leigh films, such as "Life Is Sweet."

The other film I would want to mention is Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia." Anderson last made "Boogie Nights," a film I liked quite a lot. And I was really looking forward to this one. I don't think it's a successful film. I think it's something of a mess. But it is in lots of ways an inspired mess, which is to say that he has so much more talent than so many of the people making films that even when he's making a film I don't like, I think that I'm watching something by a real filmmaker who's filling the screen with lots of good stuff.

There's probably too much stuff in this film. I'll review the film when it comes out. But I do think that if it's playing in your area, you might want to give it a look, because I -- when I first saw it months and months ago, I didn't think it was great. Then after seeing all the other things that have come out since, it's been looking better and better to me.

GROSS: Well, one more thing. If you want to catch up on films that you've missed that are still in the theaters, you know, but have already opened, is there one you'd recommend?

POWERS: Hmm. Oh, I think that really -- you know, if I were recommending films that I would think people should try to see before the year ends, I think they should try to see "All About My Mother" and "Being John Malkovich." I think "All About My Mother" is the most enjoyable foreign language film of the year by a lot. And "Being John Malkovich" is probably the most inventive American movie of the year. And I think they're both just sheerly pleasurable films. And I think they're in lots of theaters, and I would recommend people go see them.

GROSS: Well, John, I look forward to talking with you next week about the films that have made your list for best movies of the year.

POWERS: OK, thank you.

GROSS: I wish you happy holidays.

POWERS: Yes, happy holidays.

GROSS: Thank you very much for being with us.

John Powers is film critic for FRESH AIR and "Vogue" magazine. Next Friday he'll be back to present his list of the 10 best films of the year.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.



Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: John Powers
High: Film critic John Powers discusses this holiday season's hype, the movie trends, and his picks for the season's best films.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Holidays

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Holiday Season's Best Films

Date: DECEMBER 23, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 122302NP.217
Head: "Three Kings": An Interview With David O. Russell
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: Coming up, shooting a film in the desert. We talk with screenwriter and director David O. Russell about his movie "Three Kings." It's been rereleased for the holidays.

And Lloyd Schwartz reviews John Harbison's new opera, "The Great Gatsby."


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, David O. Russell, wrote and directed the movie "Three Kings." It opened in the fall and has been rereleased for the holidays.

The Boston Film Critics Association gave "Three Kings" awards for best picture and best director. The film was named one of the 10 best of the year in "Time" magazine.

David O. Russell's earlier films are "Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting With Disaster." "Flirting With Disaster" will be shown Sunday night on ABC.

"Three Kings" takes place in Iraq at the end of the Gulf War. Four Army men, played by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze, decide to exploit the war's end and try to get rich by stealing Kuwaiti gold bullion from the Iraqi army, which stole it from the Kuwaitis.

But in the process of traveling through Iraq searching for the gold, they find a new mission, helping the Iraqi rebels, who are being imprisoned, tortured, and shot by Saddam Hussein's army.

In this scene, the Americans have set off to steal the bullion and are desperate for transportation. They try to convince Iraqi rebels to lend them some cars.


GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR: Listen, we used these cars to fight Saddam's soldiers.

ACTOR: What's so funny?

ACTOR: Cannot take.

ACTOR: What you mean, "Cannot take"? We kicked Saddam's ass. We definitely take.

CLOONEY: We're the United States Army.

ACTOR: You're three guys with a bunch of civilians and no Humvee.

ACTOR: Money. Have no money to eat, to live. (inaudible), (inaudible).

ACTOR: American army is huge. It has planes and tanks, and we have nothing.

CLOONEY: Listen to me. We will rise up together. Tell him.

ACTOR: (speaks in Iraqi), rise up, (speaks in Iraqi).

ACTOR: Many races, many nations, many nations.

ACTOR: (inaudible) working together, (inaudible).

CLOONEY: Tell him, chief.

ACTOR: Yes, we're united.

ACTOR: United.

ACTOR: (inaudible).

CLOONEY: George Bush, George Bush wants you.



ACTOR: Stand up for yourself.

ACTOR: George Bush (speaks in Iraqi).

ACTOR: George Bush?

CLOONEY: Wants you.

ACTOR: You wants you (ph). Yes!


GROSS: David O. Russell, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

DAVID O. RUSSELL, DIRECTOR, "THREE KINGS": Thanks, it's good to be back.

GROSS: When you started off to make "Three Kings," what interested you in making a movie set at the end of the Gulf War? Had you paid a lot of attention to the Gulf War when it was actually happening?

RUSSELL: I paid kind of marginal attention to it. I was -- when the bombs started going, I was working as a ticket taker at the Sundance Film Festival with a couple of friends of mine. And we just watched it with -- just the whole surreal thing happening on television.

