Writer-director David O. Russell

The Oscar-nominated writer-director comments on the accolades his film, Silver Linings Playbook, has garnered this awards season.

David O. Russell didn't originally aspire to be a filmmaker. After college graduation, he was a political organizer and literacy teacher. In his spare time, he wrote scripts and made documentaries. Hollywood took notice of his debut indie, Spanking the Monkey, which won at Sundance in 1994, and Russell became an established film director with Three Kings. He earned his first Oscar nod for 2010's The Fighter, and his latest, Silver Linings Playbook, is up for 8 golden statuettes this year. Russell is an avid supporter of the Ghetto Film School, an award-winning program model for young Black and Latino filmmakers from the South Bronx and Harlem.


Tavis: David O. Russell is up for two Oscars next month for both directing and writing. “Silver Linings Playbook” is often hard to quantify the job of a director, but getting a good performance out of the cast is certainly at the top of the list. And for the first time since “Reds,” that’s back in 1981, all four principal actors in this movie are up for an Oscar. Quite an achievement, to say the least.

So much to get to tonight with David O. Russell, but first here now some scenes from “Silver Linings Playbook.”


Tavis: So I’m told you wrote this, but put it on the shelf to do “The Fighter” and then, obviously, came back to it, which leads to the obvious question. What did “The Fighter” give you that aided and abetted the success of “Silver Linings Playbook?”

David O. Russell: A deeper focus on family and of neighborhood and on community. “The Fighter” was about a family struggling to overcome and fighting each other sometimes, and I went back and rewrote this script which I had written for my son initially because my son has mood disorder.

And that’s why, when five years ago, I grabbed the book because I thought this is something that could make him – I wanted a story that could make him feel like he’s part of the world. You know, not like he’s separate and stories are not about him. I wanted him to feel that he could be – he loves movies, you know. So that’s why I first adapted it.

Tavis: I want to come back to the script in more detail in just a second. But how – this is my word. You’re welcome to replace it if you so choose. How fortunate, how blessed to you feel to be in a business, to work in a business and obviously to have the gift and the skill and the talent to write something for your son, but something that also speaks to people in this country and around the globe?

I mean, there are a lot of people who have children with mood disorder and bipolar disorder, but they aren’t in a position to be able to write something and put it on film and call people like Bradley Cooper and De Niro and others to be a part of it that speaks to the condition or a condition that so many others are dealing with. It starts out as a tribute to your son, but how fortunate, how blessed, do you feel to be able to that?

Russell: I feel profoundly blessed. I feel it’s a great privilege to make any motion picture. I wanted to make this one before “The Fighter” and it’s so hard to get a movie going that I couldn’t get it going five years ago. So I had to do it in God’s time, but that many silver linings in it for me which I can tell you about. But it made the film better as a result.

Tavis: Tell me some, yeah.

Russell: Oh, well, five years ago, an actress named Jennifer Lawrence was in high school, so she never would have done this. I think she’s the perfect actress to play the part of this troubled but very soulful girl who helps heal Bradley Cooper and who’s troubled herself. Bradley Cooper, I didn’t know he was ready to play a soulful role.

You know, I met him in the last five years and said this guy has his own emotional journey. He’s ready to put it on screen. Robert De Niro and I hadn’t sat down and spoke about people we know personally. He knows people personally who have faced these challenges and, when I showed him the screenplay and we were talking, I was shocked to discover that he was crying.

He’s such a private man. It was a very intense moment in his house and I just sat there watching. I thought he was having allergies for a minute. I realized he was crying because, if you know anybody who’s struggled in these ways and so many people have forward, as you said, I mean, now this has just happened recently.

Now veterans have come forward to discuss the film because they’re saying, hey, that’s me. You know, veterans come home and they may not be bipolar, but after they’ve been through a war with PTSD or a head injury, their families have a handful when they come home. It seems like the ones in the movie – the whole thing in the movie removes the stigma and people can embrace and love. They can laugh, they can cry. I mean, the story is to remove the stigma and to make them feel human.

So I feel blessed to be in the motion picture business. Every time I make a movie, I feel what a blessing to make a movie from, especially if it’s from the heart. You’re very fortunate.

Tavis: To your point now, I’m glad you went there because I was gonna get there anyway, I suspect, at some point in this conversation. But my read of this is everybody in this movie has issues, so it may be, you know, it may be a tribute to your son and his wrestling with bipolar, but everybody in this movie, their own issues at some point seem to surface by design, I take it.

Russell: I mean, I think these people have – I mean, I do believe that everybody has issues one way or another. That was part of the beautiful part of this story is to see that his father is not that unlike him. There are some high-functioning people who could be characterized as intense or OCD behavior, but they don’t necessarily ever get diagnosed or anything.

