Honor Roll is a daily series running throughout December that features new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-person stories of some of the year’s most notable cinematic voices. Today, we’re running a new interview with David O. Russell, whose comedy “Silver Linings Playbook” has been at the forefront of Oscar-talk following its win of the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
After seeing Christian Bale and Melissa Leo win Oscars for their performances in his last film, “The Fighter,” David O. Russell is all but guaranteed to return to next year’s ceremony in support of “Silver Linings Playbook,” his new romantic comedy that became a Best Picture front-runner after netting the coveted People’s Choice Award in Toronto this past September.
Recalling “Spanking the Monkey” and “Flirting With Disaster,” the manic and expertly calibrated comedies that put Russell at the forefront of comedy directors, “Silver Linings Playbook” stars Bradley Cooper as Pat, a married man who moves in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver) following a stint in a psychiatric facility. Estranged from his wife, Pat finds himself drawn to an equally troubled woman (Jennifer Lawrence), who recently lost her husband. “Turning frantic relationship problems into breezy entertainment, Russell gives ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ the air of a classic romcom, strengthening it with the type of sophisticated insight into human behavior that Preston Sturges might make today,” wrote Indiewire’s Eric Kohn in his glowing review out of Toronto.
Russell got on the phone with Indiewire from Los Angeles to discuss the ups and downs of the awards circuit, working with Harvey Weinstein (whose Weinstein Company is distributing the film), and showcasing a Bradley Cooper no one knew existed.
Going from working with Paramount for “The Fighter,” to working with Harvey Weinstein on this picture, I’m curious — given that both films came out in the heat of awards season — how have the two experiences on the awards circuit differed?
Very different in that — it’s weird; we were still the underdog with “The Fighter,” so it’s similar in that regard… I’m comfortable and used to being an underdog that’s running on hard emotion, if that’s what the picture is. And that’s what the picture has. I think it was true that year, and it’s true again this year. That’s our particular gift in the film. That’s what we have. There’s many great films this year, but that’s what we have. That’s similar. The difference is… Paramount has resources and Paramount is a very large studio. We’re up against them this year, and Harvey works very differently. He works from the bottom-up, more like a traditional, independent film, and more like an underdog fighter. It’s different in that regard. You do more with less. I would say that’s the difference. But you have his passion — which is what we were up against, two years ago, with “The King’s Speech.” It’s a very similar release pattern that we’re in, right now. He has a passion… This is his wheelhouse, when he has a film that’s emotional and that connects with audiences. He takes the word of mouth, and that’s his principal resource — more than any kind of prints and advertising budget. That’s the difference, I would say.
Is he one to collaborate with you on the strategy, or do you avoid all that and let him steer the ship?
He’s the captain, at the end of the day. He’s the boss, which I find to be true of almost any person who’s got their skin in the game; they are the ones who call the shots. He discusses it with you, and you can try to say, “Gee, I wish you’d go for more of the depth of the picture,” and eventually, he comes around and says, “Yes, that’s what audiences are responding to, anyway; that’s what the word of mouth is.” He pretty much runs things the way he’s going to run them, but he’s a partner — so he does talk to you. He feeds off of everybody’s energy. His passion feeds off of the passion of the filmmakers, and the audiences. It’s a dialogue, really.
He was involved with the project before you came on board, is that correct?
He had optioned the book with Anthony Minghella and Sidney Pollack, and they kind of bought the book together. It was the first book he had bought, or property he had bought, in his new company, called The Weinstein Company. It was five years ago. In the great tradition of independent film, we didn’t get to make it when we thought we were going to. I thought I was going to make it five years; ago I thought, “I guess the resources aren’t meant to be.” But — in those five years, a lot of great things happened that made it a better movie.
What kind of film do you think this would’ve been had you made it five years ago?
