The David O. Russell narrative generally tends to focus on the past. The chaotic sets of “I Heart Huckabees,” an ancient history fist fight with George Clooney, and “Nailed,” a film that was abandoned after financiers shut it down before production was completed. But the filmmaker’s narrative is changing and leaving that noise in the dust. 2010’s vibrant and limber “The Fighter” won two Supporting Oscars (for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo) and it earned itself seven Academy Award nods in total. And this year, his follow-up, the equally ebullient and intoxicating “Silver Linings Playbook,” which already took the coveted Audience Award prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, looks poised to repeat that kind of success.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, the picture centers on Pat, a former teacher (Cooper) who moves back in with his parents after a stint in a mental institution, and is laser-focused on reconciling with his ex-wife. But Pat’s mission takes an unexpected turn when he meets Tiffany (Lawrence), a damaged girl with issues of her own whose complications begin to seep into his life.
Vivacious, crackling with a similar energy as “The Fighter” and just as focused on family, our review from TIFF called it a “big-hearted and hilarious, a touchdown.” We recently sat down with the director David O. Russell to talk “Silver Linings Playbook” and discussed the film as part of the “second phase” of his career, how he’s just finding his groove as a filmmaker and flipping the preconceived notions of what role his actors should play. He also spoke about some wisdom Matt Damon gave him and how Vince Vaughn and Zooey Deschanel were originally set to start in ‘Playbook,’ but how that version was just not meant to be. Our conversation is below, and for more from the director be sure to check out all the details of his next picture, an “intense” FBI drama starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, his new muse Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner.
Let’s go back a moment to five years ago. How did it all start?
It came from [the late] Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella who had optioned it with Harvey Weinstein and I had never adapted a novel before. I really liked the family world and I liked the characters and the emotion of it, and I liked that it was romantic in spite of it being very upsetting. There was an intensity in the setting but it was also romantic. We tried to capture the spirit of the book, which I liked the most. And then of course you try make it your own thing. I personally related to the material from my older son or I never would have probably paid so much attention to it otherwise.
Was your son, who has struggled with some of these similar issues, the reason these guys brought the project to you?
I don't know if they knew about that until I got in the room. You’ve got to use what know, what you’ve got personally to know how to get inside a story. To know specifically and palpably how it's heartbreaking and how it's funny. That's a gift. But having some personal insight into a subject gives you a genuine feeling of where to take it. And, you know I changed a lot of things from the book. The guy in the book was more severely challenged. He had been away from his family for four years. I didn’t know that kind of person, I knew somebody who might have had a different experience, a shorter experience.
You wrote a script five years ago. How different is it from the one that we see on screen?
Well, it grew a lot and changed a lot. You know you write it about 20 to 25 times over the years. When I first wrote it I was thinking of Vince Vaughn and Zooey Deschanel you know because I really liked both of them, but it didn't come together at that time. Vince was a fan of the script at the time.
You guys have almost worked together several times. It seems like you would be a good fit together.
Yeah. I was watching “Swingers” on TV last night, that movie is just wonderful. It’s such a wonderful movie, but the sincerity of it is what makes it so amazing. You know it's a very sincere. So with Vince, that was the first incarnation. And films get made when they're supposed to get made, very often with the people they are supposed to get made with. You have to have some faith about that. Matt Damon was gracious enough to say that to me because he had been attached to play the Christian Bale part in “The Fighter” at first. We were remembering this when I saw him recently and he said to me, “Well, that shows the right people play the right role at the right time.” Which was a very generous thing of him to say. He was really saying that he thought Christian was the right guy to play that part. So, you know Vince, as much as I love him, who knows if that would have been the right fit [for ‘Silver Linings’]. Then after that there's a period where you keep rewriting it and then I went off and made “The Fighter” first.
After a while you're in the game long enough that you probably don’t hold on so tight to original visions or casting.
That's over a period of years. Vince loved the script so much we got involved in a couple of other things we wanted to do. So anyway then I did “The Fighter,” which was you know a nice surprise. I didn't know that was going to be a film I was going to be able to make. That picture was key because I think it really helped me see what I think my contribution as a filmmaker can be in terms of the characters and the family and the neighbors and things that I actually have a real affection for.
It definitely feels like a second chapter in your career. A new beginning. Do you feel that way?
Absolutely. I feel like this is where I'm feeling like a late bloomer. I feel like I'm finally really hitting my stride. You know we did [THR] directors panel recently and Quentin Tarantino was talking about retiring right now and I said, “For me I feel like I'm just hitting my stride.” So if you’re blessed like him you get it right out of the gate and you become…I mean there's no comparison anyway because everybody is so different. But you know I think there are some filmmakers who do great work. John Huston made “Prizzi's Honor," which I think is one of his best pictures, later in his career.
“Silver Linings Playbook” feels like a companion to “The Fighter.”
