Touchdown Dance: Writer/Director David O’Russell on Silver Linings Playbook
In 2010, David O. Russell had the biggest movie of his career with The Fighter, his biopic of boxer Micky Ward, starring Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams. The film took almost $100 million in stateside receipts, won Christian Bale and Melissa Leo awards in the supporting categories at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes, and earned Russell his first Academy Award nomination, for Best Director.
Now Russell has returned to the realm of complex, sophisticated and seriously funny comedies, where he first made his name.
Given this, it’s all too fitting that his new film is about a homecoming. Silver Linings Playbook, based on the 2008 debut novel of the same name by Matthew Quick, is the story of Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a Philadelphia high school teacher who discovers his wife Nikki en flagrante with a male colleague – which causes him to flip out and brutally beat the man. Diagnosed as bipolar and put in a psychiatric unit (rather than doing time), Pat is released after eight months and goes to live with his football-crazed parents, Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), who are mostly happy to have him under their roof — even though he’s not taking his meds and is clearly not yet stable. Though certain things set him off and cause him to lose control again, Pat has an almost scarily positive attitude, insisting that, even though they are now estranged and there’s a restraining order against him, he and Nikki will be reunited soon. He’s looking for the positive in every negative situation, trying to better himself – reading, exercising – in order to be the man his wife deserves, trying to find a way to beat this bipolar thing.
Shortly after returning to his parents’ home, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the young, recently widowed sister-in-law of his best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz). Like Pat, she’s on various meds, has no filter and doesn’t conform to others’ ideas of what she should be. Though she initially pursues him, Pat is set on getting back with Nikki and won’t let himself deviate from this true path – despite the obvious attraction between these two damaged souls. Instead, they decide to form an alliance and pledge to help one another: She promises to smuggle his letters to Nikki, who is best friends with her sister Veronica (Julia Stiles), and in exchange he agrees to be her partner in an upcoming dance competition and train with her prior to the event.
Silver Linings Playbook is that rare thing – an intelligent, grown-up date movie. Beautifully written and directed by Russell, it’s a redemption tale that uses football as an analogy but then weaves a nuanced, sweet and deeply human narrative that transcends the simplicity of sports’ measures of success and failure. Its two leads shine – Cooper proves he’s much more than just a pretty face, and Lawrence is electric as the raw, tender Tiffany. And the supporting cast, from De Niro and Animal Kingdom‘s Weaver to Chris Tucker playing Cooper’s fellow psych ward inmate, bring to life the richly drawn characters in Russell’s screenplay.
To interview Russell and his producer/star Cooper, Filmmaker asked Cedar Rapids’ Miguel Arteta, a director who’s also no stranger to mining difficult subjects for comic capital. In the following conversation, the pair talk about their creative partnership, the directing card Russell always carries with him on set, and when it’s okay to give an actor a line reading.
Silver Linings Playbook is released by The Weinstein Company on November 21.
MIGUEL ARTETA: So, how did the film come about and how did you guys get together?
DAVID O. RUSSELL: Well, should we talk about love first, or not? [Laughs]
ARTETA: That is not for the interview. Filmmaker readers have no interest in love.
RUSSELL: Okay, leave the emotions out of it. So, the year before he passed away, Sydney Pollack gave me and Harvey [Weinstein] the book. [Sydney] said, what a complicated tone it had. Holly [Davis], the woman I live with, she’s a big reader, so she read the book first. She said, “I think you’re going to really like this,” because she knows my older son and some of the challenges he and the whole family have faced from mood issues. This was before The Fighter. Then, after The Fighter, I knew even more what I liked about this [story’s] family, the neighborhood, the house and all that stuff. I’m as interested in the people and the furniture and the food as I am in the story. When we’d scout locations, I remember I stayed in the houses we would scout, and I would be like, “Oh, we’re not going to shoot here? I really like these people.” That’s how we found our [Philadelphia] Eagles expert, actually. Anyway, Harvey finally came back and said, “Let’s make this picture.”
BRADLEY COOPER: I met David when we had a phone call about this movie, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, at LionsGate. I loved the script he wrote for that. And then that went away and we sort of talked about a couple of projects. He said, “This is one of the things I’m circling – why don’t you read it?” And so, I read Silver Linings, and I liked it.
