A conversation with David O. Russell, director of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook

With four Golden Globe nominations already in the bag, Oscar glory for Silver Linings Playbook looks assured, but for director David O. Russell, it wasn't always such a bump-free ride
  • @MsEllenEJones

Some directors have a trademark that’s obvious from the start. Others, like 54-year-old David O. Russell, develop careers by jumping from genre to genre and only eventually does the master plan slide into view. The release of his latest film Silver Linings Playbook is such a moment.

It stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as sports obsessed love interests struggling with mental illness and - as improbable as it sounds - manages to be both heart-warming and even (whisper it) kooky, without ever grating. Best of all, not only is Sliver Linings Playbook a hugely enjoyable watch in its own right, it also casts a clarifying light back on the an impressive career that includes multiple Oscar wins for The Fighter and the irreverent war movie Three Kings – a film which preceded it’s obvious contemporary descendants Argo and Zero Dark Thirty by over a decade.

Once more famous for his on-set tantrums, Russell's rep now rests upon an unassailably solid body of work. As awards season kicks off with the announcement of yet more nominations for his latest film, he talks The Independent through his movie-making philosophy. 

The Independent: What did you see in Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel Silver Linings Playbook that made you want to turn it into a movie?

David O. Russell: Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella offered me the book that they had optioned and I had long been looking for a story that could make my son, who has struggled with many of these challenges, feel like he’s part of the world, so otherwise I wouldn’t have looked twice at it. Then of course there’s all this wonderful specific stuff that I really like. The characters are so specific, the emotional content is so charged, plus there’s magical stuff in it. I wanted to make it a film that would have magical things in it, because that’s always appealed to my son. It keeps a spring in your step when you’re facing challenges, you know.

The Independent: So in a way this film was a gift to your son?

Russell: Yeah, I would say a big gift because it’s a story that you can put into the world that’s bigger than him or his world. It’s also about regular people, it shows how these issues are everybody’s issues in some respect. To have Robert De Niro playing the dad and to have Bradley Cooper playing him, that’s all very beautiful and through his grades and good behaviour he earned the right to have a role in the picture. It was very interesting for him to be the one who’s supposedly embarrassing the one with the issues, cause usually the shoe's on the other foot.

The Independent: Bearing in mind the personal connection you had to the material, was it important to you to be accurate in your portrayal of the mental disorders? Or is that missing the point?

Russell: No, it was important to me. I mean I kept it as specific as the people I personally know. I based it on [my son], his peers, adults I know. I’ve also spoken to many doctors that they work with. These conditions are as different as finger prints, they really are, and good luck treating them because they’re as different as finger prints. Everybody’s really different.

The Independent: I think this is the best thing Bradley Cooper’s ever done. What qualities did you see in him that audiences might have been missed before?

Russell: It’s exciting to me to do that with an actor. I thought we did that with Christian Bale and Amy Adams [in The Fighter] . Now no one remembers he image before - that’s I think why Paul Thomas Anderson cast her [in The Master] but before then everyone was very sceptical that she could play anyone but the good girl. And I knew from knowing her that she had that in her. Likewise with Bradley, I got to know him, I knew that he had gone through a lot of personal shit and he had got through dangers with substances and he had lost a lot of weight and he was a lot happier person. He used to be not as happy when he played that guy in The Wedding Crashers. So I knew he had that palpable scariness and when I got to know him personally, he’s a very open, raw guy which is great for me. I felt we were reintroducing him, so y’know he had scars on his face. He has kind of a character-y face. It’s not perfectly symmetrical, like DiCaprio’s face or Brad Pitt’s face. It’s very easy to make his face character-y. He has scars on the bridge of his nose and on his forehead that they usually cover up, so instead we actually accentuated them.  I started with the camera on his back and so when you come round to his face, I can always feel it with audiences where they're like, "Ah the guy from The  Hangover". And then they feel uncomfortable for the first phase, almost till they meet Jennifer Lawrence and the movie starts to enter another phase. That’s a useful thing as a storyteller, because it messes people up. They don’t know what’s coming. That’s a good thing, as long as you’ve got them by the lapel, you still have their interest.

The Independent: What kinds of actors do you like working with?