You mean these two movies? They very much feel like they're companion pieces to each other for sure. I think once you kind of get into a groove that you feel and you focus on, you can keep taking that approach.
Right. The two movies are about boxing and mental illness on the outside, but both are really about family. They're very different films though, is that a conscious thing when you put these together?
Each creature is a different creature. [‘The Fighter’] creature was the people of Lowell, Massachusetts, and a very specific, real group of people. [‘Silver Linings] is sort of based on characters in a book. When I did [‘The Fighter’] in Lowell it reminded me of all of these relatives that didn't I know what to make of. I had all of these relatives in the five boroughs, that we would visit sometimes at big family events and it would be Italian relatives, Jewish relatives, just very colorful people. Once that opened that door up to me I was like, “Oh, you know that's a good thing.” When I looked at "The Fighter" family that's when I thought, “I know these people, I get this.” And so the same thing happened with my own version of the 'Silver Linings’ family but more specifically about in this case that element of film. I know Robert De Niro is Italian American, as I am, and Bradley Cooper's Italian American and Bradley's from that area, and I based it on my relationship with my kid. So, it all gets made more specific that way.
Once the casting was in place, did the script shift once again? Did it keep changing?
Yes, Mr. De Niro was a revelation because I had known him for many years and we had talked about situations with our schools that our children go to and so forth over the years, but finally it was a light bulb went off and I said, “Oh my God, wouldn't it be amazing if he did this?” It was such an obvious idea that I don’t' know why it hadn’t dawned on me earlier. And then I rewrote the part for him. And his character in the book is a little more — he’s just a harsh dude. In this case I wanted to put the contours in of a father who has ups and downs and warmth and love and as much as he has harshness.
The wonderful thing about that character is the balance of heartbreak and frustration. He’s totally exasperated by his son.
Yeah, it's extremely specific. I think anybody could relate to this anywhere in life if you have somebody who is struggling with any problem. I suppose you could say Bradley Cooper compares to the Christian Bale character in “The Fighter,” or a combination of the Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg character. Someone who is…there's always a struggle in every good story, you know? So, to me the fact that we picked the 2008 football season was significant because that was the year the economy crashed and that was the year people like Robert De Niro’s character lost his job and had to turn to book making.
I presume the Philadelphia Eagles are not an invention.
No, It was a big part of the book. [The author] Matthew Quick lived there and worked in a hospital there. I think it's fun, when things are specific like that.
It must be such an added bonus when actors like Bradley and Mr. De Niro who have become good friends in real life.
They had a good father son thing. That really, really helps. They're not getting to know each other, they’re already very comfortable with each other and they have a sort of real family-like dynamic which is great. As is the idea that I could write in his rhythm. Mr. De Niro's speech — because I love how he talks and I love those movies and there's a rhythm that I relate to. He claims my rhythm is different from his, but I think they are related to each other.
If you had to describe your rhythm, how would you describe it?
It feels very regular, intimate, talkative, a personable, warm, open intense you know…authentic, specific. Those are too many words, I've got to pick one. That's a good question, I've got to boil it down to what that would be. You know Bob and Bradley talk like a family and that has a very specific thing going on that they’re very focused on more than anything. It has a neighborhood feeling to it, I would say it has a neighborhood feeling to it.
Do you improvise much? On Charlie Rose, Mr. De Niro said you “can’t over-think things” on a David O. Russell film. I wonder what you think he meant exactly.
Well, there’s not a lot of improv really because you write it many times and you rehearse it many times exactly as it is. But what you’re trying to ultimately achieve — you want it to get rolling, you wanna get it piqued, so it gets going is to take on a life of its own.
I feel funny explaining my approach to filmmaking. Everybody's description of it is different. The only way I know how to make a film is the way I know how, you know? I just know I don't want the actors to ever be fake, I don't want them to be full of shit. I want them to be real and I want them to feel alive. It has to feel alive. And sometimes once they keep doing it over and over again a spark happens. I don’t call cut and I run a 20 minute film mag until it’s out. I don't like hair and makeup people coming in. I don't like lighting adjustments. I don't like resetting, you just keep going until there’s life.
I imagine it like they’re on the stage theater and we're talking maybe during a take. I'm giving direction [while we’re filming], “Bob, do that,” or you know sometimes it's like you're in a family situation where you're cheering on or prodding on another family member and I'll say, “Yeah say that to him, or say this to him!” So it helps. You know when you have so many characters in a scene, you have a lot to remember. Over an extended period it's helpful to them if you give out ideas.
If this is the second phase of your career. What was your style in the first phase?
I would say it was more set up. Although, there were moments on “Flirting with Disaster” where, with a lot of people on the set, you'd get a scene rotating. Like when Richard Jenkins was on acid you know that was a scene that sort of took on a life of its own. I don't think I was as confident back then so I would pretty much stick to the script more.
Tell me about Jennifer Lawrence in this film.
