King of "Kings"

With dark horse Oscar candidate "Three Kings" trotted out for another showing, director David O. Russell talks about Michael Jackson, visual studies and George Clooney's Cary Grant turn.

Published January 13, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When writer-director David O. Russell made "Spanking the Monkey" (1994) and "Flirting With Disaster" (1996), critics compared him to Mike Nichols at the time of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" (1966) and "The Graduate" (1967). Russell's debut, like "The Graduate," depicted a confused collegian who falls into Oedipal sex (with his actual mother, not his mother's friend). And Russell's second film treated subjects like post-childbirth sex with a barbed satiric style recalling early Nichols at his best.

Nichols stumbled his third time out, when he leapt into epic moviemaking with his adaptation of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" (1970). For his third film, Russell has made a sardonic adventure comparable in scale to "Catch-22": the Gulf War caper flick, "Three Kings." But unlike Nichols' clinker, Russell's film is a triumph. Maybe not commercially: It cost $46 million and in three months has grossed only $59 million. But artistically it's a giant step forward, both for Russell and for his whole Sundance graduating class of mid-'90s independent filmmakers. "Monkey" (which left me cold) was a Freudian thesis; "Flirting" (which I liked) was a Freudian funhouse. "Three Kings" is its own critter, a sweeping political action film that jumps and slithers through minefields without ever losing its aplomb.

The movie's richness and sureness stem partly from its connections to Russell's intellectual past. As he detailed in the interview contained in his book of screenplays ("Flirting With Disaster & Spanking the Monkey," Faber and Faber, 1996), he was an upper-middle-class kid from Westchester who studied political science and literature at Amherst College. Among his favorite writers were "the satirists: Thomas Pynchon, Evelyn Waugh and Mark Twain."

After college Russell did "literacy work" in Nicaragua, taught English as a second language in the south end of Boston and did community organizing in Lewiston, Maine, to improve low-income housing. (His first film was a video documentary about the problems of Central American immigrants in Boston. He followed it with two shorts, including "a surreal little nightmare in a bingo parlor" and a ditzy piece of Dada about an out-of-control Marge Simpson hairdo, "Hairway to the Stars.")

"Three Kings" is no knee-jerk left-wing anti-war tract. To summarize brutally, it's both anti-Saddam and anti-Bush. It views the U.S. military without illusions and without rancor. Actually, it's about four kings, American soldiers all, including the grizzled vet George Clooney, the intelligent, green Mark Wahlberg, the fiercely Christian Ice Cube and the ignorant, good-hearted Spike Jonze. At the end of the war, Wahlberg and Jonze find an Iraqi treasure map rammed up the rear end of a prisoner. Clooney horns in on their discovery. Clooney has the know-how to mount a private expedition to retrieve stolen Kuwaiti gold. (Think of Clooney, Wahlberg and Cube as Three Musketeers and Jonze as an unlikely D'Artagnan.)

The chaos of Bush's immediate post-war policy -- encouraging Iraqi freedom fighters without aiding them -- makes the American soldiers' initial success possible. It also rouses their conscience. They face the dangers of a ground war while they come to understand the Iraqi point of view. They risk their hides to do some good.

I spoke to Russell, 41, in December, shortly before "Three Kings" won best picture and best director honors from the Boston Society of Film Critics. Last week, Warners booked the film into theaters again as part of an Academy Award campaign. Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening's slick sick-suburbia film has been dubbed the favorite in the Oscar race, but "Three Kings" is this year's real American beauty.

To me, the master stroke at the core of "Three Kings" is putting four guys, after the war, into the kind of horrific episodes that the pre-war "publicity" warned us the Gulf War would contain.

The exposi was a big part of it for me. I knew there had been a whole side to the conclusion of that war that had been buried under a sea of yellow ribbons. I thought it was scandalous that it hadn't really been told. Many of the soldiers I met who had experienced it felt -- strongly -- that there was something hypocritical about the end of the war.

And then, when I continued my research, I found, to use your analogy, that some of the stuff the media had "previewed" had happened, to a degree never brought into our awareness. Everybody's image from the war was of computer images, which dehumanizes the whole thing. So I wanted to show what it was like to live with a gas alarm and know that different kinds of gases are in the air. I wanted to show what it was like to meet Iraqis face to face, and what it was like to see all this stuff stolen from Kuwait. Getting the information out was a powerful motivation for me.

