“Silver Linings Playbook” is one of those rare films that embraces all of life’s messy contradictions. It’s romantic, but not schmaltzy. It’s about sports fans — the really obsessive ones — but it’s also for non-sports fans who’ve never watched a football game (or would never want to). It’s about mental illness, but without turning anyone living with or recovering from one into a caricature, contrasting bipolarity with so-called normal obsessive emotional states, without compromising what any of them really are. Writer/director David O. Russell achieves a tricky balancing act, thanks to the performances of his cast (Bradley Cooper as a bipolar man with anger management issues fresh out of a mental institution, Jennifer Lawrence as a recovering sex addict, and Robert De Niro as an obsessive-compulsive and superstitious gambler, also with anger management issues). All were in New York this week to promote the film at a screening on Sunday and a press conference and premiere on Monday, and shared some of the trade secrets behind the movie’s own playbook.
1) David O. Russell has a bipolar son who appears in the movie.
When Sidney Pollack gave Russell Matthew Quick’s novel from which the film is adapted some five years ago, the writer/director especially related to the material because of the struggles of his eighteen-year-old son Matthew, who is bipolar. “If it weren’t for my son, I never would have made this movie,” Russell said. “My son has taught me so many things. I’ve learned that some people can’t afford a negative attitude. It’s a luxury to have a sort of cynical or a negative attitude.”
Russell wasn’t the only one on set who had a family connection to the issues raised by Cooper’s character. De Niro, too, has “a personal understanding about the situation,” the actor said. “It’s different, but you can still apply those things [to the work]. You use whatever works, as long as you don’t hurt anybody or yourself.”
Russell said that he’s talked to De Niro over the years about having “members of our family who had various challenges” with mental health, and the two realized it provided them “an emotional gateway to the material.” “It makes it very specific and personal to you,” Russell said, “and you care about it and understand it, because this is personal for both of us.”
Matthew previously performed in a production of “Aladdin” at Devereux Glenholme, a therapeutic boarding school in Connecticut which provides an education for students diagnosed with Asperger’s, ADHD, PDD, OCD, Tourette’s, depression, anxiety, and learning disabilities. It’s a school his father fundraises for by auctioning off roles in his movies — a girl who kissed Christian Bale at the opening of “The Fighter,” and the judges in the “Silver Linings” dance competition won their parts this way.
As he did in “The Fighter,” Matthew makes a brief appearance in his father’s film, this time as a nosy neighborhood kid who keeps ringing the doorbell of Pat’s house, asking him to participate in an on-camera school report he’s doing on mental illness, only to be chased off the property by De Niro.
“My son said it was like waking up in ‘Raging Bull‘ suddenly, and he started laughing,” Russell said. “He was laughing nervously, and I said, ‘You can’t do that. You’ve got to be in the scene.’ And Bob, being the master that he is, said, ‘That’s okay. I can make that work. I can play with that.’ And it works, because it plays very real, like a kid who is scared of a grown man, and the man is yelling at him and he’s laughing and it’s perfect.”
2) Bradley Cooper is from the area they used for the film.
At first, Cooper didn’t think he could handle the role of Pat Solitano, a part originally considered for frequent Russell collaborator Mark Wahlberg, but De Niro convinced him that he could — because he knew where Pat came from. “Truth be told, he really did champion me for the role,” Cooper said. “I confided in him early on that I didn’t know if I could do it, and he said, ‘You’re from Philly. You’re going to be fine.’ “
Philadelphia — and its surrounding suburbs of Jenkintown, Drexel Hill, and Ridley Park — are more than just a location for ‘Silver Linings.’ “Upper Darby, Ridley Park, these are very specific neighborhoods that have a particular feeling,” Russell said. “The language that Jacki Weaver [who plays the mother] uses, like ‘homemades’ [for made-from-scratch pasta], we heard that right on the block we shot on, and I had never heard that before.”
“What David cares about is telling an authentic story about a specific group of people, on a specific block, in a specific house,” Cooper said.
