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Jennifer Lawrence owes her 2013 best actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook to her audition improv with a spider, David O. Russell revealed at Loyola Marymount University Feb. 21. Russell, currently nominated for best director and original screenplay for American Hustle (with Lawrence nominated for supporting actress), said the audition won over Harvey Weinstein, who was “skeptical” about Lawrence.
Russell said Lawrence wore black eyeliner in the fateful 2011 audition. “I asked her to cry and she made me cry,” he said, his own eyes filling with tears as he spoke about Lawrence. “She cried, so she went to get a tissue in the bathroom. She went, ‘Ah! There’s a gigantic spider in the bathroom!’ She imitated how the spider went when she tried to attack [it]. That fascinated me as much as anything else. She was unlike anybody I’d ever seen.”
Lawrence, who was “an eleventh-hour addition” to American Hustle, Russell said, filming her performance in “three weeks between X-Men and Hunger Games,” had made a worse first impression on Russell when they briefly met at a January 2011 American Film Institute lunch. “She looked kind of like an Orange County girl,” said Russell, “all dressed up in a white dress with big hair, with high heels. And I was like, ‘Who is that? That’s the girl from Winter’s Bone?’ I said, ‘Wow, she doesn’t look anything like that.’ Then [later in 2011], she did a Skype audition that blew me away.”
Then Russell had to convince Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co. backed Silver Linings. “Harvey was very skeptical,” said Russell. “I went personally to his office in New York to show him the Skype. I didn’t trust him just looking at it casually himself … within 30 seconds of looking at her I heard him say, ‘Oh my God.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, there you go.’ And that was that.”
Russell spoke to a group of students at LMU’s School of Film and Television in Los Angeles, in the ongoing series The Hollywood Masters, moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway.
Many of Russell’s recollections dramatized how important spontaneity and emotion are to the new filmmaking style he perfected in 2010’s The Fighter, 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, and his current 10-Oscar nominee American Hustle. “Robert De Niro crying in Silver Linings Playbook was a scene that wasn’t in the movie,” said Russell, “or even Jennifer doing ‘Live and Let Die’ wasn’t in American Hustle for a while.”
Russell was amazed by Lawrence’s emotions even when the camera wasn’t running on Hustle. “She’s walking around the set all the time reading the Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina, which is like a phone book. I was just impressed that this 20-year-old girl is reading Anna Karenina — from Kentucky, who likes to eat junk food, and watch Real Housewives of Long Island. I go, ‘Oh wow, you’re down to almost the end, Jennifer. Have you gotten to the part where she throws herself under the train tracks?’ And she goes, ‘What?’ She goes, ‘Surely, surely Vronsky is coming back!’ And she starts crying, she’s sobbing. I’ve never had an experience like that in my life, this 20-year-old person who is living every ounce of Anna Karenina.”
Russell candidly described his own emotions going through his turbulent career, which included years when he had to live with his parents in his late 20s, paying off debt he had incurred while making his first two films.
“I think your 20s are not a happy time, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “Everybody always goes, ‘Oh, your 20s are the best time of your life.’ In retrospect, I’m like, ‘Not so much. Not for me.’ I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted to tell stories. I was also trying to be a novelist. I was trying to do that, and that eventually turned into filmmaking. But I was always a writer.”
He continued: “I was broke the whole time. I remember saying to my dad, ‘Hey, dad, I made this year $13,000.’ I somehow thought that was impressive. I remember him going, ‘Wow. Great.’ I was really embarrassed by that. [I had] many jobs, many, many, many jobs. I was a waiter for a very fancy catering company in Washington D.C. and also in New York City. Sometimes the parties would be at the premieres of fancy movies, like The Color of Money — and ‘Oh, there’s Tom Cruise and there’s Martin Scorsese. Oh, let’s try to get near them. Oh … they’re asking me for a drink.’ ”
He also recalled meeting Barry Diller while serving as a waiter at Rupert Murdoch’s home. “[I gave him] my screenplay, my horror movie. I could have been fired so badly. He was very kind to me, God bless him. I did that to him twice. And then I found the script in the garbage down in the lobby of the building.”
It was only in his 30s that Russell found success with his first feature, Spanking the Monkey, then went on to make such features as Three Kings and The Fighter.
“I would always think of Van Gogh,” he said. “It’s always good to look for a silver lining. I was like, ‘Well, Van Gogh didn’t start painting until his early 30s, so it’s not a bad example. He did OK.’ I don’t think he made it to 40, but let’s not focus on that part.”
Russell said he was veering away from his reported interest in working in TV — which may be bad news for ABC, which is developing a series for him.
“I’m not really transitioning right now to TV projects,” he said. “I don’t know if that thing’s going to work out. Matt Weiner, the creator of Mad Men just gave me a crash course on this: [He said], ‘You know, if you’re really going to make a show that’s like a movie, you’ve got to give yourself to it.’ Matt Weiner gave his life to Mad Men, Vince Gilligan gave his life to Breaking Bad. That’s going to be it. Otherwise it ain’t going to be your art or your vision. I was in delusion that I could do both. It was an illusion. I woke up and said, ‘What am I going to do, stop making feature films? Are you crazy?’ This is the height of my work right now. I’m not going to stop that.”
Now he is contemplating his next picture. “I have two things that I’m writing,” he said. “I don’t know which one is going to come first. One is an opus that I want to write, kind of a family saga that would involve many of the actors who are in Silver Linings and maybe some from American Hustle, about a big family story over time. The other one is [based on] a true story based about a lady in Long Island who was a waitress who invented a Miracle Mop that you sell on late-night television. She invented several things, but ended up in litigation with her own family. And that’s for Jennifer and I to do.”
Future The Hollywood Masters interviews will feature Judd Apatow, William Friedkin, Gary Ross, John Singleton and Disney Studios’ Alan Horn.
The full transcript of Russell’s interview is below:
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Hello again, everyone. Welcome to The Hollywood Masters, filmed on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. My guest today is really one of the most original filmmakers in America. I think of him as a master of anarchy. He has this extraordinary gift of capturing all the chaos in life, and managing to make it somehow a coherent narrative. He blends comedy and tragedy, in ways that nobody else has done. I think he’s really one of the great American filmmakers. Please welcome David O. Russell.
DAVID O. RUSSELL: Thanks Steve, for that lovely introduction.
GALLOWAY: Thanks for being here. This is a busy time for you. I want to go back to the beginnings. Do you remember the first film you saw? And how you fell in love with film?
RUSSELL: In a move theater? Well lets see, I’m 35, that would be … What’s so funny? What’s so funny? Back to the Future. No. I saw a film called The Music Man that my parents took me to in a movie theater that I was very enchanted by, which is about a con man who comes to a small town and purports to be a music teacher and sell them all music lessons. It’s a musical and I really loved it. And the next one might have been Mary Poppins, and the next one after that. … Somehow after that I jump ahead in my film memory to, I remember seeing a Doris Day — I’m just going to tell you every film I saw — I saw a Doris Day film at a drive-in, and I also remember seeing The French Connection in a movie theater when I was very young, which blew my mind.
GALLOWAY: When did you decide that film was your passion?
RUSSELL: I think it was my passion without it being declared like a job that I could have, you know what I mean, or a career that I could have. It was sort of … I didn’t … My parents had all these books because my dad was a book salesman, these coffee table books of cinema, and all these photographs. This is going back to D.W. Griffith all the way up through Hitchcock, through Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, up through the 60s. I would pour over those books obsessively and I would watch movies on TV with my parents. I told you that story when my dad, this is how my parents were: my mom used to cut high school to go to the movies. I was always a populist film person more than an art film person. My dad, he was rarely around, he was working. She goes, ‘You take him out and you buy David a new bed. His bed is broken and old.’ And he never did anything like that with me. So we go out of the house, and he looks at me and he goes … did I tell you this?
GALLOWAY: But tell all of them, look at them a bit.
RUSSELL: But I really want to tell you. I’m more comfortable just telling you. You mean, look out here, that’s what you’re trying to tell me? Directing me a little bit?
GALLOWAY: A wee bit. I’m learning from you. By the way, directors always direct. I’ve never done an interview where a director hasn’t directed me, including David. Especially David, true or false?
GALLOWAY: So the bed …
RUSSELL: I think it’s better if my character is engaged with you, because my character is here talking to you. So he goes, now look — as soon as we get out of the house, he goes — now look, we can go get you the new bed or we can go to the movies. I was 7 years old. I go, let’s go to the movies. And he took me to this really cheesy Dean Martin movie with Ann-Margret, that kind of blew my mind. It was kind of like Austin Powers; the original Austin Powers was Matt Helm, that’s the series. How’s that for an answer?
GALLOWAY: Good. So the character, David who’s sitting here, who was that character as a kid?
RUSSELL: When I went to the movies? What are you talking about?
GALLOWAY: Yeah, what were you like at that age?
RUSSELL: At 7 years old? Oh I was always living in half of my imagination. I grew up to read that Bob Dylan … I always thought that was cheating. Just like I thought obsessing about movies didn’t count. Somehow that was something you did on the side. That really couldn’t be your life. I don’t know why, that was my middle class observation of life. Which I find interesting because I wasn’t just about film, I was about life. I knew all this stuff about life. What was the question again?
