For the second year in a row, the Philadelphia area will have a major presence at the Academy Awards. This year, David O. Russell, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are all nominated for American Hustle, the film loosely based on the FBI’s Abscam operation that wound up bringing down members of Congress, including Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.) and U.S. Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers (D-Pa.), five members of Philadelphia City Council and the mayor of Camden. The film is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Russell for Best Director, Cooper for Best Supporting Actor, Lawrence for Best Supporting Actress and the film itself for Best Picture.
Though the story is vastly different, the lineup is reminiscent of Silver Linings Playbook, which was nominated for eight Oscars in 2013. That, too, was directed by Russell and also starred Cooper, Lawrence and numerous Philadelphia landmarks, with Lawrence picking up a statuette for Best Actress.
The region’s connection to American Hustle runs deeper — and more current — than just the dubious distinction of being home to more politicians than anywhere else indicted in Abscam (so named because it featured FBI agents dressed as Arab sheiks, one of whom was named Abdul, who were guided toward potentially corrupt officials by con man Mel Weinberg). The sting operation, which concluded in 1980, had the “sheiks” trying to expose public corruption through setups like trying to bribe their way into the then-nascent Atlantic City casino industry.
In fact, without the involvement of Cheltenham native Richard Suckle, one of the film’s three producers, there might not have been an American Hustle at all. It was Suckle who, along with the film’s original screenwriter, Eric Singer, traveled to see the 89-year-old Weinberg in Titusville, Fla., in mid-2009 to secure the rights to his life story.
Suckle, 45, a product of Cheltenham High and Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, wasn’t the first person to see the cinematic potential in the scope of Abscam. The late director Louis Malle, of Atlantic City fame, had previously secured the rights to Weinberg’s story shortly after the scandal broke and planned to make a film about it starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Belushi was to play a fictionalized version of Weinberg before the actor’s untimely death in 1982 caused the cancellation of the project.
Suckle and Singer first worked together on The International, the 2009 thriller starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. “We were looking for something else to do together, and one of Eric’s pitches was about Abscam,” Suckle says. “I knew of it, and it resonated with me right away,” he says, because he remembered learning about the scandal as it happened when he was a ’tween.
Working with his partner at Atlas Films, Charles Roven, and the film’s other producer, Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures, Suckle eventually assembled a cast and crew that included the previously named heavyweights as well as Christian Bale and Amy Adams, both of whom Russell worked with on the 2010 film, The Fighter. (The latter three were nominated for Oscars that year, with Bale winning for Best Supporting Actor.)
“I knew it could be something special when David began assembling the team,” Suckle recalls. “You see the great actors we came to work with — it was like watching the all-star team every day!”
And Philadelphia came very close to being home field. Both Suckle and Russell wanted to locate the production here.
“It was our first choice,” Suckle says with a resigned tone of bemusement. “David had a great experience here shooting Silver Linings,” and Suckle had previously produced movies here, including 12 Monkeys and Fallen.
To facilitate the process, Suckle says that he and his team drove to Harrisburg to meet with Susan Corbett, the chair of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and also the wife of Governor Tom Corbett, as well as the people responsible for granting rebates for films made in the state. He contends that, unlike other states where the rebate and grant process is more streamlined and production-friendly, Pennsylvania’s rebate approval is done on a conditional, case-by-case basis.
With an accelerated production schedule that had to accommodate five of the most in-demand stars in Hollywood and a hard release date for awards season, Suckle had to abandon plans to come here, instead opting to shoot in the more rebate-friendly confines of Massachusetts.
Although the location negotiations were difficult, Suckle says, it is situations like that, requiring a constant blend of creativity, acumen and fortitude, that led him to move west to make it in the business soon after he graduated from New York University in 1991.
Those challenges are “a big part of producing,” he emphasizes. “You have to be a problem-solver. Trying to get all of the actors’ deals done, shooting a 172-page script in 42 days — we were juggling a lot of balls,” he says of the American Hustle experience.
Like so many drawn to Hollywood, Suckle says he was bitten by the showbiz bug early in life, but it was the people and the action behind the scenes of the movies he saw in his youth at the Baederwood, Hi-Way and GCC movie theaters that captured his interest.
“I was fascinated by the people in the credits,” he remembers. “I wanted to know: Who were those people? How did they get to where they were?”
Everyone with even a passing interest in the business knows exactly where Suckle will be on March 2: the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, the site of the Academy Awards. He will be flanked by his wife, Maia, and his mother, Jackie Schloss, who still lives in Suckle’s childhood home.
Win or lose on Sunday, American Hustle has achieved commercial and critical success. It was on most “10 Best” lists of 2013 films and was named Best Film, Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes.
Now he’s working nonstop on multiple projects, including a TV adaptation of 12 Monkeys for the SyFy Channel and a new Scooby-Doo film.
So what it’s like to go from working on something as acclaimed as American Hustle to a movie-length Hanna-Barbera cartoon?
“That’s one of the great things about my job,” he says. “You get to work on lots of different kinds of movies in lots of different kinds of genres.”