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How Writer-Director David O. Russell Brought the Characters of 'Amsterdam' to Life

David O. Russell shares with Script what drew him to this specific moment in time of American history, the amount of research conducted, why these characters inspired him and so much more.

Amsterdam, the latest film from acclaimed writer/director David O. Russell, is a fascinating and richly intricate tale that brilliantly weaves historical fact with fiction for a timely, cinematic experience. 20th Century Studios’ and New Regency’s original crime epic about three close friends who find themselves at the center of one of the most shocking secret plots in American history.

David O. Russell shared with Script what drew him to this specific moment in time of American history, the amount of research conducted, why these characters inspired him, his daily writing routine and so much more.

David O. Russell. Courtesy 20th Century Studios.

David O. Russell. Courtesy 20th Century Studios.

What was it about the Business Plot of 1933 that intrigued you to center a story around and place these three charming characters in this world?

Characters who are survivors and optimists, who hold onto good things while also being tough. And by good things, I mean kindness and happiness and reasons for living — who have already gone through an unimaginable global catastrophe, the equivalent of any horror in any movie or in any history when they went through the first war. So to see them coming through that with their spirits is the most inspiring thing to me. Even though they’re really banged up. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than somebody who has plenty of reasons to give up or just get depressed but who finds the opposite - reasons to live. And Christian Bale's spirit and character with Margot Robbie and John David Washington are the heart of this film. That was the main event - the glory of them.

At the same time, interestingly, the General played by Robert De Niro, based on the historical character of Smedley Butler himself maintained, in spite of all the things he had gone through - many of which he reckoned with and felt he had become a hero doing the bidding for not great things, as the most decorated Marine in history to that point. He remained someone who said to the veterans when they were asking for benefits peaceably, encamped in front of the capitol. He said, “Keep your sense of humor.” 

This is a very serious situation with people who have seen massive deaths and maiming, and experienced it themselves - and one of the things he says to them is, “keep your sense of humor,” which means in a way, the opposite of today’s world. Don't get extremist or violent or just angry. Keep your sense of humor and your kinship to each other — all happily together in front of the capitol, camping, no matter their differences or backgrounds. They all shared the same historic maiming. Keep your sense of humor and sense of civil constitutional rights and nobody can take anything away from you. So to me, that is just everything that is both horrifying in the world that is faced and also, inspirational and fun to live for. That's all right there.

How much historical research and preparation were you conducting before sitting down to write the script?

Christian and I were talking about this for over five years and learning more and more and more. It only got more and more fascinating and inspiring to us. There was no point at which it ever became anything less than that. We always had a great time talking about it at breakfast a couple of times a week at a diner. It was very inspiring to us personally. It made us laugh and listen to music and think about these people who had faced so much. So yeah, we were constantly researching, reading, I had researchers go into archives that were not online, and watching documentaries and looking at photo history, and a lot of research. We have volumes of it. Testimonials, letters, and the artwork and the lives and letters of the artists like Margot Robbie’s character. And the testimonials of people like John David Washington’s character who had so much to face, yet went through it all and became an attorney and just conducted himself so amazingly. These are great underdog outsider heroes to me.

[Building Emotional Complexity and Character: A Conversation with ‘Bones and All’ Screenwriter David Kajganich]

Without giving away too much, there’s a great line in the film “History repeats itself.” It’s a very unsettling but clever wink at the audience and also at American history. What was the thematic anchor for you during the writing process?

Well, it was certainly not what has happening for the last six years. Because we were already immersed in all this when this contemporary history started to happen. And we actually didn’t talk about the contemporary history too much. We never thought of it as a wink about today quite frankly. It's a much deeper idea than that to us which was - imagine going through the first great war to end all wars, as it was called, it would be unimaginable to you, if you had lost an eye or a friend or your face, that it could ever happen again. Fueled by even greater insanity and hatred - that’s World War II I’m talking about. Not even all the wars that came after that. 