GALLOWAY: You as a 7 year old. You were always in your imagination.
RUSSELL: So when I grew up I read about how Bob Dylan said how he wrote songs, and that kind of made me realize that what I’ve been doing my whole life could be considered professionally legitimate. Because he said that all day long people eat with him and talk to him and they think they’re just talking to him and eating with him. But what’s really going on is he’s also listening to a song in his head all day. It can be a song by Hank Williams, or Woody Guthrie, some great song by Lead Belly and he’s just got those two things going on. He’s talking to you and he’s listening to the song. So I would do that with movies my whole life, which means movies to me were like a way to live life ‘cause I would half live in the movie. So if it happened to be The French Connection, when I’d be walking around like at 12 years old, I’d be like half living in The French Connection. So I half feel like I’m Gene Hackman. I wrote an article in my high school newspaper about me being in Chinatown as Jack Nicholson, etc. I kind of inhabited those things.
GALLOWAY: Do you have a movie going on in your head now? Don’t let him get away with anything by the way, because he will. (Laughter.)
RUSSELL: What am I going to get away with? No, I don’t think I have a movie going on in my head right now. Maybe I wish I did have a movie going on in my head right now.
GALLOWAY: Who was the bigger influence of your parents? Your mother?
RUSSELL: They both were pretty big. My mother was the larger personality in the house, Dr. Freud. She was like home a lot more and a very colorful Italian American woman. My dad — they’re both first generation Americans — a Russian-Jewish guy who, we both loved comedies. My dad introduced me to … Also big criers at the movies, both my parents. I saw them both cry at the movies. Love Story, my dad was openly weeping. That’s kind of impressive when you’re a kid.
GALLOWAY: What were they like?
RUSSELL: As people, very colorful, very talkative, passionate, they really loved each other. But that also meant heated, it meant there was a lot of drama in the house. Which is good for a filmmaker, I think.
GALLOWAY: You told me once your dad hated cheese.
RUSSELL: That’s a scene I put in Flirting With Disaster. Yeah, that’s a scene right out of my life. A lot of the scenes in that movie are right out of my life.
GALLOWAY: What happened?
RUSSELL: He just would have certain issues about odors — is this really interesting? About odors and things that he would have — to this day, he’s 85 — violent reaction to and there’d be a whole argument between them about. He’d go: ‘Get that cheese away from me, it smells disgusting.’ It just sounds ridiculous. But then I had George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore doing that scene. And she’d say, ‘Oh stop it,’ and then she’d try to torture him with the cheese. Everybody’s sitting there going, ‘Jeez are we eating dinner? What’s happening?’ And they’re having this drama about the cheese.
GALLOWAY: So you grew up in New York.
RUSSELL: I grew up in a suburb of New York. All my family was from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, all the boroughs.
GALLOWAY: And then you went to Amherst.
RUSSELL: I was the first person who aspired to be a preppie, until I got there and I saw the real preppies. And I said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to make it against those guys.’ That’s the real deal right there. They’re like four generations deep. I thought I’d just quit right there.
GALLOWAY: I thought you were taught by Uma Thurman’s dad, weren’t you?
RUSSELL: He was my teacher, yes. And he’s still a friend of mine. He ran the Department of Religion at Columbia and then at Amherst. And I’ve kind of known her and him for a long time.
GALLOWAY: And after Amherst you went to Nicaragua.
RUSSELL: But I was an English major and I was also watching — movies helped me survive college. I remember dating a girl and living in The Graduate in my head. Many, many, many films. I was always interested in passionate matters, much to my parents’ dismay. ‘Cause none of them seemed like they were going to make me any money or pay for my college education. So, it was either passionate politics, like the overturn of a dictatorship in Central America that I was fascinated by, and went down to participate in and write about. That was a whole adventure I had that maybe I’ll document one day.
GALLOWAY: You went to Nicaragua. What happened?
RUSSELL: Yeah. I learned a lot of things about that. It was an amazing adventure. They were in the middle of a revolution and our government … There were bullets going on and … Here’s a funny story. Cinema saved my life down there too. To the world I wanted to be seen as this adventurer. I’m going off to the wilds of the world where there’s danger and excitement and justice. I was a teacher down there of English and a teacher of literacy, but really I was miserable. And I couldn’t write home that I was miserable because that would mean my adventure wasn’t the grand adventure that it was. So I kept a stiff upper lip in my letters, and meanwhile I found the one movie theater in this bombed out poor country. Is anybody here from Nicaragua? It’s just a very poor country. They’d had an earthquake in 1972. They’d had an earthquake and the dictator … Howard Hughes was there during the earthquake, weirdly. He would go hang out there, in his weird life, with the dictator Anastasio Somoza [Debayle]. And during the earthquake, he took off during the earthquake in helicopter and left his crumbling city. Which remained crumbled because the dictator pillaged all the relief funds and never rebuilt it. And then there was a revolution. So it was just like a wreck, the city. But there was one movie theater, which I found, I managed to find. It was playing a movie that I would never have gone to if I was here. It was Raiders of the Lost Ark. As a 23-year-old or whatever I was, I would never go to such populist fare. I think when you’re young you tend to be rebellious and purist and you go for more intense art cinema, etc. I would never go for such populist fare. But, oh I went to that every day. And more and more as my time ran out there. I just couldn’t handle being in the real world. And so … and they didn’t have lines down there. I was like, did you guys ever hear of a line? So there it was like a mob scene to get a movie ticket every night. It was like a riot to get a movie ticket. But I would hang in there and I would get the movie ticket. I even got into an altercation one night because it was my lifeline. I gave this guy who was ahead of me some dough and said could you please get me a ticket and then I saw him going in with all his friends. I was like, OK I understand, you got everybody. But could you just get me one. And he didn’t give me one. And I was quite upset because I wasn’t going to make it through the next day without seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark again.
GALLOWAY: How many times did you see it?
RUSSELL: A lot. I could sing the song. (singing) da-da-da-daahh, da-da-da…. John Williams.
GALLOWAY: Then when you came back what did you do?
RUSSELL: Even though politically, I would have said, well that’s like a racist movie about the white man adventuring in the Third World, which I was kind of doing. I’m being straight up about it.
GALLOWAY: So when you came back?
RUSSELL: I came back, you are so meticulous Steven. So I came back and I wrote about that experience in some fringe periodicals. I played baseball down there. They have some amazing baseball players down there. My dad was a semipro baseball player and I was an OK baseball player when I was 13, 14. But I hadn’t played in a lot of years. So I played baseball down there on a semipro team, which is … that’s what I wrote about. That was a crazy story. They had pigs and banana trees in the outfield.
GALLOWAY: And then you worked as a bartender, as a waiter.
RUSSELL: Yes, and I was an organizer for better housing in working communities. That was what I did. I did that in New England, I did it in Boston, and I did it in the state of Maine, in a factory town in Maine where they made shoes. A town called Lewiston, Maine. See this is good stuff because it’s about life — it’s not about movies. It’s good to have some life experiences. Then they’re in your secret treasure chest.
GALLOWAY: By the way do you think you lose touch with life experiences once you get into making movies full time?
RUSSELL: Not if you know how to keep your ears and eyes open. I think you have to learn how to keep your ears and eyes open. Certainly not as much [as when] I was living in a factory town. And living with those people and helping to improve the housing and getting slums … That was the first time I used video equipment, was to document really bad code violations in these apartment buildings. We presented it to the town council, which was extremely powerful. That guy, that slumlord got into a lot of trouble because of that.
GALLOWAY: Were you happy at that time?
RUSSELL: No. I think your 20s are not a happy time, as far as I’m concerned. Everybody always goes, oh your 20s are the best time of your life. In retrospect I’m like, not so much. Not for me. I would say, my teen years got good in high school, and then it was into the abyss. You go back to, good luck figure out who you are in the world. And some people do just great with that. Everybody’s different. Not me. To me it was like, I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted to tell stories. I was also trying to be a novelist. I was trying to do that, and that eventually turned into filmmaking. But I would come home every night and try to write fiction. I was always writing stories, so I was always a writer.
GALLOWAY: How did writing the novel turn into filmmaking?
RUSSELL: It was just too hard for me to write a novel. I couldn’t find my voice. It was also too lonely. I was just sitting alone. There’s something very social about filmmaking. And I hoped it would make it easier for me to write a story, which it did eventually after about 30 years.
GALLOWAY: I know you wrote lots of drafts of scripts. How many scripts did you write before you actually got to make films?
RUSSELL: Well, my first script I wrote — this will be an interesting lesson for you — I thought horror was blowing up in the late 80s. They had a film called Re-Animator. You ever see Re-Animator? Not a lot of horror fans here. I’m not especially a horror fan myself, unless it’s a psychological one. So I go to my friend, let’s write a horror movie. A smart horror movie. We wrote a political horror movie, which incorporated, it was about these factory workers from Maine who became toxic and raided the bankers of Wall Street. It was like a monster plague movie but with a political purpose. And of course it got nowhere. I couldn’t’ sell it. I was very disappointed. But I wrote that many times with a high school friend of mine. I learned a lot about writing from that. And then, I wrote so many things. I struggled so much.