His father is a bookmaker, Robert De Niro, and he’s very particular about how he handles that. Some people might say illogical or strange, but he’s passionate about it.

So he has those issues at least ’cause he functions and makes a dollar for the home. People don’t give him a hard time about it. His son, feeling stigmatized, tries to say you’re not that different from me. The father says, “Is that a bad thing?”

Jennifer’s character is a different (inaudible). She’s someone who lost someone. Sometimes when people deal with a lot of grief, they can fall apart. They don’t know what to do and they lose their way. And the movie in that way touches anybody who’s lost their way. She lost her way and she acted out by, in this case in this story, this was in the novel.

You know, she just started to bury her feelings and her pain. Her back story is that she started to have affairs with many people at her workplace to the point where it became a crisis and she left her job and had to move back home to really examine her life. You know, yeah, those were three people with issues in the picture. I mean, John Ortiz – I don’t know if you want me…

Tavis: No, please, finish this.

Russell: Well, John Ortiz is a beautiful actor who plays – and Chris Tucker. I mean, the fact that Chris Tucker was his friend from the hospital. He brings so much to the picture because every time he walks on screen, he’s telling you the literal law that you can find on the internet and it is the hardest lines to learn in the film is the literal law of mental health laws.

When someone has a plea bargain with the court over an episode, you can either – what are you gonna do? You know, you had an episode. You could face a prison term or you could do your time in a hospital, then come home with supervision. He and Bradley Cooper’s characters fall into that category.

So that tells you a lot about – he’s a good guy. He tells you that Bradley’s a good guy and they are good guys even if they’re moving on to their third chance or their second or third chance in their lives.

Tavis: Since you mentioned Chris Tucker, I want to talk about a couple of these actors you’ve just kind of walked through the back story for most of them in terms of where their characters are concerned with this project. Chris and I are friends. We’ve known each other for many, many years. I guess I can say this now.

I don’t know that Chris and I have ever had deep, deep conversations about this, but I was getting concerned for him at one point in his career because you can’t do 18 “Rush Hours” no matter how much money they make. I wanted to see him – and there have been moments in his career where he’s done this, but I wanted to see him do some other stuff, to stretch himself, you know, and expand in terms of the roles he was playing.

So I was delighted, beyond delighted, when I saw that he was in this because he obviously is a gifted actor, funny obviously when he wants to be, but has a dramatic flair when he wants to do that as well. So rather than talk about those other four that are nominated, I’ll come to them in a minute, but how did Chris Tucker end up – I ‘m glad he is, but how did he end up in this project?

Russell: I’m always looking for a way to surprise audiences. That’s, I feel, my job as a director. I felt that Amy Adams playing a tough woman in “The Fighter” was a surprise. People saw her as a princess. They were like, I don’t believe it. That’s how I felt about Chris, you know. I was like oh, here’s an undervalued asset.

Here’s a player the league hasn’t seen in a few seasons. I think this guy could come back and have an all-star season. Harvey Weinstein, the studio producing the picture, very passionate about Chris. Harvey is a huge fan of Chris and he said, “Here’s this enormous, charismatic, talented man. Let’s put him in a role that is real, that is grounded.”

But that magic that Chris has behind his eyes is there in the character every time he walks on screen. So I thought it was a very cool idea and I kept talking to him for a long time, saying this is a supporting role, but it could be a very important role and it could make an impact every time he steps on screen.

Tavis: That’s what got me, that it was a supporting role and not a – I mean, this guy has made $20 million dollars a picture and he’s playing a supporting character. I thought that was great.

Russell: Well, you know, he did a great supporting role in “Jackie Brown,” Quentin Tarantino’s film.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Russell: He’s just a beautiful human being. I mean, I’ve come to love the man. You know, to get to know him over the course of making the film and now in this blessed award season, I love dancing with him at any of these events, the Golden Globes [laugh] ’cause I just copy his moves. You know, we dance with a group of people, but I just watch Chris. He’s the one who walked on to the – he is fun…

Tavis: There’s a guy named Michael Jackson where he got most of that from, so you can just – you should look him up someday [laugh]

Russell: He’s in a Michael Jackson video, yeah.

Tavis: Of course [laugh].

Russell: No, but he’s such a great person. I’m dying to work with him again.

Tavis: So you have a son who is, obviously, managing this every day. Why choose to put this out as a screenplay as opposed to not putting it out? I mean, everybody who has somebody close to them who’s struggling with something, that’s a very personal decision. It’s a personal battle, it’s a family matter, it’s a private affair.

You know, a lot of people are obviously glad you did and the nominations and awards speak to the fact people appreciate it. But why did you choose to do that when you could have left that as a private affair?

Russell: I don’t know. You know, as a writer and a director, you have to – the best work can sometimes come from your own heart, you know. It was such a big part of my life and my son’s life and his mother’s life too. You go through quite an adventure, you know, trying to hold together as a family, trying to help somebody.

