Interview: Eric Warren Singer on Setting the Stage for “American Hustle”

On how a conversation with a guy sitting next to him on a place led to the Oscar-bound comic thriller....Read More
Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in "American Hustle"

One of Eric Warren Singer’s favorite scenes in “American Hustle” didn’t appear in his screenplay.

“Every time I see it, I just crack up in the most amazing way because it’s this spontaneous, amazing [scene],” Singer says, giving into a slight chuckle just thinking about Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent Richie DiMaso dry humping his immediate superior, played by Louis CK. “If I had been on set, they would’ve had to carry me out because I would not have been able to not laugh hysterically at that.”

That’s hardly the only deviation from Singer’s original script, which had been distinguished long before it was in the thick of this year’s Oscar race after it was selected to the Blacklist in 2010 and attracted the attention of Ben Affleck, among others, to direct. However, were it not for a casual conversation Singer struck up with a stranger over a decade ago, there wouldn’t have been a film to speak of, one that the screenwriter couldn’t be happier took on a life of its own after David O. Russell came aboard to help steer the wild tale of a pair of Long Island con artists who were enlisted by the FBI in the 1970s to conduct a sting operation aimed at public officials taking bribes, better known these days as ABSCAM, to the screen.

“Everyone brought something incredibly significant to the story that I laid down and shaped it into this singular thing,” says Singer. “Everyone helped make it happen, and it’s a testament to a great director who could orchestrate all of that.”

Hours after Singer was nominated for a Golden Globe, an experience he described as “surreal and at the same time, fulfilling, gratifying and terrifying,” he spoke about the origins of “American Bullshit” (the script’s original title, which the lucky folks in Germany will still be treated to), how one of its signature scenes might’ve been lost with another director and how the structure of the screenplay was informed by the art of the con.

Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper in "American Hustle"How did this get started?

The seed was planted about 15 years ago. I had just started my career as a screenwriter and I was taking a plane ride from New York City back to L.A. and I was sitting next to this guy in coach. We started bullshitting as people do when you’re sitting next to each other and the guy was an assistant U.S. attorney and he’s like, “what do you do?” When I told him, he’s like, “Oh, I got a really cool story for you.” He’d had some peripheral involvement in ABSCAM and he told me the story.

Over the years, I always wanted to do a movie about it, then it came to life about five years ago when I had been working with [producers] Chuck Roven and Richard Suckle on “The International.” We were talking about what was next and we had sold a movie to Sony that was a Middle Eastern thriller and I started digging in on the research of that. It was based on this Robert Stone novel [“Damascus Gate”] and about three months into it, I started seeing all these movies that were Middle Eastern thrillers were coming out and just tanking — “The Kingdom” and “Body of Lies” — so I just knew the studio was never going to make the movie I was about to start writing no matter how good it was. So at that point, we all just had a pow-wow and decided to switch it out. Sony has always been a great supporter of mine and they had already paid me my commencement and I told them the story of [what would become] “American Hustle,” so they were like, “Great, go do it” and left me alone.

Since it had been years since hearing the story, what made you reconnect with it years later?

There was the research that I had done for it where I found Mel Weinberg, the actual man that [Christian Bale’s con artist character] Irving was inspired by. I did about three weeks’ worth of interviews with him and those interviews were really how the movie was born. As I started breaking the story and moving into the first draft, the characters took over. I realized very quickly that to tell the most compelling story, I had to let go of the truth to get to the truth of the characters, using the scandal and all these characters I had been researching as templates, as jumping off points to write this fictionalized version.

Jennifer Lawrence in "American Hustle"David O. Russell did a pretty extensive rewrite on the script himself, but did you actually get to collaborate with him?

I did and it was great. There are two things about the process — in some ways, my draft is different and in some ways, they’re incredibly similar structurally. There’s a point on every movie, no matter what movie you’re doing if you’re working with a director, [particularly] a true, indelible filmmaker like David, where as a writer, you have to let go. If you don’t, you’re going to go completely insane. You have to let your director make it his own. And it makes it a lot easier when you’re a fan of that director.

I’ve been a huge David O. Russell fan since the beginning of his career, so I knew he was going to do something interesting and unexpected with what I had already laid down. There are a lot of instances where he took things that I had written into directions I never would’ve thought of. There were a lot of scenes where when I saw the movie for the first time, it was an exuberant experience because I wasn’t expecting it.

For example, the microwave oven scene [involving Irving’s cocksure wife Rosalyn, played by Jennifer Lawrence] was one of the first things that I had ever written for the movie. I wrote it on the plane home from having interviewed Mel Weinberg and it was in the earliest, earliest drafts of the movie I had written, but it got cycled out because prior to David [directing the film], Ben Affleck was the director and I had done a number of drafts for Ben [where] the microwave scene got lost. When David came on, I printed out all these scenes that I’d loved, but over the course of the development, had been lost and he took that scene and basically, it’s as it was, except in my draft, it was a nuclear oven, not a scientific oven, but then he pays it off in this amazing way with Rosalyn. So it really was amazing to watch him work and to learn from him and to scrap it up with him.

Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper in "American Hustle"One thing that never seemed to change throughout the process, however, was how the general concept of the con helped provide the structure for the film in terms of revealing the story and what you learn of the characters. Was it an immediate way in?

It was one of the core things that appealed to me in a lot of ways. All con artists are gifted storytellers in their own right, which I think is why I’m drawn to them. We share a similar craft. Telling the tale, drawing in an audience as you would a mark. Good storytelling is as much a seduction as any con, so there was that component of it. But the other thing that went from the background to the foreground was that when I did these interviews with Mel, it became really clear without being cognizant of it, he understood that a con is living theater and the con artist is the director or the maestro at the center of it all. You have a script, you have actors, you have a set, you have props and you have the artist himself who is shaping and crafting all of it into this illusion that’s so convincing that it’s going to close the mark. That idea of living theater was always present when I was working on the film, except they’re playing with live ammunition. If they fuck up, they could get killed.

There was also this idea that we reveal more about ourselves in the deceptions that we play with other people than we do when we tell the truth. When I was moving through the story and these characters who are all sort of throttling towards this reckoning with the truth, that was something I can really relate to because we all really hustle ourselves to one degree or another to get through life, to survive, to get through the day, to make a marriage work, to make a job bearable, to get ahead, to do what we have to do. But my father would always say to me, “You can never beat the truth. Eventually, it’s going to catch up to you.” One thing that was at the center of the story I was trying to tell was this idea that in that moment of clarity [at that reckoning with the truth], you can either take that and use it to transform yourself in a really positive way or it can cripple you or you just stay the same.

“American Hustle” is now open in wide release.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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