You can't go to a public library and try to research this war and get anything except establishment military views of what happened. At the end of the final credits, there's a citation that "scenes of Operation Desert Storm" were "derived from photographs by Kenneth Jareke from his book, 'Just Another War.'" Even that book is out of print now.

I decided I was going to take risks visually, so a lot of my research was visual. I didn't just go through books and newspapers -- I did things like watch films by that Russian director who made "The Cranes Are Flying" and "I Am Cuba" [Mikhail Kalatozov]. I had to storyboard a lot of the movie, just to know what was achievable. But I wanted to take a journalistic approach, so there was a lot of hand-held camera work and Steadicam. I wanted the film to be as kinetic as could be the whole time, and I wanted to let it be sloppy.

"Just Another War" was pretty amazing. There was another book called "Telex Iran" by Gilles Peres, which had an incredible collection of photographs from around the time of the Iranian revolution, presenting chaos with a lot of depth of focus -- people big in the foreground and a lot of people very far away.

And the Los Angeles Times had a day-by-day of the war on its front page. That's where you saw Bart Simpson on the grille of a truck. That's where you saw bizarre tableaux of soldiers being stripped in the middle of nowhere. And that's where you saw weird saturated Xerox color. It was the first war that had color photographs in the newspaper. We sought to reproduce the odd color of the newspaper images by using Ektachrome -- not a movie stock, but one in which the colors are very saturated -- and the bleach bypass process, which leaves a layer of silver on the film, so when the colors do pop through they get a harsh, blown-out look.

Tom Sigel, my cinematographer [billed as Newton Thomas Sigel], had shot some seminal documentaries in Central America in the '80s, when civil war was tearing up all those countries, including one called "El Salvador: Another Vietnam," and another called "Guatemala: When the Mountains Tremble." He had been in the middle of firefights; he knew what it was like to be in that kind of world. So he understood exactly what I was talking about. And he was also somebody who was happy to say, "Let's look at a menu of processing choices and test some of them and see what you like."

You also had an editor, Robert K. Lambert, who has worked for filmmakers like Robert Towne and the late Tony Richardson.

He was the same way. He picked up from me that I wanted everything different, and once he got that he was committed to it. We did one cut that didn't have the energy we wanted -- it didn't have the energy of the script. And that's devastating: It's got all this great footage that you love, but it still feels deadly. Then you throw about a third of that overboard and the script comes out. Bob was wonderful. But to make our release date, we needed three editors working simultaneously: Bob in one room, Pam [March] in one room and Mark [Bourgeois] in another room. I would go from one to the other and cut a different scene in each room.

I saw the film again while the WTO conference was held in Seattle. Although I know the protests against global capitalism have merit, I couldn't help thinking, Why is it vaguely reassuring to see that everyone in this movie wants a nice stereo or an Infiniti convertible?

There's no easy solution; everything cuts both way. Consumer goods seem to be an American perpetration, yet at the same time there are some things that people really need and want. It's like Michael Jackson's face -- did he do it to himself or did living in this culture make him want to do it? Both things are true.

You have an Iraqi commence his torture of Mark Wahlberg by raising that question about Michael Jackson's face.

Obviously, the guy was trained by certain American forces in the process of interrogation; we trained all the great dictatorships. And to intimidate or disorient the subject is a primary strategy. I thought it made a lot of sense to start with something disorientingly familiar. But then the question is also completely filled with the man's rage about what he sees as the hypocrisy of America: trying to get rid of Saddam yet bombing civilians; Michael Jackson being the King of Pop yet hating himself.

You sometimes do things that just come to you, and trying to explain them ruins it. That was one of those things that kind of came to me.

When your book of screenplays was published, you were talking about making "a period thriller in the vein of 'Chinatown,' but set in an earlier period."

It was very ambitious. It was based on the idea behind what Gandhi said: that there's more to life than making it go faster. That desire has given us a lot of great conveniences, from the fax to the cell phone to the digital world, but what's been traded off in that? I thought I could locate the essence of capitalism, the spiritual center of it, at the turn of the century. I didn't feel I had the movie yet; it became too one-sided. It was too easy to be a Luddite. I don't want to get too specific and give the movie away, because I still want to do it; it takes place in a couple of the areas where industry was starting to transform the landscape.

