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Fox 2000’s Elizabeth Gabler on David O. Russell’s ‘Exuberant’ Direction of ‘Joy’

Fox 2000's Elizabeth Gabler on David O. Russell's 'Exuberant' Direction of 'Joy'


The last few year-end big-movie guns are finally in theaters. David O. Russell’s “Joy” (Fox 2000/Annapurna) reunites the New York writer-director with his usual team of thrice nominated Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper and veteran Oscar-winner Robert De Niro (nominated most recently for “Silver Linings Playbook”), plus newbies Isabella Rossellini, Edgar Ramirez and Dascha Polanco. (A Best Picture slot, unlikely given middling reviews, would mark Russell’s fourth total, including “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.”) 

“Joy” is contending for Golden Globes in the comedy category, although it veers toward the dramatic in its last third. Also likely this year is that “Joy”‘s front-and-center star, Jennifer Lawrence, who ably carries the holiday comedy/drama as a single mom mop inventor and QVC entrepreneur with the strength to persevere against considerable odds, will land her fourth Oscar nomination. But given that she won in 2013 for “Silver Linings Playbook,” she may have to cede the gold statue to Charlotte Rampling for “45 Years” or Brie Larson for “Room.”

Fox 2000 Pictures chief Elizabeth Gabler (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Life of Pi”) shepherded the project along with Annapurna’s Megan Ellison, she explains in our Sneak Preview Q & A below. Gabler is known at Fox for her tenacity and drive for excellence on such films as the Oscar-winning “Life of Pi,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and commercial breakout “Marley and Me.” She recently lured “Hunger Games” producer Nina Jacobson’s Color Force to Fox 2000. They worked together on Jacobson’s other franchise, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” 

READ MORE: “‘Joy’ Marks a Reunion, Breaks New Ground for Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper and David O. Russell (Q & A)” 

As a boutique more than pure specialty division, Fox 2000 boasts the advantages of a studio (deep pockets, global marketing and distribution) without the major disadvantages (the pressures of filling a studio pipeline). And though Gabler, 59, has delivered the odd clinker like the Ridley Scott-Russell Crowe misfire “A Good Year” and the fantasy “Eragon” (which did better overseas, as did the Cameron Diaz chick flick “In Her Shoes”), she has enjoyed a consistently strong 15-year run since she moved over from 20th Century Fox (where she had supervised such mainstream hits as “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Waiting to Exhale”). 

Every year she delivers a breakout or two, from “Phone Booth” and “Unfaithful” to “Man on Fire.” As president of Fox 2000, while Gabler doesn’t have to deliver “X-Men”-size hit installments on a given date, she does deliver some franchise installments like “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Taking more time to make fewer movies at a lower budget makes quality control more possible. After every other studio passed on the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” Gabler snapped it up and made it for $28 million. It nabbed five Oscar noms and one win, for Reese Witherspoon.

AT: How did you get involved with “Joy”?

Elizabeth Gabler:
Megan Ellison got “American
Hustle” made with David Russell. They had a very close relationship, and he had
been touring around with a bunch of projects that he was going to do after
“Hustle” when, lo and behold, “Joy” fell into his lap. So he became
more and more passionate about the project and realized that it was something
he wanted to do next, so he asked if we would welcome Megan and Annapurna into
the fold as producers, which we did.

We
were the lead studio and ran the production. Thankfully, we had two producers
who worked with Megan: John Gordon, one of our main producers on the movie, and
Matthew Budman, who was an executive at Annapurna. When the movie started
shooting, both moved to Boston and haven’t left the movie since then, until
now. It was a great collaboration, and I value Megan’s intelligence and
integrity and input. 

One thing that strikes me about this end-of-year craziness is all these great directors who set the bar high. They’re almost competing
with themselves, e.g. how to top “American Hustle.” Russell always pushes to make things better. How did you handle that?