ARTETA: You read the book or the script?
COOPER: No, just the script. I remember thinking, “I’m from Philly, but I’m not really right for this role.” I think I was probably scared of it.
ARTETA: Well, you know, if you’re not scared of a role, then it’s never that worth taking, right?
COOPER: I gotta say, I totally changed my whole thinking. I remember Willem Dafoe came to our school and he said, “I don’t do a role that doesn’t scare me. When I don’t think I can do a role, that’s the role I take.” I remember thinking, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Back then, I thought you [should] want to take a role that you feel a connection to. So I thought, “God, I don’t know, man.” This [character] was just so fucked up. It demanded really going to a lot of places — and knowing the movies that [David] makes, I thought, “Jesus Christ, I’m really going to have to go to those places and not act like I’m going to those places.” So I wouldn’t say I was terrified, but… Then, when he let me read it, he [didn’t say], “I want you to do this role. This is your movie.” So I was like, “Okay, I’m sure I’ll never get this role.”
ARTETA: David, when did you have the moment when you were like, “Wait a second, this is my partner. I gotta go make the movie with him”?
RUSSELL: Well, as we were approaching production, certain situations weren’t resolving themselves with the studio and the cast, My first impression of him was the guy in Wedding Crashers. What I find exciting, kind of like what we did with Christian [Bale] and Amy [Adams] in The Fighter, is I love when people think they know who an actor is, but they don’t. I relish that, especially when I know the person is real, you know? I said to [Bradley], “I saw you in Wedding Crashers, and when I would see you around town I would think, ‘That is an intimidating guy,’ because the guy from Wedding Crashers looks somewhat like an angry person. I believe that he’s angry. In fact, so angry that I don’t know if I want to hang out with him, you know?” [Laughs] That was one of the first things I said to him, and he was very candid with me. He said that he did use anger more at a different time in his life. And that candor opened up a door to a huge hall of mirrors that had all this stuff in it. Like, “Oh, he’s a really interesting person who has gone through lots of transitions — he’s not just the confident guy from The Hangover, the good looking guy.” Then we kept getting to know each other, and I found all these layers of this person that I related to very strongly. We’re both half Italian-American, so I made the story [about a family that was] Italian-American. Robert De Niro and I had been speaking over the years about wanting to work together. So after [I finished] The Fighter, I rewrote [the father] role for him.
ARTETA: Bradley, I know you loved working with Robert. You guys were amazing in Limitless. Was he already cast when you came on board?
COOPER: Yes, I was the last one cast. I got a call from [David] as I was doing The Place Beyond the Pines—
ARTETA: Having De Niro there must have been a huge asset.
COOPER: It was huge because I knew that I could easily believe that he’s my father. [I could] say the word “dad,” and have that anchor me. Knowing that I loved Bob already was sort of a freebie; I already felt so connected to him. And he knew my dad, who had just passed. His dad had died at the same age. We have a lot of similarities in our histories that way. I was just so happy, because I didn’t know anybody else [on the film]. I didn’t know David, I didn’t know Jennifer, I didn’t know Chris Tucker. I think Bob and Philadelphia, where I’m from, were the two anchors. My mother grew up in a house not that different than the house that Pat Solitano grew up in.
ARTETA: And so, what was the first creative conversation you and David had?
COOPER: It was really based around the opening monologue that the character has in the hospital. In it, he talks about how he’s going to get his life back together. He basically runs through what has happened that led him to this place. Just hearing how David speaks when he talks, and the rhythm of his voice, I felt like I heard it in the way he was writing. I called David and left him a message of the monologue as Pat. I was like, “How does this sound?” I remember [David] texted me “Yes! Yes!” with an exclamation point. And then we went through it and sort of modulated it. We just read through the whole script as Pat. I would ask him to read it and I would read it sort of using his rhythms. He has a very specific rhythm, and Pat doesn’t have the cadence that I have when I talk. It was just about finding that modulation. But that was just the beginning stages. It was just about finding that modulation. But that was just [during] the beginning stages. And then, we jumped into it and it really was on set where we created Pat. That first scene when he comes in to meet Dad [Robert DeNiro], I did it much more troubled in some takes. We actually used that more Aspergery [version of Pat], in the very beginning. He walks in the door … what’s in the movie now is that other guy.
