There’s a before-and-after divide between two key creative periods in the career of filmmaker David O. Russell. The first half of his filmography found him genre-hopping between a Woody Allen-eseque comedy (“Flirting with Disaster”), a Gulf War thriller (“Three Kings”), and a existential-crisis comedy (“I Heart Huckabees”); while the second half, starting with “The Fighter,” is consumed with the capital F-ness mania of family.
In this latter era, Russell has been lacquering his pictures with the veneer of genre — a boxing movie, a con-man flick, a romantic comedy — but they are ultimately operatic melodramas about who we are, where we come from, trying to survive those origins, and the exasperating messiness or our real or ad-hoc families. With Russell’s latest film, “Joy,” his third straight collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence, the writer/director makes a raw and vulnerable movie about success, struggle, and the burden of the tribes we come from. In “Joy,” Jennifer Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, about a struggling single mother of two children, who has also taken on the weight of parenting her parents and siblings.
“Joy” is also a fairy tale about dreams, sleepwalking through life and awakening to one’s true calling. In a sense, the magical qualities of “Joy” are a mixture of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella,” except there’s no Prince Charming to save the day. The sole hero of this story is the determined, resourceful female protagonist who overcomes her overbearing, self-serving family and comes out the other side a dynastic entrepreneur. For Russell and Lawrence, the picture is also a bit of an inversion of their approach. The actress has made her name playing loud, brazen characters for her director; but in “Joy,” she turns in a quieter, more internal performance that radiates resolve.
We spoke to David O. Russell recently about the evolution of his ongoing collaboration with Lawrence, the myriad inspirations that hooked him into “Joy,” its music, and so much more.
To start simply, what was the genesis of this film? How did it start?
Jennifer and I wanted to create a fable that used some of the true facts. We had an opportunity to do something neither of us had done before and invite the rest of the cast to do the same. What turned me on about it was that it was not pandering, it was not glamorous, that there wasn’t a big romance; she’s the princess that doesn’t have a Prince Charming. Yes, she has a romance with a Latino man and that turns into something that I had not seen on screen — the best divorced couple you’ve ever met. And that she becomes kind of the godmother of a family and a business, and that success is portrayed in a way that is not neat. And I hadn’t seen that movie before, with a woman at the center.
And it was honest about how many times you have to die if you want to do something. How many times people will try to take it away from you. There’s no naiveté about that. There’s brutality in it with the unforgiving family. And there’s the fact that it’s about really ordinary things and she has to carry power with dignity and forgiveness. So that’s what I wanted to see here.
I almost watched Jennifer go through it in her own life: She bought her first house last year. I watched her unpack in that house and I started watching her grow up and conduct herself in a more mature fashion. In a way, it is the most mature film that she’s done.
So your collaboration Jennifer was kind of an inspiration to coming up with the story as well?
Well, the proposition from the beginning came to us from Elizabeth Gabler [president of Fox 2000], who said, “Would you and Jennifer be interested in this?” So Jennifer and I discussed it, and there were things that I’d already been writing for her, but we both became interested and we discussed how we could make it uncompromising and defy expectations. We latched onto things such as not having a romance and to do the things neither of us had done. After playing very loud characters, for Jennifer to hold her power quietly — that was interesting for her as an actress and for me as a director. We could do something I feel we could watch in 20 years.
The first thing about the movie that struck me is the counter-intuitiveness of it. Jennifer in your movies is almost always brassy. Here, she’s dominated by this loud, exasperating family; and moreover, she always forgives their terrible behavior, but it’s not because she’s a doormat. She’s just incredibly generous of spirit.
Yeah, that was what we wanted to do. We wanted her to be the unanxious presence in the room. She was coming in from the sides in [other movies], and in this one she’s the center of it. She was living in everybody else’s world. The first half of the movie is defined by her father’s metal garage, her mother’s bedroom and soap operas, her husband’s attempt to become a singer, and divorce. Taking care of her children, her sister. This was the first time I got to direct kids, which I really loved. These young actors, those were all important things to me. Then the second half she takes over and makes it her own, and the movie takes on a different rhythm and it’s almost like a Western to me…. Cinematically, that’s what turned me on about it: that she had to find her own way.
Right, those face-offs against the businessmen abusing her trust is her O.K. Corral.
Yeah. Her business was declared DOA numerous times due to the — there’s details that I fell in love with. Like the fact that the father is lovable but problematic. The fact that he has this girlfriend, the fact that they met through a 900 number. Those are details that you can’t make up.
I like that term, “the unanxious presence in the room.” I was actually thinking the under-appreciated presence in the room. In many ways this feels like a tribute or celebration to the kind of unglamorous, seemingly unremarkable matriarch we don’t see on screen anymore.
That’s exactly why we wanted to do it! She was the one who was invisible in the first half of the movie. The one with the biggest spirit and the oldest soul is often born that way. They have the most access to a certain magic and power that then enables them to sort of make lots of room for everybody. To help keep everybody and take care of everybody.
I liked seeing who she was in the beginning with her big heart, and that is her flaw that she’s lost. There’s an Antonio Machado poem that I love, “The Wind, One Brilliant Day.” To me this is what he first half of the movie is: “What have you done with the garden entrusted to you?” So you know you could wake up one day to realize that you hadn’t paid attention to yourself or somehow you lost yourself. And nobody’s going to take care of it but you. She wakes up to realize what’s happened to herself.
This is very much a David O. Russell film, but beyond trying to subvert the expectations on Jennifer, I feel like cinematically, you’re trying out new things too.
