Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Talking to Oscar nominee David O. Russell

3 comments
Movie blogger Dominic Corry talks to David O. Russell about directing Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. Photo/supplied
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. Photo/supplied

So David O. Russell's personal publicist must have a Google News Alert for the words "David O. Russell" and "Genius" or something because just after I wrote this piece about the current Oscar nominee and his new film Silver Linings Playbook, his Los Angeles-based representation got in touch with me to offer an interview with the writer/director behind such enduringly impressive films as Flirting With Disaster; Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees.

He also directed 2010's The Fighter, a film which garnered two of its cast members Oscars (Christian Bale and Melissa Leo) and represented something of a comeback for Russell, who was also nominated for the film.

In addition to Russell's nods for writing and directing, the currently-in-theatres Silver Linings Playbook has elicited Oscar nominations in all four acting categories (for Bradley Cooper; Jennifer Lawrence; Robert De Niro and Australian Jacki Weaver) - the first film to do so in over thirty years.

I of course lept at the opportunity to speak to one of my all-time favourite writer/directors, and I enjoyed a brief phone conversation with Russell late last week. He came across as an open, enthusiastic and affable chap considerably removed from the minor controversies referenced in last week's column.

Completely abandoning any sense of journalistic objectivity from the outset, I began our conversation by launching into a tirade about how much I love his 1996 film Flirting With Disaster.

The moderately well-remembered comedy is a film very close to my heart and it only seems to get better the more I watch it.

I was not going to miss the opportunity to express my deep and long held affection for the film to the man responsible for making it, and he appeared genuinely chuffed to hear what I had to say.

"Oh that means the world to me, thank you for saying that. That film really holds up for me, I have a great affection for it."

It was the overlap between Flirting With Disaster and Silver Linings Playbook that really made me warm to the latter film. I next asked if Russell saw a connection between the two films in how they both portray the amorphous nature of family?

"Yes! I think that how you defined it is interesting," he said, finding me interesting. "Although Silver Linings is more like the case with The Fighter - it's the world of that family and the world they inhabit and the alliances and the personalities in that family. That the love works is what interests me in both pictures. That's just something very fascinating to me."

Bradley Cooper's character in Silver Linings Playbook has bi-polar disorder, and a large amount of the drama comes out of his fractious relationship with his father, played by Robert De Niro. Russell's own eighteen-year-old son (who has a cameo in the film) also has bi-polar disorder.

"[Silver Linings Playbook] was very personal to be me because it was my son that motivated me to make the film," he told me. "I wanted to make a film that shows people [who suffer from mental illness] as part of the world. And [since the film was released] a great bunch of people have stepped forward saying 'This is my story! This is me!' I wanted these people to feel like they were part of the world; they were part of the story, they were part of the movies. And it's a real, alive world. It's not a separated world."

Russell's been trying to get the story up on the screen for some time:

"Sydney Pollack gave me the book five years ago. When I saw it I said 'This is a story I've been looking for!' and so I adapted it five years ago and I thought I would make it before The Fighter but it wasn't meant to be.

"I had to make The Fighter first and that turned out to be a silver lining because Jennifer Lawrence was in high school five years ago and Bradley Cooper and I hadn't connected. I wasn't aware of how ready he was to show so much heart and so much soul in a role. And Robert De Niro and I hadn't yet spoken about people we know who face these challenges."

Robert De Niro gives one of his best performances in years in the film, entirely free of the tics and overacting that have defined his career of late. I asked Russell if he had to temper De Niro at all.

"De Niro is the real deal. He was very serious about this from the very beginning. When I went to his house to discuss the script I watched him cry for ten minutes. That was when I knew he was very serious about this subject matter that he had had personal experience with. So he very much wanted to do this and he put his heart into it and I think that's in the film. He's great in every film that he's made but the reason he has his first Oscar nomination in twenty years is because his heart is in this."

"We figured out the role together. He loved the character, who always wanted the best for his son but didn't quite know how to do it. But wanted to. It was beautiful to write for him."

With Lawrence the hot favourite for Best Actress at the Oscars, and seven nominations for actors under his direction, Russell has begun to be identified as a real actor's director. So I was keen to know how much advance prep he does with his actors.

"We don't get a chance to workshop but we do talk quite a bit. And the script keeps getting re-written, even through production. There are many beautiful things that you borrow from the locality. It's as interesting and attractive to me as the story itself. I would say that's true of Raging Bull or Goodfellas or some of my favourite films - the way people eat; talk; live; what their rhythms are; their language. That was all specific stuff that we keep adapting and pulling into the world of the script."

The family at the heart of Silver Linings Playbook is rough, ready and loud. It's a particularly authentic aspect of the film, and stands in marked contrast to the formal nature of most modern mainstream drama. I asked him how he went about making the familial clashes ring so true.

"Well everything is scripted very carefully, so I knew from a structural point-of-view as to when the characters are going to collide with life and death stakes. For the characters it's life and death. Bradley's character is life and death about reaching out to his wife and getting back on his feet. Jennifer's character is life and death about moving forward in her life. And De Niro wants to see his son get back on his feet, but also wants to win money in the Philidelphia Eagles season. It's the first time in 31 years all four actors have been nominated and the reason for that is they really created this world together with the script. I think it's very soulful."

"So to carefully create these characters and their life and death stakes, by the time they collide, it's a great moment ready to happen. Instead of bombs or guns going off it's people and their emotions. And they're passionate people. "

In a recent directors roundtable interview for The Hollywood Reporter, Russell talked about his 2004 film I Heart Huckabees in the context of a discussion about professional failure.

As a dedicated fan of the truly unique film, this disheartened me. I explained this to Russell and asked him he really looks back on the film negatively.

"No no, I have great affection for so much of that film. It happens to be Jennifer Lawrence's favourite film. So I understand that there's a lot of people who love the film. I just feel that it happened during a period of my life when I wasn't seeing as clearly as I am since I started to adapt this script five years ago. You can't help but think. 'Gee if I made the film again..."I feel like I would take the emotional space of that film and really deliver a bigger impact. But that's okay. That's being a craftsman. I'm a craftsman. I believe you can never stop thinking about how to make your work better and I do that through every step of the process."

When Huckabees was released, Russell spoke in interviews promoting the film about a nifty idea he had for a film which eventually evolved into I Heart Huckabees. The idea (which had no presence in the finished film) concerned a restauranter who eavesdrops via hidden microphones on his customers' conversations while they eat, then writes intensely specific fortunes and places them inside each diner's post-dinner fortune cookie.

It's an idea that always struck me as ripe for possiblity, so I finished out our conversation by asking Russell if he'd ever consider revisiting it for a movie.

"It is a cool idea. I don't know. Maybe I will someday. But I have other stories I really wanna tell right now. Right now I'm very interested in these very real, raw people who I find both emotional and funny. That's sort of what I'm digging into right now."

That's just fine with me. Silver Linings Playbook is currently in theatres.

Seen it? Thoughts? Comment below!

Your views

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n2 at 03 Sep 2014 13:27:27 Processing Time: 418ms