ARTETA: Okay. [Laughs] Wow.
COOPER: He doesn’t talk, and he hugs him and he’s just sort of like—
ARTETA: — Always suspicious?
COOPER: Yes. That was the other guy. David was like, “I don’t know if a whole movie can sustain on that guy. I mean, after five minutes, that might be enough.” So, it was just about modulating [the character].
ARTETA: It’s interesting you wanted to hear David read his dialogue because a lot of actors don’t want to get a line reading.
ARTETA: But then there are a lot of actors who are not bothered by that. They’re like, “Tell me how you see it and then I’ll interpret or not interpret it.”
COOPER: It’s a case by case basis. I certainly am someone who, up until then, would hate it if a director would give me a line reading. But you know, I’m investing in a David O. Russell movie? So I made it very clear to myself that I am going to tack my little tugboat onto this vessel and do whatever he says. And then, as I got to know him, it became more of a partnership because I never felt like he was giving me a line reading. I felt like what he was doing was giving me an insight. It never felt like made out of paper maché, do you know what I mean? When we’re in the scene, he’s a character in the scene. He’s talking to the other characters also, and you’re incorporating that. That’s the way he directs everybody. It’s a very unique way of working.
ARTETA: Watching the movie, I noticed that the camera is very, very close to the characters.
ARTETA: And usually, when you do that, it ends up being not so elegant. To move a camera when you’re that close to an actor, and to have the actors have the freedom that they need to do that, is difficult. So, thinking about the choreography of the camera, the filmmaker in me wondered, “What happens in the morning?” Is it a free-for-all rehearsal? Or are you, David, saying, “Why don’t you guys just read it?” Or, are you saying, “Why don’t you guys just see what you do, and let me go and change how you guys move?” What happens first thing?
COOPER: You know, there’s a ritual to it every day. We’d all get coffee. I’m not even a coffee drinker but I drank five espressos that whole shoot every day. [Laughs] We’d all get into the van.
RUSSELL: Here’s the reason why I think it’s important to get in the van. When you come to a set for me, there’s all this scattered energy. But all that really matters is this right here, this story that I’m telling right now. So we all need to feel. I want everybody to come in close and feel grounded.
ARTETA: Get it gelled before it goes out into it?
RUSSELL: Yes, yes, exactly. Don’t be doing it in the middle of a set, with all sorts of people around. It just feels safe when you’re in a van, in a car. It’s like a small thing. I do it with the a.d. and the producer first. I go, “Let’s talk about the day, how we’re going to do this, all right?” And then, I do it with the cast. We all sit there and go, “Let’s talk about this scene.” It was like we were trying to fit a 38-pound ball in a 25-pound bag — a 33-day shoot.
ARTETA: And then you guys were like, “Let’s go.”
RUSSELL: We said, “You know what? We’re a day-and-a-half behind on the schedule and three days back.” It was kind of like a football game. I go, “I think I can see a chance to make up some major yardage here. I think we can make up like a day-and-a-half right now. Are you guys down for this?” And they’re like, [Pretends to spit] “Okay.” [Laughs] So it was so like, although Anupam Kher was like—
COOPER: He was freaking out.
RUSSELL: He was like, “Well, wait a minute. Wait a minute. These are all of my scenes.” I was like, “It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.”
ARTETA: Is there a moment when you’re doing this stuff and you say, “We have it.”? Was it clear when you had it?
RUSSELL: We would feel good. I think we would feel like we got our moments.
COOPER: The other thing is, we were on a 33-day schedule. I’ve done movies where they’ve been that short of a schedule, and you just hope, “Did we get it?” This movie, I never felt like we ever tried to get “it” — we tried to get every version we could in as much time as we could. In the editing room, David saw that there were potentially six different movies in this movie – six different paths, six different arcs. I mean, we really would do every version. There was an extreme version, a no-bullshit version, a more modulated version.