It was a learning experience for me. I’ve worked with some pretty
intense filmmakers, so one thing is to always listen to them. That’s the most
important thing: listen to what they’re saying and listen to what they’re not
saying. Know that they’re going to push themselves. They’re individuals who
don’t do things they’re not really afraid of, because otherwise they would feel
like they’re sleepwalking, and that’s just not the way their psyches are put
together. This is the first film that David has directed with a woman at its
center. David, in his last three films leading up to “Joy,” has put out stronger
and stronger female characters.

He has a tremendous respect for women and their role in
our world, and this was his amazing way of putting the character onscreen —
someone who took the role of provider, who took on all the burdens of this
family on their shoulders, and all the dysfunctional characters surrounding
her, and was brave enough to find something in her heart, go out, sell it, and
make their lives better. And that, to him, was really critical, and he focused on that character and throughline. In his collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence, he was able to shape that
character. He used hours and hours of interviews with Joy Mangano, whose life
this is partially based on at least, to fuel all those little, idiosyncratic
things you saw in the film. In fact, most of the things that you think would be
fiction are really true, in a lot of ways.

READ MORE: “Jennifer Lawrence Carries Rollicking Biopic ‘Joy’ (Review & Roundup)”

I actually typed the script for him at some point because he gets really busy, and he had written drafts and outlines, and
we were getting really close before we needed to have a screenplay for his
department heads. I said, “David, please!” He had taken over De Niro’s offices
in Tribeca, doing casting and wardrobe and everything. I finally just took his
script and outline and all of his notes and went into this little
cubbyhole and started typing it on my laptop. But, of course, nothing was really
valid until he actually said, “Yeah.” I was combining material he had written;
I wasn’t writing it myself. I would say, “Is this where you want this scene?” Eventually, 20 minutes later, he would just take my laptop out of my hands and
start typing away himself. “The David Stenographer.” It was a really first-hand
process that I got to witness in a way I haven’t with any other filmmaker.

He’s very improvisational and even talks to his actors
while they’re acting?

As he was doing with the writing of the screenplay, and just to
go back to that question you asked before: a lot of details that he learned
from Joy and others, a lot of those women that inspired him for this film were
actually relatives of his, people in his own life. When he interviewed Joy, he
would take tiny snippets of information from her, like her father telling her
not to marry Tony at her wedding. All of a sudden, this line would come in: “Oh, that needs to go in there,” and then he would take it and it would be a
version of something that he knew and locked away in his vault-like memory.

So when he’s directing, he’s so exuberant. He doesn’t sit behind
the monitors. A lot of filmmakers stay back and watch from what we call video
village. David is in the middle of it all: yelling lines out, going
back-and-forth a little bit. It’s interesting, because the three actors that
he has worked with in this picture—Lawrence, De Niro, and Bradley Cooper—they’re used to his process. It was amazing to see how the other ones followed
right along. Like, Isabella Rossellini was just right with it. And they did
rehearsals, so they were used to a little bit of it — but, yeah, it’s tricky to
get the sound right. [Laughs]

Emma Watts said, “If I’m duking it out for a
property with Elizabeth, I want to know if she’s the one who really wants to do
it. If she does, I’m going to let her do it. If she’s not, I’m going to take
it.” A reason for your track record is you roll up your sleeves and keep things
running on time, which doesn’t seem to be Russell’s forte.

Oh, absolutely, no, this movie was on-schedule. He completely
pays attention to that. It’s insane, the working pace and intensity is
obviously something that’s not for the faint-hearted, but he’s incredibly
cognizant of how much time you spend and what needs to get done. He doesn’t get
lost, and will push you to the last nanosecond of the deadline, but he knows,
which is why he’s great.

He has a savant-like quality. He never forgot when he first
saw me at Sundance and I didn’t like “Spanking the Monkey.” Is this a good
thing?

Yeah… well, you have to watch what you say around him,
for God’s sake.

You sort of have to be honest around him, don’t you?

Yeah. Well, also, the thing he’ll do is, if he thinks you’re not
paying attention to him, he’ll say, “Are you listening to me? I can’t tell what
you’re thinking. Are you thinking about something else? Are you thinking about
the other movie?”

“No, David. I was waiting for you to finish talking so I can
hand this phone to you.”

