Jordan Strauss photo

The comedian Louis C.K. recently compared David O. Russell’s directing method to playing soccer: no time-outs, no huddles, you just keep moving. “Go big or go home” is often heard on a Russell set. And interviewing Mr. Russell is like that, too. He’s all energy, running here and there from anecdote to anecdote, and even though he’s probably been telling these tales since the very first junket, he sounds absolutely in the moment, like he’s just walked off set and can’t wait to tell you about it all.

Santa Barbara will get a full evening of Mr. Russell tonight in the first of SBIFF’s celebrity tributes, as he sits down for a career retrospective and the Outstanding Director Award.

He loves talking about his art, but he also knows how to tailor things for the market too.

“We’ve got Santa Barbara’s own in (American Hustle) you know, Anthony Zerbe,” Mr. Russell notes, right off the bat. Mr. Zerbe is a longtime SBIFF juror, and has a reputation for playing villains and heavies. In’American Hustle,’ he plays Senator Horton Mitchell in a bribery sequence. “He’s an amazing character actor. I met him when I would go down there— I mean up there— to Santa Barbara to meet the amazing film community there. It’s an amazing secret temple that you can just go to where all the film lovers are. It’s very restorative.”

And it’s true— Mr. Russell has graced SBIFF several times, once for “The Fighter,” then last year when he sat on the Director’s Panel and presented the award to Jennifer Lawrence, an evening he called “the wildest night of my life,” comparing the sudden fame of JLaw and the scene outside the Arlington to Beatlemania.

Mr. Russell started thinking about “American Hustle” as he was editing his previous feature, “Silver Linings Playbook.” Bradley Cooper and Ms. Lawrence often came in to watch cuts of the film. The idea to do a film about the ABSCAM scandal in the ’70s came up five years ago, but Russell said that people around him couldn’t figure out why he would be interested in such a topic.

Indeed, his writing partner, Eric Singer turned in a very rough draft that was more procedural, detailing how an FBI sting operation videotaped several politicians taking bribes from a fictional, Middle Eastern sheik in exchange for favors. However, Mr. Russell’s film (co-written with Mr. Singer) focuses on two scam artists— played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams— who get in over their heads helping a renegade FBI agent played by Mr. Cooper. Ms. Lawrence plays Mr. Bale’s wife, who unknowingly nearly brings down the whole operation; and Jeremy Renner plays a New Jersey Mayor. The closest “American Hustle” gets to a straight FBI agent is Louis C.K., who plays to Mr. Cooper’s put-upon and abused cop. People inventing themselves; people incongruously in love; friendship and betrayal. It totally fits in with Mr. Russell’s oeuvre.

“I knew that the characters were very special, and I could connect with them, based on my own autobiographical place and all the characters I’ve been doing over the last six features.”

He is not interested in cynical people, he says. Passion is more important.

“My parents were middle-class people who had a lot of formality,” he offers. “All their friends dressed like grown-ups. My mom wore these Diane von Furstenberg dresses that are sort of classically American in that they’re elegant and sexy, but you could wear them to work or to the supermarket, or to a party. They’re not pretentious. I don’t like pretense. My dad and his friends all had comb-overs and wore trousers and light shirts. No matter where they were from, all five boroughs, they made themselves into what they wanted to be.”

The mention of comb-overs brings to mind Mr. Bale’s character, who sports an epic one in “American Hustle,” and is one of the first images of the film. Though not a straight tale of Mr. Russell’s life, the film does feel like a peek into Mr. Russell’s memory.

On top of that, “American Hustle” does not reveal characters like a traditional Hollywood film would, which shows Mr. Russell’s current clout as director. Ms. Lawrence turns up in the film when we least expect it and sends it into another direction. The film opens in the middle of the story, confuses us, then backtracks. And just when we think we’ve seen all the characters, Robert DeNiro turns up for one amazing scene.

“The beautiful thing that I get excited about as a director is the ability to propel and immerse me and the audience in an unexpected emotional force that sort of carries me. You take a great delight in the craft of filmmaking and showmanship and storytelling, as if you’re telling a story to a kid at bedtime. You take turns, and you can see the look on their faces. And that’s how I write. I live for that. And all the actors love the challenge too: to be presented as they’ve never been seen before.”

David O. Russell: Outstanding Director Award
When: 8 p.m. tonight
Where: Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St.
Cost: $20

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