ARTETA: And did that stay throughout the whole process?
COOPER: The whole time.
ARTETA: Because you know, usually that happens at the beginning of a shoot, the first week.
COOPER: And you’re just trying to get the scene.
ARTETA: And then you’re like, “This is the way. This feeling for this character is what really feels right.” And you more or less start nailing it down. But you were exploring different sides to the character throughout, all the way to the end?
COOPER: The whole time. The whole time.
ARTETA: So, within this environment of trust you were like, “I’m not going to decide what is right. I’m not going to worry what makes it in the movie.”
COOPER: That’s right.
ARTETA: You would just move on?
COOPER: What I worried about was giving him enough options.
RUSSELL: Low, medium and high. I have a card of things that I [use to] try to remind myself, because the thing you always kick yourself about when you’re in the editing room is, “Why the fuck didn’t I do this?”
ARTETA: What else is on that card?
RUSSELL: Have we shot it in the most cinematically dynamic way that we can shoot it? Is it everything that it could be, quietly and emotionally?
COOPER: Is there a version where there’s no bullshit at all, like a completely real version?
RUSSELL: Sometimes you want to try something very extreme. Sometimes you end up in the editing room and you go, “Oh, the way to have done this scene was this way.” And sometimes you just want to try to shake yourself like a snow globe and say, “Wait a minute. I’m looking at this the wrong way. What if I looked at it all through this character’s point of view.” We also would do the different emotions. Do it so it feels funnier, which I don’t know how to do. I don’t know how we did that. And sometimes it feels sadder.
ARTETA: When you’re working with a director, sometimes you can tell when they were like, “That’s the one, he loved it, right?”
COOPER: Well, we’re both pretty enthusiastic people, and it’s pretty obvious when we like something. [Laughs] Sometimes I feel like we’re gold panners, you know what I mean? If someone finds a little bit of gold, we’re not shutting up about it. That’s part of what I loved about him. We’re all tired, we’re all working really hard, so if we get some magic, we’re going to celebrate it, you know? And it was very much like everybody was celebrating. Shelley [Ziegler], the first a.d., she was crying a lot. And David Thompson, who was the camera operator, would know. When Bob came up the stairs, when he cried, that was the last take of his close-up.
RUSSELL: It was a surprise. I was, “Let’s just do one more,” and all of a sudden was like, “What the fuck is happening?”
COOPER: It was amazing.
RUSSELL: He pulled that out as a surprise on us. He wanted to do it real for you, and he wanted to do it real for me because he personally identifies with much of this material for similar reasons as I do — you know, as a father. We identify. We’ve been down these roads with children, with family members. And so, it was very personal to him. We had gotten to know each other over the years, and he really wanted to fucking do it, to memorize these long monologues. It was important to him that he knew them, and he worked tremendously hard. Actors, they get older and after all the accolades they tend to be like, “Look, I’m just going to show up”—
COOPER: Not this motherfucker.
RUSSELL: And I directed him very respectfully. I said what I thought [and then] left it to him. He’s an intimidating human being, and we were so blessed to have him there. He’s such a warm, loving guy. We let our hair down and we are warm and welcoming, and that is the contagious thing. [When we were shooting the scenes at the Solitano household] we had a family vibe going. And I remember saying to Bob, “How do you stand here all day like this?”
COOPER: He stood for three days.
RUSSELL: That made me crazy. Here’s De Niro’s standing there in the corner before we get to his part of the scene. I’d be like, “I can’t look over there.” He was standing there just for us—
COOPER: For six hours.
RUSSELL: And then he said, “Hey, all these other people can do it and they’re not making any money and they got no fans.” He goes, “I can do it.”
ARTETA: I am such a believer in the intangibles, how the camera records the intangibles. I think a camera records stuff that is not in the frame.
RUSSELL: Like your soul.
ARTETA: Well, like something intangible that happens between people.
RUSSELL: That’s the magic.
ARTETA: I say to my cinematographers, “If we’re going to tell a story, just photograph the actor’s eyes. You don’t even have to go to the long shot. All we’re doing here is photographing the actor’s eyes. That’s how we tell the story.” And then that sort of non-verbal communication starts to happen. You become a witness, as opposed to—
RUSSELL: That’s very well said. You’re almost a participant, rather than a more distant person.