As you probably know she Skyped her audition, I'd never done that before. She's a very, very charismatic, not neurotic person who is much like her character in the movie. She's kind of fearless. And she had to get to know [Bradley Cooper] very fast because they were dancing together for several hours a day for two weeks.
You shot the dance scenes first?
No, but they had to learn it before we started shooting because there would be no time for them to learn it in the 33 day schedule. So they had to learn it before we started shooting.
That's got to be quite the bonding experience to just meet each other and get physical in that way.
They got very comfortable [laughs].
There’s a lovely awkwardness in their dancing.
Yeah it's sweaty and it was really — neither one of them had been a professional or danced ever in something. They were both able to be honest and awkward about it. Which is what we wanted, I didn't want them to seem too polished.
You've got a great cast here, and you pulled Chris Tucker out of hibernation who hasn't been in a movie in forever.
Well, the advantage of Bradley is that Bradley is reintroducing himself as an actor. People think they know him but he's kind of saying, “You don't really.” That's exciting to a director because it means he's very eager to do new things and so is the character he's playing.
Likewise Chris Tucker, he's re-appearing to us as if offstage. His character in the movie comes from offstage again and again. From the hospital he just keeps showing up. So that's a nice confluence of who he really is in life that he's been out of the spotlight for a while and then now he keeps stepping into it. And he's authentic, he's grounded and he knows all of the legal language. So it was wonderful. He has a great warm feeling about him in general, so that warm rapport that he and Bradley have — that fills in things for the audience, that they’re friends and they’ve been through things together without ever explaining it.
To create a world that is a very dimensional world it takes a lot of little things. Chris had to memorize the toughest dialogue, for a guy who likes to do nothing but improvise, he had to memorize the weirdest, most technical dialogue, the legal language of state laws and hospitals. He had to know the law.
Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Christian Bale have played lighthearted characters in your pictures. Even Mark Wahlberg went that route in “I Heart Huckabees” and he wasn’t known for comedy at the time. You’re good at flipping the audiences' expectations of actors.
You know Bradley is going to do “The Elephant Man” on Broadway, so that's not a small thing to be able to pull that off, it's pretty much just him up there….you just have to see it to believe it.
That's how I felt about Amy Adams in “The Fighter.” People said, “I don't buy her as a tough girl. I said, 'l do see it.' ” Take Christian Bale in that movie. For me the secret to that character was his lovability, his warmth, his goofiness. These are things I saw in the real Dicky that Christian had not really done until then. He was so warm and goofy as much as he was scary.
I knew when I met Bradley after “Wedding Crashers,” he seemed like a palpably angry person to me. A scary angry person. So I knew that was good for “Silver Linings Playbook,” because it wasn't fake, it wasn't nice, it was just intense. Then when I met him I asked him about that. His answer told me that he could do this role because his answer was very self-revealing. His answer was that he had been unhappy at the time when he made “Wedding Crashers.” His life was not as fulfilled. He was 30 to 40 lbs. heavier like the character in the movie, he was hiding behind it, but really he was scared. So already you're getting so much depth and it's very much in the world of the character so that's all — he's a very open, emotional guy.
I was going to say, for a first meeting someone who’s incredibly so open must be a good sign.
Yes, it was a very good sign. He was very open and direct and fearless about that. I thought that was nice as opposed to being guarded. He didn't try to spin his past problems, but he was welcoming about all of it. He wanted to do the dancing he was willing to do all of that. You know even though he was scared of it. He was openly scared of the whole role, which is healthy. I think anybody who's about to do any…I'm always scared to make a movie. You've got to be a little scared.
Does that give it a needed energy?
It means you're focused, it means you're respecting it. You're aware that it's a formidable challenge and you've got to pay attention or you'll fuck it up. It’s always going to be very from the heart that way.
So do you seek out those who can show another side of themselves?
I ask them to do it and I believe that they are capable of doing it. Amy I knew from having many meals with her, Christian I had a sense that he could do it, but I wasn't entirely sure he was going to be willing to let go of that hardness. And I think he took a shine to it because he got to know the real Dicky. Also, we were both on the same page, I said, “Who cares about a dangerous junkie?” We’ve seen that before. What makes this guy matter is he's a guy you can actually like, the real life guy.
Do you find it harder or easier to make a movie now?
Let me put it to you this way, it's mature for me. It's good. It may have been easier financially before the economic downturn [in 2008]. It was certainly easier to get a movie set up. But because of my own life it was not easier for me to be the best storyteller I could be. I think the difficulty and challenges that the last few years have presented to everybody economically and my own personal challenges have turned out to make me a more attentive storyteller and so that's a good thing. I know that if you can go into a zone where you feel like you're doing good storytelling, for me it always feels good to be in that zone. To me my first few films were harrowing experiences because you're terrified the whole time that you're going to fuck it up. You don’t know what you're doing. There's still always that fear but now there's a more warm confidence that you're in a direction that is clear.
“Silver Linings Playbook” is now in theaters in limited release.