Talk about a high degree of difficulty. David O. Russell, trying to find laughs in a love story where one of his Silver Linings Playbook protagonists is bipolar and fresh from a stint in a mental institution, and the other is freshly widowed with more than a few problems of her own. It was daunting enough that it held back a seasoned pro like Sydney Pollack, the late filmmaker who controlled the Matthew Quick novel along with his partner Anthony Minghella and Harvey Weinstein, Pollack couldn’t find a way to crack it, but he found the writer/director who was a perfect match for the material. Russell, who has had a number of well publicized fits of anger on movie sets himself and who raised a child with bipolar issues, connected with the subject matter in a way probably few writer/directors could. Here he explains how he pulled it off and how it would have been an inferior film if he gone 15 rounds in the Oscar-nominated The Fighter as a tune-up.
DEADLINE: Silver Linings Playbook started with Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella. How did they draft you?
RUSSELL: Well, I only spoke to Sydney. I never spoke to Anthony about it. Sydney just thought he wasn’t sure it could be pulled off. He had the obvious concerns. When you are dealing with delicate subject matter like this, and when you have moments that are so disturbing, can it be that emotionally intense and delightful? Can it be all of those things? That was the question. I kind of knew right away that I had a good shot because I had lived with some of their issues, which are inherently funny as much they are heartbreaking.
DEADLINE: You mean in terms of raising your son who has special needs, would you call it?
RUSSELL: I don’t think he’d want to hear it that way. I would just say he had some bi-polar issues.
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DEADLINE: Was your personal affinity for that subject matter what hooked you?
RUSSELL: Yes. Sure. I’ve had my own mild struggles with some of these bipolar issues and my son struggled with some of them. When you’ve been through that, you get it. And then on top of that I just found the family, the neighborhood and the community very enchanting. That was a big part of the appeal.
DEADLINE: You made family and Dorchester a big part of your last film, The Fighter. Did that film influence how you made this?
RUSSELL: Oh, absolutely. I planned to make this before The Fighter, but that other experience helped me dial into those same qualities. When I first wrote this movie, which I wrote before The Fighter – I kind of had that family, or that neighborhood/household dynamic going on. But doing The Fighter was like going to the Olympic trials, though maybe that’s a bad way to put it. But I got to do that movie in a big muscular way, with family and neighborhood such a vital part of the fabric of that film. Then I went back to the original canvas I was working on, with a greater ear, and a greater focus, and a greater nose for what I fell in love with. Even though this film is very different, in terms of what amuses you and what makes you emotional. It was very interesting how it all worked, going from one to the other, and back to the first. It was sort of a Silver Lining sandwich, with The Fighter in the middle.
Related: OSCARS Q&A – Bradley Cooper
DEADLINE: Silver Linings Playbook is a real balancing act. There are very funny moments, but you somehow managed to not let them undermine the seriousness of the mental state of Bradley Cooper’s character. And those moments when he’s just got these snakes working through his brain at some points, it’s scary.
RUSSELL: You have to have those disturbing moments that let you know that the movie isn’t fooling around. And that the emotions are real, and that the people are real, and you want to be able to feel as much of that pain as you can in a real way. The movie is filled with heartbreaking moments, I think, and there’s some very painful ones when he bottoms out. You know, where Jennifer slaps him and what follows is this manic episode of anger and anguish with his parents. In romantic movies terms, it’s like she rang his bell but given his situation, it was a bell he wasn’t prepared for. He had all this baggage he wasn’t willing to let go of, and it became this catastrophe in the household. It was important to Bob and Jacki, but especially to Bob that we see this family moment. What I love most about that is how the family goes through this horrible trauma, and when the cop leaves, they’re just standing there, wiping their bloody noses and ears, in their pajamas, all traumatized, but you can already feel in the quietness of it, the love that’s knitting itself back together. It feels very poignant to me, like they’re in it together no matter what. They’re sticking together.
DEADLINE: When you first attempted this movie, before The Fighter, Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t on the radar and you were going to make this with Mark Wahlberg and an actress to be named later. Sometimes these movies fall into place in a way that feels like destiny, and the chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer was so palpable. How did the pieces fall into place?
RUSSELL: I agree that these movies come together the way they’re supposed to come together, at the right time with the right people. Mark and I had spoken about it. Depending on the schedule, it looked like it could not happen, then it looked like it could happen. As we got closer to production, I was reading lots of different actresses. It was a coveted role and we had many, many excellent choices. And two surprising things kind of happened down the home stretch: one was…the deal between Harvey and Mark and whatever went on there, the deal wasn’t worked out and we were getting very nervous as production approached. That was a surprise. I love Mark and I think he’s a terrific actor, and just for whatever reason, things didn’t line up. So this one lined up with Bradley, who I’d been speaking to for a while and who, it turned out, had some of the vulnerability and openness that were very good for the part. He also was game for the dancing and other facets of that character. And he was, kind of like the character in the movie – he’s sort of re-presenting himself to his neighborhood as an actor, like the character’s doing when he comes home. People have assumptions about the character then he comes home and he’s very dedicated to expanding those or changing them. Same for Bradley, shooting that movie back home. That’s always interesting for a director.
DEADLINE: How did you decide on Jennifer?
RUSSELL: There were other big name actresses that were really very good and auditioned for the role a couple times. Harvey and I both thought she was too young, but we said, well, why don’t we try it anyway? She Skyped from her parent’s house. She read with me over Skype. And when that happened, it just seemed like there was no discussion to be had. There was just something about her that was…unparalleled. It was pretty remarkable, one of those “stop the presses” kind of things.
Related: OSCARS Q&A – Jennifer Lawrence
DEADLINE: That doesn’t sound like an ideal way to audition. What did she show you?
RUSSELL: An enormous amount of confidence that was beyond her years. A toughness and a sweetness, and charisma that was very specifically her. I hadn’t seen anything like that. And she really had skills, and a willingness to try things any number of ways. When you hit it off and can talk with somebody and they seem like they’re 40 years old even though they’re 21, that’s impressive. You can really talk to her; there’s like a whole person. That whole thing about old souls rears its head every now and again. Now, it’s got to be hard for anybody to turn into a giant movie star and keep their feet on the ground, but she and her family are real, and grounded.
DEADLINE: What was your biggest surprise in how you went into the movie and how it turned out?
RUSSELL: Bob was a big thing. The father character was a bit more two-dimensional, just a really cranky guy. Then, the light bulb went off for me. I’d been talking to Bob all these years, about our kids and things like that. I thought, oh my god…what about Bob? And that’s when I made the whole thing an Italian-American family as opposed to an Irish-American family, and I was glad that Bradley was half Italian-American and that Jackie looks just like his mom, who is Italian, weirdly. The one with the blue eyes is the Italian one. I started talking to Bob about it, and reinvented that role. Bob and Bradley had this good thing going from Limitless, which I didn’t really understand until I got to know them both more. And I just thought, wow, this is going to be really good. Because it just took on its own natural path and that was a big deal.
DEADLINE: It’s hard to live up to his early films, but he has often made movies that didn’t challenge him. This was a real exception, maybe his best work since Heat.
RUSSELL: Bob also set the tone for us all. He sent a clear signal of, “I am ready to play. I am not fooling around. And I’ve memorized every single line of long monologues and I’m taking this very seriously. That’s a powerful Bob, and that’s the Bob we got. And when that guy is there, the whole tone on the set is completely affected by that. Because he is Robert De Niro, the greatest movie actor and you’re sort of in awe of him, even though he’s also a very regular guy. You have Bob, Bradley, Jennifer, Jacki and then you add Shea Whigham, Chris Tucker, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles. They created this family, this neighborhood and everybody was frankly sad when this neighborhood had to close up shop and leave town.