EXCLUSIVE: In a month where awards contenders announced themselves at film festivals, make room for Amsterdam, David O. Russell’s first film in seven years. A murder mystery with intrigue, espionage and crackling dialogue, the film stars Christian Bale, John David Washington and Margot Robbie as a trio of lifelong friends. The title is where their bond is forged, after the soldiers are sent there to heal from WWI combat injuries, and where she is the nurse who patches them up. The men return home to their lives in Manhattan — Bale a doctor who goes out of his way to help wounded vets, and Washington a lawyer — as their nurse pal vanishes, for a while anyway. When they become accused in a murder, leading to growing intrigue and a conspiracy that unfolds at a brisk pace.
The big surprise is the superb cast assembled by Russell. That includes Rami Malek, Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldaña, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Timothy Olyphant, Andrea Riseborough, Taylor Swift, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alessandro Nivola and Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook star Robert De Niro. Here, Russell and Bale explain how they braved five years of indigestion mapping out the film at diner breakfasts and dinners in Santa Monica, with Bale’s order depending on what movie he was fattening up for, or starving himself to play.
Amsterdam has its world premiere Sunday at Alice Tully Hall in New York.
DEADLINE: Your movie is a star-studded shot of life, a surprise in that most terrific fall movies start with a festival launch. David, your DP Chivo Lubezki has invested it with a compelling period look, the dialogue crackled with humor and wit, and every time the door opens and a new character enters, you go, wait, that actor is in this movie too? How did you manage this?
CHRISTIAN BALE: It gives me goosebumps, you saying that because we haven’t had people outside our circle see it. It’s lovely to hear it because to be in the studio for this many years hoping it would have exactly that effect…
DEADLINE: So draw out that incubation process. You have teamed on two great movies, The Fighter which won Christian his Oscar, and another great ensemble in American Hustle. How did you find this plot?
BALE: Well, let David answer that, but let me say when you are saying “you guys,” it’s absolutely David. And it was just so much bloody fun sitting with David throughout this, but he’s the ideas man. He’s just nudging me in the direction and asking me to flesh him out on this or that…
DEADLINE: David, what inspired the intricate plot tapestry of Amsterdam?
DAVID O. RUSSELL: The first inspiration is what we did with the fire in American Hustle. I love talking to Christian and I love life in cinema and in the characters, and we began to talk about it. So at first, as we knew that there were certain relationships we thought were beautiful and amazing and had never been documented. For me as I think of this guy [that Bale plays], I always like outsiders. I always like people on the edges, on the fringes. We started to talk about this doctor. There was a long time when I thought I was going to be a doctor. We had a lot of fun talking about the person who went on this journey with us, and the friendships he made. We wanted to make it about a guy that we really loved, and we were motivated by that.
DEADLINE: What did you love about the character?
RUSSELL: He’s the doctor of last resort, uptown. There was a doctor like that in Harlem and I had relatives who worked for him. I wanted to meet him and say, what has this guy got? He’s been through a lot, and he had a voice. He’s singing in his office. He’s helping all these people out. He’s the kind of guy I want to hang out with, and he’s funny intentionally and unintentionally, and he has a tremendous spirit. He wants to make medicines that haven’t been invented. I said well, imagine having been through an injury or historic episode like the Great War and people don’t want to look at you. He’s basically trying to fix people and gives them optimism. He wants to give them hope.
They experienced a term of terror but remained spirited, which is the theme for all of my movies, and forged the greatest friendships and greatest times of his life. So, for me, we had a series of conversations. I’m reading history that fascinates me and we considered a black and white picture to reflect this period, but it looked a bit funny because it covers 15 years and two periods of time really. And the notion of friendship, of loyalty between three people that carried across those experiences and those years was as inspiring to us as was the family in The Fighter.