GALLOWAY: What did you learn from writing those?
RUSSELL: I learned a lot of things.
GALLOWAY: But what did you learn that you could tell everyone here?
RUSSELL: I would say it’s good to … I would say, tell the story, tell me the whole story, tell it like you’re telling a story. This is what I do to students anywhere I meet. Tell me the story, tell it to me right now. And I would force myself to tell the story. What happens is people get stuck in little backwaters, or I did. I’d kind of tell so much of the story, then I’d get hung up in a character thing that was interesting to me — which was interesting. And then I wouldn’t know how to get back into the story. I see that happen all the time. You get this far and then you end up in the flowers, and then you’re kind of like, OK I’m not sure what to do now. I would help get all the toothpaste out of the tooth by forcing people … I have to force me to do it. You’ve got to have a gun to your head, I do, to tell a story — something burning inside you that can add to it, that wants to tell it. That helps, if it’s more instinctive, instead of from up here.
GALLOWAY: Do you ever have writers block?
DAVID O. RUSSELL: Yes. That’s why, especially when it’s more from up here. Not when I’m listening to the music of what excites me, the language. By music I mean the language of people talking and what excites me. You’ve got to dial in to what’s exciting to you, a situation or a moment. Once you dial into that, the excitement feeds on itself. But I had writers block many times, that’s why I prefer to speak to people. Then by speaking to you I can trick myself into writing. Very often I would say, to open up Final Draft that’s a very intimidating thing. It’s a final draft. I’m lucky if I get a first draft. So, I just stay away from Final Draft. Until it’s like a clerical act. By then I’ve done a lot. Maybe emailed some friends, and I’m saying, this is what I’m doing. Oh, look at that — the email turned into an outline for the first act. I tricked myself because I was in a conversation. But if I said, write the first act, I’d go … So I’d have a conversation with someone and by telling them, I don’t know I think it should be like this, before you know it you’re in the water. You’re in the pool and you’re swimming, and you’d go, oh look at that I’m swimming. But if you said, swim, you might kind of choke. That’s an important lesson that I learned. Talking to people, then I take all that stuff, put it into final draft, and then when you have to put it into final draft, then you can organize it and make it better.
GALLOWAY: So you had a struggle in your 20s. You made a couple of short films and then you were broke.
RUSSELL: I was broke the whole time. I remember saying to my dad, I was watching some movie late at night with my dad at home, where I wish I wasn’t living still. At like 28 I had to move back there because I couldn’t stand my roommates in Brooklyn. I couldn’t take it any more. And I had to pay off the debt from my first short film. And I just wasn’t being able to pay it off. I borrowed money to make that short film. All I’m doing is working to pay off some debt, I can’t write or do anything. So if I moved home I could do some writing. But then suddenly I was home, which presented a whole other set of problems. I remember I said, hey dad I made this year $13,000. I somehow thought that was impressive. I remember him going, wow. Great. I was really embarrassed by that. Many jobs, many, many, many, jobs. I worked many, many, many different things. I worked as a bartender, a waiter. I was waiter for a very fancy catering company in Washington D.C. and also in New York City. Sometimes the parties would be at the premieres of fancy movies. Like a movie called The Color of Money. And, oh, there’s Tom Cruise and there’s Martin Scorsese. Oh, let’s try to get near them. Oh, they’re asking me for a drink. OK. I’ll have to go get a drink. So I waited on those guys a lot. You see a lot of interesting stuff. You go into a lot of rich houses in New York and see a lot of good stuff.
GALLOWAY: Like what?
RUSSELL: Just how those big apartments are at Fifth Avenue. Their kitchens were as big as the house I grew up in. The back service hall was bigger than the apartment. Jacqueline Onassis had a clothing rack, with all those wonderful dresses from the Kennedy years, but it was all sealed. One seamless piece of vinyl that went for like a 100 feet. So it would be against a wall. All those amazing suits were in there. I thought that was kind of cool.
GALLOWAY: I know you slipped a script to …
RUSSELL: I would often be a waiter at the Christmas party of Rupert Murdoch. He lived in a townhouse triplex in an apartment building on Fifth Avenue. Here would come the executives, the Barry Diller, who at that time ran what was Fox Studio and the new Fox Network. I’d bring my screenplay, my horror movie. I could have been fired so badly. He was very kind to me, God bless him. I did that to him twice.And then I found the script in the garbage down in the lobby of the building. Serving the truffles, I would … I have a … I even sent him my short film that I made, my first short film where I didn’t have any clue what I was doing. I came to New York City. I’d been living in Washington working as a PA on a PBS series called Smithsonian World, which the historian David McCullough hosted. And it was about the history in the Smithsonian. A filmmaker there told me that if I could go to New York I could find young filmmakers who would help me make a film, which I didn’t know how to do. I didn’t know how to make a film. But I decided that I wanted to make films. It’s a long process to learn how to do one. It’s hard to learn how to do one.
GALLOWAY: And at some point you did. You made …
RUSSELL: You’ve got to do a lot of bad work before you do good work.
GALLOWAY: So let’s take a look at your first feature, which isn’t bad at all. It’s terrific. Spanking the Monkey.
[CLIP SPANKING THE MONKEY]
GALLOWAY: How do you feel when you see that now? (LAUGHTER)
RUSSELL: You know, a lot of feelings. I think it holds up.I think the movie holds up, so I feel good about that. That was a long struggle to get to make that film. I learned a lot about writing. I wrote that on jury duty as something that was just for me. It came out as … that was another trick about writing. Sometimes you do something. I was supposed to be writing this other thing that was going to turn into my first feature. And there’s all this pressure on that. I wrote it many times and it kept not happening. But this thing that was just a nothing that was just for me, became the thing. It happened like that. Versus the other thing I’d spent two years on. So it’s also good to have what I call a little mistress project. There’s like your marital project that you go like, I do wed thee. You are my project, I’m married to you. Put on the ring. And then you’re like, oh my gosh, how do I live up to this marriage? This project? Then you just go over here and just get a little kiss for a second and then the whole thing turns into this spectacular thing comes out. Because it didn’t count supposedly, it didn’t count, there was no pressure on it. So that came out like that. And at first it was just for me because I thought it was so embarrassing. It’s a very disturbing story that I embroidered from some true emotional messed up things that had happened in my house. Nothing that extreme had happened, but I I embroidered into that dark story, like a dark fantasy. And I thought, well this is … I can’t show this to anyone, it’s just too disturbing and embarrassing. Very often that becomes the best stuff.
GALLOWAY: We should say this is about a teenager’s pretty complicated relationship with his mother. How much of it is actually autobiographical?
RUSSELL: A little bit. My mom was an intense person. There was one particular summer where she was having a hard time. She was drinking a lot and she got in a car crash. She was hurt from that and I had to take care of her, or help take care of her. That just felt very oppressive to me and suffocating. I put that into the movie. And then I took it farther. What helped liberate me, in terms of, yes you can go ahead and do that is — you know the film maker Gus Van Sant? Does anybody here know that guy? So he’s a friend of mine now, which I’m very grateful for. At the time he had made a movie called Drugstore Cowboy. Anybody here seen that movie? I have to tell you, I highly recommend it ‘cause it’s kind of a perfect movie. It’s a very beautiful movie. I then went back and saw, I think what is his first feature, which is something called Mala Noche. You ever seen that? That inspired me, gave me permission to write that. ‘Cause Mala Noche is about — Gus is gay — and he wrote a movie about a middle-aged gay man who was obsessed with a young immigrant bus boy. And I remember thinking, I can’t believe he made this movie. It’s so embarrassing, I can’t believe he made it. And that said to me, maybe that’s OK. Maybe you should write this thing. So that was kind of helpful. Sometimes the most disturbing material is a great source, just like in humanity, sometimes the greatest mistakes, or the greatest predicaments are the greatest source of faith and rebirth. The mess is often the source of the inspiration and the rebirth. That’s what happened with The Fighter. I looked at that first character, the Christian Bale character, and I was just grossed out when I first read about it. I was just, oh this is not somebody I want to spend any time with. These people are just horrible. They just seemed like terrible people. But then you look closer, and you get to meet the real people and you find the heart in them and you find the good parts in them. And then it gets a little more interesting doesn’t it? You start to find the humanity, you start to find the beauty, you start to find the redemption. And that all becomes very interesting to me.
GALLOWAY: But isn’t that true of most people? You make a judgment and then you get to know them. You meet understand their point of view. You inevitably see them differently.
RUSSELL: And I’m always surprised. You always think you know. That’s why you should never say you know. Sometimes you have to say you know. Sometimes you think you know and you have to be ready to be wrong, very often. I had a preconception about England. I thought England — nothing personal. Well, mostly it based on my knowledge of you.
GALLOWAY: I knew that was coming …
RUSSELL: Good we’re going to be in St. Louis and then Las Vegas next week. I just thought of England as a very snooty place. I don’t believe in pretense. There is a cinema of pretense, which to means it’s like very self-important, and every frame says this is important, and it doesn’t have a sense of humor or a sense of irreverence or surprise. My cinema is more populist, and more irreverent, and also more accessible. I just avoid pretense, I don’t like it. Sometimes I think that’s a handicap. Because sometimes people think, oh you’re movie isn’t important unless it’s pretentious. And I couldn’t disagree more. But I expected that England, wrongly, would only be about the cinema of pretentiousness. And I was stunned when we were not only nominated for BAFTA’s last year, but won. I won, which shocked me. And then I won again this year for screenplay, which moved me, quite honestly. I’m actually moved that they’ve been so embracing of our work. And Jennifer won and our hair and makeup people won. So you never know. You think you know, but you may not know.