But I think what drew me to the topic as a filmmaker was the fact that I didn't feel it had really been exposed or really delved into in film. You know, it just -- it seemed very ripe with all sorts of bizarre and revealing material.

GROSS: Do you see the movie as, in a way, combining two genres, the heist film and the war film?

RUSSELL: Yes, I think so. I mean, the heist idea was an idea that was in a preexisting script that Warner Brothers showed me by a writer named John Ridley that was purely a heist movie. And I thought -- at the time, it struck me as a great way into all the strangenesses that attend the end of the war. And it is the end of the war that interested me. The war itself was just -- was a whole series of bombings from computer planes, you know.

The end of the war's that odd gray zone where you really -- you finally see what's happened, and people are dealing with their feelings about it, and there's a sort of chaos where anything can happen. And in that -- so I kind of put the heist in that period, to then kind of evaluate what had happened here, and what did it mean, and what did it feel like to those who had participated.

Because i felt like the whole thing had sort of been whitewashed a little bit. You know, we had our big celebration, we had the yellow ribbons, and that was that, you know. And I think everybody had a second thought about it. I think most people knew that there was more to it than that.

GROSS: What are some of the things about the Gulf War that you wanted to capture or comment on in "Three Kings"?

RUSSELL: I mean, most soldiers over there, when you look at this war, it's really sort of -- it's sort of weird. I mean, most soldiers watched it on TV, the way we did. You know, the pilots and some of the soldiers actually encountered the Iraqis, the tank divisions, of course, but most of the infantry were sitting there for three months. And it was sort of bizarre for them to be sitting there watching it on TV, listening to it on the radio, living in constant fear and tension of a gas attack and never really having that experience.

So soldiers did take off for adventures when the war was over to see what Iraq was really like, and -- or just to steal things, or to find souvenirs to take home. And what they found in that environment was this -- you know, an environment littered with consumer goods that had been pilfered from Kuwait by Saddam's retreating army. So you had everything from blue jeans to CDs to stereos to luxury cars throughout the desert, taken by Saddam's army, which Americans would find, along with charred bodies from all the bombings, along with an insurrection.

You know, there was a democratic insurrection going on right after the war that we didn't pay much attention to, in which Iraqis were trying to overthrow Saddam. So the war was far from over.

So all that, I thought, was really rich material for some characters to go through, both fun at times and funny, and also, you know, tragic at times.

GROSS: Now, you did a lot of the shooting in the desert. How did you decide what desert to shoot in?

RUSSELL: Well, Iraq looks like a billiard table, and it doesn't look like a -- it's not that Lawrence of Arabia desert, you know. And we worked very hard to give the film a very distinctive physical look. And I think it feels like you're in a different place.

Iraq is billiard-table flat, (inaudible) with a kind of a blindingly white sand. And that's hard to find in the continental United States, because with the New Mexico soft flats or other places, you have huge mountain ranges right there. And that isn't the case in Iraq.

So we basically found a huge dried lake bed in northern Mexico, outside Mexicali, and we did a lot of shooting there, as well as (inaudible) in copper mine in southern Arizona, which was just completely flat.

Now, the other thing, you know, we tried to do visually is that this was the first war environment that had color photographs in the newspapers, and those color photographs took on a saturated, slightly odd feeling to them. So we shot the film on Ektachrome, which is a regular camera stock, not a motion picture stock, and that gives -- that gave the whole film a different look, like those saturated "USA Today" color photographs.

GROSS: Well, did it also cause problems, since it's not made to be used for a motion picture camera, but for still photographs?

RUSSELL: Yes, we had to go through a little bit of a struggle to get it used, because Technicolor said they would not insure the negative, because they had never processed this much Ektachrome for a feature, or -- And so Warner Brothers turned to us and said, The lab's not going to insure the negative, we can't use this stock. And we went finally through two other labs till we found one that would insure the negative, as well as knew how to process it, and give is dailies that looked usable.

GROSS: Were you worried at all that, oh, maybe you should back it up on regular color film, just in case?

RUSSELL: Yes, we were. The first couple of weeks, the -- it looked like we might have to reshoot a lot of things, and I was worried. But then we found a timer, that's the guy who does the color processing, who figured out how to pull details out of the negative so we didn't have to reshoot.

GROSS: I think the quality of the natural light is probably really different in the desert, because the sun is so intense. So I'm wondering what it was like to shoot in that kind of light.

RUSSELL: It's beautiful. I mean, the drag is that you have to get up so early, because in the winter you only have from -- basically from 6:30 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon to shoot. But it's a beautiful light. And at the end of the day, something that's known as magic hour in the movie world, because the light is so beautiful when the sun is going down, for us often became known as tragic hour, because we were running out of light and we hadn't gotten enough of our shots done. So we often worked frantically during the last, like, half hour of the day to get as many shots off as we could.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David O. Russell, and he directed the movie "Three Kings," which has reopened for the holidays.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director David O'Russell. His movie, "Three Kings," has been rereleased for the holidays. It stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze.