So, we just kept talking about this guy. I saw a picture and said, look at these two. They were among 500 people dancing at Roseland and I wanted their story. They’re two people that are very different. They look different and they have completely different backgrounds but they’re friends, they’re dancing together. What’s their story? Then you start to look at the history and it’s like oh my goodness. There’s a lot of history that nobody knows and anybody that I would talk about it to would say wow, is this really true? With this movie, we wanted to create a magical experience of love and personalities that are singular, starting with a singular personality that’s worthy of being my muse. I wanted to make something worthy of him. And then it was about Christian and I, meeting several times a week in a diner, for a long time. First it was a…
BALE: Well, we closed one diner there, and I have a glass that I come across in my kitchen cupboard when I’m looking for glasses. We closed down one diner that was a family place, and we moved to another diner.
DEADLINE: Where did all this happen?
RUSSELL: Santa Monica.
BALE: They’re thanked in the credits. Lot of great characters in these places.
DEADLINE: They informed what you were doing?
BALE: I think mental health is a great thing to explore in characters and it has been a great thing in my life.
RUSSELL: Of all the things we’ve done together, this is the most we’ve gone into how do you deal with life and how do you face your own issues. There were these men in the diner, veterans because this was not far from the VA. They have trauma, but the five of them were there every day, just eating breakfast.
BALE: What I love so much about these characters, as you see in the movie, is, you see a man who could, after what he’s been through, have decided to say aw, f*ck off. And he doesn’t. He continues to say yes to life, no matter the circumstances. He continues to refuse hatred. He may show a decent amount of anger in a healthy way, anger that he controls but he refuses to go numb. You can see it in the film, and he’s seeing that the alternative to optimism is no good. They had this phrase that helps me to get back into that world: “eyebrows up.”
RUSSELL: Anytime Christian can tell you get your eyebrows up and I knew exactly what he meant. It’s vulnerability, an openness, an open heartedness. So, we knew we would wade into this territory in this epic period, but we also feel contemporary because my favorite movies, they’re epic and they’re current but they’re also in their period, but they’re also very contemporary. Where we got to was this guy who went through this transformational tragedy, as the horrors of any war are, that either break you or forge determination to embrace life, new love and friendships. He gets the scholarship, goes to medical school and then gets over his head when he marries a girl above his station. It all has to do with following the right god home, which I once heard a poet say.
DEADLINE: Aside from class exploration that comes with his wife’s wealthy family who rejects him, there is a race component reflected by John David Washington’s character. They meet in the stockade because the white soldiers hate them and they know it’s just a matter of time before they are killed and so they refuse to fight. They can’t even wear American uniforms, they are given the colors of the French. Christian and John David’s character become blood buddies so they could survive, just barely. When they are grievously injured, a nurse who cares for them (Margot Robbie) in Amsterdam completes the trio.
RUSSELL: They’re bonded in blood, trauma, but they also grow a new love of life together, and Amsterdam becomes their true North where they’re the most free, the most happy, the most true to themselves. In that way it was rather like a novel. I wrote many versions of the script over five years.
DEADLINE: That would have happened while Christian played several roles that called for him to gain or lose a lot of weight, including playing former Vice President Dick Cheney in Vice…
BALE: I varied from having a lot of coffee to having like 16 eggs and three bowls of rice. We did take pictures of me and Dave during the course of breakfast together and I got to tell you, whoa baby.
RUSSELL: That’s Christian. As we went through all this film, I had many other projects that came and went, and I thought this is the one I want to do.
DEADLINE: The film is a whodunit, but there is a focus on grievously wounded war veterans whom the main trio tries to help with pain and with reconstructive surgery. She collects wound shrapnel and turns it into art. Amsterdam gives a lot of dignity to people from any war whose injuries most people would be inclined to turn away from. It serves the story, but it struck me as very touching.
BALE: It strikes me that you say that. I think that about of all David’s faults is that he tends to — and just punch me David if you think I’m getting into trouble — but he tends to make films different than a more traditional film or filmmaker. They build their film, and they don’t shoot all the characters that they definitely focused on and all the scenes that you didn’t get to see. That’s what I love so much about his way of thinking and his movies.