GALLOWAY: If you hadn’t won, would you still of liked England?
RUSSELL: Then I would say England is a really bad place. (LAUGHTER)
GALLOWAY: Quite right. Spanking the Monkey, how did this change your life and how old were you when it came out?
RUSSELL: I was old in cinema years. I was 35. So I didn’t start turning my ship’s direction till my late 20s. And that’s good. I would always think of Van Gogh. It’s always good to look for a silver lining. I was like, well Van Gogh didn’t start painting until his early 30s, so it’s not a bad example. He did OK. I don’t think he made it to 40, but let’s not focus on that part. Let’s just focus on … (LAUGHTER)
GALLOWAY: Everyone here is young, but it’s so difficult to get that point when you’re in your mid-30s and you’ve accomplished nothing. And your friends are making a fortune. And you’re waiting for Rupert Murdoch.
RUSSELL: Were you there in that place in your 30s?
GALLOWAY: I was there, yeah.
DAVID O. RUSSELL: And what were you trying to do or what were you doing?
GALLOWAY: Well, initially make films. Then write.
RUSSELL: You were trying to make films, Stephen? How were you trying to make films?
GALLOWAY: Yeah. I’m not going to talk about myself.
RUSSELL: Come on. Just two seconds. What kind of film were you trying to make? It’s five seconds, what’s the big deal?
GALLOWAY: You’re talking so it’s hard to get the five seconds. I found I had more of a gift for prose writing than screenwriting. In the way that you wrote the novel did. I felt in command of prose. I felt I could capture you in prose. What are the words that I’m going to say? I just did a profile of David. How am I going to begin this story? You were a bit nervous about that story, as always, right? And it turned out great. What is going to capture the essence of this man? I’ve got to capture an audience very quickly. We have similar narrative problems. We went to the Diane Von…
RUSSELL: Hold on, that was very clever. Just tell me one thing. What was that movie you tried to make?
GALLOWAY: I actually had the rights to Sons and Lovers and then lost the rights.
RUSSELL: The D. H. Lawrence book? Wow.
GALLOWAY: So now I’ve answered your question, let’s get back to you.
RUSSELL: What is the question? How old I was. It was getting a little hairy because I was entering my mid-30s. I think that was a nice thing for you to come out and tell us that I was entering my early 30s. People I knew had cars and marriages and I had nothing. Still working as a bartender. My parents were like, why did we send you to that freakin’ college for? And I just was all work, no play. That’s OK though. I respect that. I was not running around having fun, like people. I would work at my job and come home and spend all this time in my apartment writing. It was very isolating. I went to the Sundance film festival with this first short film that I didn’t know how to make. And I met my wife there. I didn’t get a film deal, but I met somebody who became my wife, then became my ex-wife. But she also, we had a child together who became my son, which became the reason that I made Silver Linings Playbook. So fortuitous things happen. And then I made a second short film. On the first short film I was so embarrassed that I didn’t know how to do anything. And I had met this group of films students who had gone to film school. They were five years older than me: Sally Menke, who became Quentin Tarantino’s editor and died tragically a couple of years ago. And Dean Parisot, who became a very good director. They were a couple, and they took me under their wing and said we’re going to help this punk try to make a film. And I felt so embarrassed I didn’t know how to do nothing. That when I made my second short film I made sure to do every single thing myself, every single thing so no one could take it away from me. I scouted every location, and did everything. And that film was actually better. I’m still supposed to show you that.
GALLOWAY: You didn’t show it to me yet.
RUSSELL: OK I still will.
GALLOWAY: I got this close to seeing it.
DAVID O. RUSSELL: OK, you’re still going to get it. I was waiting for you to bring it up again. So Spanking the Monkey, we did that. I didn’t even know if we were going to get into Sundance. My wife who worked at New Line Cinema couldn’t get my movies made or my scripts bought, just so you know, those friends can’t help you. It’s not who you know, really. Sometimes it is. She did help me get an agent. Which did allow me to leave my day jobs and night jobs. And start working as a writer. My first job for hire was for Dolly Parton.
GALLOWAY: What did you write?
RUSSELL: It was a high school movie that got never made. But I got to meet her and it was very exciting. I got guild minimum and I was happy to be a writer, not be doing my other jobs. So after we got into Sundance, we then won the Audience Award. Which was lovely and I discovered I had made a comedy. Which I didn’t really know that, I thought it was more a tragedy. But you learn a lot from watching your films with audiences. I think you should never be afraid to do that and to learn from that. And to take notes from people. Although, you must keep away from toxic people, because there are some toxic people who will just try to take you down. And I encountered many of those. As a creative person you have to protect yourself from those people, because they don’t have your best interest in mind. But if people could give you constructive criticism, I absolutely think you should take it. I’ve met filmmakers that go, I don’t want to show my film to an audience. I go, that’s a big mistake, man. You should show your film, sit there and feel what its like with a big audience.
GALLOWAY: How do the toxic people try to bring you down?
RUSSELL: They just kind of dump on everything, and they’re not helpful. That’s not helpful. You have to be a little encouraging to somebody. You have to understand this person’s trying to do something. They’re sticking their neck out. Try to give them some hope but also try to be helpful. It’s too easy to just take shots at somebody and just say, I think this sucks. That’s no good.
GALLOWAY: So you made Spanking the Monkey. It cost you what $80,000?
RUSSELL: Yes. I had grants from New York State. I would write these grant proposals, which were as hard as writing a movie. Because you had to get them and win them in this much space. Knock them out. You have to take your whole film idea and make a haiku of it. That takes a lot of work. Otherwise you start explaining. You get this far. You haven’t wowed me with anything. You’ve got to wow people. I got grants from the NEA (the National Endowment for the Arts), and the New York State Council for the Arts. I hope those things still exist and if they don’t, I think they should. I’m going to pledge to spend my older years lobbying to get those things funded. Very exciting to me. It was for another movie. Not the movie Spanking the Monkey when I had to give them money back to them. Because they said we didn’t give you the money to make that disturbing incest movie. We gave you the money to make this other movie. But I was able to pay them back because we were able to sell the film at Sundance. I paid everybody back. I was the lead in the New York Times story of that Sundance. Sundance till that time had been more about save the foreign movies. And Steven Soderbergh had started to break that mold and we came and went even farther in a different, more disturbing direction.
GALLOWAY: That really put you on the map. You then did Flirting With Disaster.
RUSSELL: And my wife at the time very rightly said, you better act quickly because you’re going to be the flavor of the month for about five minutes. And it’s true that many of the people in my class at Sundance never got to make other films.
GALLOWAY: Do you still have that fear?
RUSSELL: Oh yeah I do think you should do that. I would advise any actor or filmmaker to don’t dilly dally.
GALLOWAY: Because you’ve made three films now in four years. Is there the fear that, oh my god the next one, this will end.
RUSSELL: I just think you should always make it like it’s your last film. That’s my personal belief. Every filmmaker is going to have another belief. That’s just what I believe. I think you should. That’s the only way I know to try to make a film that might be good. You got to take it real seriously like it’s your last thing. Some people may not do a good story until you dangle them off a cliff. And then they go, OK, and they say oh that was good. Before you got dangled off the cliff, I don’t know, you were kind of meandering around.
GALLOWAY: You then came to this extraordinary film, which is the first one I saw. I saw Spanking, Flirting later. The first one I saw, and I was startled by the very first frame, was Three Kings. I want to show everyone the beginning of Three Kings.
[CLIP THREE KINGS]
GALLOWAY: I remember seeing this film. I knew David O. Russell’s name. I didn’t really know his work. This was a Warner Bros. film. Seemed like it’s an action movie. And you go, what’s that? It’s so startlingly original. As you say, you laugh when you don’t want to laugh. All the emotions that you think you shouldn’t be feeling, you’re feeling. How did this come to you? This was a script written by John Ridley, who just did Twelve Years a Slave. You got the script and then what?
RUSSELL: Well it was the logline that really made me want to make the film. Which was just, this was the first Gulf War where people didn’t see a lot of action. And I saw it as an opportunity to make a film that was about … that allowed me to get out of these claustrophobic or self-involved worlds, and into a larger, more outwardly oriented world that was about … shows some of my experiences I had in Central America, and my sensibilities about that. And to comment on violence. There are only five bullets in the whole movie, so each bullet really counts. There’s not very few bullets in the movie. I wanted to do the opposite of an action film. Sort of like a meditation on violence and how horrible it is. And it was an opportunity to do that as well as to point out the contradictions, at that time of going into that war, yet abandoning some of the people there, which we then went back and it became too hard to try to set up a democracy there. There was a lot of things that it gave me a chance to do. To take a more aggressive visual approach to cinema. So I asked John Ridley, I said I would like to do this, my thing that I want to do. So I called him up and said, could we have an amicable agreement where you will take the story by credit and I’ll take screenplay credit. Because after all you did get there first with this idea of guys who try to steal some stuff in this environment. But I’d like to do my own thing with it. So then he took story by and I wrote the screenplay.
