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David O. Russell Explains His Legacy and Reacts to a Very Risque Joke

FILM: David O. Russell

With a career achievement honor at the Gotham Awards, the acclaimed indie director looks back and responds to an edgy comment by the evening's host.

In Hollywood, career achievement honors are less the equivalent of watches at retirement age than they are an acknowledgment that you are A-list famous, often at the top of your creative game. Case in point: At the IFP Gotham Awards on Monday, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard and David O. Russell were feted for their body of work, even as they remain in the prime of their careers and in the thick of this year's awards race.

Still, shortly after a highlight reel of his 18-year career as a full-time filmmaker played to the audience, The Hollywood Reporter asked Russell to take a look back at his oeuvre -- which began with 1994's Spanking the Monkey and includes 1999's Three Kings, 2004's I Heart Huckabees, 2010's Oscar-nominated The Fighter and the new dramedy Silver Linings Playbook -- and try to sum it up in one tidy, biography-friendly sentence.

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After a few moments of thought, Russell offered up his best line: "I would say a maker of emotionally intense and surprisingly comedic films, and often personal -- that would be my hopeful description of what I try to put into my work."

As a highly regarded writer-director who has focused on the grit and lunacy of everyday life, it's a self-assessment that seems on the mark. Yet for better or worse, he's also still followed by an earlier reputation as a filmmaker so passionate that it can result in combustion, as was the case with an expletive-laden on-set outburst against Lily Tomlin during production of Huckabees. The incident was caught on tape and loaded on YouTube, where it has about 1.3 million views.

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During his opening monologue, Gotham Awards host Mike Birbiglia sarcastically likened the rant to a famous quote by Elia Kazan ("A film director has to get a shot, no matter what he does") and then recited the entire thing, without omission of any of the sharper terms. Russell, of course, was in the audience was able to smile about it later.

"I’m going to say nothing," he said with a laugh when asked about Birbiglia's gambit. "I just say you have to laugh at all that stuff. You have to laugh at it."

Maybe the language just doesn't faze him. Russell's work has no shortage of expletives, as the crowd was reminded by the mere sight of Amy Adams, who starred for him as a tough-talking Boston girl in The Fighter and presented him with the career tribute. It was a fitting award for a man who largely has worked only in independent film, though he says making a movie requires the same principles no matter the budget.

"I think the key to making any film is make it really matter emotionally, and don’t let it be boring," he told THR. "Let it really matter. Make every single moment and character grab you by the throat. That’s what matters to me when I make a film. I feel like this is a privilege and you better make it count, do your best."

Such is the case on a personal level for Russell on his new film, Silver Linings Playbook, which stars Bradley Cooper as a bipolar man fresh out of a mental hospital and working uphill to put his life back together. Russell's 18-year-old son is bipolar, which led to his interest in adapting the 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, and in the week it's been in theaters, the director says he's received plenty of feedback from those in the mental health community.

"Many people have said many things," he said, nodding. "They’ve volunteered their stories, they’ve said it’s very reminiscent of their own experiences, some people have different experiences; they’re all as different as fingerprints. … Matthew Quick used to work at a hospital with these people, and they say they’re glad this subject was treated in a way that was human and authentic and not precious or overly lugubrious. That it was treated like life.

"I hope that’s hopefully a liberating thing for people," Russell continued. "Tia Carrere, the actress, came up to me; unexpected people come up to me and they tell me they have someone in their family that has been in and out of the hospital, is a great functioning person, and they feel ‘they’ never talk about it. It’s like, why can you talk about heart disease, but you can’t talk about that? So, hopefully, it’ll have that effect, for families who go through those events in their pajamas in the night."

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin