After a six-year absence from both arthouses and multiplexes, filmmaker David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) returned in 2010 with The Fighter. The family/boxing drama received seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, winning for Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale) and Best Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo), and went on to gross $129 million worldwide.
Russell followed the success of The Fighter with the recently released Silver Linings Playbook, his most personal film to date. The film, based on the novel of the same name by Matthew Quick, follows Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), home after a stint in a mental institution where he’s been coping with his bipolar disorder. His parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) attempt to help Pat regain his life, but it’s Pat’s equally troubled new friend Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose ability to gently guide Pat out of his comfort zone, may be the key to Pat’s Silver Linings. I recently had a chance to speak with Russell in celebration of him being nominated for a Golden Globe (Best Screenplay), two Critics Choice awards (Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay), and two Independent Spirit awards (Best Director and Best Screenplay). Here’s what Russell shared with me about his first experience adapting a book, how his experiences with his son helped him find the emotional core of the film, and crafting Silver Linings Playbook.
Jackson Truax: This has been a real week of recognition for the film, with it receiving ten Critics Choice nominations, four Golden Globe nominations, and three nominations from the Screen Actors Guild. Why do you think these very different groups, as well as audiences, are all embracing the film so enthusiastically?
David O. Russell: I think there are a lot of really, really good movies this year. And the thing that we have that’s singular is that we have a personal, emotional movie… It goes from a great raw, pained place to a enchanted place that I feel it comes by honestly… Danny Elfman, our composer, has an eighty-six-year-old mother who’s a tough lady. I was afraid of her seeing the movie and what she was going to say, because she’s very tough… We saw her last week… She came up to me, she said to me, “I’ve been watching movies since 1932. And when I say ‘that’s a movie’ – that’s a movie!”
JT: You’ve said that you were given the book by the late filmmaker Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa) before you made The Fighter. What was your initial reaction to the book? Once you knew you wanted to make it into a film, what made it come together at this specific moment in time?
Russell: I was looking for a story that I could tell that would reflect my older son’s experience in the world, and make him feel like part of the word. That was my primary response. That was the only reason I responded to it… Five years ago, it was the first book The Weinstein Company acquired, the first property they acquired. I had never adapted a book until then. I said, “Oh, I think is that story that I’ve been looking for.” It was perfect. It had all these elements that I loved, including an enchanting, hopeful journey that’s essential to the pain. I wouldn’t want to deliver it any other way, to my son or anybody like him… Then I got to spend the next five years writing it. I thought it was going to be made five years ago. But the Cinema Gods weren’t ready to make it. That turned out to be a good thing, because five years ago, I wouldn’t have connected it to Robert De Niro… Jennifer Lawrence was in high school five years ago. So lots of nice things happened. But I didn’t feel that at the time. At the time I was frustrated that I didn’t get to make it.
JT: What were the things the book presented that you found the most challenging to adapt?
Russell: The most challenging thing to adapt was to keep the tone emotionally real. Because the tone of the book – the guy’s been away for four years. So it was a much more extreme case that I personally didn’t have any experience of. So I couldn’t relate to it as much. I said, “I know how to [write] this as someone who’s done maybe at a month or two months in a hospital in the middle of their life… I know those people. I don’t know the other ones.” So that was a very important challenge. The other was bringing every single character to life. Because some characters were less important in the book. Some, I just wanted to draw them out more.
JT: What were the biggest gifts the book gave you, as far as things you couldn’t wait to adapt or explore?
Russell: I love the neighborhood… The fact that I made The Fighter first, I feel like I’m on a roll, making this world… Before I made The Fighter, I started to dig into this kind of family and world. Then I got to make The Fighter. Then I got to go back and rewrite this and reimagine it more specifically… Neighborhoods and specific communities with their rituals, I find that enchanting. The fact that there was dancing in it, which to me was scary… Kind of like when I made Three Kings. [I thought], “Wow. I don’t know if I can pull this off.” But it had the promise to be something… Everything I learned from my son is important to me, and I think applies to everybody. You get out of a rut by doing. So for me, it’s just working more. You’ve got to just do stuff. Whether it’s working out or dancing. These things are not about being in your head. They’re not about thinking. There are just these things that are what they are. That you get to experience being alive. I would say that the book had that in it. That was a wonderful opportunity for me. I’ve seen that with my son. That he needs that in his life to get out of any negative spiral he might be in. I need that in my life, to get out of any negative spiral I might be in. You need to get out of your head and go do something that requires your full attention, your full body. And you’re going to sweat and you’re going to get lost in it… So the dancing was a great thing. And an amazing woman character. That’s why we had every major actress wanting the role. And coming to my house to audition for it, including Jennifer Lawrence dressing up as the character in her house and skyping. Because it was a very, very interesting emotional woman. And I can’t find enough of those. I always want that. I think the whole movie rises with a very strong, complicated woman character.
