This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On Feb. 24, 2015, the temperature in Boston hit a miserable high of 19 degrees. It was one of the worst winters on record — by early March, more than 105 inches of snow had fallen on the city. But inside the cramped living room of a two-story house in the nearby suburb of Wilmington, director David O. Russell was keeping things heated, shooting the “divorce” scene in Joy, his quirky dramedy starring Jennifer Lawrence (who won her Oscar in 2013 for Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and was nominated again in 2014 for the director’s American Hustle) and loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, the real-life QVC icon and inventor of the Miracle Mop.
“Suddenly, David says to me, ‘OK, Edgar, you are very angry — now cry,’ ” recalls Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, who plays Tony Miranne, Joy’s Tom Jones-impersonator husband. “I said, ‘OK, give me a minute.’ David said, ‘No, we don’t have a minute. Fake it! If you fake it, you’ll be able to bring yourself to tears. Cry! Go, go, go! Do it!’ ” Ramirez did what was asked, and sure enough, the tears flowed. “Everything was always moving and swirling,” he says of shooting Joy. “I didn’t know it was possible to feel so free on a movie set.”
“She’s the first ‘real’ person I’ve played,” says Lawrence, “so there was that added pressure.”
On a David O. Russell set, the swirling hardly ever stops. Few A-list directors have such a reputation for freewheeling experimentation with actors and creative improvisation with plotlines (also known as rewrites) than the man behind the camera during that Boston blizzard. “I remember a character [in Joy] appearing overnight: the Haitian plumber,” says Lawrence. “It was so hilarious and amazing. David never stops coming up with ideas, even when we’re filming.”
That impetuousness has in the past landed the frenetic filmmaker in trouble — he spent time in directors jail after a (filmed) blowup with Lily Tomlin on the set of 2004’s I Heart Huckabees, and George Clooney punched him in the nose while filming 1999’s Three Kings — but in the past decade, it has served the 57-year-old filmmaker extraordinarily well. His past three films — The Fighter, Silver Linings and Hustle — all were nominated for best picture and director (while none won for best picture or best director, “the kid,” as Russell refers to 25-year-old Lawrence, won for best actress). Today, the onetime enfant terrible of indie cinema is among Hollywood’s most in-demand auteurs, perhaps the only one with the creative clout to make a $60 million movie — on Fox’s dime, with some additional financing from producer Megan Ellison — based on the life of the woman who made a fortune selling Huggable Hangers on late-night TV. Not to mention, the artistic credibility to convince the world’s biggest film actress to star in it.
“The process evolves as we go along,” says Lawrence of working on a David O. Russell film. “David is committed to finding the truth in his characters.”
“She’s this down-to-earth Italian-American housewife from Long Island who was this huge entrepreneur,” recalls producer Ken Mok of his first meeting, 10 years ago, with the real Joy Mangano when she appeared as a judge on Made in the USA, Mok’s reality show that traveled the nation interviewing the proprietors of quirky American businesses. “We sat down at lunch one day in Los Angeles, and I said, ‘How did you become this fantastic entrepreneur?’ “
Her answer left him reeling. “She told me this crazy story,” continues Mok. “Her father was a Mafia wannabe, then became a middle-aged gigolo, while her husband was this Tom Jones impersonator. And there were all these shitty men in her life that exploited her. But then she decided to take control of her life, and she became the success she became.” After Mangano finished her remarkable story, Mok made a decision. “I was like, ‘This is a movie.’ “
Lawrence with Cooper. “I’ve watched Jennifer grow up, and I’ve watched Bradley become a man,” says Russell.
It took him a while to get around to it — he was busy producing America’s Next Top Model — but in 2012, Mok and his old friend John Davis purchased Mangano’s life rights. The two had never worked together, but Davis instantly saw the story’s big-screen potential and took the pitch to Fox, where he had a first-look deal. Fox 2000’s Elizabeth Gabler also was charmed by the idea. Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo was hired to write the script — and potentially to direct. Kristen Wiig, Mumolo’s producing partner, was considering starring.
But when Mumolo turned in her first draft in 2013, Fox 2000 execs weren’t happy. They felt the script needed more character development. Davis and Fox had an idea to fix it: Why not bring it to Russell and let him write and direct? At that time, in fall 2013, Russell and Lawrence were doing laps on the awards circuit for American Hustle. Whenever they bumped into Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos or Gabler, the execs pressed the director and actress to make Joy their next project together. To just about everyone’s surprise, Russell was intrigued.
“This was the first time Jennifer and I did something together in which she’s not playing someone who is crazy,” says Russell. But Lawrence had a demand. “Could David and I do it the way we want to do it?” Russell recalls the actress asking the Fox suits. “It’s going to be its own animal. It’s going to be a multigenerational fable, and it’s going to be different.”
Russell (right) on location in Boston. “Even very creative people can lose their heartbeat,” he says of relating to a story about a woman reinventing herself. “When I was 40, I looked up and said, ‘You were more you when you were 17. What happened?’ I didn’t know the answer to that question. I had to ask that question, and it resulted in my life changing.”
“It took off when David came in,” says Davis. “Overnight, the studio wanted to make the movie right away. Usually you’re begging to get your movie made. Here, they were begging us.”
Russell spent hours on the phone with the real Mangano grilling her about her life. “It got to the point where she asked if this was psychoanalysis,” the director recalls. Then he settled in to rewrite. For starters, he abandoned some of the biographical elements and made the main character a composite of several female entrepreneurs. He also added a new storyline, turning the soap opera that Joy’s mother (Virginia Madsen; her dad is played by Robert De Niro) watches into a recurring plot device (hiring real soap stars like Susan Lucci and Donna Mills to star in it). And he added a role for Lawrence’s Silver Linings co-star Bradley Cooper (he plays a QVC producer who helps Joy get her mop on the air). “David is like an impressionistic artist,” says Gabler. “[Artists] take real things, put them through their imagination and create something unique.” (Even so, Mumolo won a “story by” credit in arbitration.)
Joy’s extended family — including De Niro (fourth from right) as her dad, Isabella Rossellini (fifth from right) as her dad’s girlfriend and Diane Ladd (right) as her grandmother — gather as Miracle Mop makes its QVC debut.
Shooting was scheduled to begin in the Boston area in February, but snowstorms delayed the production several weeks. Snow wreaked havoc on some of the sets as well, causing the roof to cave in on the warehouse where Russell had built a QVC set. But even after the weather cleared, just days before filming, Russell still was doing rewrites. At the last minute, he added that Haitian plumber to the script as a love interest for Joy’s mom (Haitian actor Jimmy Jean-Louis was quickly hired). At times the 45-day snowbound shoot grew challenging, and, as happens on Russell’s no-holds-barred sets, the cast and crew occasionally became agitated. Lawrence made it into the gossip sites when she reportedly had a blowup during filming. She since has dismissed the incident and says she’d work with Russell again, any time. “He is all creative instinct,” she says. “I would really do anything with David. As long as it isn’t in the middle of a blizzard.”
Dec. 22, 1:50 pm
A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized the Academy Award wins for David O. Russell’s films. THR regrets the error.