I realized when I read all this history that this was, in a way, the beginning of the modern franchise of the sort of repeating insanity of conflict, extremism, violence, which never makes any sense; and who could say that better than the people who had gone through it in 1918, and to think now they have to manage, but boy that won’t happen again. And now they find themselves in the middle of a very, very dark treacherous thing that is going to make it happen again. And they are, with the general, able to stop something worse from happening in this country, which would've produced someone on the level of the extremist leaders of Italy and Germany. That was the plot, to do that here.

The true insanity is embraced by the surrealists, the artists that Valerie (Margot Robbie) plays, and the spirit of those who know how to carry on like the John David Washington character. And the singing in Christian Bale’s doctor’s office. You have to have a sense of humor. You have to embrace the absurdity of it and acknowledge the absurdity of it while you step around it and determine to live in insanity and beauty and love. Because why let it shred the world and also shred your entire spirit of living? Then there’s nothing for you. And if people knew history, they would know that what they’re playing into today has already happened so many times already. It’s not inevitable. My whole childhood, they said an atomic war was inevitable. Well, that’s about 60 years of that, which is pretty good. You got to look at the good things of humans and remember they're very possible, but not if you just get sucked into the whole reflex of anger.

[L-R] John David Washington as Harold Woodman, Christian Bale as Burt Berendsen and Margot Robbie as Valerie Voze in Amsterdam. Courtesy 20th Century Studios.

[L-R] John David Washington as Harold Woodman, Christian Bale as Burt Berendsen and Margot Robbie as Valerie Voze in Amsterdam. Courtesy 20th Century Studios.

The character work in this film is really interesting to examine in that a specific look given, action performed, or line of dialogue delivered has direct intention. How do you approach character development all the way to these unique mannerisms? Is that written on the page or is that part of the collaboration with your cast in fine tuning their characters?

Well of course it's written on the page. It was written on the page through at least 14 - 15 drafts of the script. There is more than a novel worth of material here. It was a huge world that Christian and I were talking about and reading drafts that I would generate over five years. We were saturated in this and these characters, and we knew them like we knew friends. We talked about them like they were people we knew. And then that conversation — that’s all saturated and baked into the script, all that feeling and spirit. And then the conversation continues when you’re in production and post-production, but it was all there on the page. This is really how Burt Berendsen would talk, Christian’s character. This is what he would say. This is really what Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) would say. 

Burt Berendsen being sort of funny, with a big heart, and a little bit of a guy who gets knocked down a lot — comedically in a way. Yet, he remains quite serious about his intentions and his confusions about love. As the world has followed history to the wrong destination, he’s followed love, in a way, to the wrong marriage. And he seems to be stuck in it, like history can be stuck. And his friend really wants him to get out of it.

The buoyancy of Margot’s character - Valerie Voze - her sense of humor, her huge sense of joy and ability to organize it into dancing and art and fun. She is a great person to know. And yet, she’s hobbled when they meet her, 15 years later, by vertigo and a whole bunch of conditions. And you see her character there but muted, and then reborn when she reunites with her friends. You could always know what Valerie would say in either mode. JD Washington’s character - Harold Woodman - steady, unbelievably compassionate and tough and warm with a very vulnerable heart that matches his toughness. What would Harold say here? Harold's a lawyer. Harold’s almost the one who is more solid than Burt. Burt is shaggier, like his hair. Harold is tight and together like the orange vest he wears with his suit, flying his flag of dignity, his flair of his spirit and the joy he’s known and his indefatigableness, all in the suit of a lawyer. Every character was specific like this.

The Michael Shannon and Mike Myers’ characters, the spies who seem to know the most information, yet they also have day jobs working for different organizations. And they’re bird watchers, because in the history of spies, they always have different avocations which sort of help focus their minds about the patterns they see in the world, which they find in nature or whatever it is that they study. And they’re funny. They have the rye sensibility of seeing it all while again, keeping their spirit, Paul Canterbury and Henry Norcross. And on and on and on.

