From his darkly comic take on incest (Spanking the Monkey) to the neurotic quest for a man’s biological parents (Flirting with Disaster), a wild Gulf War action-satire (Three Kings) and an absurdist farce about philosophy itself (I ? Huckabees), the films of Spirit Award-winner David O. Russell are too idiosyncratic, ambitious and sharp-witted to make us wait six years for the next to arrive. But indeed we have, and at first glance, what’s most surprising about the boxing biopic The Fighter is that it’s Russell’s first directorial effort where he didn’t also write the script.

Three-time Russell collaborator Mark Wahlberg stars as Lowell, Massachusetts hero “Irish” Mickey Ward, the real-life welterweight champ of the 1990s and early ’00s whose working-class legacy wouldn’t have been possible without the help of his half-brother, Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale, in a knockout performance), a former boxer who once went 10 rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard. The Fighter focuses on the thorny relationship between the two, as Dickie—now a volatile crack addict—serves as both Mickey’s mentor and proverbial albatross. MM spoke with Russell about his long-awaited latest film, spending time with Mickey and Dickie and that infamous YouTube on-set tirade.

Aaron Hillis (MM): We’ve seen countless movies about boxing, underdogs and functioning addicts. What was it about this story that you felt was unique?

David O. Russell (DR): I just loved the people. I don’t even know how to describe them. They’re so distinctive, crazy and amazing. You’re like, “Wow, who are these people?” If you go to any town around it, they say: “Oh, Lowell.” I was just up there a couple of weeks ago. It’s this self-contained world, considered really intense and dark by some standards. But when you’re inside of it, it has so much life.

MM: Why do you think those neighboring areas have given Lowell such a bad rap?

DR: It’s just a hard town with a lot of hard living. It was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution; the oldest mills in the country are there. They’re strong people, and now there’s this cocktail: There are big Cambodian and Puerto Rican communities, and the Eklunds and Wards are right in there. They’re roofers and pavers who know everybody. They’re the most famous people in town, other than Jack Kerouac. Although they’ve probably eclipsed Kerouac.

MM: The title ostensibly references Mickey, but for a large part of the film, he’s a passive voice in his own life decisions as coached by his outspoken, narcissistic brother, Dickie. In terms of performance, it’s as if Christian Bale has a supporting role but is vying for the headline credit.

DR: That’s how the guys are in real life. Dickie’s like Mohammed Ali: He’s this colorful, charismatic guy who I love—in spite of the trouble he’s been through—and Mickey is unbelievably steadfast. You won’t hear Mickey say an unkind word about anybody, and he’s been through the ringer more than anybody. That dynamic is what I loved about the film. Mickey’s still a badass in his own quiet way, and he’s the one who was able to become a champion and have this staying power that his brother didn’t.

But like you say, without one you can’t have the other. Dickie always likes to walk around saying, “Without me, there’s no movie.” You can say the same thing about Mickey. The draft that I inherited from [previously attached director Darren] Aronofsky was much more about the dark stuff with the criminal brother. To me, that is only part of the story and a little bit goes a long way. But together, they combine for this very particular potency that makes Mickey Ward what he is.

MM: We get a glimpse of the real-life Dickie and Mickey shooting the breeze during the end credits. Do you have any unusual anecdotes about your time spent with them?

DR: I have a lot of them. In one day, you can go through a manic episode with Dickie where you try to do him a favor and somehow it ends with him being pissed. You’re like, ‘How does this happen? I don’t understand.’ He goes all the way through that journey with you, and everybody there loves him and knows his story: “Oh, he’s doing his thing.” Then he comes through the other side of it, and he’s apologizing, back to where he is a sweetheart.

That night, you go with Mickey to “Mickey Ward Bobble Head Night” at the Lowell Spinners, which is a minor league team of the Red Sox, but Dickie doesn’t want to go, of course. (laughs) When Dickie saw the movie, he said: “I know it was great for him; I wish I was him.” That’s the story of the movie!

MM: The Fighter speaks volumes about the trickiness of existing within a family with misguided intentions. How important do you personally feel blood ties are, even when loved ones can hold you back?

DR: It’s like life. You can’t live with it, you can’t live without it, you know? You sometimes have to step away, but to me, you have to come back to it. That’s Mickey’s story and the emotional heart of the movie. Life can be a killer, and life can be wonderful. But you have to work your way around it, away from it and then through it. Family is like that.

MM: Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster are specifically about family, but even Three Kings and I ? Huckabees concern unconventional or makeshift families. What draws you to these stories?

DR: Yeah, there’s always a family of some kind or another. They become crucibles, in which people deal with their deepest emotions and desires with those they’re closest to. In that context, that’s where you can’t escape yourself, your failures or dreams. It dials up the intensity by not letting you check out. It’s in your own town that everybody sees and knows you the best. When I first had success, the people from my own community are the ones who are like, “We know who you really are. We’re not that impressed with you. You’re just a regular person like the rest of us.”

It’s like that expression “to be a prophet without honor in your own country.” I think that was Jesus from the Bible. That’s Mickey’s world: He had to aspire to be this great champion, but a champion without honor in his own place. He has to find that motivation to still believe in himself, even when surrounded by people who know him at his worst.

MM: Off-topic, I wanted to ask about the notorious viral video in which you’re seen screaming at Lily Tomlin on the set of Huckabees. The footage has been unfairly taken out of context, but generally speaking, do you think you’re hard to please as a director?

DR: Nah. No. Not really. Any director who is worth their salt, that’s the hard job they have. They have to be sure it comes out right, or that you have a lot of really good choices inspired by a vision, and I think everybody in the movie knows they need that. They might not like it at different times, but at the end of the day, they’ll be happy that you got it. That YouTube thing isn’t really representative of me, and that’s old history. That was one bad day on one picture with one person who’s a friend. I wouldn’t say like, ‘Yeah, that’s how I was.’ (laughs) I don’t believe in working like that at all. I think that’s embarrassing and not a cool way to work.

MM: Speaking of raw deals, I’m sorry to hear that you’re no longer involved in your long-in-the-works satire Nailed. Having moved on, would you prefer the unfinished film never be seen, or do you hope that it’s eventually finished, even in a compromised form?

DR: That’s not really for me to say. We didn’t get to finish or make the film for a lot of reasons. So, in a way, I feel like it’s stillborn. So, of course, I wouldn’t want it to be shown. But I don’t own it. I don’t think it’s the film that we intended to make or got to make.

MM: It was recently announced that you’ll be adapting the bestselling adventure video game “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.” What excites you, creatively, about adapting an interactive medium to a more passive one?

DR: To me, the game is one experience but the movie has to be its own animal. Amy Hennig, the game’s creator, and I are in agreement about that. It inspired a very cool idea for me that I’m excited to write. Otherwise I wouldn’t go near it, because the game is the movie for people. You don’t need to redo the game, and it’s not like the world is rife with examples of amazing movies from games. There aren’t, so you can’t look at it that way. There’s a really amazing idea that I was able to come up with for certain actors I know using elements of that story as reimagined by me. That’s how Three Kings got started. They had a logline that I looked at, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I tend to pick a logline and then draw my own. MM

Paramount Pictures releases The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams, on December 10, 2010.