Russell: I think if they're not pretentious, if they're not precious and if they are willing to feel the rhythm and the flow. The script really is a song that has a rhythm to it and if they’re willing to do that with me in a warm collaborative way, then we’ll have a good generous time with everybody in the picture. We could never have done 33 days in The Fighter and 33 days in this picture of 152 pages, that’s 8 and 10 pages a day, otherwise. You can only do that if everybody’s really in it together and really into it.

The Independent: So what kind of atmosphere do you aim to create on set. There are lots of rumours of big rows on sets you’ve worked on in the past.

Russell: Ahhh, but that’s a bunch of sensational crap from the past. I mean half of it’s 30 years old. Anything from the past probably was humbling to me and made me a better director and a better writer and a more grateful one. Once that crap rears its head, you don’t want to have that anymore and it’s fun for people to talk about but too much is made of it. I want the people to feel like they’re really safe so they can really let go and let their guard down and really immerse themselves and so we shoot it like a play almost, we light, we fix the degrees and we don’t stop, I don’t call cut because I want them to really get so lost in it that they almost forget it’s a scene and that’s the goal, we’re trying to capture the essence and this immediacy that happens when people really are in it?

The Independent: Which scene did you find most challenging to shoot

Russell: I don’t like the days with lots of extras, so like the day at the stadium, you really have to stay hard to focus because there’s hundreds of extras, so there’s all this energy around you and its exhausting. The parlay scene, which has almost every actor in the film in it, that was challenging, but it was also really rewarding because we all loved that house and it was like we were living in the house and we had Italian food cooking and it smelled like a home. It was also exciting because it was like you cashing in cheques we’d been building up for the whole movie.

The Independent: Can you relate to the deep level of satisfaction that the characters get from watching sports in this movie?

Russell: Yeah I think enchantment is really what you live for and you make your own enchantment by the things you choose in your life from the food to the things you choose together and I think watching a sporting event can be part of that and you know we spend a lot of our time working and then we have the social times. I like the nonsensicalness of it. It’s just like people just do it, it’s like a dogma. You can have a conversation with someone that you might be a mortal enemy of and all of a sudden you’ve having a very fraternal conversation because you both paid attention to the same event. And I just find that there’s something very beautiful about that.

The Independent: Zero Dark Thirty and Argo both remind me of Three Kings. Do you think they owe something to your film too?

Russell: The only thought that really occurs to you is you feel like, as a filmmaker, I do not feel envious and I have no desire to go back to that territory, you know what I’m saying? Whereas before I made Three Kings, there was this feeling of let's go into this surreal arena of politics and international people and the bizarreness of these predicaments. That all really turned me on as a filmmaker. I think it’s weird to remember that that was the first Gulf War and when I did it, it was really considered almost a strange thing to do, it was a war nobody had talked about, it was considered a weird thing and then it got subsumed by all this other stuff that happened 12 years later. I got off on taking all those risks in that environment and the incongruities of it, as well as the suspense story, the visual and emotional incongruities of a Mercedes in the desert. At that time no soldiers were trying to make sense of it. I think by the time you get to Zero Dark Thirty it’s become a more traditional story of "Let's find somebody" which is a more straightforward story.

The Independent: So tell me a bit more about the projects you’ve got coming up...

Russell: We’re going to work in February with Christian Bale and Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper on a picture that’s a 1970s picture about a couple - Amy and Christian - who are financial grifters of a sort, who get involved with the Mafia and the FBI. It should be very interesting. We’re going to shoot it February, March.

The Independent: Great. Another screwball comedy?

Russell: It’s a little more intense, probably a little bit closer to The Fighter. To me the comedy in The Fighter and it’s the same with this picture, it comes from being real emotionally. Raging Bull and Goodfellas are two of the funniest movies I ever saw, which is the same thing that makes them two of the most raw movies I ever saw. It’s the same root. So that’s what I’m focusing on right now and that’s what I feel like I’m mining right now.

The Independent: You’ve obviously found your three favourite actors then in Amy Adams and Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper...

Russell: Yeah and I’m eager to get Jeremy in there as well, and there’s some British actors that may be joining us too, but I’m not gonna say who they are yet.