Zoe Saldana is a very specific voice of seriousness, ability to handle autopsies, yet unbelievably still and present like a great poet. Andrea Riseborough is like a character in a poem: colorful and contradictory, soulful and cold. Sort of a fractured status person of that time with half a heart. Chris Rock — nobody's fool, calling it like he sees it. Kind of a shotgun of humor and truth at any given moment and unvarnished candor at any moment.

Rami and Anya, their characters. Tom and Libby Voze are so specific. People who are wealthy and want to believe the best and actually have a heart and fragility, and nevertheless become a part of something that they believe is really great. It’s all contradictory and sweet, and also scary.

[L-R] Rami Malek as Tom Voze, Anya Taylor-Joy as Libby Voze and Margot Robbie as Valerie Voze in Amsterdam. Courtesy 20th Century Studios.

[L-R] Rami Malek as Tom Voze, Anya Taylor-Joy as Libby Voze and Margot Robbie as Valerie Voze in Amsterdam. Courtesy 20th Century Studios.

There are two kinds of detectives, one who is banged up and has the same injuries as Burt and is a veteran, who always needs medicine from Burt, which always causes him to give Burt a little more time because he wants that medicine and he understands Burt and he likes Burt. The other did not serve and is very ambitious. Matthias Schoenaerts is the first and the second is Alessandro Nivola. He’s probably closer in some vibe way to Chris Rock’s character. He’ll just say and do things and call it out as he sees it. In his case, he may seem like a novice who's learning, which allows him to be a bit ham-handed and blatant and funny, unintentionally, and offensive, unintentionally. Whereas Matthias is poised and focused, and warm and soulful. You could feel a whole human being there. A whole intelligent beating heart who understands Burt but nevertheless has to find a suspect and keep his job. And the Robert De Niro character — meticulously crafted.

The overall tone and mood of this film has a lot do with the camera work, from framing to what type of glass you’re using (prime vs zoom). What was the collaboration process like with the mastermind that is Emmanuel Lubezki and the importance in creating that consistent aesthetic?

First of all, I want the film to represent love and aliveness of the characters and their different places in the world. A lot of conversations went into it that distilled the feeling of the story - the characters come first and the creation of the world they are in. We saw photographs of the time and the place and it gave them a sense of what the world should feel like. It should feel contemporary in some way. It should also feel different and enchanted and real - another world from another time. It never should feel dusty in a period way but it should feel immediate with an aliveness to it. There's a spaciousness of certain urban landscapes and places that I am drawn to, and I think Chivo shared in the photographs we looked at and the kinds of frames we loved and the kind of world that fit what we could also do. And that's depth in the frame, a kind of three-level depth - foreground, middle ground, background. We both like that a tremendous amount. And Burt's office was designed that way with designer Judy Becker to have this tremendous telescoping depth where you could see through four rooms, looking down the office.

This is my fifth movie with Judy Becker. We wanted to create a world that felt very original and rich with rich colors and rich textures and depth to it, which we did. It felt sort of lush and alive and there were colors chosen from photographs and also places. It's a story that spans fifteen years and it has many different worlds in it. And we love to feel that from one sequence to another, it felt that the characters were entering very different worlds that were very enveloping - whether it was the rich environment that Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy's characters, Tom and Libby Voze. Whether it was the modest Buck's County home of the general, played by Robert De Niro, who lived simply regardless of his many powers and honors. Harold's very tight office compared to Burt's more rambling medical office. And the world of Valerie's art is a world unto itself, any room where her spirit is and her art is - it's a whole dimension by itself, that comes to represent this trauma that they survived and songs that they found afterwards and healing and life, while her art contains both the horrors and the magic of recovery and finding what's worth living for.

Do you have a writing routine?

I like to get to it early in the morning and get as much done as I can in the early to mid-afternoon. And I like to talk out scenes and record them and then transcribe them, although I also will just sit and write scenes many times. It had so many things in it that were so rich to Christian and myself and collaborators that we were into exploring. So it was combining all those aspects and feelings. This is all inside of this emotional narrative of Christian’s character, the love for his character principally, although it hands off sometimes to Harold or Valerie’s point of view through voice-over sometimes. Burt’s point of view, Christian’s point of view, his voice, his personality defines the movie.