GALLOWAY: How was it working with a major studio on a real budget film for the first time? I don’t think you’d ever been in a studio’s offices before you made this film?
RUSSELL: That’s why I wanted to do it. That’s what I thought was grown up filmmaking. I’ve got to go to a studio lot, make a studio movie, and it was all very romantic to me. At that time the studios were very much interested in taking in the new blood from Sundance, all those new filmmakers. So, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who was running the studio at that time, and Bill Gerber said, please come make a movie here and we’ll support you. And Lorenzo kind of staked his job on two films: Three Kings and a movie called The Matrix. They both did alright for him. He was on the line, he had staked his reputation on those two movies. He would have been out, he would have been fired. It was a lot of pressure, it’s a lot of pressure. A lot more money is on the table. I learned a lot about it. I wanted to do action sequences, which I’m proud of the action sequences in that movie. I learned that I can do them, and there’s a rhythm to them. Everything’s about rhythm to me. Language and cutting and shooting — I mean film, not bullets. I’m also not in a hurry to do action again. I think I’ve come to the place where I’m happy to be with people like in the last three movies.
GALLOWAY: How did you actually feel the pressure put on you?
RUSSELL: Because I made a personal promise to him. There’s always this big argument about the budget, right? So, I didn’t realize how it went down back then. I’m always very, I’m guileless. I don’t have some political, I don’t think of things that way, which is just how I am. I made a personal pledge to Lorenzo that we were going to stay on budget and on schedule. But I didn’t know that the way they really did things there was to give you 10 days less than they knew you needed. So that was how they thought you would eventually come in on schedule. That took 10 years off my life. Because every time we’d go over schedule, I was freaking out. I made a personal pledge to him. I took that very seriously that I’m not going to go over. The first day of shooting we went over, because the cinematographer wanted to do this whole crane apparatus when they were driving in the Humvee. And I didn’t care about it. It was this big crane apparatus. I didn’t really care about it. I was happy to do it some indie way from vehicle to vehicle. But I just gave it to him. I was like fine. I don’t care. Then the crane thing never worked. In half a day we were a day behind.I was like, oh my god. I just couldn’t believe it. I was used to … I made a movie in 23 days. That’s how you got to do it. I made Spanking the Monkey, I made Flirting With Disaster, it was like 33 days. Bang. There was no going over. So to me that as a lot of pressure.
GALLOWAY: Do you feel stressed when you’re shooting?
RUSSELL: Yeah, but now I feel like I’m in command of it. Then, it was in command of me. Now I feel like I welcome it, like a professional athlete would. I think it makes us perform at a higher level and I feel able to direct it as good energy.
GALLOWAY: This is the first film where you started what I think of as the David O. Russell style, where the camera is constantly in motion, there’s a mix of serious and comedy, the absurdity, the cutting is fast. Did you look at other filmmakers to think of how you wanted to get that?
RUSSELL: Mostly I looked at a film called Yo Soy Cuba, I Am Cuba. Which is actually a Russian propaganda film that was made by a Russian filmmaker whose name I should remember. He’s inspired, that film inspired, a lot of filmmakers have ripped him off, including one called Martin Scorsese, has borrowed from him liberally as did Paul Thomas Anderson. I mean, that film is sick. Yo Soy Cuba. There’s just shots in that are just amazing that they did. They didn’t have technology. It was made in the early 60s, it was made to support the Cuban Revolution and a New Cuba. This Russian guy came over and made this black and white film and they did things like a continuous shot, and they had to devise technology, like … There’s a grain elevator they use. You know all this?
GALLOWAY: I’ve seen it but in Spanish, I’ve never seen it with subtitles, so I couldn’t understand it.
RUSSELL: You almost don’t have to.
GALLOWAY: There’s this extraordinary shot where the camera goes …
RUSSELL: It goes down into the swimming pool. It goes down from this fashion show on the roof of a hotel. They used a grain elevator, and it comes down, you’re like oh my god I can’t believe this is still one shot. Then it goes down into the pool area, you’re going through all these women at this fancy hotel in a bikini, it goes toward the pool, then it goes under the water of the pool. All in one shot.
GALLOWAY: And this is all before the steadycam.
RUSSELL: Yeah, they didn’t have no cranes or nothing.
GALLOWAY: Who were the other filmmakers that influenced you?
RUSSELL: On that film it was mostly that. And my memories and my experience of Central America. As a rule, I would say it was Frank Capra, It’s A Wonderful Life; Roman Polanski, Chinatown principally, Billy Wilder with Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. And I would say in the 80s there was a lot of independent filmmakers who influenced me. I thought Spike Lee’s first film was enormously inspiring. And I found Jim Jarmusch’s first couple of films enormously inspiring. Scorsese has always been an inspiration to me.
GALLOWAY: When you prepare for a film, do you watch other films to train yourself, or do you avoid that?
RUSSELL: Now I avoid it. I don’t, the last three films I would say I’m just pretty much coming up with it from what’s inside myself.
GALLOWAY: Three Kings just made everybody realize, this is an extraordinary filmmaker and then you went through this very difficult period. You made I Heart Huckabees which didn’t work.
RUSSELL: I know but I keep running into people that really like it, which is a strange surprise to me, and to you.
GALLOWAY: Not to me.
RUSSELL: I think a little bit to you.
GALLOWAY: A little bit. You know, if I said I loved that film …
RUSSELL: I didn’t ask you to say that.STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Ok well we won’t go down that path then.
RUSSELL: I was just surprised to see some people… That was… I decided to take a risk. I wanted to take a risk. I was willing to fail. Now I would say, I don’t know. Life just happens the way it’s supposed to happen. It delivers you to where it delivers you I overthought things. I wanted to make a film that was a little more metaphysical. It’s about you hire these detectives to investigate yourself, your own life, like therapists. But you hire them to follow you and tell you about your life. So that was the idea, which I thought was a good idea, a funny idea.
GALLOWAY: It didn’t work at the box office. Which in Hollywood is like …
RUSSELL: But I knew I was making an art film. Dustin Hoffman said to me, you know you’re making an art film. And I didn’t care. This was during the height of the bubble, we had enormous economic expansion that came out of the ’90s from the Clinton administration, and went straight through to the early 2000s. So, there was a lot you could do back then. So I was like I don’t care I’ve got to take a risk, sometimes you need to do that creatively.
GALLOWAY: Your next film, Nailed, never got finished. What happened?
RUSSELL: I was in a period where I was going through a lot of hard things personally. My son had been diagnosed with various issues. I had to help him get on his feet. Takes a lot of energy. I also got divorced. I also sort of lost my way as a storyteller. And lost my feel for it. Then I made this movie that was sort of satire about health care, about a woman who had a nail that got accidentally shot into her head by a nail gun and she couldn’t afford to get the surgery to get it out. That was with Jessica Biel, and Jake Gyllenhaal, and Catherine Keener, and Tracy Morgan. Unprecedented in business with kind of a financing company that some people had said to me, I’d be careful with that financing company. But I forged ahead anyway, and sure enough they were unlike any company I’d ever seen before. They mysteriously didn’t make payroll a few weeks. So the film kept stopping. I didn’t really understand what was happening. It was just really a strange experience, so it never got finished. But then as result of that humble experience, I came back ready to tell stories like The Fighter.
GALLOWAY: By the way, is Nailed ever going to be released?
RUSSELL: I have no clue. But I’ve got nothing to do with that.
GALLOWAY: I heard it might be. There’s the story that there was one missing scene that you never shot.
RUSSELL: Where the nail goes into her head. Yeah.
GALLOWAY: Did you shoot that scene?
GALLOWAY: So it would be kind of hard to release. So you have these two experiences, and you’ve gone from being really — I think this is what people don’t really understand — you can go from being really at the top of the world to suddenly, the bottom. You can’t get a job. What did you do? Were you struggling to make films? Were you turning things down or just not getting things …
RUSSELL: Well, no. I was turning things down, I was always a writer for hire. I wrote a movie. I wrote a big comedy for Vince Vaughn, who I was always a fan of. Then they said please direct it, and I probably should have because I would have been able to pay for my divorce. I just overthought everything. Just don’t overthink things. So it was at a time that I was overthinking things. I was always a writer for hire and Sydney Pollack, the great late director, gave me a novel called Silver Linings Playbook to adapt, and he hired me. I couldn’t get the directing job even. He hired me to re-write it, to adapt it. I said, I think I could do this because I know it personally from my son. Then he died and I couldn’t get it made. Fortunately for Mark Wahlberg I got to make The Fighter. And then I got to make Silver Linings.
GALLOWAY: Let’s take a look at a clip from The Fighter.
[CLIP THE FIGHTER]
GALLOWAY: I was dazzled by that film. I went into it thinking, I didn’t know Christian Bale could act like that. Did he pursue you or did you pursue him for that role?