COOPER: Listen, it’s less safe.
ARTETA: Yeah, it’s a lot less safe.
RUSSELL: There is something that should be on the card, which would just be stillness. Which goes to what you said about the eyes. In the editing room, you edit the movie for three months and you’re like, “Okay, this is it. This is great.” And then, you go through another two months of ripping it apart, and then all of a sudden things happen where you say, “Why didn’t I think of that three months ago? It’s so obvious that this is so far superior to anything we had before. It’s so very different than what we had before that I can’t even remember what we had before.” That’s just how life is. You have to get there by going there—it’s not going to present itself to you, like you said. And the eyes thing is what happened like, in month eight or nine of editing. I said, “I think we gotta go through the whole movie, guys.” This is after we had previewed. “We gotta go through the whole movie. I want us to breathe. I want to find the moments where people are not talking, where people are just looking at each other. I think there’s a lotta gold in that. And there is. Every emotion exponentially grows. Everything in the movie lands far more with that seemingly small shift. It’s a small thing, but a huge thing. You have to ask [the studio] to unlock the movie to do that, so I was like, “Well, I think we should unlock the movie.”
ARTETA: I always feel like I do my best work the last two hours of editing instead of the last six months. Sometimes I get very bold. I’m like, “Fuck it. Take that.”
RUSSELL: It was like when we were shooting too. The last six hours of every day were always more productive than the first six hours. The last take of a scene would all of sudden just click. If we ever had a celebratory moment, which we did often, we would go, “Wait a second, what have we been fucking doing for the past 40 minutes?” All of a sudden, it would come.
COOPER: We would do the coverage. We would get the wide and do the coverage, get some pieces, and then it was, “Let’s do one fucking gangster Steadicam, let’s just see it swim through the scene.”
RUSSELL: You gotta make sure you end up shooting it one way and then another way. And that’s another thing on the card: make sure you’ve got the dog in the corner.
Russell: You know, you gotta be able to have something to go to. It could just be Shea Whigham sitting in the corner. But cover your ass so that you can cut it every way you want to. Do whatever you want. Get a couple of dogs.
COOPER: And then at the very end, strap on the Steadicam and —
RUSSELL: Let it rip. As if it was like a documentary thing.
ARTETA: That must be great as a performer, right?
COOPER: It is, especially because you’re almost dancing. I’m someone who’s always aware of where the camera is. I actually love that part of filmmaking, as opposed to being on stage. I love it. So, when you start to dance with the camera operator to the rhythm of the scene, it’s very exciting.
ARTETA: It is when it becomes like a unit.
COOPER: Yes. And we actually did have a dance scene at the end of the movie, which we had no time to shoot. It was fucking crazy. There’s 400 other actors as the audience, and we’re sitting there trying to put this thing together.
ARTETA: You had your routine down by that point, right?
COOPER: The routine we had down, but how do you film that dynamically and personally? How many times have we watched Dancing with the Stars and all these shows? You see how people shoot dancing, but [here] you have to watch these two fall in love.
ARTETA: Well, it seemed to me like you took a person out and put the camera in.
COOPER: Yes, that’s what we did. That’s exactly what we did.
ARTETA: You danced with us and then she was dancing with us.
COOPER: That’s 100 percent correct.
RUSSELL: The dancing was the whole thing to attack unto itself. We had to find the right choreographer —
COOPER: Who was amazing, Mandy Moore.
RUSSELL: Mandy Moore, right. Not the actress. She has done amateur Dancing with the Stars contests in Colorado, so she’s no stranger to local dance contests, which is what I wanted it to feel like. I wanted it to feel like there were some ringers.
RUSSELL: A lot of them were from Belarus, for some reason. They’re like professional dancers, they’re like scary people, like assassins. I wanted our people to be kind of like if you and me did it, you know? The dancing in Pulp Fiction meant something to me because it’s about this — it’s about their hearts and their eyes. And that, to me, was the most important thing. [Bradley and Jennifer] danced to the camera for one section of it, but the rest of it, I wanted to do in real time, which I’m proud we did. It’s just about being with them in a two shot.
