• Interviews

When David O. Russell and Christian Bale get together…in “Amsterdam”

“Imagine you’re just friends, you’re innocent, you’re sweet, you manage to love life, you back into something that you have no idea what it is, and you get to an answer that you never expected. But what matters, in the meantime, if you still know what you love, and you still know what you care about. That’s your Amsterdam. Everybody here has an Amsterdam.”

Filmmaker David O. Russell, who wrote, directed, and produced Amsterdam, explained his latest film during a Q&A held following a recent special screening of the period mystery comedy at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood.

Joining him on stage were actor Christian Bale and editor Jay Cassidy and moderator, filmmaker Jeremy Kagan.


The 1930s-set movie, which marks Russell’s first film since Joy (2015), is about three friends – a doctor, Burt Berendsen (Bale); a lawyer, Harold Woodman (John David WashingtonMargot Robbie) – who witness a murder, get framed for it and stumble into one of the most unusual plots in US history.


The film, a zany murder mystery set in the sweeping war saga in the 1930s, deals with friendship and loyalty, with time and circumstances testing that friendship and bond.

Bale, whose doctor is a battle-scarred war survivor, explained, “All I know is I just loved Burt to bits. I really loved playing him, and I wanted him as a friend. I miss him, I miss hanging out with him. The other night, Chivo [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] and I were tearing up when I went in, and we were going to do the last line … we can’t go on and so we would keep going in the editing room and it would be something like two and a half weeks ago, we were still recording lines for the film. And then we were done and … we got to say goodbye to Burt. We were standing in the back, watching it. I loved these characters. They’re just friends that I wish I had. That pact that they have is just beautiful.”

Talk about friendship. Russell and Bale, who are now on their third collaboration, worked on the film for more than six years.

Russell shared, “Christian and I, this was a conversation we had over six years that started before our current era of strangeness, and it had nothing to do with it. As the current year unfolded, we remained on our path telling our story about a doctor on probation, making medicine for himself and his friends in a broken-down office who would help you out, a fixer with his friend, the attorney.

“We love the idea of building friends that you love and want to follow. And their third friend, played by Margot … you want to see them back in something huge. We wrote many drafts which Christian kept track of in his cupboard.”

To which Bale added, “I had about 14 of them and a couple in the sock drawer, as well. And I would chime in with lines and David went, ‘Oh that’s good, I like that one!’ And I’d say, ‘Dude, you wrote that.’”

Bale talked about his own friendship with Russell. “What was great was because I got to sit with this gentleman and friend and witness him writing the whole thing and appreciate him. We had the best of times: we were watching documentaries, listening to music, and reading books, learning about events in American history that I knew nothing about previously. We’re focused on the friendship and everything.”

Even Robbie and Washington invested a lot of their time and energy in their characters, said Russell. “I have so saturated the characters. How wonderful is this thing, how wonderful is Margot Robbie, J.D. Washington, the whole cast, I’m so proud. Margot worked on this for several years.

“Margot made much of this art in her house during the pandemic. The artist Linda Sterling, a visual artist in this tradition of women artists going back to this period, made the art in England. Margot made her own which she showed us, and it was pretty good. So, she was saturated for the longest she ever did for a character as was everybody.”

The star-studded ensemble also includes Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldana, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, Taylor Swift, Matthias Schoenaerts, Rami Malek, Alessandro Nivola, and Robert De Niro.

Russell pointed out that it was like writing for a band. “I have to agree with intuitively understanding each other. So, you’re writing for each actor and write first for Christian, and then the band kind of assembles. Then Margot, then J.D., then Robert, Rami, then Anya, the band comes together.

“Everybody’s really excited to, like a band, play together. And like the adventure of the movie, we would show up and go ‘Oh, we’re going to do a scene with new people,’ and we’ve been hanging out with just the three of them, now we’re with Rami Malek, let’s hear what he’s going to say.

“Suddenly, there’s a new voice in the room. Christian works intuitively and so it’s hard to put your finger on it but as Billy Wilder would write for Jack Lemmon, I write for this man. Jack Lemmon once said that his wife said, ‘Why did you say yes before the script was done?’ He said, ‘Because I know Billy’s going to write it for me and he’s going to make it more for me.’

“So, my job is to make it as great as I can for him, worthy of him, and that means I understand the things that he’s drawn to, that we’re drawn to together, which are the things that we find lovable and strange about people, always and everywhere. What’s human, strange, and funny all at the same time about somebody.”

Bale added what he loves about Russell’s films. “He takes what would usually be a supporting role in any other film but a really interesting supporting role, and then goes, let’s make him the lead. That’s what liberates you as an actor because you don’t have the responsibility of feeling like the leading man, which can feel a bit boring sometimes.

“You go, oh I don’t want to do all that. You feel like, oh no, just treat me like I’m a support. So, you really have fun, and you really get some wonderful characters that he creates again and again.”

In the movie, the characters of Bale, Robbie, and Washington, who meet and become the best of friends during the war in Europe, spontaneously compose and perform a “nonsense” song.

“That came from a thing that David Bowie used to do,” Bale pointed out. “Write random things, put them in the house, mix them up, bring it out, and there was a song.”

Russell explained, “So many people after they went through this great trauma, want to make their own sense out of nonsense. To transform a tragedy into something that would be beautiful and make them want to live. And so, that’s where all that art came from and gave birth to contemporary art. So, they put words into a hat and sang the most glorious song. They wrote the song with our musical directors and a French tutor, and it’s a wonderful thing – the time they had together.”

In closing, Russell said, “My intention is to show every actor as they’ve never been before. That’s my goal. And so, you keep knowing what it is, but the movie keeps telling you how to be more what it needs to be if it’s alive. The movie will spit out and reject things that you try, and it will go, nope.

“And so, we’ve got to try different music, and Daniel Pemberton‘s music is incredible. And such a beautiful voice in the film. The movie kept speaking to us and Christian would keep speaking and living as Burt and Margo as Valerie Voze and John David as Harold Woodman and they would speak, and they would help narrate and add the brushstrokes as they were needed.

“I don’t think there’s a filmmaker around who wouldn’t tell you that doesn’t continue to evolve with many projects. It evolves, as necessary. It takes the time like any of your children that that child needed to take.”