But in the middle of my research Warners showed me this log-line they have -- their log of properties. And once I saw it, I couldn't stop thinking of this Gulf War thing. I just took off with it. Part of it was me being intrigued by other genres, as a learning experience for me. What would it be like to justify a picture this size with action, yet have it be a movie that's more subversive than just another action movie?

As a fan of Sam Peckinpah, I'm always seeing echoes of "The Wild Bunch" in action movies -- even if the influence is unconscious, and doesn't extend beyond using slow motion for violence. But in "Three Kings," which has a "Wild Bunch" sort of plot, I was impressed by the new ways you found to express the horror of war and bloodshed. The most obvious example is showing what actually happens inside a body when a bullet hits.

This was an information-driven movie, and an idea-driven movie, and one of the ideas was to resensitize us to violence. That's why there are only a handful of bullets as opposed to many, many bullets. Originally, the story was set during the war and during the final bombing. Setting it after the war I had the ability to have as many or as few bullets as I wanted.

In the first big showdown scene, you lay out slowly and specifically the trajectory of every single shot.

A bullet is a very big deal in anybody's life, so I wanted to slow it down to make you feel that each bullet counted in that way. And nobody really wants to shoot in that scene. Even the Iraqis, I think, are all very scared. I never studied Peckinpah's films, but I saw "The Wild Bunch" many years ago -- and, as you say, that stuff can't help entering your unconscious, because it's all part of the culture.

You also made me think of other films from the "Wild Bunch" era, like "How I Won the War," where Richard Lester tried to make us see the absurdity of war -- yet couldn't do that and also make his war feel real. I think you do both. You don't let the absurdity lead the film; you let it emerge out of what you're dealing with.

There were times when I thought I could tell this story more like "MASH" and let the absurdity lead the way. But I think that from the beginning I had a different tone in mind, and that the absurdity would follow.

You start with Mark Wahlberg shooting an Iraqi who may or may not be surrendering.

That guy is kind of surrendering and kind of not surrendering, and Mark does want to shoot somebody but doesn't know what he'll feel like until he does it. It's absolutely ambiguous.

And then you immediately get a glimpse of the bond between Wahlberg and Spike Jonze, which does a lot to humanize the movie.

Their friendship was very important -- to see how fucked-up both of them were but that they had this brotherly relationship. And that was one of the most fun things to rehearse, having Spike play the younger brother to Mark.

Clooney is great in the movie; he even looks a lot like Cary Grant, and when I heard he was called "Archie" and remembered Grant's real name was Archie Leach ...

That's funny -- I never thought of that. Archie Leach! Clooney was meant to play the part, I guess. He's a very solid anchor and that's exactly the energy he plays -- the biggest challenge was for him to let us into his eyes and into his soul a little bit. It's a little bit of a Gary Cooper performance where he doesn't talk a whole lot -- but you kind of get his integrity, and his fear and his ambivalence at times.

You love watching him, and you love watching him think or react. I also loved the chance that he and Cube had of being exuberant in that one scene, getting everybody worked up about using all these luxury cars to rescue Mark. I don't think either of them has had a chance to be so exuberant in a movie.

Some sophisticated critics complained that it took them too long to figure out how they felt about the characters. To me the strategy of the film was to keep you off-kilter until you knew whether you wanted to like these guys or not.

Yeah, that was the strategy of the film, and some people thought it didn't work for them -- some of the New York critics, my hometown critics. Look, it's very subjective -- they have loved movies that I have been utterly baffled by.

I loved the excitement and vitality of your movie from the beginning; what worried me a little was whether it would prove "too hip to live." I kept getting more involved the more I realized that it was not going to be a blanket denunciation of the war -- that it was trying to open up the subject.

What interests me is what's real, and what's real is confusing and mixed. I went to Central America in 1982, both for the adventure and because I was very excited by the Sandinista revolution. And when I got there, it was this strange cocktail, where I met Sandinistas who were assholes and people who were apolitical who I loved. It became more of a mixed experience for me than I expected. And all of it was interesting, including the confusion of American culture in all this and the way different people appropriate it in different ways.

I think my experience in Central America is what drew me to go into the kind of environment where America is presented with one story and you have to expose a different story. The black-and-white version of the issues isn't that clear when you're in the middle of it. What you get is the collision of humanity with ideological cartoons.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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