I was very much enchanted with some of the classic filmmaking of the ’40s and ‘50s in terms of framing, in terms of light and shadow, the use of silhouette. More formal frames and going into dreams and going into the soap opera. Those were all new elements that I wanted to dive into.
I looked at it like, what makes up the psyche of this girl? We’re rooted by those we love, those we struggled with, and we all are where we came from. And so I wanted to be true to that and describe how someone comes out of the scars that make up the concerns of the adult world and the power of her forgiveness and the power of her being. Just how she conducts herself while she is successful and the illusions abort success. That success is never what you think of it. We wanted to shoot the film in that way.
Were there any particular films that influenced you, or filmmakers?
I’m very much inspired by some of David Lean‘s earlier films, the way those were shot. I’m very much inspired by George Stevens and the way he frames his earlier films in the ’40s and ’50s: “Woman of the Year,” “ It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Place In the Sun.” And even Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” is an influence here. When someone feels lost in their life, I think you can really live in quiet desperation and we tried to channel that….[A]nd we used 16-millimeter to do all of the early moments when she is a kid and at her wedding.
There’s this history of catastrophic wedding toasts that I’ve heard about, and we really wanted to do an awful wedding toast. And beyond defying the romance we had to subvert — Edgar Ramirez is known for playing this cold-blooded terrorist in “Carlos,” and here he’s a sweet guy.
Last time we talked, you said you’d been thinking about a musical. Obviously this is not a musical, but there’s a total musicality to it and music is crucial to the movie. Were you thinking about it in musical terms at all?
Music is always part of the building blocks. I knew I wanted [Jennifer Lawrence and Edgar Ramirez] to sing together in their courtship because his character was a guy who really wanted to be the next Tom Jones. The Tom Jones song Edgar sings, “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” oddly was written by Randy Newman, but everyone knows it as a Three Dog Night song. I actually co-wrote a song that Jennifer and Edgar were supposed to sing in the movie, but as I was driving to work I thought that we should do “Something Stupid” instead because how could a song that I wrote be better than Frank and Nancy Sinatra? The Nat King Cole song I’ve been sitting on for many years with that special introduction. We choreographed that whole sequence too — Jennifer looks up and to me it’s like you’ve already broken through to some level of success and you reflect back on your family and your life and you have a moment of solitude and emotion that’s mature. It’s complicated. It’s a fake snow, but it’s sort of like she’s living in a snow globe for a minute.
The Nat King Cole songs definitely captures the magical-fable element to the film. That’s a different mood for you.
The beginning of the movie with the soap opera — shooting the soap opera through every era, ’69, ’79, ’89, ’99, and getting to work with those actors who are just phenomenal. They’re used to doing 100 pages of dialogue. So you tell Donna Mills and Susan Lucci have an intense face-off and they don’t need motivation, they just do it because they’ve done it a million times. They’re thoroughbred actors, really.
The soap stars fits nicely into the theme of celebrating unappreciated women.
Yes. You know Jennifer’s mother played by Virginia Madsen couldn’t be a strong woman, but she could watch strong women on soap operas. But weirdly, she becomes a woman on television in a different way.
You found room for Bradley Cooper again, too.
I love the idea that Bradley Cooper’s character treated his thing as serious as a heart attack. [Former former Fox and Paramount Chairman and CEO] Barry Diller had left Hollywood, some people thought perhaps unceremoniously. Then when he bought a Home Shopping Channel in Lancaster[, Pennsylvania], it was considered to be laughable. The fact is, he was ahead of everybody with the first 24-hour thing. He grew into the stock, it went from under $10 to over $100 in a very short period of time.
You know, Bradley Cooper’s mother was an unofficial consultant on the movie because she knew the spokesmodels by name. I just couldn’t believe that she’d watched this and knew this.
So you said you had been writing something else for Jennifer before “Joy.”
Yeah. I wrote two scripts that summer. One was “Joy” and one was — I did write 600 pages of this other thing. It’s a two-part thing of this massive continuing saga of this town and family that I’m going to return to.
It’s going to be two films?
It might be more than one film. I want to just say it’s a big saga. I don’t want to give away too much. That is still something I’m been working on.
I’m fascinated by lost projects, so I should ask. There was this great podcast with Jason Schwartzman earlier this year where he spoke about an entirely different movie he was supposed to make with you before “I Heart Huckabees.” He said he had written music for it and he practically lived at your house developing it. And he said you had it all cast and it was ready to go, but you pulled the plug on it. I was curious as to what that film was, because I don’t even think it was ever reported.
Oh my god, that film. I had totally forgotten. What I learned after that period is, you have to go with your instincts. At that time, I was overthinking things too much and I think the first movie I was writing was very beautiful. And then I haven’t thought of it since then. It was a completely different story, it took place in New York City, it didn’t have a title, it took place in the Buddhist Zen Center in New York which is on the Upper East Side, and he and some other actors would go there regularly, which I did in the ’80s and ’90s. You’d see all of these doctors and surgeons and welders, and I just thought it was fascinating.
But it’s amazing to hear you describe what he said. That period with him was very special to me. I was very much a fan of his work, and I was friends with Wes Anderson, and Jason’s a very special actor, so I’m glad I got to work with him. Bradley Cooper always remembers when we began “Silver Linings Playbook,” we ran into Jason [and] he told Bradley, “you just have to give yourself over to the whirlwind of David’s process,” and we saw Jason again serendipitously at the end of the shoot. And then Bradley did the same thing with Edgar — he just happened to run into Edgar before we shot and he said, “This is what’s going to happen you just have to give yourself over to it.”
“Joy” opens on December 25th.