So he’s also, in that way, an incredibly sensitive
man. I lost my father a month ago and he put his name at the end of the movie.
Not one filmmaker has ever done that for me in all my years of working. He
called me to say, “I’m going to put your dad’s name up there.” He remembered
every single thing that I had told him about my dad, because he asks questions
of everybody; he’s so inquisitive. I said, “Oh, I don’t know if we can do
that,” and he said, “Well, I’m doing that, anyway.” I feel like that part of
David needs to be known, because he’s that kind of person, who looks after
everybody — his people, or his family.

Talk about the relationship between him and
Jennifer Lawrence. She modeled herself on the real Joy, correct?

She’s so gifted that even
every take in dailies, she never missed it. It’s amazing to see someone immerse
herself in the character so much, and David will say that she’s the one who
comes in from left field and takes over the whole movie. This was the first
time she had this kind of film hanging completely on her. It was every single
day, long days, and, in certain scenes — like when she was playing the youngest
one, in the hallway with Édgar Ramirez’s character, as a teenager — she was
really sick, and she came into work. It reduces you to a child, when you’re not
feeling well, so it actually played to the essence of the scene, that she was
playing someone much younger than she actually is. I do think they have that
kind of close relationship where they can just bounce things off each other,
and he knows how to inspire her and she knows to push the limit. There have
been filmmakers like that who are really special. If you look back over history
and at the great collaborations, it’s exciting to see that they have that
together.

He says this is the first time he’s worked with a central character who isn’t crazy. I really identified with her. Did you?

I can tell you: there are totally moments where I just love watching her. One thing that’s so telling about her character — and it plays back to the scene where Mia Walker is talking about using your hands to sell things — like, when the little boy’s sick and you just see the bed, she takes her hands and goes like this. There are so many moments where I see Joy expressing herself with her hands, either worrying or demonstrating things. She drew me in with her hands, in a way.

I guess a lot of women can identify with how so many women take care of other people and don’t pursue [their] dreams. She doesn’t roll over.

[S]he stands up for herself. There are many truths to what happened with that family, and she did become the godmother of the family — someone who took charge and didn’t say no. She didn’t let people kick her around, and that’s true. That’s the quiet strength that I think Jennifer brings to her role that’s so powerful: to see someone go from banging their head on a car steering wheel to “I can’t and I won’t accept that answer” is a big move.

I think there’s a very strong and welcoming female audience out there, of all ages, and to be able to capture that audience’s imagination is something we all aspire to. Just more great stories are starting to surface and develop. There are others and will be more. From the studio system, we have such a great talent pool to choose from, and so many are younger audiences, so I think we hope to keep this and not make it just an aberration, but absolutely consistent.

“Joy” is a Christmas movie that appeals to women.

There’s “Sisters,” which is a broad comedy, and some of the more independent films. It’s the only one that I would say is not male-driven.

I love that Russell didn’t take an ordinary approach to romance.

Édgar Ramirez
well, first of all, Tony was Italian, not Venezuelan. They were really excited
about working with Édgar, for obvious reasons, and Édgar brought such a great sense of humanity. He was a terrible
husband, but a great best friend, and he did try to stick up for her.

And this was true in real life?

No. They are friends. The thing about Joy Mangano is that she is a
really warm and embracing woman. She definitely does keep people in the fold in
real life, and that we completely illustrated in the film.

There are all these levels of dreams, where Russell’s pushing
things in new directions. Did you ever have to tell him this is too much?

Oh, I had no idea what it was going to be like. In fact, I’ll
confess that the black-and-white soap opera footage at the beginning, when he
put that on, I said, “You’re starting the movie like this? We’re supposed to
start with the white, Edward Hopper house with the snow, and now we’ve got
those characters up there.” Then he did his little magic, and after he edited
it to the way he wanted it to be scored, I said, “Okay. I’m just glad I stepped
out of your way.” I would never tell a filmmaker like David Russell not to do
something. Really, I wouldn’t… But, yes, I didn’t know what it was going to be
like, and he did it.

