The David O. Russell narrative generally tends to focus on the past. The chaotic sets of “I Heart Huckabees,” an ancient history fist fight with George Clooney, and “Nailed,” a film that was abandoned after financiers shut it down before production was completed. But the filmmaker’s narrative is changing and leaving that noise in the dust. 2010’s vibrant and limber “The Fighter” won two Supporting Oscars (for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo) and it earned itself seven Academy Award nods in total. And this year, his follow-up, the equally ebullient and intoxicating “Silver Linings Playbook,” which already took the coveted Audience Award prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, looks poised to repeat that kind of success.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, the picture centers on Pat, a former teacher (Cooper) who moves back in with his parents after a stint in a mental institution, and is laser-focused on reconciling with his ex-wife. But Pat’s mission takes an unexpected turn when he meets Tiffany (Lawrence), a damaged girl with issues of her own whose complications begin to seep into his life.
Vivacious, crackling with a similar energy as “The Fighter” and just as focused on family, our review from TIFF called it a “big-hearted and hilarious, a touchdown.” We recently sat down with the director David O. Russell to talk “Silver Linings Playbook” and discussed the film as part of the “second phase” of his career, how he’s just finding his groove as a filmmaker and flipping the preconceived notions of what role his actors should play. He also spoke about some wisdom Matt Damon gave him and how Vince Vaughn and Zooey Deschanel were originally set to start in ‘Playbook,’ but how that version was just not meant to be. Our conversation is below, and for more from the director be sure to check out all the details of his next picture, an “intense” FBI drama starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, his new muse Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner.
Let’s go back a moment to five years ago. How did it all start?
It came from [the late] Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella who had optioned it with Harvey Weinstein and I had never adapted a novel before. I really liked the family world and I liked the characters and the emotion of it, and I liked that it was romantic in spite of it being very upsetting. There was an intensity in the setting but it was also romantic. We tried to capture the spirit of the book, which I liked the most. And then of course you try make it your own thing. I personally related to the material from my older son or I never would have probably paid so much attention to it otherwise.
Was your son, who has struggled with some of these similar issues, the reason these guys brought the project to you?
I don't know if they knew about that until I got in the room. You’ve got to use what know, what you’ve got personally to know how to get inside a story. To know specifically and palpably how it's heartbreaking and how it's funny. That's a gift. But having some personal insight into a subject gives you a genuine feeling of where to take it. And, you know I changed a lot of things from the book. The guy in the book was more severely challenged. He had been away from his family for four years. I didn’t know that kind of person, I knew somebody who might have had a different experience, a shorter experience.
You wrote a script five years ago. How different is it from the one that we see on screen?
Well, it grew a lot and changed a lot. You know you write it about 20 to 25 times over the years. When I first wrote it I was thinking of Vince Vaughn and Zooey Deschanel you know because I really liked both of them, but it didn't come together at that time. Vince was a fan of the script at the time.
You guys have almost worked together several times. It seems like you would be a good fit together.
Yeah. I was watching “Swingers” on TV last night, that movie is just wonderful. It’s such a wonderful movie, but the sincerity of it is what makes it so amazing. You know it's a very sincere. So with Vince, that was the first incarnation. And films get made when they're supposed to get made, very often with the people they are supposed to get made with. You have to have some faith about that. Matt Damon was gracious enough to say that to me because he had been attached to play the Christian Bale part in “The Fighter” at first. We were remembering this when I saw him recently and he said to me, “Well, that shows the right people play the right role at the right time.” Which was a very generous thing of him to say. He was really saying that he thought Christian was the right guy to play that part. So, you know Vince, as much as I love him, who knows if that would have been the right fit [for ‘Silver Linings’]. Then after that there's a period where you keep rewriting it and then I went off and made “The Fighter” first.
After a while you're in the game long enough that you probably don’t hold on so tight to original visions or casting.
That's over a period of years. Vince loved the script so much we got involved in a couple of other things we wanted to do. So anyway then I did “The Fighter,” which was you know a nice surprise. I didn't know that was going to be a film I was going to be able to make. That picture was key because I think it really helped me see what I think my contribution as a filmmaker can be in terms of the characters and the family and the neighbors and things that I actually have a real affection for.
It definitely feels like a second chapter in your career. A new beginning. Do you feel that way?
Absolutely. I feel like this is where I'm feeling like a late bloomer. I feel like I'm finally really hitting my stride. You know we did [THR] directors panel recently and Quentin Tarantino was talking about retiring right now and I said, “For me I feel like I'm just hitting my stride.” So if you’re blessed like him you get it right out of the gate and you become...I mean there's no comparison anyway because everybody is so different. But you know I think there are some filmmakers who do great work. John Huston made “Prizzi's Honor," which I think is one of his best pictures, later in his career.