DEADLINE: Clarify that…
BALE: You know, you get the filmmaker. You get the lead guy, and you get the stuff they go through. And occasionally, you know, you meet this important character that you might see briefly. And you go, whoa this is awesome. It’s the way that I always treat every character in the movie…I have come to treat it this way because even if I’m late I try to support actors because they become more bold. And you the way you shoot the film, you’ll take more risks. How I see things in films, is he’ll find those characters of those people we’ve ignored, and he’ll go wait, wait, wait. Those are the ones that are the most interesting. Let’s make a film about them and let’s film the scenes that they don’t usually put in this sort of film. Let’s film the scenes behind the scenes, what those guys are up to.
RUSSELL: I think you’ve confounded and confused me, even.
BALE: I don’t understand people. I never read the rooms right. I have the potential to get it wrong, but I’ve tried it all. And I’ve come to realize I have no clue whatsoever and I think that’s why I still love what we do because I’m eternally trying to figure it out and it’s why I do what we do.
RUSSELL: It’s true. That is what we were figuring out, every breakfast and then we grew the storyline of Paul Canterbury [Michael Shannon] and Henry Norcross [Mike Myers] because I know there are these guys. Whether they’re in the treasury department or somewhere else, they are always watching and they always know everything. But they also have these special fun qualities like a love of birds. You keep learning about them. There are so many layers.
For the bloody thing, we had made stories for this that we were going to shoot many blood scenes. It was 19th century tactics meeting 20th century technology, which is a catastrophe, as anybody knows. And these guys got blown up. The notion was they got hit by the same shrapnel, was very cinematic. They turned their backs, and they were literally bonded by the same shrapnel. They had the same scars on their backs, and you meet this woman who’s taking the shrapnel out of them. She’s got to take every piece out, and it becomes about, let’s just think what we’ve done to each other. She saves it and sees it as art. The way it fell into place, it became, why does humanity keep doing this? It makes no sense. These guys are bonded with her in the absurdity and the emotion of what happens to them. So, then to me, the shrapnel becomes this living thing that they’ve all shared. It’s a living, bloody thing that they literally went through.
DEADLINE: There is also the unraveling of a shocking murder that the main characters get the blame for, and a conspiracy that leads to some of the most rich and powerful industrialists in that period between WWI and WWII. You unpack a lot. How many drafts and time did you spend before you felt, we got it?
BALE: Well, I would have made at least two films, maybe three with all we came up with from the beginning. There were times where I would be in town for months on end and we would meet regularly and…
RUSSELL: Sometimes two or three times a week.
BALE: And then I would go home for a little bit, and while I was gone, I have to say he did his best work. I’d come back and it would take him much longer. No. David has his own way. It’s like, all these satellites of ideas come over him. We’d talk about them, I’d go away, come back and see what he did with those. I’d forget, but he doesn’t forget anything and it was beautiful to see it all come together.
DEADLINE: With the quality and cast, this movie would have crushed it at a festival like Venice or Toronto. Why no festival? And why move the release from November 4 to October 7?
RUSSELL: One thing was we only just finished. There was no time. That was part of it. But The Fighter and American Hustle, they didn’t go to festivals. You want to make a theatrical event in Imax. We wanted to do events in London and for it to feel like a cinematic event. Sometimes that means you go to festivals and sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, we just felt like we were still finishing it when those decisions got made and the music was still coming in. We thought, let’s just make it a great big theatrical release.
BALE: Can I ask you a question? The things you said about how much you liked this movie, do you say that to everybody?
DEADLINE: I absolutely do not.
BALE: I’m glad to hear that.
RUSSELL: We made a movie that we’d love to see. It’s old fashioned, with a scenario and characters we love. The story goes deep, about love and friendship. It goes deep into murder and events. And history, which I love. It has many layers, so you can watch it more than once and discover things you didn’t get the first time.
DEADLINE: Christian, one more from me. Your character has one working eye, the other is glass, and he has a familiar manner of interacting with others onscreen. Did you gain any inspiration from Peter Falk’s long-running TV mystery series Columbo?
BALE: Absolutely. Yes. Yes. His mannerisms! I studied him for sure.