How Amsterdam director pulled off ‘most star-studded movie of the year’

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star
How Amsterdam director pulled off âmost star-studded movie of the yearâ
From left: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington play bestfriends who will protect each other no matter what happens in the 20th Century Studios film Amsterdam.
STAR / File

Amsterdam has been dubbed as the “most star-studded movie of the year” because of the Hollywood heavyweights assembled for this comedic murder-mystery film. And for its director-writer and producer David O. Russell, the cast is definitely a dream come true.

Amsterdam, which opens exclusively in theaters and arrives in Philippine cinemas on Oct. 6, stars Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Alessandro Nivola, Andrea Riseborough, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Taylor Swift, Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldaña, Rami Malek and Robert De Niro.

Director, writer and producer David O. Russell with Amsterdam collaborator, Christian Bale, on the set of the film

“It’s a dream come true,” said the director in a video interview. “I’ve worked with Christian Bale for the third time, Robert De Niro for the fourth time, and now I have Margot Robbie, John David Washington and the rest of the cast. Dream come true.”

From 20th Century Studios, New Regency and the acclaimed filmmaker behind the movies American Hustle, Silver Linings, Joy, Amsterdam weaves historical fact with fiction to tell a 1930s story about three bestfriends — a doctor, a nurse and a lawyer — who band together after witnessing a murder and being accused as the suspects themselves, and end up uncovering one of the most shocking secret plots in American history.

From left: Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Bale, Robert De Niro and Robbie in a scene from the mystery-comedy movie.

Bale plays Dr. Burt Berendsen and Washington as attorney Harold Woodman who meet while fighting side by side during World War I. Robbie completes the triumvirate as Valerie Voze, an artist and heiress who treats and befriends both men at a Europe hospital. Amsterdam will play an important role in how their friendship is forged.

According to Russell, friendship and love are the bedrock of Amsterdam. “And to me, the most important thing is the friendship between these characters. The friendship between Harold Woodman and Burt Berendsen is especially important, and the friendship pact they take to look out for each other and not let each other die, which then gets extended to include Valerie Voze, is the pillar of the story,” he said.

“Those are good friends to have; friends who have seen the best of you, so they can help you remember and get back to the best of you.”

A “five years in the making” film, Amsterdam all started with Russell and Bale creating characters that “we would love to hang out with” while meeting and eating together at diners.

Both previously worked together in American Hustle and The Fighter, with the latter giving the actor the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Russell shared during a global virtual presscon: “Well, Christian and I were very interested in creating original characters that we would want to hang out with. That he would love to play, and I’d love to be around, and other characters that we’d want to be with who are original. Characters we’ve never seen before, characters we’ve never seen him be, or Margot be, or John David be, or any of these people be before. And that’s where it began.

“So we started with a doctor, and we started to learn from history the unusual circumstances of this doctor and his two best friends. Which, we wanted to have three best friends who were fixers, who could handle any situation, who went through something together.”

He further said, “It was fun to meet several times a week. You know, as a writer, being alone for 30 years of writing, it’s nice to be able to go talk to a friend or colleague or collaborator to grow it together.”

The collaboration went beyond diners, extended to the editing room and widened to include other actors.

Russell recalled that Christian was present the most in editing — from writing to post-production. Robbie came onboard a few years later. “Margot was very generous with her time, even with the fact that she was shooting another film. She is very smart and was very helpful,” he shared.

“Rami Malek, probably after Christian, spent the most time, with a great presence and special voice in the editing room. I really loved the process of collaborating there,” added the director, who would have conversations with different cast members.

He revealed that many screenplays were written over a period of four years during those meetings, based on a recorded “watershed” moment in history.

“We had a wealth of material that was really interesting. It is based on a shocking and fascinating history,” Russell said.

But aside from wanting to shine a light on this specific history that not many people knew of, he also wanted the story to be something epic, fun and inspiring to follow. He, thus, took the opportunity to honor the historic heroism of real people who inspired his fictitious characters in the film. These included the Harlem Hell Fighters Regiment, a segregated regiment of black and Puerto Rican soldiers dispatched to France to defend their country, but were then forced to serve with the French army, as their fellow Americans refused to serve with non-white soldiers.

Still and all, Russell noted that they knew “we wanted there to be a great friendship at the heart of the story, the kind of friendship that people really love in life and that we love to see in movies. Just friends who looked out for each other through all kinds of conditions, and that was our motivating principle for their friendship.

“That, and to make each character very specific with their past, so they are very specific people with very specific lives to that point. These are characters that know how to live and love life in spite of any trouble. That’s what makes them heroes to me.”

Russell also acknowledged that Amsterdam has similarities to his past works.

“These are characters, who are based on some historical characters, who went through tremendous things together. And I think, as Christian pointed out (earlier during the presscon), all of my movies in some way have been about this,” he said.

“Whether it’s The Fighter or Silver Linings or American Hustle or Joy, they’re about outsiders who find their way, and find reasons to love life in spite of whatever it is they’re facing. And that’s what the notion of Amsterdam is. What do you love about life and each other that you live for?”

He further said that his characters, despite being outsiders and facing tough circumstances, “have a spring in their step and a glimmer in their eye, which makes me love them. And all the champions I know in cinema growing up, those are the people I want to hang out with, that make me want to go to the movies. So these are characters who have love for life.

“That’s what Amsterdam is. It’s a state of mind. It’s when you love life, when you love your friends, you’re loyal to each other and you go through things and you find magic in it, nevertheless. This is, on one hand, a treacherous murder story and on the other hand, it’s about love and friendship and romance. For us, that was the tuning fork for the whole picture.”


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