He keeps us on the edge of our seat. It’s not expected. The
character with the hole in the floor and the plumber.

He came in at, like, this weird last-minute — all of a sudden
there’s this character we’re casting. I’m like, “What? Oh, the plumber. Okay.” The sister’s a fictional character; she’s not real. That came in. There are
definitely a lot of moving pieces and things that he invented.

Apparently, Bradley Cooper was not only an expert in QVC,
because his mom was into it as well as soap operas?

He’s a wonderful friend and collaborator of David’s,
and I think he will make a fine director himself. He has a lot of great
background for the character, and the way they invented that character
together, it even goes down to the costumes. The ring he wore, the school ring
and those suits and all of his fabrics of his clothes were very carefully chosen and calibrated as part of the character.

And you created this massive set that was moving around. Where did you shoot?

We were shooting in Boston in this winter—[the worst] in, I think,
80-something years in Boston. The roof of where we were shooting collapsed
because of snow, and they couldn’t get to the set the first day; we had to
postpone because there had been this giant blizzard the week before and no one
could get there. There were a lot of challenges on that one.

David shot “Hustle” and “The Fighter” in Boston, and he has a very close relationship with people there; it’s a very comfortable place for him. There was also a lot shooting in New York at the time, so it was better for us to be there. David wanted that wintery landscape.

Russell calls QVC the “Emerald City.” What’s that
about?

Because it’s like the Wizard of Oz is behind the curtain, and
that’s Bradley’s character. The big backyard, the big kitchen, these people are
so stylized — a very idealized way that these geniuses thought to bring
marketing into our households. It really was the beginning of what
became the Internet, what we have now. I don’t know if any of watch YouTube and those people called “influencers,” but my daughter does. She’s 13; she’s obsessed with them. I
think these QVC salespeople are the predecessors of what is going on now,
because they basically tell you what products they use, what things they love,
how you should pack your bags for school. They’re doing, “Jewelry for the
afternoon, evening! Sequins on the gown.” To look at this film and now was an
eye-opener for me with the evolution of what today’s commerce is.

Melissa Rivers plays her mother, and it was the first thing
she’s really done since Joan died, right?

Her mom died during pre-production, so David said, “Oh, no, what
am I going to do? Well, maybe Melissa will do it.” And that’s what happened.
He had been in contact with Joan and Melissa beforehand.
They knew because the movie was being made. A lot of different people who are
celebrities today were working at QVC at the time.

Fox has an embarrassment of riches this season. “Joy,” your baby; “The Martian,” which is Emma Watts’ baby; and “The Revenant,” which is New Regency’s. There are questions about whether or not Fox can support and sustain all these movies.

My answer is that, from my perspective, the good thing about my studio… and I’m happy to say that I celebrated my 27th year at 20th Century Fox yesterday. Believe me, that was a surprise, to be working that long and at one place. But a lot of my colleagues at Fox have worked together for a long time, and we have a language that we speak together; we pull for each other. There are so many great executives in our company who can focus on the movies separately and individually. In the case of “The Martian,” that movie’s already been released. So it’s not like they’re getting ready for major, international releases on that one and ours.

READ MORE: “Fox Juggles Multiple Oscar Contenders from Different Labels”  

It was a success.

They did a great job on that one. Now it’s following up, it’s honoring Ridley — he’s had such a long-standing relationship with our studio — and “Joy” is this beautiful, perfectly calibrated campaign. The first teaser didn’t really tell you what the movie was about; then the second one was more revealing. Now, if you’re looking at our TV spots getting ready for Christmas Day, we’re revealing a lot more about the aspects of the story. “The Revenant” was done with Regency, not as a co-production with Fox.

They financed it.

Yes. That’s a very small release on Christmas, and then goes wide in January. So the actual marketing of the movies, and focus of executives within the studio, is spread out. I have to say we have a tremendous team of people who have been doing this for a long time — and, also we’ve had consultants come in from the outside and help us with the pictures. A lot of great people worked hard on all these films, both behind the camera and in the studio system. 

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