In directing George Clooney, George Clooney was still working on "E.R." when you directed him in "Three Kings." Was there any confusion between his character in your movie and in his character as Ross on "E.R."? Did he have to, like, lose that character? Did you have to do anything to shake off any remnants of that character?

RUSSELL: Yes, I think that George was in the middle of completing his run on "E.R." as we were shooting, so it took its toll a couple of ways. One is, I think, he was commuting from the "E.R." set to our set, which, I think, is hard for any actor. I also think he was in the middle of a big emotional transition in terms of, you know, leaving that show after five years, and inhabiting a character there for five years.

So I think that it's impossible for that not to color one's style of acting, you know. I mean, if you talk to any actor from any television show, be it "Seinfeld" or anything that had been doing that for five years, they're going to bring that with them. And when George and I first met, that was the bargain, was that -- was our, you know, that we were going to commit ourselves to shedding as much of that as possible.

And that's what a lot of the work was directed towards. And I think he did. I think there's a side to him in this picture that hasn't been seen in his other work.

GROSS: How did you work with him on shedding the character?

RUSSELL: I think mostly you -- as with any character in a movie, you establish a shorthand early on as to what the essence of the character is. So, you know, our shorthand for Archie Gates, the character that George was playing in this movie, was his steadiness, and a sort of inner quiet that he has. Whereas the character on "E.R." is, I think, moves around a lot and has an inner movement and energy, this character was sort of the opposite. You know, was sort of like a rock inside, and also had a certain emotional heaviness inside of him in this character.

So you could just refer to any of those words I just used here at any time during a scene in between takes, and, you know, George would adjust.

GROSS: So among the things you had to do was blow up a cow and have a truck with how many gallons of milk exploding?

RUSSELL: Six thousand.

GROSS: Let's start with the milk.

RUSSELL: The milk truck was an idea that came from an actual experience where American bombers had actually mistakenly bombed what they thought was a military target, and it turned out to be trucks carrying milk to the starving Iraqi population, which didn't have much food at the time, which is a common error during a war.

I took that, and I made it a truck that was blown up on the ground by a rocket launcher by Iraqi soldiers trying to prevent food from being delivered to the people who were rising up. And the way we shot that was, we had a big tractor-trailer that was filled with 6,000 gallons of milk that they just opened up the floodgates on. And I think the actors didn't exactly know what to expect when it hit them. It actually knocked one of them over, which is in the film.

So there's this sea of milk that washes them against a building before a whole bunch of civilians rush in and actually trying to scoop some of it up from the ground.

GROSS: Did you have real milk in the truck?

RUSSELL: No, that would have made everything smell really bad.

GROSS: I was thinking that.

RUSSELL: Yes. Actually -- so they used a water with a latex in it that you couldn't really drink, of course. So just to really sell the idea that people were drinking this when they're scooping it up, the extras were amazing, they really looked like they were drinking it. And then we also had a -- we put actual milk in a little divot in the dirt, and a dog drank it out of the divot for real, so that made it look pretty real.

GROSS: And now a cow blows up. This is one of the more kind of surreal sequences in the movie. Everyone has to be really careful now that no real animals are injured in movies, and there's always a disclaimer to that effect at the end. How did you make that scene?

RUSSELL: Well, our disclaimer, as you may have noticed, says that no animals were injured in the making of this film, except for the cow. No, that's not...

GROSS: Oh. (laughs) (inaudible), I don't remember reading that.

RUSSELL: So now we're going to get calls from animal activists. You know, we did -- we got a bunch of calls from people about the bullet in the body, because we have the sequence -- one of the -- this was an idea-driven movie for me, meaning that as you already indicated earlier, it wasn't so much about the relationships as it was about all these different -- all these different ideas and experiences in this environment.

And among those ideas were the fact that Americans hadn't looked at how the war really ended or how soldiers felt about it, and the chaotic environment of contemporary war, which hasn't really been looked at, I think, till now.

But also, an idea that drove me was to resensitize the notion of violence. That was an idea that motivated me in the making of the movie, meaning that I felt that movies had kind of desensitized violence to the point where a bullet was almost meaningless, and the more the merrier.

So I tried very hard to minimize the number of bullets in the film, and there's -- you can probably count them on two hands. And slow down the bullets to actually -- when they're were bullets fired, and there aren't very many in the movie, but when they are fired, they have an amazing impact, and went inside the body to actually follow the path of the bullet, as George Clooney's character describes what it does if it goes into your gut.