RUSSELL: It was Mark’s idea to cast him, Mark was the producer of that film and the godfather of it. I came in and helped re-write the script but I never got a credit, but I helped reimagine it as I saw. I wanted to play to what Christian wanted. When we sat with Christian, Christian agreed to work with me because we had the same vision of the character, which was the lovable sides of him, not merely the unpleasant sides of him or the troubled sides of him, and the women were something that I was very interested in in that movie. So I was very excited that Christian could be — who had always been very dark or intense — could be vulnerable, funny, goofy, all those things. And I don’t think people had ever, no one had seen him do that before.
GALLOWAY: I think there was a whole prologue to the original script with his story, like 30 pages of it that you cut. Why did you cut it?
RUSSELL: Right. I saw the film as I saw the film. That film, the way it was in that script to me was a different film. God bless that other film. Darren Aronofsky was the original director on that, but you can only make a film the way you see it and you fee lit. I can only do it the way I feel it. And that wasn’t the way I felt that film. That was a different film that I would say was a darker film, probably more of an art film. I’m happy to make a film that just has more of the things in it that this film has. I didn’t think you had to do his whole career in the first 30 minutes of the movie. I thought it was more interesting, although more difficult cinematically and narratively, to do what we did. That you just saw, that I’m very proud if. That you had to create a braid, a weave, that immediately communicated all this information, propulsively and seamlessly, which I’m proud that we did it also in American Hustle. Which is that it tells you lots of things, it tells you, this is the brother, this is the younger brother, this is the older brother, but he was a hero. And the mother is way into the fact that he was a hero. She’s kind of living in the past that he’s a hero, but he’s kind of a fallen hero, who is now a crack head. But he’s still the brother who trains the younger brother, he’s still the mentor of that brother. That’s a lot to spell out and we kind of did it like we kind of did it. It was wonderful, it was my idea to use that HBO footage and use the device of interviewing the actors. The producer said, we have no time to do that. I’ll just steal moments and throw them on a couch. And god bless the actors, they were willing to roll that way. So at two in the morning, Christian and Mark they would sit on the couch and I’d just start throwing questions at them and they would answer the questions in character. And that became the opening of the film and the closing.
GALLOWAY: How much do your films change in the editing because I know that you discussed this before, the film begins with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale on the couch as if they’re being interviewed and there’s the shock, this gradual realization — is that Christian Bale? No, that can’t be Christian Bale. How much do your films change in the editing?
RUSSELL: Well that, I would say all those scenes were scripted, except perhaps the way they were used is what changed in the editing room. So, we discovered that, as an opening to the film, sometimes your end and your beginning are difficult. Everything is a creative process and I don’t think you should ever stop trying to discover what is best. That was like eight months in to the editing room. I remember very late at night saying, oh my god, this is the way to start the movie. Because it starts with him, Christian. It starts with this person. And I started the last three movies that way: I did it with Christian, I did it with Bradley Cooper, then I did it with Christian again in American Hustle, where you start with this human being. People are just like, who is this human being? You’re just looking at this person and then the person starts talking and you start leaning in to find out who they are and what their predicament is.
GALLOWAY: Who do you talk to for advice when you do that? How do you see it straight when you spend eight months editing a film?
RUSSELL: I love it. I’ve asked you to come by, you never came by,
GALLOWAY: Well I’ll come by in the last …
RUSSELL: I’m just saying that I love it. We have a great time and a great process, and I absolutely love it. It’s like a sports team or like a submarine team. You ever watch a submarine movie where everybody’s like … we have a thing like that. And the editing room is like a submarine ‘cause its a long suite with all these different rooms in it. You can go from chamber to chamber. It’s just fantastic. We have a process and we know how to do it. And we like doing it and we like working together and it’s a wonderful thing. The process has ups and downs to it. I love it, I relish it. It’s an adventure. What is the film going to reveal to you? You don’t know. When you write it, that’s one step. The next is when you rehearse it. There’s things being revealed to you at every moment. Well this is a great idea, as you wrote it. This actually is a better idea. Or this actually is not working. Or, shouldn’t the movie be really more like this? Oh my gosh, I never saw that. So that’s exciting. That happens also when you shoot the film, then it happens again when you’re editing the film. It happens many times when you’re editing the film. There are times when you edit, you live in one version of the film for two or three months and then you make a discovery or a breakthrough. You can only see one way and then you make a breakthrough and it feels so exciting. It’s like a scientific breakthrough and you’re like, oh my god, really this scene should go there and this performance… how could this scene… Like Robert De Niro crying in Silver Linings Playbook, was a scene that wasn’t in the movie. And there were a couple of scenes like that. Or even Jennifer doing “Live and Let Die” wasn’t in the movie for a while. Then you find a way to put it in and you’re like, how could not have been in the movie? It’s unimaginable to me.
GALLOWAY: What do you mean De Niro crying wasn’t in the movie?
RUSSELL: It wasn’t in the film. De NIro sits on the bed and talks to his son, Bradley Cooper, and he gets emotional, which he surprised Bradley and I with. That wasn’t asked for and he just did, it just happened in the last take. Very often, I like to do this, very often, I know we’ve gotten good work in three or four takes. And I go, OK that was really good. OK, let’s move on. And everybody lets their guard down. And then as they’re walking off the set I go, oh no, hold on let’s do it one more time. So, something happens, something magical happens when that happens. People let go of what they’ve been doing. They kind of go wherever they’ve gone in their hearts and minds. Then all of the sudden they’re going to go back. Something new is going to happen. So when Bob did that, Bradley and I, our jaws were on the floor. He has a personal experience with someone he loves very much which has faced those struggles, as my son has, as that character has. So that scene was not in the movie. I looked at it and I just thought, I don’t know about this scene. And then later we’re like, god how could that scene not be in the movie?
GALLOWAY: Let’s just show everybody a quick clip of Silver Linings Playbook.
[CLIP SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK]
GALLOWAY: Jennifer Lawrence. When did you first meet her?
RUSSELL: I first met her the year of The Fighter, at the AFI lunch, the American Film Institute has a lunch for nominees, or the people they picked as the top ten films of that year. She was in a film called Winter’s Bone that year and she was talking to Darren Aronofsky and me, and he was there with a film called Black Swan. I didn’t really understand who she was. She looked kind of like… an Orange County girl. She was all dressed up in a white dress with big hair, with high heels. And I was like, who is that. And they’re like, that’s Jennifer Lawrence. And I’m like, that’s the girl from Winter’s Bone? And they’re like yeah And I said, wow, she doesn’t look anything like that. And I just said hi to her. I remember when I was driving out of that driveway, looking back at her talking, still talking to Darren. Then a year went by and I started to get to make Silver Linings. We had two or three actresses that were very close to getting the role, who had auditioned with me several times. And at the very last minute, we said, well why don’t you read Jennifer Lawrence? I said, well I don’t know if she’s too young for it. Can she come in and read. And they said, why don’t you just read her. She’s in Kentucky and she’ll do it via Skype. And I said OK. And then she did a Skype audition that blew me away.
GALLOWAY: What scene did she do?
RUSSELL: She did several scenes. She did one where she cried, and I’m trying to remember what scene that would be that made her cry. Does she cry in the movie? She cries at the end of the movie. I don’t know, I’d have to go back and get the audition thing, I still have it. She dressed up as the character, she put on black eyeliner, she did the running scenes together, so maybe during one of the running scenes, they have an argument. I asked her to cry and she made me cry. Then she went and killed a spider in the bathroom that was behind her. Which was just kind of amazing to me.
GALLOWAY: What do you mean she went and killed a spider?
RUSSELL: She had cried so she went to get a tissue. Then when she went in the bathroom, she went, ah there’s a gigantic spider in the bathroom. It was in her father’s house, in her parents’ house. Then she imitated how the spider went when she tried to attack the spider. That fascinated me as much as anything else. She was unlike anybody I’d ever seen, unlike anybody I’d ever met. And Harvey Weinstein, the producer of the picture, was very skeptical. I went there personally to his office in New York to show him the Skype. I didn’t trust him just looking at it casually himself. So I went up there from the Philadelphia location to show it to him personally. And I put it in front of him and within 30 seconds of looking at her I heard him say, oh my god. And I said, yeah there you go. And that was that.
GALLOWAY: So you cast her without meeting her?
RUSSELL: Right, except for that time with Darren, except for that time at the lunch. The first time I really met her is when she came running up on to the set to do the scene. I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s the running scene where she says to him in a black trench coat, I can’t do the thing. I can’t give the letter to your wife. I can’t do it. They made a deal for her to give the letter to his wife to break the restraining order. And she says, I can’t do it. And he says, what do you mean? What do you mean you can’t do it? You said you would do it. You said, if I, you said you would do this. She says, yeah but what are you going to do for me? I’m always doing things for other people, and I wake up and I’ve got nothing. Nobody’s ever doing for me. And he goes, I don’t understand. She goes, I’m not my sister. Like her sister gets everything she wants. That makes me cry when I say it. Damn it. It’s all very personal to me. So, she came running on to the set and did that scene with us and Bradley and I, our jaws were hanging were hanging open because we said, wow she’s so amazing. That was when I really met her.
GALLOWAY: What surprised you about her?