It’s an important part of the process to share drafts with trusted, constructive friends and collaborators and talk about it. In this case, there were many drafts over the years. We were fairly saturated in it. We felt it was a world we could live in. It was very personal to us all. Details are very important. The details are everything. The musicality of how people talk, the turns of phrase that they said. There were some that were striking or memorable. And there were things that were fun to choose.

[How Can I Prioritize Writing (And Get Others to Understand)?]

What types of stories or themes do you like exploring through your work and why?

I like exploring themes of friendship and the things that make life worth living for the characters. The theme of love in spite of trouble and keeping their spirits alive in the face of unimaginable kinds of darkness or treachery. I also like exploring their logic about how this is unimaginable to them. They have made sense of prior horror therefore they’ve made a kind of peace with life - that’s a theme of "This is civilization, right? Therefore, here are the parameters of what I expect to live.” That’s a theme of the terms on which people embrace life, and watching them in a kind of wonderment or shock or awe when they cannot comprehend of what is happening around them.

That was a big one in this movie. Imagine being in this place after one horror had happened and really not being able to see the next one coming. There’s a freshness and an innocence in that that I find very important. And the theme of love - love in its best forms - friends or partners. Love that may have, as the film says “Followed the wrong god home” - which can happen in history or in your personal life. Also, the theme of how people process trauma. That happened in Silver Linings to some extent. Most of my films are about how they process it and convert it into how they’re going to keep living in a spirited way. These are just some of my favorite things. All of them experienced the trauma of the Great War and all of them deal with it in their own way. Harold and Burt become great friends who got each other through it and determine to continue their practices respectively as a doctor and as an attorney to help everybody they know in hard times, which causes them to need to have a spirit they can share with others. They become kind of healers or fixers in a way.

Likewise, Margot Robbie’s character Valerie Voze has processed trauma, a lot of blood and a lot of maiming and death, by turning it into art that is partly that horror and partly very beautiful. So that's sort of her magic conversion machine. And if Arthur Miller was correct when he said, “The purpose of art is to remind us of what we have forgotten” - I would say yes to Valerie’s art. And these are all both the horror that they forget but don't forget, but also the love and the recovery that is blended together to the trauma. 

The intelligence agents, Paul Canterbury and Henry Norcross - Mike Myers and Mike Shannon - a glass business in England and the Treasury Department in Washington as their day jobs and seeing the big patterns of what’s unfolding on the metal of history. Even if it's rather disturbing, they’re the ones who see these things ten to twenty years before most do. So as they're tracking things, they have to keep up a certain bonne amie or good spirit or else they become morose. They also were very dedicated birdwatchers and study birds, which keeps them connected to life and the fascination of life and gratitude for it. And also finding patterns in nature or behavior in nature that also matches what’s unfolding, great marks of history. In a way, that's how they deal with or process trauma as they handle it in their work.

[Intellectual Dilemma Becomes a Moral Dilemma: A Conversation with ‘The Wonder’ Director and Co-Writer Sebastián Lelio]

The Robert De Niro character, the general, was considered by many to be one of the most fearless and reliable and direct leaders until he starts to encounter things that are very strange to him and retires and sort of isolates himself. He hunkers down, almost a military response to hunker down in a bunker which is his home in Buck's County, to sort of very carefully reflect on the many people who wished to see this distinguished general. His wife is his gatekeeper and she's fierce - Mrs. Dillenbeck, the amazing actress Beth Grant. He's very careful about who he will talk to, trying to examine what their agenda is, what they want from him. Many people want his prestige and his influence. He’s become very careful trying to discern what's going on with the many people who want to use him to be their spokesperson. Discernment is a very important theme as well, which is true in birdwatching, medicine.