I think I had the opportunity to deepen my affection and focus on worlds… Like these neighborhood worlds and these people from “The Fighter.” And that’s kind of become the companion volume to “The Fighter.” In a way, I feel like the skill and heart, as a filmmaker, got deeper and better, and “The Fighter” model — shooting it — became the model for shooting this movie, which is virtually identical in budget and 33 days, the same thing. I followed that M.O. I don’t take a trailer, I used a van to have a meeting with everyone in the morning, and that was an evolution that I created on “The Fighter.” I mean — on my first three films, that’s how we did it. But that’s how we did it on “The Fighter,” I would have a meeting with the cast and the crew in the van, first thing. And that’s what we did on this picture.
I also don’t think I would’ve ever encountered Robert De Niro; I think that he and I began talking more and more about our other experiences with people we know who face challenges like this… We wrote the role for him. Jennifer Lawrence was in high school five years ago. I don’t think Jennifer Lawrence was even in my world five years ago… So Jennifer Lawrence appeared. And I think Bradley Cooper’s readiness to really go deeper as an actor, and really feel this part… I think that also happened in the last five years. That’s a lot of things. It was almost destiny, in a weird kind of way.Who was the first person that you cast in the film?
It’s very hard to remember the exact order… I think Mr. De Niro might’ve been the first, in this incarnation. And then he was someone who helped advocate for Bradley, because he knew him from “Limitless,” and he believed in Bradley as an actor. They had a good thing, in terms of father-son chops that felt organic. That happened like that. There were a lot of other actresses that we were talking to who we thought were finalists, and they are very fine actresses. Jennifer came in at the eleventh hour for a Skype audition, and she was probably the third piece to fall into place.
The reason I ask is because the dynamic between the ensemble is electric. What guided you in the casting of “Silver Linings”? Was it DeNiro?
What guides the whole thing is your feeling; you have a very strong instinct, and you have to trust in that. The work we do rides on the edge because it’s something that’s happening in real time, so, as it’s happening, you don’t know what it’s going to be — but then, as you follow the feeling reveals itself to you. And then you know it’s right when — well, we couldn’t have done it in 32 days if everyone wasn’t completely, passionately, in it.
What do you feed off of when shooting on such a tight schedule?
It means you have to be very immediate and raw about the emotion. And very personal about it. Bradley’s character has an immediacy and an intensity, which also fits the schedule. And the fact that he runs around town, reintroducing himself to people… Like, “This is the new me”– that fits with who Bradley Cooper is now as an actor, I think. He would never say it; I say it. I think he’s embarrassed by it, I don’t think he would look at it that way. But I know that, as a director, that was a very useful weapon to me. To be like, “Who he is right now, as an actor, is very close to who this guy is in the movie — in terms of having an intense appetite to be known more deeply by people who think they know him.” It’s hard to invent him. That’s a nice thing that lined up, really nice. Just like it lined up with Robert De Niro that he cried when I talked to him about this project because, as a father, he’s known these situations from people he knows. You can’t invent that. These are things that allow him to show up more.
We used to have to wait such a long time to see a new film by you, but “Silver Linings” came out right on the heels of “The Fighter,” and you have a new film slated to open next year. Why do you now feel the need to get films out at a quicker rate?
Part of it is the function of trusting a creative process that requires instinct. And genuineness. And I’m much better, I think. And being ponderous or overthinking things. That’s the kind of cinema that I feel like I’m really making right now. The next one, I’m going to do that again. Cinema that’s about emotion. It’s about people and emotions. Like I said, there are a lot of great films this year, but I think that’s what our film has, more specifically; it’s just about people and their emotions. I’m happy to be embracing that. I’m happy I have the clarity and the feel for that, right now. That’s what I have a feel for. It’s like being in love with somebody, when you can be in love with something… You’ve got to seize upon that. You’ve got to act on it. It’s very great energy. And also, as you get older, you realize what a privilege it is to just make a film, period, let alone films like these. We’re just fortunate to make films like this because it’s not like it was 10 years ago. It really isn’t. There’s not as much opportunity, or money, around to make films like this.