There’s nothing worse, Tavis, than when your – my son who’s older now, but may turn to you at the age of 9 or 10. You know, they’re not feeling too good about life. There’s nothing worse for a parent when that happens. I mean, you would do anything for that child to help them believe in life, you know.

I know that he loves movies. That’s one of the things that he’s always grabbed onto. He loves stories. They help him understand life and that’s what he’s always grabbed onto. So I thought, if he could have a movie where the hero had struggles that he had, that could inspire him, you know. And people always ask me, how does your son feel about the movie?

So I asked him recently. I said, “You know, we’ve come to some events together and you seem very happy, but you haven’t really told me. People say to me, how do you feel about the movie?” He paused for a long time. I said, “What should I say to them?” And he said, “Tell them that I feel the film is inspiring.” That was the best answer I could have heard from him, that he said that.

So it was a book, it’s a novel that the director Sidney Pollack acquired and offered to me five years ago and that’s when I really said maybe I could – you’re quite right, Tavis. I didn’t know to tackle this personal material. I didn’t know, but the book helped me ’cause the book was written by a guy who was local to Philadelphia and had worked in hospitals and had a great heart for it.

You know, Sidney Pollack, the late director, told me, he said, “How you gonna get the tone of this right because it’s so painful and disturbing, yet it’s also very full of love and warmth and it’s also funny.” I said, “Because I know it from the inside.” I mean, there’s no way I’m not gonna – I’m gonna respect everybody and love everybody in the film, so no one’s gonna be treated disrespectfully.

Tavis: Did you find that exercise to be more difficult than you thought, easier than you thought or right about where you thought, that notion of trying to strike the right balance, the right tone? ‘Cause you had difficult issues. You want to celebrate the humanity of the character. You don’t want people crying from beginning to end. It’s not a comedy.

I mean, the tone issue, this is a very serious thing. So how difficult was it for you in retrospect?

Russell: It was probably the toughest job I ever had as a filmmaker, you know, because as you say so clearly, there’s so many different ways you could get it wrong. I mean, I had to rewrite probably over 20 times ’cause you say, well, what if we leaned on it this way? Well, now it just feels really dark. Well, let’s pull back. Well, now we’re getting a little silly.

So you go back and you find the right – and each actor had to do that. You know, we had some – each actor, when they did their takes for their performance, when Bradley Cooper crafted his character, when Chris Tucker crafted his character, they did it many different ways.

They would do it heavier and lighter and then, in the edit room, we would have a choice how heavy or dark do we want to go at which time so that the audience could feel the substance and the emotion, but also get the human release when the characters get some relief, you know.

Tavis: So this is the question I’m sure you’ve been asked a thousand times and I’m trying to figure out a different way to phrase this. What do you make of all of the talk about the fact that these four principal actors, as we said at the top of this conversation, are all nominated for, you know, Academy Awards? That is pretty special. So set your modesty aside for a second and what do you make of that?

Russell: Oh, I’m busting with pride for my actors, you know. I mean, my job as a director is to make the actors feel safe and to let them do their best work and, come from their heart, give up a piece of themselves. Even if they deny it, the best acting, they give up a piece of themselves. It’s a piece of their soul. And in each actor did do that in this film. And when they will fight for the film as much as I would, and they’ll do anything for the film, you know, we shot the film in a very short time.

They stayed in that house or on the streets. They never went back to any trailer. They stayed there. For them to be acknowledged means everything to me because I think our movie is about performance and personality and personable humanity. That’s what our film is. It’s not about anything but emotion and humanity. So for them to be acknowledged meant the world to me.

You know, I was in my kitchen. I can’t watch those things get announced and I called everyone the night before. I called everyone in the cast to say, “Listen, I just know that it’s a very competitive year and I just want to say right now that I feel blessed to have made the movie and I want to thank you for the movie existing.” It was a way of letting it go. I could go to sleep and say that’s okay, you know. Then I was just shocked the next day and overwhelmed when everybody got nominated. It was a blessing.

Tavis: So all these actors are special, hence the nominations for the work that they did in this film, “Silver Linings Playbook.” But De Niro clearly is in a different category. He’s in a different stratosphere. He is Robert De Niro. What will you take away if you and De Niro had never ever worked together again? You made some magic here. What will you take away from this experience of having had this moment with Mr. De Niro?

Russell: It’s just such a blessing to know the man. You know, he’s a very quiet, soulful man and he really was our teacher on the set. He set the tone of seriousness. He was extremely – he loves his craft no matter what’s happened to him. You know, the man has not been nominated in over 20-some years and he hasn’t won in over 30 years.