RUSSELL: Everything. She’s just very special. I don’t want to overstate it. She is a real down to earth person, who has a sense of humor about herself. Does not think she is important, take the piss out of herself at any moment. And has a very deep, instinctive way of doing things that she can’t explain, that she doesn’t need to explain. She’s not very articulate about it, or articulate necessarily about anything, but that’s OK because she is who she is and what she does… I’ll give you one story about her that I think will explain just a little bit who she is. I think she’s just a very special actor, and everything she does is extremely alive and from her soul. Her soul merges with the soul of the character and becomes a third thing that does unexpected things, that does unexpected things that are somehow deeply moving and enchanting, and alive and unexpected. So here’s an example. So the night we shoot the diner scene from Silver Linings Playbook, we’re out in the dark on the street. Did I tell you this story? Did I tell it to you? Should I tell it or not?
RUSSELL: It’s very cold out and it’s dark. She’s walking around the set all the time reading the Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina. Which is like a phone book. I was just impressed that this 20-year-old girl is reading Anna Karenina, from Kentucky, who likes to eat junk food, and watch Real Housewives of Long Island. She’s a down home girl and she’s reading this book. I love it. These are my favorite people. Like Diane Von Furstenberg. They are fearless, and they have no preconceived conformist notions about anything. They will talk about anything or anybody and embrace anybody or anything. It all happens, has to be real to them. So, she’s reading this novel and has got this much of it left. Does anybody here know that book at all? Not everybody does because people are mostly reading text these days. So she, I go, oh wow, you’re down to almost the end, Jennifer. I watched her reading it to this point. I go, well have you gotten to the part where she throws herself under the train tracks? And she goes, what? Oh, no, I was just joking around. I don’t know. he goes, surely, surely Vronsky is coming back. Vronsky, surely he’s coming back and she starts crying, she’s sobbing. And I go, no yeah, he’s going to come back. Just keep reading it. And she walks away from me sobbing. I’ve never had experience like that in my life. This 20-year-old person who is living every ounce of Anna Karenina. And the fact the guy wasn’t going to come back for the girl, just destroyed her. She felt it from the bottom of her toes. I don’t know how to explain that. And that’s just…
GALLOWAY: I want to watch a clip from your second collaboration. By the way it’s interesting you’ve collaborated with many actors multiple times. Let’s watch a clip from American Hustle, and after that go to questions. This is quite a long clip, this is American Hustle.
[CLIP FROM AMERICAN HUSTLE]
STUDENT — Edouard Marchand: I’m from France. I apologize for the weird accent that I may be bringing to this mic. I was wondering if your experience on Nailed and this problem with the production helped shape the way you approach upcoming productions, if it made you aware of such problems of things to get into prior to production that you weren’t necessarily aware of prior to what happened on Nailed?
RUSSELL: (Laughs.) Maybe the history of the company.
GALLOWAY: Has it made you wary of going back to the independent field?
RUSSELL: No, you just have to be… The whole time was such a different time for me. The movie was coming from such a different place. It was like a broad satire, which is again maybe something that was not the best thing for me to do. As well as the company, and all that. But I believe in independent endeavors. If I had a film that was a smaller idea. But I’m really into the fact that right now, that I love that Quentin Tarantino makes art that is his that is also commercial, and I feel that we’ve had the privilege of doing that with the last three films. They’ve created a character based cinema that has reached a wide audience, thanks to people such as yourself and the award season. They’ve reached a wide audience so they’ve done very well, and it’s something now that audiences can know what to look for, and something that studios can feel more secure about or ready to finance here. And that’s due to the privilege of actors writing for these actors that are my partners and being able to tell these stories from our hearts. That’s what’s paved this way.
GALLOWAY: You’ve had three back to back big hits. Does it make you anxious about the next one?
RUSSELL: Yes, of course. But I use that. I welcome that pressure.
GALLOWAY: Do you know what you’re going to do next?
RUSSELL: Yes, I have two things that I’m writing. I don’t know which one is going to come first.
GALLOWAY: What are they?
RUSSELL: One is an opus that I want to write. Kind of a family saga that would involve many of the actors who are in Silver Linings and maybe some from American Hustle, about a big family story over time.
GALLOWAY: Does it have a title?
RUSSELL: No. But nor did American Hustle for a long time, or The Fighter for a long time. The other one is a story that was a true story based on a lady in Long Island who was a waitress who invented a Miracle Mop that you sell on late night television. She invented several things, but ended up in litigation with her own family. And that’s for Jennifer and I to do.
STUDENT — Ellie Portillo: You’re very involved with your films from the writing to the execution. I was wondering how clearly do you see the film from the script and how that affected the communication environment between you and your cinematographer?
RUSSELL: Between me and the DP? That’s very important, that’s like a marriage. You better make sure all the ground rules are clear from the start and you better be willing to switch them out if it doesn’t work.
GALLOWAY: Have you done that?
RUSSELL: No, but I would now. I’ve had some bad marriages. And it’s just the hardest thing ever because you’re joined at the hip 15 hours a day. When I was younger I would go through that but I won’t go through that now. It just has to be, with all due love and respect to every DP I’ve ever worked with, and they’ve done beautiful work, you have to know that you are working on the same page, and you want to make the same movie. So I say to them, now they can see what I’ve done for three movies and we have a way of shooting. That I could say this is how we shoot, this is what we do. This is how we light. I discovered on my first four movies, it took me four movies to wake up and go oh my gosh, they take 2 ½ to 3 hours to light and I get a half hour to shoot. So, I said, no that’s going to be the reverse. You’re going to get a half hour to light. And I’m going to get three hours to shoot. If you don’t like that then don’t do the movie. I want everybody to be there to love being there. The set must be a place of great love and collaboration. The last three movies especially have been that. It has to be that way. This is my life. It’s an act of love. We’re all in it together. The last three DPs I’ve worked with, I would consider them artists in their own right. Meaning, they’re very soulful people who have a lot of heart and emotion for story. Not just what’s through the lens. They also have great feeling for what the cinema is and what the characters are.
GALLOWAY: You haven’t locked in to one that you want?
RUSSELL: I love them all. They’re just never available. That’s what happens. You fall in love with somebody then they’re dating other people. So Hoyte Van Hoytema who did his first American film. He had done a movie called Let the Right One In. The original Swedish version, or whatever country that was from, some other country. He’s from Sweden. I was all excited to find him and he did The Fighter with me. And then he became the hot new guy, and he worked with … he makes a film every year for his Danish director, and then he makes one in America. So he just shot Her for Spike Jonze. You have to hit the right rhythm. You have to be there when they’re available. So that’s a lot of it.
STUDENT — Will Gish: Your films have this really great spontaneous quality. I wonder how you manage to maintain that in a medium that requires preparation and places so many constraints on productions?
RUSSELL: I want things to feel alive. So, some of that’s the shooting style, some of that’s the writing style, some of that is the directing style. Then it becomes the acting style, so it has to happen on all levels. We light the set quickly but it could still be beautiful. That means a soft source from above, so if you walked on to a set, you wouldn’t see any lights you see in this room. A soft source from above and other soft sources through the windows. So it just looks like a room. So the actors and I can go anywhere in the room, and if we can’t, we have Patrick Murray, our gaffer with a little china ball on a boom. And so while you’re shooting, we’re going over here with Amy and there’s a nice little soft light that comes up. I don’t like to call cut. There’s an energy to they way I am. You probably got a taste of it today. So that’s just how I am. So I impart that to every part of the movie, the script, the shooting, the direction. So that’s an energy that I have. So your energy is going to be what’s reflected in the movie. It’s your energy so you have to make sure that your passion, your energy are clear to everybody. Once we start shooting I don’t like to call cut, because once people getting into what Jennifer Lawrence has called a kind of a trance or kind of a high, I don’t want to cut into that. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, they all go into a kind of an altered state when they start becoming someone else. And I don’t want to interrupt that, so I’d rather just keep shooting, with a Steadicam. I don’t like the physical equipment of cinema because it burdens down the process to me. I prefer to just have a Steadicam and that’s… we can go anywhere we want.
GALLOWAY: And then you just say do it again, you don’t go, cut.
RUSSELL: Yeah, so I say, let’s do it again and I shout out directions and lines. While they’re still, it keeps them in the pool so to speak, they’re staying in the water. It’s as if someone was in a trance and you were sort of telling them what to do while they’re in the trance.
GALLOWAY: Do you use multiple cameras?
RUSSELL: I do not use multiple cameras. I’m always encouraged to do that. They’re like, we’ll save time doing this. And it always becomes a pain in the neck to me. Unless it’s a big scene with hundreds of extras. Because they end up fighting each other. They’re like, I want to come over here, and now we’re seeing that other camera guy. I turned out to be simpler to just use one camera. Just make sure no fakery, no acting, no acting is allowed.
GALLOWAY: But how do you cut that?
RUSSELL: You say to them, hey don’t act. Stop acting. Knock it off. And then they’re like, what am I going to do then? Many of my actors understand what I mean by that now. What I mean by that is, just do it. Strip it away, and do it. Be real. That’s hard to do sometimes, try it. I’ve tried it, it’s hard to do. I have to help them do that. I’m trying to help them not do it all in quotes, not do what they prepared in their hotel room.
GALLOWAY: Does it pain you when you see that in quotes kind of acting in other films?