Philly natives will recognize the Llanerch Diner on the Havertown/Upper Darby township line, where Cooper and Lawrence have a Halloween “date.” This and other locations were places Cooper knew, having grown up right across from the Baederwood Shopping Center. Plus, Cooper had an Italian/Irish home, just like his character — who wears an art deco face of Christ on a necklace just like the one Cooper’s grandfather used to wear.
“It’s a warm feeling, to go ‘I know these people,’ ” Russell said. “It pervades the whole thing.”
3) Bradley Cooper is probably a better dancer than his character — unless he’s delusional.
Lawrence’s character Tiffany ropes Cooper’s Pat into being her dance partner for a local competition, which meant a lot of rehearsal time for both the characters on screen and the actors off. Aided by choreographer Mandy Moore (not the actress!) — a vet of “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” — the actors studied moves made famous by Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain,” the lindy hop in “Hellzapoppin’,” and presumably “Dirty Dancing” to replicate that movie’s infamous lift.
“The dance is amazing, but my dancing isn’t,” Lawrence laughed. “I’m a terrible dancer. I needed a week and a half to learn it.”
Cooper got less time in rehearsals because of his shooting schedule, but he said it was okay, since his character is supposed to be the lesser skilled of the two. “I actually love to dance,” he said, “but I can’t tell if I’m one of those delusional people who love to dance but aren’t any good.”
The first time Cooper and Lawrence met, he said, was in the dance studio, “and the next thing you know, I’m sweating, and she has her hands under my armpits. Very embarrassing!”
To shoot the dance competition itself, he noted, took three days, 16 hours a day. “I felt bad that Bob and Chris [Tucker] had to come and watch!” Cooper said. “But the dance really reflects Pat and Tiffany’s relationship in many ways. It has a bipolar aspect to it when you get to the end of the movie.”
4) David O. Russell put in a shout-out to Bradley Cooper’s horror movie as an Easter Egg.
When Pat and Tiffany have an argument near a movie theater on Halloween, astute viewers will notice the partially obscured marquee reads “Midnight M— Train.” That’s for “Midnight Meat Train,” a 2008 horror movie Cooper did in which his character follows the trail of some mysterious murders aboard a late-night subway car, adapted from the Clive Barker story. “It’s one of his most distinguished works,” Russell teased Cooper.
When asked who suggested slipping the cult classic into ‘Silver Linings,’ Cooper pointed enthusiastically to Russell. “I remember when David asked, ‘What do you want the movie to be on the marquee?’ And I didn’t even know if he was joking or not, but he said, ‘What about “Midnight Meat Train’?’ ” Cooper recalled. “And then I show up on set and there it is, with the posters in the entranceway to the theater, too! It was fantastic. You can just almost see it.”
Just in case anyone’s planning to run out and rent the film now, Cooper has made it a little difficult for folks to see his work. “I own all the copies,” he joked.
5) Bradley Cooper steals from David O. Russell and will continue to do so — as a director in his own right.
Based on their interactions on set, De Niro predicts that Cooper has a director’s gene just waiting to express itself. “This guy is probably going to be a director,” he said proudly. He could be right — Cooper said he watched Russell with an eye to learn.
“What I learned from David is not one thing,” Cooper said. “I mean, I could run down a list of twenty things just practically speaking that he taught me about the way he looks at shooting a movie. I don’t know if I can give away his secrets, but there are very practical things that I will steal completely that are just so true. As a matter of fact, in the two movies I’ve done since this, I’ve gone up to the directors and said, ‘Maybe we should just put the camera here.’ “
Some of the other tips that Cooper picked up, he said, were about keeping a room lit so you can shoot it at any time, and so the camera can go on either actor, depending on what you want to do. “It makes it very exhilarating for an actor,” he said. “It’s almost like theater. It’s intoxicating.” Also, make sure you do one last take in which the actors get free reign, “which will drum up moments that hadn’t happened before,” he said.
One such take happened on ‘Silver Linings,’ in which De Niro cried, despite the emotional moment not being in the script. Russell, who was behind him and couldn’t see the tear, recalled asking, “What’s happening? Is he trying to remember his lines? He didn’t tell anybody he was going to do that. It just happened on that last take, and to see Mr. De Niro cry surprised us all.”
“Silver Linings Playbook” opens in limited release on November 16th and will roll out across the country in the next few weeks.