David O. Russell’s movies are commonly focused on what the director himself calls “finding a second act” in life. Whether it’s the blue-collar bruiser who yearns to escape his family’s toxic influence in “The Fighter,” a damaged man looking to rediscover life and love in “Silver Linings Playbook,” or the crooks and schemers of “American Hustle,” who are looking to shed their given identities like a second skin, Russell loves him a good reinvention story — so much so, apparently, that he’s built a redemptive second act for himself in regards to his own career as a filmmaker. It’s a theme that is most definitely present in “Joy,” his latest: the film, like all of Russell’s, is a tale of self-discovery, and also a kaleidoscopic, lyrical, and occasionally frustrating look at one determined woman’s attempt to leave her mark in the world.
In a new talk as part of BAFTA’s David Lean lecture series, Russell talks about what attracts him to stories of “ordinary people who become extraordinary,” how he re-discovered his filmmaking voice and how pal/fellow director Darren Aronofsky helped him to get “his head out of his ass” while making “The Fighter,” among other things. Listening to Russell talk, he sounds a little like his movies feel: compelling, candid, a little all over the place and 100% unabashedly straight from the heart. He talks about his son’s various disabilities and how they inspired both the screenplay for ‘Silver Linings’ and also what Russell calls a “brotherly” working relationship with frequent collaborator Robert De Niro. The director also discusses the nutty-sounding process of casting his Abscam epic “American Hustle” – like how Bradley Cooper was originally supposed to play Christian Bale’s role, plus how co-star Jeremy Renner ended up fitting into the whole crazy tapestry. He’s a magnetic speaker – funny, self-aware and disarmingly frank about his various failures. Listening to him, you can tell how much love he has for both his characters and the process of filmmaking itself. Not surprisingly, Russell considers himself a “populist” director, one who abhors pretense and believes that art shouldn’t be synonymous with suffering (a solid point).
Of course, as he must, the 51-year old director does pay tribute to Lean, whose own humanist classics can definitely be seen as inspirations on his own oeuvre. Russell recalls the profound effect that Lean’s “Great Expectations” had on him as a child, as well as his appreciation for what he calls the director’s “underappreciated gem,” 1954’s “Hobson’s Choice.” As always, Russell’s oddball enthusiasm is infectious, and makes the talk itself – which runs just a little over and hour – a brisk and engaging listen.
Listen to the entirety of Russell’s talk below. And go see “Joy” if you haven’t already – it’s a lot better than its various critics would have you believe.