RUSSELL: Yeah a little bit.
STUDENT — Elizabeth Quinn: You seem to often cast actors in a role that gives them a chance to show something they’ve never done before. I’m thinking all the way back to Mary Tyler Moore in Flirting With Disaster, just a complete departure from what she usually does. So aside from being the audition and having people recommended to you, what makes you choose those people and think about choosing Bradley Cooper or choosing Amy Adams for a certain part?
RUSSELL: Well if you go way back to Mary Tyler Moore, that was something she kind of pitched to me, that I never saw coming. So then it seemed exciting to me. I think it’s exciting. I think it’s nice to take an audience off guard and make them surrender to your world, to give all their preconceptions, leave them at the door. Or use their preconceptions against them. So if someone has an expectation of a performer who they are, you turn it on its head. People would come into theaters to see a Bradley Cooper movie at a preview called Silver Linings Playbook, and I could feel their great profound discomfort in 10 minutes. They’re like, this man is really making me uncomfortable. And it’s not what I thought I was coming in here to see. But I enjoy that 20 minutes later they fallen in love with him in a different way that they’ve never expected. They’ve had to expand their bandwidth for him. So that’s very exciting to me and I think it’s exciting to the actors. It’s also very scary to everybody, but I enjoy that because it means we’re all taking a risk together. We must hold hands and trust each other. And it’s an act of faith and love that we’re going to take together. And I must be there to support them, and I give them everything. I give them a piece of my heart and then I’m asking them to give me a piece of theirs, to make it personal.
GALLOWAY: Do you socialize with them?
RUSSELL: Yeah, I’ve stood on a set at 2 a.m. with Amy Adams. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. You have to feel when it’s right. It’s like a dog, you can feel when it’s right to approach a dog and when it’s wrong to approach a dog. Sometimes you just feel like somebody needs to be left alone. Sometimes they tell you they want to be left alone. At 2 in the morning Amy Adams taught me the lyrics to Dream a Little Dream of Me, ‘cause I love to sing and Amy’s a beautiful singer. I like singing on sets, I like playing music on sets.
GALLOWAY: That was on your set or somebody else’s. When you’re not shooting when the movie is done, do you get together with them?
RUSSELL: Oh, you mean after the movie. Yes and no. It happens sometimes. Some people it happens never, so that’s great, that’s fine. I’m happy to be artists who just work together. That’s great. That’s a beautiful relationship. I’m happy to have that. We’re like professionals, we come together and we love it. Some people you do it once in a while, and some people you do it quite often. Bradley Cooper and I are very close. There were times when Christian Bale and I were very close, we spent a lot of time at his house. That just kind of waxes and wanes. Amy Adams, sometimes I’d be at her house. Jennifer and I have kind of a texting relationship that is very funny.
GALLOWAY: I know. You texted her the toothbrush.
RUSSELL: Well because that was my answer to her that I knew she would understand, let’s stop having this argument. I’m having an argument about something, I knew that she’d immediately text me back her toothbrush.
STUDENT — Chantelle Wells: Throughout all of your films, the common thread is the richness of your characters. How do you continue to create characters that are compelling and layered, and also contrasting?
RUSSELL: The other thing I was going to say to the woman who asked the other question about the range they get to, it goes into your answer. The range, I had to learn, you’re going to give… it’ isn’t just, people go, oh I’m the actor’s director. You can’t really do that unless you’re making a good movie, in my opinion. I don’t like a movie that you go, well that performance was great but I didn’t care about the movie. I want you to be enveloped in the whole thing. You have to create a propulsive cinematic experience that happens to be driven and include these amazing performances. That means you have to create the narrative that’s a doozy of a narrative. You have to make sure you pave the road so the character gets the opportunity to do all these things. You have to make sure they then do them, and they go quiet, loud, everything. One way you create the rich characters is what I just said. You have to get a story that is a heck of a predicament. Each of the last three movies is a heck of a predicament. I’m not fond of F-bombs. I’ve watched a lot of F-bombs in these clips and I wish there were fewer of them. Sometimes it becomes a way for people to be less precious about what they’re saying and be less guarded about it. But then I wish we could take them out, quite often. That’s just my personal feeling. And I wince at some of them sometimes.
GALLOWAY: The casting is so distinctive, but I know you almost didn’t have Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle.
RUSSELL: She was an eleventh hour addition. She technically wasn’t available. She had three weeks off between X-Men and Hunger Games, and it was the only vacation she’d had in years. I just called her up and I said, I just feel that it would be irresponsible of me as your collaborator if I didn’t at least talk to you about this and you could say no. As soon as we talked it was, like, electric. It turned her on to be someone to be no where close to anyone she’d every been. That was her vacation. For her to become this woman with nails, and hair, she embraced it, it was a great vacation for her.
STUDENT — Jack Gustafson: Bouncing off Chantelle’s question, to me what makes your characters so rich is that you put them in a predicament that throughout the narrative they’re led to a place where they have to discover that they are the culmination of the decisions they’ve made throughout that movie. I think that’s a very rewarding experience to see that moment of revelation when you realize that you are the things that you do. Is that consciously aimed at the audience sometimes to be more self aware or is that just a happy accident?
RUSSELL: No, I think that’s the filmmaker banner that I’m flying. I’ve discovered that I’m flying the banner that is oriented by love, motivated by love. I must love my characters. I tell the story through their eyes. I write the script through their eyes, as if it’s that character’s movie. And then I’ll go back and I have to give the script a haircut. That means I’ve lived the movie as that person, that means I’ve had to take their side, even if I don’t like them. I’ve had to take their side.
GALLOWAY: So you’ve written whole scenes and sequences that you’ve then cut?
RUSSELL: Yeah, I’ll look at the whole movie as if it’s their story. Then I’ll go back and then you have to lose a lot of that. Each of these three movies, as you accurately observed, are reckonings, from the very beginning of the movie. Not just the last act. The whole movie’s a reckoning. It’s a reckoning of who you’ve been and who you will be. And they’re all about the fragility of identity and love, and what will you do now. I have to say, I’m happy to fly the flag of romance and hope, as long as it’s grounded. I find it exhilarating. You also have to be willing to love them when they seem like they’re doing terrible things, or made terrible mistakes. That’s also what makes them rich. Is having a lot of compassion for them, and allowing them to do unexpected things.
STUDENT — Chris Martens: As you transition into TV projects, are you finding it easier or more difficult to tell personal stories?
RUSSELL: I’m not really transitioning right now to TV projects. I don’t know if that thing’s going to work out. The thing I’ve discovered about television is that if you really want to do, and Matt Weiner the creator of Mad Men just gave me a crash course on this, but I also discovered a crash course, just through experience. You know, if you’re really going to make a show that’s like a show that’s like a movie, you’ve got to give yourself to it. Matt Weiner gave his life to Mad Men, Vince Gilligan gave his life to Breaking Bad, Tina Fey gave her life to 30 Rock. That’s going to be it. Otherwise it ain’t going to be your art or your vision.
GALLOWAY: So you might not do television?
RUSSELL: I’ve learned that you have… I was in illusion that I could do both. It was an illusion. I woke up and said, what am I going to do, stop making feature films? Are you crazy? This is the height of my work right now. I’m not going to stop that. What was I thinking? You either have to have someone who is an equal to you. Someone like Terrence Winter, or Tim Van Patten, or some of the brilliant show runners or directors who have created other great shows, otherwise how are you going to walk away? Who’s going to be minding the store? And what’s happening a lot now with television is that they have a creator, like the guy that created Glee, all the cast falls in love with him, he’s the visionary of it. Then he leaves, was it American Horror, that he went on to do? And everyone on the cast is like what the hell happened? ‘Cause they lost their captain. You think, okay this can go on autopilot, well the cast doesn’t feel that way. And now he’s leaving American Horror to do another thing and the cast of American Horror feels like, wait what’s happening? So, it’s tough.
GALLOWAY: So did you sit with Matt Weiner? Is he a friend of yours?
RUSSELL: He has become a friend of mine. Everything I just said to you he explained to me. (laughs) He also explained to me, he said some really gnarly things about the business that I’m not going to say publically. As I said to you I am guileless. I don’t operate in Hollywood. I don’t have lunch, I don’t do any of that stuff. All I do is work. By that I mean, I’m in the bubble, like I was in my apartment, where we started 20 years ago. I’m just in that studio apartment, making up the story, then I’m with the actors, then I’m with the editors, and then I’m helping shepherd it through with Stephen Galloway. I’m with Stephen Galloway, then I’m back writing. That’s all I do. The town is filled with people who don’t do any of that. I don’t know what they do. I know that they come and make money somehow, using me, and I don’t know what’s happening. So I don’t want to give any energy to that. All I know is, god bless everybody who’s trying to be in this business, but that’s all I know how to do. So, if I’m going to work, it has to just be protected as that thing. ‘Cause I’m not very good at managing that other stuff, somebody else has to manage that for me in a way that I can do that, otherwise I’m not going to be able to do it.
GALLOWAY: Well really dying to see the next film, and I want to say, David O. Russell, thank you so much for taking part in The Hollywood Masters.
RUSSELL: Thank you Stephen. Thank you LMU.
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