But that was done with all prosthesis, as was the cow. The cow was something called -- they put, like, foam pieces of -- that look like meat in a mortar that shoots them out into the air. And we did actually -- the only real part was a real cow's head.

GROSS: (inaudible) and did you get that from a butcher shop or something?

RUSSELL: Yes, that was the one thing that smelled a little bad after -- by the end of the morning.

GROSS: Right.

Well, David O. Russell, I want to thank you for being with us. I wish you happy holidays.

RUSSELL: Happy holidays, Terry.

GROSS: David O. Russell wrote and directed "Three Kings," which has been rereleased for the holidays. His movie "Flirting With Disaster" will be shown on ABC-TV Sunday night.


GROSS: That's "Holidays, or Excuse Me, I Have Gifts to Buy," from the Bob Rivers collection "More Twisted Christmas."

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews the new John Harbison opera, "The Great Gatsby."

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: David O. Russell
High: Screenwriter/director David O. Russell discusses his movie "Three Kings," which is being re-released for the holiday season.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Holidays; "Three Kings"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "Three Kings": An Interview With David O. Russell

Date: DECEMBER 23, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 122303NP.217
Head: "The Great Gatsby": The Opera
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: John Harbison's new opera, "The Great Gatsby," based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, had its world premier at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York this week. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz is a great admirer of Harbison's music and Fitzgerald's writing, so of course he was at the Met for the opening.

Here's his review.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC: F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel of the Jazz Age had only a small cult following among writers until it was, as the composer John Harbison says, "rescued from the literary junk heap."

Thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of Edmund Wilson in the 1950s, "Gatsby" is now generally considered one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century -- by some people, the greatest. It tells one of the archetypal American stories, the hero of obscure origins who makes a shady fortune and gives his life at the end, quite literally, to his pursuit of an ideal that finally can't help but betray him.

It's also a story about the confrontation between the moral Midwest and the monied East of New York and Long Island, the tyranny of beauty, and the brutality of the upper classes.

But if "The Great Gatsby" is a masterpiece, it's because it has some of the century's most dazzling writing, racing nonstop, in under 200 pages, from one breathtaking image to the next. "The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun," writes Fitzgerald's narrator and alter ego, Nick Carraway, in a famous passage about one of Jay Gatsby's lavish parties. "Now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher."

There are certainly operatic elements in this book, with its prose arias, its tone of yearning and heated melodrama.

In his new opera, John Harbison succeeds in capturing a lot of that blend. His most fruitful idea is to mix the idioms of opera and pop music. Opening night at the Met, people around me audibly relaxed as the music in the overture moved from the chromatic, almost discordant angst of operatic yearning into a suddenly flippant fox trot.


SCHWARTZ: Harbison's whole score is punctuated with '20s-style songs and dance tunes, tangos and Charlestons and fox trots, played at parties or sung through a megaphone or over the radio. The lyrics, by Murray Horowitz, who is the originator of Broadway's "Ain't Misbehavin'," mirror the emotional situations of the main characters, like the production numbers in Stephen Sondheim's "Follies."

And Harbison's melodies are infectious. People were walking up the aisles humming the tunes. This might be the first opera with hit songs rather than famous arias, though there are also exquisite lyrical passages in the modern classical mode.

Stage director Mark Lamos (ph), though, doesn't make enough of this brilliant musical juxtaposition, or of any of the opera's other dramatic confrontations. So this first production remains frustratingly static, despite James Levine's conducting, the scintillating playing by the amazing Met orchestra, and some strong performances by Susan Graham as the golf pro Jordan Baker, heroic tenor Mark Baker as Daisy Buchanan's wealthy, narrow-minded, and hulking husband, Tom -- "I hate that word `hulking,'" he sings -- and the stunning Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in her overdue Metropolitan Opera debut, as Tom's earthy and doomed mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Soprano Dawn Upshaw, and tenor Jerry Hadley are less successful as Daisy and Gatsby.

Occasionally, Harbison resorts to some pretty dated exposition to turn the novel's narrative into stage action, but some of the most awkward dramaturgy has some of his most beautiful music.

You can hear the opera for yourself on New Year's Day when the Saturday matinee will be broadcast live from the Met.

Until it gets the production it deserves, John Harbison's noble collision with Fitzgerald's masterpiece may actually work better on the radio than in the opera house.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of "The Boston Phoenix." "The Great Gatsby" is at the Met through January 15.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Anne Marie Baldonado directed the show.

I'm Terry Gross.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Lloyd Schwartz
High: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews the new John Harbison opera, "The Great Gatsby," based on the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Spec: Entertainment; "The Great Gatsby"; Music Industry

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "The Great Gatsby": The Opera
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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