Christian's character, Burt Berendsen, is very much trying to heal himself through trauma. He's literally trying to invent medicines that won't exist for another seventy years. Medicines that are needed for calmness of the mind, for pain to get through the day. But they had none of these really at the time. Also adapted to realize he must embrace life or else he’ll really just collapse into a trauma depression. So he's got a spring in his step because he kind of has to. Otherwise, he’ll get crushed. So he sings, he gets his patients to sing. Anytime I've encountered a doctor or someone in healing practices like that, he can notice that in many of them. They say, “Your attitude will make a big difference as to your healing. As to whether you're embracing life and keeping your sense of humor,” which is also something the general talks about. Those are actual words the general says, “Keep your sense of humor and decently ask for benefits.” That’s a very important north star for how to live. It's like whistling in the dark.

These are all themes of survival and aliveness that mean everything to me, as is the theme of discovering what a greater love is after having had a love that might not have been quite right in a personal life. That’s a theme that I've explored in a few movies and this one is no exception with Christian Bale’s character with Andrea Riseborough and Zoe Saldana's characters. Andrea's character has a similar doubleness to her, a twoness, as do Rami and Anya’s characters. I also like the theme that everybody somehow has a reason for what they do, even the people who seem to be doing things that may have actually turned out to be shocking. This is the Rami Malek character and the Anya Taylor-Joy character - Tom and Libby Voze.

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Advice for writers tackling a story that involves a historical event, like Amsterdam does, what is something they should really focus on before facing the blank page, during research, outlining, character development, etc.?

First, to really be embedded with the hearts and souls of your characters, their personalities. What is enchanting and captivating and fascinating and what makes you really interested in being with this person and with every character? That's the most important question - the heart and soul of each character and what makes them someone you're really fascinated to beat, watch, or spend time with? In short, what do I love about them? Even if they're complicated and flawed, what do I love about them?

For me, what makes it real and also personal and also fun, as well as emotional? What gives me a kick out of them, whether they’re dark or inspiring characters? What gives me a kick out of them? What excites me? And for me in this case, it was to be so embedded in the woods of that moment, to match being that person, to being those characters. They can't see the forest for the trees. They don’t know that there's going to be something called the Gestapo. 

That was the act of imagination that I was inspired by. So putting the writer in the shoes of those in that time. What would be the certainties the characters thought they had and what would be the things that shocked them, what would be unexpected? And what are the connections to things they have that they love? What are the threats that they have to steer around and they have to adjust to so much that it’s like second nature to them? Adjusting to the limitations of the time or the way people lived at that time. Like Burt and Harold being able to work together sometimes, despite their different backgrounds. But Harold and Valerie not really being able to be out together because of their different backgrounds, unless they're with Burt or a third person or surrounded by a community, a friendly community. 

That’s an adaptation that people at that time had to live with. Burt having to deal with his eye constantly falling out, his glass eye and his back brace. He just has to deal with it without the proper medications every day. Harold has to be more careful. He can't be as messy as Burt.

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It's really giving a full life to each character so that you can almost, for me, make a whole movie about just that character. I do feel like I can make a movie about each one of these people, each one of these characters. So I'm very much focused on character. I think it's important to feel contemporary and to feel alive, and to not feel oppressed by the history of the time because it felt alive, those people, in the present as it does to us - which frees you to have some kind of rhythm and fun and reality as well. And also, it’s fun to be saturated in the world and welcome the audience in as they’re being saturated in it and at the same time, to know the things that will be unusual to the audience when they experience them. It can be an object or a thing that's commonplace or a moment that, for us, would be fascinating and curious. Like the invention of Valerie’s art, like Burt’s glass eye, like Harold’s orange vest.

And it's cool when you have something in history that is the last thing the characters would expect or imagine and it's something you're pretty sure, most of the people you talk to don't know about because that’s the kind of plutonium that the characters get to discover and we get to discover with the characters. In this case, there was a lot of history that I wasn't aware of, that many people I knew were not aware of and we knew we had that, that the characters were backing into. 

thin black line

Amsterdam is now streaming on Amazon Prime.


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