JT: Both as a writer and as a director, you treat these characters with a humanity that few filmmakers ever have. As the same time, you find so much humor in their situations. How did you balance that humanity and that honesty with finding the humor and getting the laughs?
Russell: You have to know it firsthand. So if you know it firsthand, you’ve been in public, in a restaurant, with a bipolar person. You think you’re having a normal meal, and the next thing that happens is some weird argument about French fries. Then you think it’s just a normal argument about French fries. And that becomes a really crazy argument about fFench fries. Then the next thing you know, the police are there…You need a drink and a zantac afterwards to survive… You can also look at that say “Oh my God! This is crazy” and you can laugh at it, at the same time you can see what makes you want to cry about it. So being personally intimate with it is everything. That’s how I could trust that I was coming from the right place… If it’s coming from a real place emotionally, it’s not trying to go for a laugh… You’re just going for what’s authentic, so the characters have to commit. It’s about their commitment. That’s what’s funny or sad, is how committed they are. How committed and serious they are. And that’s human. And as a filmmaker, I get to do what’s human. In every film I’ve ever loved, that’s what I’ve loved. “Oh my God, look at these people…” They’re so committed to who they are that they’re locked in it. That’s Jennifer [Lawrence] with the dance. Or Bradley [Cooper] with the letter… You can look at that and [say], “That’s not really realistic. Nobody seems to think that’s realistic, that you’re going to get back with your wife.” It doesn’t matter. It’s life or death to him. So that’s what makes it funny and have pathos.
JT: Your son Matthew has a couple of great scenes in the movie. What did having him on set add to your experience of making the film? What effect did being in the film have on him?
Russell: I think it was a very healing thing. It was a very exciting thing. It was very healing of any shame, mostly. There’s a lot of shame that people have about having to face certain challenges. That applies to everybody, but in particular to people who have to take a medication or have to have a strategy in how to deal with life. And to have it be with Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, and his father working together on a story that is about a person like him, I think that will be a lasting resource to him. I think for a long time. You can’t even quantify it… It was nice for him to come down to Philadelphia a lot, from school. And a lot of his friends got to be in some scenes, too. A movie set is a very cool thing because it’s like a community… It’s like a safe community where you can learn a lot of things. So that was also good for him.
JT: Silver Linings Playbook was independently produced outside of the studio system. What were some of the freedoms you had that you had that you wouldn’t have had if this had been a big studio production?
Russell: We got to make the movie. Because it’s not a movie that is relying on big production or action or any other things like violence… It’s just relying on the people, and very specific people at that. Harvey [Weinstein] understood and embraced what the endeavor was. That was in itself, an independent sensibility. The Fighter had to be financed by Relativity. Because the big studios were also scared of it because it was such a character piece… [In Silver Linings Playbook] we’re betting on these very specific people and you’re betting on the enchantment will be there at the end of the movie… And the fact that they survived. And that they danced. And that a five-out-of-ten is a win. That’s the gamble Harvey took. I would say that’s an independent gamble.
JT: If you were to get Oscar nominations for writing and directing Silver Linings Playbook, and then win either or both awards, what would that recognition mean to you at this point in your life and career?
Russell: It would mean an enormous amount… If you keep doing good, humble work, it will attract good people to do that work with you. I would say that happened with The Fighter. It happened with this film. Now it’s happening with the next film. It continues to renew your inspiration in yourself and in those who want to work with you. So it’s extremely important to be able to continue to do these films… I’ve been writing for thirty years. I’ve never been nominated as a writer, outside the Writers Guild. So that would be huge. And to be nominated as a director again, is very important to me. Because to be recognized by my peers, and to have the kind of film that I’m making, and that audiences feel, be recognized, would allow me to keep making those movies, and help me keep making those movies… It would mean a lot to me, in those two respects… And hopefully give me and other people the ability to keep doing this.