ARTETA: And because the choreography in the studio is also beautiful, did you choreograph the camera movements? Or, do you have so much faith in your operator as to the camera that you can say, “Okay, do it differently,” and something else will come?
COOPER: Oh no, it’s like, [David’s] moving with the Steadicam.
ARTETA: You’re walking around with it?
COOPER: Oh yeah. It’s very much the same way he is with the actors. People are ducking, booms are flying. I mean, he is steering every aspect of the ship. So, as you’re editing the movie, you’re constantly trying to figure out how much it’s going to cost to take him out of the frame.
ARTETA: David, the film’s background is particularly alive, like your actors. Often when you see films, that’s not the case. Is it just contagious because the background extras are watching you work? Or do you speak directly to them? How do they come to life?
RUSSELL: There’s some union thing you have to go through because otherwise it becomes an upgrade. This was shot for the same budget as The Fighter, which is not a lot of money, so you have to [be careful about] suddenly [upgrading an extra, which happens] if you give them specific direction. But Shelley [Ziegler] is from Baltimore. She did The Sopranos a lot, she did Boardwalk Empire a lot. She did The Fighter. She’s fantastic, and she knows what we want, which is to make this feel warm and alive. She gives people specific instructions so they are doing specific things. That person’s going to the chocolate fountain. These people are having an argument. These people are happy to be there and are taking pictures. These people are flirting with each other. This guy wants to see that girl over there.
ARTETA: Alright, let’s talk about Jennifer Lawrence because she is just amazing. From the moment she enters, you’re already in love. She’s got such an energy, a bolt of energy in her, such a bullshit meter that is on. And then, the layers in which she becomes like him — out of control — but not, apparently, right from the start.
COOPER: Her facility for emotional depth at the drop of a hat is kind of [amazing]. I’ve done two movies with her now, and the second movie [Susanne Bier’s upcoming Serena] we did was equally as challenging dramatically. I mean, she had to go to some sick places. I remember [during one scene] I’m watching her and [as an actor] I’m feeling everything that she’s doing. I feel horrible and embarrassed and that I’ve hurt her [character] because of what she’s doing. [But] also at the same time as a lover of this movie, [it was] so exhilarating. [Laughs] It was like, “Yes, motherfuckers!” David was like, “That’s what I’m talking about.” [Laughs] I remember I wanted to scream. She was so in the pocket. She’s such—I mean, she embodies so many different aspects of what you’d think a woman is as a male, as a female, as a human being. I mean, she’s so sexy and then not. She’s quite a stunning human being.
RUSSELL: You know, Jennifer was somebody who we all thought, “Well, she’s a little too young.” I didn’t know much about her — she was great in Winter’s Bone — but I thought, “Well, why don’t we read her?” So she Skyped her audition from her parent’s home in Louisville, Kentucky. We already had two or three big contenders, big stars, because this is a very dimensional role. Then she just came in, and I was very struck by her personality, her energy. She dressed up for the character in her father’s den, with the eye makeup and the hair and everything. She really wanted it. She was willing to try to do anything that we were working on. She just brought a very special human-being quality. I said to Harvey, “I think [we should cast her],” and he goes, “I think she’s too young, man.” I said, “I don’t know. She seems kind of ageless in some ways to me.”
ARTETA: Let’s talk about the chemistry between the two of you when you were dancing. I mean, that reveals so much about what was going on when you’re practicing and the first time you’re dancing – your face comes this close to her.
RUSSELL: You know what I love about that — as she gets pulled in and then she spins out, you think that’s the end of the shot. But then she goes around.
COOPER: And the way she looks at him when she spins out. Also my favorite thing of hers, when they’re dancing, there’s this one [shot where] you’re over [Pat] and her hair is falling and she’s kind of smiling. [Laughs] You’re just like, “What the fuck is going on?” I mean, really. We’re just sitting there and we’re like, “What? Like, holy shit.” There’s like four or five moments in that movie where she’s just, you know, stopping the film. It’s just like, “Holy fuck!”
ARTETA: Yeah, it’s got star dust in it.