Earlier this month, BAFTA’s Annual David Lean lecture was delivered in London by writer and director David O. Russell, fresh off the release of his latest film, “Joy.” Having brought audiences a total of nine films, including “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” and “American Hustle,” Russell spoke with refreshing honesty about his twenty-plus year career from an underdog who endured personal strife to a satisfied man as much as he is a Hollywood hitmaker.
Here are some of the highlights of Russell’s lecture.
“It’s a magnificent work of art that I’ve watched innumerable times, by David Lean, Sir David Lean. I just want to, while he’s dead in heaven, I believe in honouring the dead and our ancestors, including my own, and I’m going to honour David Lean, Sir David Lean right now in the brotherhood and sisterhood of cinema. That movie hit me and it never let go of me when I was seven years old,” Russell said.
“It’s about a boy who becomes a man, who loves a girl that’s unattainable, whose name is Estella like the stars that are unattainable. And he knows a woman who lives in an old wedding dress because she’s remained frozen in time and given up on life. That would become a fundamental question of every single movie I’ve made, especially in the last five or six years: people who could remain frozen in time and give up on life, or could somehow find a second act, could somehow find a way to reinvent themselves and re-love life again, which ain’t easy,” he continued.
“Life is not easy, I make no mistake about that, having lived it myself.”
The Company He Keeps
“God let me know that was the cinema I was intended to make, just at the last minute as I was in my forties. And I guess there’s a quote I would take from Jean-Paul Sartre to sound pretentious, but also he’s a smart guy,” Russell said. “So he said, ‘We only become what we are by the radical refusal of that of which others have made of us,’ and I would say that’s true of every single character I’m inspired to write about, and it’s true of my own story, in the world and in life, and it’s my advice to my own children.”
About That Infamous BAFTA Moment
“Another funny story about the year we went there for ‘Silver Linings,’ I was sitting next to Jennifer Lawrence, and just became famous for the face I made. I wasn’t used to being on live television, and there was a screen-grab some of you may be familiar with when they announced the winner that year. And I believed in my young actress, the minute they announced someone else, someone from France, I reacted as a loyal father and director to my actress. I made a face, and as I made the face my wife said, “Wait a second, you’re on TV,” Russell shared.
“And right in that shot right there you can see, here’s the camera, here’s Jennifer, there’s my wife pointing, and here’s me in the middle going…And this became a screen-grab known as ‘David O. Russell doucheface,’ which you can find on Google. Don’t Google anybody. But ‘doucheface,’ really to me it was ‘loyal director loves actress face.’ Empathises and supports and would do anything for actress. And God bless the French lady who won.”
The Ability to Write
“I’m a working writer, I make my living as a writer. I pay my mortgage and my ex-wife’s mortgage by writing, okay. So in those trouble years when I was treading water I was writing, and one of the writing assignments I took was from the late Sydney Pollack and the late Anthony Minghella, who said to me, ‘Could you adapt this book called “Silver Linings Playbook”?’ And I said, ‘You know, I can kind of relate to this,'” Russell said.
His Friendship with Jennifer Lawrence
“People ask me why I collaborate with her so much, or Robert De Niro or Bradley Cooper. My first answer would be this: Bette Davis collaborated with William Wyler on five films. Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor collaborated on seven films. Katharine Hepburn collaborated with George Stevens on three films. Scorsese with Robert De Niro, eight films. I think DiCaprio is up about six. If you’re friends with somebody and you happen to like and respect each other, you can inspire each other,” Russell said.
“And if it’s organic you just do it. And the story came to us about a mop, and I said, well to me, Jennifer, they offered it to both of us. And I said, we said, ‘We’ll only do it if we can do it together and if we can have the real lady’s blessing, the real Joy’s blessing, to do it how we would do it.’ And Jennifer said, ‘How are we going to do it?’ I told her, ‘We’re going to do it where we see your whole lifetime and it’s about the soul of a girl, the soul of a woman, that starts in her father’s scrap metal garage, that is made up of the soap operas her mother watches, and she finds herself a prisoner in a way of the soap opera of her own house. And she has dreams and magic as a child, dreams and magic that have somehow gotten smothered,'” he continued.
“That can happen to anybody, you wake up one day and you can barely hear the distant music of magic that you once knew. And adult concerns, there are so many compromises and disappointments in adult life: jobs, bills, relationships. Where’s the distant magic?”
The “Declaration of Self-Ownership”
“Jennifer and I saw ‘Joy’ as a meditation on what success really is, because I’ve watched her go from being an unknown girl of 20 years old to have the world engulf her with attention. And I kept saying to her, ‘Please hold onto your soul and protect it, because as we’ve seen with many brilliant talents, they’ll pull you into pieces if you don’t get a good hold of yourself and put protection around it.’ And that’s what the movie’s about,” Russell said.
“Right after ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ Jennifer chopped her hair off, which she said because her hair was damaged, I say it was because she was making a declaration of self-ownership and protection, and that’s what happens in the third act of ‘Joy.’ She chops her hair off, which is a declaration of war, that she’s not going to take no for an answer,” he continued.
“That’s what every director has to do also, they’ll go down clinging to the base of the editing machine, you know that’s where they’ll find me. They’ll rip it out of my hands, you know.”
The Magic of Filmmaking
“That was beautiful to shoot in 16mm, then you come back into the present. That’s exciting cinema to me, and it’s the magic of time.”
Making Ordinary Lives Extraordinary
“I love the rhythm of language, and there’s a music to language, and I do love the rhythm of it. And I love writing it, and I love listening to it. Other filmmakers as well as the dialogue that comes out of the actors I’m privileged to work with’s mouths, you know, that has a magic and a music to it that I aspire to write. I also, I never thought I would be a filmmaker, I loved movies and I lived in them in my mind,” Russell said.
“I think Paul Greengrass rightly observed when I saw his David Lean Lecture, that I think most people in this business come from homes that were rather fractured and dramatic, like a movie, and we spend the rest of our lives kind of expressing that. And it’s a gift from our families in a strange way, and that’s what my mother is saying to me. It is not merely terrible, I believe that these things, that’s the whole point of these movies and the point of life, if you’ve ever…,” he continued.
“You know, Gandhi said, ‘Nothing wastes the human body like worry, and anyone who has any faith should be ashamed to worry about anything whatsoever.’ And he laid that down, that’s just something that I never stop thinking about. So faith means you see the terrible things that happen and you say to yourself, ‘Maybe this is not terrible,’ which flies in the face of all reason, but it’s happened to me again and again,” he mused.
“‘I Heart Huckabees’ is a blackout in my memory. It was at the height of my mid-life crisis and the beginning of my head up my ass period. After the success of your first film, second film, now here comes your ‘what are you going to do now?,’ you know. And I overwrote that film, I overthought that film. I wrote that film ten ways. It was back to me before I did, remember I told you that film I kept rewriting, I did that again, and I probably produced 1000 pages. And they’re all interesting and good, where was the instinct, I needed the instinct,” Russell said.
“Now through some luck and kismet it’s the reason that Jennifer Lawrence knew who I was, because for some reasons people of her generation really like that movie and they tell me things about it as if I’m being told about a film somebody else made. And when we were flying over here she told me about moments, and it was as if I was, and it’s kind of fun to be listening, I’d go, “I do not remember that scene, but that’s really cool that you liked it,'” he continued.
“So to me, you know they took a chance on me, everybody took a chance on me. And I say to myself, somebody once said, ‘If you’re really going to be an artist you must be willing to take a chance and not know what’s going to happen.’ That was quite a chance that I did not know what was going to happen, more than I’d be willing to take again.”
“Joy” is in theaters now.