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The Refinement of Russell

He feuded with George Clooney on "Three Kings" -- now he's reteaming with Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper.

Much has been made of the metamorphosis of David O. Russell from mercurial auteur (he once tried to choke George Clooney) to "the most lovely, funny, sweet, genius person in the entire world," as Silver Linings Playbook star Jennifer Lawrence gushes. What garners less ink is Russell's evolution as a filmmaker, from the angst-ridden indie darling of 1994's Spanking the Monkey and 1996's Flirting With Disaster fame to the more mature Oscar contender of 2010's The Fighter and Playbook. Flirting -- which starred Ben Stiller as a man on a cross-country search for his birth parents -- showcased Russell's long-standing interest in dysfunctional family dynamics, which also has threaded its way throughout The Fighter and Playbook.

"Not much changed as far as his process goes," says producer Jonathan Gordon, who worked with Russell on Flirting and again on Playbook. "He is still such a gifted actors' director. But I could say he has refined his process." Gordon says the helmer has become much more efficient, marveling at the fact that Playbook shot in fewer days (33) than Flirting's 35 despite a budget three times the size ($22 million vs. $7 million). The other significant difference is that Flirting primarily was shot with handheld cameras, while Playbook used both handhelds and Steadycams.

But Russell's proclivity for keeping the screenplay malleable has remained constant. "David is constantly rewriting as the scene is going on," notes Gordon. "He is almost like another character in the scene where he keeps throwing dialogue. That's something that he did on Flirting as well."

For Russell, another notable change is his shift into high gear after long gaps between 1999's Three Kings, 2004's I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter. There was only an 18-month lapse between Fighter and Playbook, and he's starting on an untitled Christian Bale-Bradley Cooper film in February. "Let's get going," says the 54-year-old, who now wants to make a movie a year. "You're not getting any younger, kid. I feel like I'm hitting my stride now."