David O. Russell is on a roll. With 2010’s The Fighter, 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook and 2013’s American Hustle, he managed to get an astonishing three Best Director nominations for three Best Picture nominees within the space of just four years. Forgive him for not being a contender last year, but he was busy writing the screenplay and directing his latest entry into the Oscar race, Joy, a female empowerment movie if ever there was one. For this film he has brought back some of his “stock company,” such as Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro, each of whom he has directed three times now. Joy centers on the real-life story of Joy Magano, a housewife who invented the Miracle Mop and went on to become a major entrepreneur in the cutthroat business world. It is the first strong role Lawrence has had to carry on her own without “a bow and arrow,” as Russell told me during a wide-ranging interview conducted shortly after the very first screening of the 20th Century Fox movie opening on Christmas Day.

A woman turned to me during Joy and said, “I’ve never seen someone portray women so well, except Pedro Almodovar.” 

It was a privilege to me, and you could tell that for Jennifer it was as well, because she’s carried a movie with a bow and arrow but not with her heart as much. She said, “This is like climbing Everest to me.”

It seems increasingly rare to see this kind of strong female protagonist in a movie. 

It’s remarkable that you have someone as exciting as Jennifer, who then can get the studio and audiences excited to want to see what seems like an ordinary story. Like any of my movies, it starts with ordinary people and becomes something else.

You’ve worked with De Niro, Lawrence and Cooper several times—De Niro calls it a “stock company of actors.” Is there a shorthand between you all?

There is, but I always must make (the film) worthy of them. I’ve watched Jennifer grow up and handle herself. I watch her now saying to the crew, “I think we should work French hours,” which is a very Joy-like thing to do. Every union has to vote on it separately. You don’t have lunch. You don’t stop. What we found difficult was to start and stop and start again. So we said, “Let’s just go,” and we loved it.

The real Joy Magano was listed as an executive producer on the film. How involved was she?

I did dozens of hours of interviews with her on the phone, where I got all these stories out of her—things that she felt were like psychoanalysis. And I said, “It’s not going to be a biopic. It’s going to be half-fiction.” She said, “OK.” I didn’t meet her until the very end. I wasn’t in a hurry to because I wanted to create what I wanted to create.

You seem to have an interest in really daring, fierce female characters.

My mother wanted to get back in the workforce after she raised a family, and she couldn’t and it was very unsettling for her. So for Joy to have created her own business is something I respect enormously.

How did you get Melissa Rivers to portray her mother so soon after Joan Rivers died?

I met her through John Davis, one of our producers who knew her family. I was a teenage busboy in Mamaroneck, where Joan lived, and she was like the most famous person in our town. Melissa wanted to honor her mother and she told us a lot of great details that were really fun.

There are four editors on this film, which is pretty unusual. 

Here’s the thing: Jay (Cassidy) and Alan (Baumgarten) are our editors. They were on other jobs so that when the schedule (for filming) worked out, they could not receive the dailies. Jay and Alan finished their jobs and came on the film and then (the other two editors) left to do their jobs that were waiting. And so it was like they helped us set up but then we still had to do what we really do. You script films, but they certainly become more of what they are in the editing room.

People are trying to categorize the film as simply a comedy or a drama, but who cares? The film is life. 

Thank you for saying that. People try to put us in one or the other and I do feel like the first half of the movie plays more comedically, and the second half becomes as fierce as Joy has to become. It was the most ambitious film I ever made. We all got sick, and it was the biggest winter in 80 years in Boston—like 11 feet of snow or something. Jennifer was getting sick between takes and then she’d come back and do the most romantic scene. But it gave her this weird vulnerability and it made her seem younger. It was so weird how she used it, because being sick does make you feel like a child. You just want to stay in bed and be comforted. This is my most formal movie. We used a lot of backlighting and a lot more medium or wide shots that were sort of like (the work of painters) Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper. We used space to isolate people, even when they’re in a crowd or a city. You’re lonely when you’re daring.