Sunday, 13 October 2013

Director's Commentary - Three Kings (1999)

David O. Russell talking about his off-kilter Gulf War adventure Three Kings.

On how he was drawn to the project: 

I came to the project right after I finished 'Flirting With Disaster', I was invited to Warner Brothers and they opened up their logs of all the properties they had and there's a one line summary of each script. This line leapt out at me, 'a heist set in the aftermath of the Persian-Gulf'. I had lived in central America in the early eighties amid a lot of the political chaos that was there at the time. I saw a lot of the absurdity and strange combinations of things; American consumer goods with the contra war and Michael Jackson's music, and all these weird cocktails. My imagination was stirred by that, I basically took the premise from John Ridley's script and researched for wrote for 18 months myself on my own script. 

On the film's opening and setting the tone:

The tone of the film has being established, it will walk this line between upsetting or shocking information and absurd humour at a kind of rollicking pace. From that guy being shot to people partying, what kind of combination is this? Well, these two things were happening side-by-side. There was all this partying going on, it was like a big frat party for all these Americans soldiers, many of whom didn't see any action, many of whom watched the war on the TV like we did. Of course anyone who sits in the line of fire is a hero to some degree but I think it was baffling to a lot of them, the ones I met at least. Nora Dunn's character, the ubiquitous reporter of the film, and she's basically just covering a party which I think feels a little bit empty to her. The Lee Greenwood song that they're singing here was this huge anthem 'Proud To Be American' that was very popular at the time, it plays through this montage and I love this contrast; Iraqis are being killed or involved in a horrible uprising that's being crushed which was really a perverse irony and as a filmmaker I felt there was an incredible opportunity to be able to expose all of this. 

On creating a unique look for the film:

Tom Siegel and I tested a lot of different ways to shoot the film, this war was different from any other war and we wanted it to look different from any other war. Other war films tend to look khaki or olive coloured and there was nothing really khaki about this war, it was very bright almost blown out in the desert and you had big hits of colour which showed up in the newspapers for the first time in colour photographs, so we wanted that colour to live in the movie. We wanted to do bleach-bypass at the beginning and then when they get to the village it switches to Ektachrome which is a reversal stock that you use in a stills camera and the reason I liked it was that the colours pop in a very surreal way and it looks very exotic like the photographs in the L.A. Times. 

On preserving the life of the film from the page:

The script has this energy; it's it's fast and it's kinetic. Then you shoot all this footage and you cut it together and it feels dead and sluggish because you've fallen in love with pieces of the footage. For me, you cut away at all of that footage that isn't in the spirit or energy of the script and then the film breathes and is alive. This film in particular needs to move at a pretty big clip. Warner Brothers is famous for having a script department in which they format your script and tell you how many pages the script is and you say 'no this is only 130 on my computer' and they say 'well it's 160'. Then the budget department turns around and says 'that's too much money and too many days' so you've got to start dumping some scenes. You say 'no, no, no, let's reformat it' so you play this game where you do the dame material much more condensed, so you take this scene and you condense it way down and so you have something called the 'secret script' where we give the crew the official script and say this is the 'secret script' is the real script where everything is a little more elaborate. 

On the film's advertising around the time of release:

Interestingly enough, when the film was first being marketed it was all 'gold, gold, gold'. The posters and the campaign said '$23million worth of gold' and to me it's the MacGuffin, who cares? I don't care about that, that's not what's interesting about this movie. Oh wow, I've never seen a movie where guys steal gold, I've seen that movie 500 times so it's the least interesting part of the film for me. To me it's the combination of of chaotic action and emotional content that really makes the movie different. 

On what drove him to make the film:

[it] was the visual texture of that world, the desert, the American consumer goods there, from Bart Simpson to the Infinity convertible. Americans getting close to an ancient Arab culture in the third world country, based on my experiences in the third world and central America. The mixture of absurdity and pathos of all that, and the visual component of that. When I first decided to make the film I part of what grabbed me was that I thought there hadn't been a war film since 'Platoon'. I thought this would be amazing, that I get to play in this environment in a completely different way, then that next year I heard about Spielberg and Malick making these epic war films. So part of my heart sank but then I also thought I've still really got the only contemporary war film with much of the untold story about this war that will look and feel completely different from their films and will be funny and absurd in ways that their film are not. 

On bringing something new to action scenes:

The action that interests me is messed up action, you get a splinter in the middle of an action scene, how many times have you seen that? The guy stops and says damn I've got a splinter, half the time if i'm just going through my house and I bump my head that'll fuck me up for a while, so why does that never happen in an action scene? You never see somebody sprain their ankle, the guy gets a splinter, or George [Clooney] collides with a guy, its completely sloppy. Both are running their asses off and they smash into each other and then they're just scared of each other, they don't want to fight they just want to get away from each another. I think ultimately people do not want to fight and kill each other, they ultimately just want to stay safe, like what they say about a snake, a snake just wants to stay cool he's not looking to bite people, snake will slither away from you nine times out of ten. 

On what he feels was accomplished with Three Kings:

In some regards I took a basic action/adventure motor and put a completely different layer, upon layer, upon layer of textures on top of it; layers of satire, of political information,of digressions, of cross cultural interactions. It was an interesting experience for me but I think one of the things I learned from it is that expositional motor was kind of an albatross to me and I wouldn't want to do it again. I don't think I would likely again make a film that had, in some senses, a traditional adventure narrative. This was my foray into a format of a studio action picture and twisting it in a lot of provocative ways; to make it politically provocative and visual provocative. I learned a lot from the experience,as I said it was difficult to carry that kind of traditional template the whole way. I saw the opportunity to make the movie about this unexamined war, in that regard I think we pulled it off ad I hope it will last as a portrait of a very strange, morally compromised war.

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