So he still loves every bit of his work. He brings every bit of focus to it and we all learned from that. Whether he’s just running into the dancing in the third act, he has to watch his son dance, every take he would go outside with Chris Tucker and do pushups and start talking to Chris Tucker in character saying, “We’re gonna go watch the dance now. We better get up there,” every take.

We all learned from that from watching him make every single thing be real. He taught us that presence, just being present, even if you’re silent, can communicate so much emotion. An actor or director should never make the mistake of underestimating that. I love the tone he set on us on the set and I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.

Tavis: Is it possible – strange question here. Is it possible that, once you get the kind of acclaim that you have – you’re still a relatively young guy, but once you start to get this kind of acclaim and everything you do is getting, you know, some sort of accolade or acclaim or nomination, is it possible that that gets in the way?

Does that ever put a level of pressure on you? Does it change the way you make decisions? I’m just trying to – I know the good of being nominated and winning, but is there another side to that?

Russell: Tavis, the last time I was on your show which was in 2004, you know, I would say that was the beginning of a very difficult period for me in my life and as a filmmaker.

I would say that the gift of that period for me personally and professionally of struggling during the next few years until “The Fighter” and this film, is that it made me a humbler person and it brought me closer to the people, the characters I portray in my films, who struggle. It made me know them better and more intimately. And it made me, you know, just respect the opportunity to do the work.

So my way of answering your question is, fortunately, I think for me at an earlier phase in my career to ever be nominated would have not had a good effect on me. I think it would have made me think I was more important or something. And now I just know that you can never be that important and it’s just the work.

Just stay humble and do the work and that’s the only way you’ll ever do good work is if you stay humble and just try. Because at any moment, you can turn around to yourself, and I do every time I’m working and say, “Does this stink? Are you sure you’re thinking about this clearly?” Nothing should ever change that.

You know, I met a filmmaker recently and he said to me he hoped in the future to not have – he wanted final cut and he wanted to not have to do previews. You do previews with your studio, that means you must discuss with audiences and your studio how people feel about the film. They think this is too long, they didn’t like this character.

I think that to not have previews or to have final cut in some ways is the kiss of death. I know that, eight years ago, I was a filmmaker who wanted both those things and I think that I wasn’t as good a filmmaker as a result.

You must never be precious and self-important about your work. I think a film just gets better. I’ll listen to every note, every thought. I may not agree with all of them, but a lot of them are gonna make it a better movie,  you know. And look at Mr. De Niro. That’s who we were just talking about. The man is one of our greatest actors.

I remember asking him on a set with 200 extras. We had to stand around all day, saying “How can you do this?” He would stand there so focused. He would say, “Well, look at all these other people. They can do it and they’re not getting paid or recognized like I am. Why can’t I do it?”

It’s that humility. The other thing he taught us was that you never stop being present, therefore you don’t know what’s gonna happen. And two of the most exciting things that happened in the film for his performance were unexpected.

It was that last take. One of them is when he is sitting on the edge of the bed talking to his son played by Bradley Cooper. I never wrote it in the script that he should cry. I never asked him to as a director. And it was on the last take when I said, “I think we have it. No, let’s do it one more time.” He just started crying and I didn’t know what was happening. It was very like when I showed him the script.

The other, my son got the blessing. I don’t believe in Hollywood brats, but by doing well at school in his behavior, how he acts at school, he earned the right to audition and be in the film. He plays the young man who rings the bell.

Tavis: Rings the doorbell, yeah, sure.

Russell: He was nosy [laugh]. It was fun for him to be, for once, the person outside looking in on the episode instead of the guy in the episode. First take, Mr. De Niro is in his pajamas protecting his son from this nosy person. De Niro opens the door, doesn’t tell anybody he’s gonna do this, shoves my son and starts yelling at him and my son starts laughing nervously.

I said, “Cut. What are you doing? You can’t do that. You know, this is serious.” De Niro really taught us eventually after a few takes. He said, “No, that’s okay because that’s what an 17- or 18-year-old kid, if an angry man in his pajamas was coming at him, he might start laughing nervously.” And then he played it. He made it part of the scene.

He said, “What are you laughing at?” to the kid and then it made him snap out of his anger and apologize. It made Bob snap out of his anger and apologize. He made it part of the scene. That was just masterful, you know. That’s a gift that he gives cinema. His voice taught me to write. I love the rhythm of his voice, the cadence, so I wrote for it.

Tavis: His name is David O. Russell. Of course, by now you know that. The movie is called “Silver Linings Playbook.” You definitely know that by now. And, moreover, you know that it’s up for some big awards on the big night at the Academy Awards. So, David, good luck in advance, and good to have you back on the program.

Russell: Thank you, Tavis. I love coming back here. Thank you for having me.

Tavis: Glad to have you. My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Until next time, keep the faith.


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Last modified: February 11, 2013 at 8:37 pm