David O. Russell, Ghetto Film School President Talk "Two-Way" Benefits of Working With Special-Needs Kids

Courtesy of Sunshine Sachs
Joe Hall, Maryann Campbell and David O. Russell at Wednesday night's benefit.

GFS president and founder Joe Hall was honored at a benefit for Connecticut's Glenholme School, with which Russell has long been involved.

This year's Manhattan gala to raise money for Connecticut's Glenholme School, for kids with special needs, represented a merging of writer-director David O. Russell's two passions.

The filmmaker behind Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Joy and other films has been involved with the private boarding school, which works with children with various mental health issues, for more than 10 years. His son attended Glenholme, and the filmmaker has served on the board.

Russell is also on the board and a dedicated supporter of the Ghetto Film School, the nonprofit educational program founded in the Bronx that recently expanded to L.A., and GFS' founder and president Joe Hall was honored Wednesday night.

But Hall had already brought GFS and Glenholme together, he explained Wednesday, launching a program in which college-age GFS kids from the Bronx and Harlem went to Connecticut to produce short films with the students at Glenholme. And Russell, who introduced Hall to Glenholme, wasn't told about the collaboration until after the fact, joking to The Hollywood Reporter that he was "the last one to know about it." While both Russell and Hall called the partnership a "crazy" concept, they argued that it has benefited the kids from both GFS and Glenholme.

"While yes we are bringing a certain kind of expertise to the Glenholme campus and to the people there, I want everyone to leave tonight understanding it's really a two-way thing," Hall said as he accepted his award, which he called a "tremendous honor," adding, "You will have my undying support at Glenholme. It is a real beacon of hope and a model of excellence."

Earlier Russell, who said he hadn't previously thought about integrating GFS with Glenholme or vice versa, talked to THR about how the collaboration was likely "very illuminating for both parties."

"I heard that the kids from Harlem and the Bronx had their eyes opened to see kids who they felt were more disadvantaged than themselves," he explained. "Even though they may not have been economically disadvantaged, they were facing challenges that these kids were not facing, and that was very humbling to the kids from the city. And I bet it was very interesting for the kids up in Connecticut, conversely, to meet kids from the inner city, of modest means. It's a great thing that happened."

Hall also told THR that he thought teaching helped the GFS alumni really learn what they had been taught.

"I think there is an assumption perhaps that all the benefit goes one way. But I think when our students — and these were folks who were alumni of the program, so maybe they're in their early 20s, some of them — I think there's a great opportunity, when you have to teach something, to see if you really know it. And you learn something about yourself in that process," Hall said. "So for me I think it's a great collaboration."

As he accepted his award, he read an email from a 22-year-old GFS alum who was frustrated and in between jobs but found inspiration in the students at Glenholme, who the alum said were "dealing with real shit."

"They work hard, they try everything, they stay happy and when they get down, the staff help them turn right around quick," the alum wrote of the Glenholme students. "It's like GFS on steroids. So what am I gonna do now? Gotta keep it moving. This place shows me that you've got to try harder, stay happy and realize all you have. And be thankful for all you have."

Glenholme has already seen, from integrating the arts into its curriculum, how acting can help its students.

"We've had kids who've had trouble making a complete sentence, stuttering and things like that, and can do Frank Sinatra like there's no tomorrow," Glenholme executive director Maryann Campbell told THR. "Kids who can't really socialize well because they don't really have that skill but they can play act it, which means they can learn it."

During the GFS collaboration, Campbell said the Glenholme students were "mesmerized" and learned about one of the frustrating aspects of making movies — the waiting.

"We had 19 kids involved from lighting to writing to directing to editing to sets, everything that was involved. … They learned something that I don't think they planned on: They learned patience. There's a lot of sitting around," Campbell explained to Russell and THR, with Russell saying that he always tells those who win the walk-on roles he auctions off at the benefit, "Welcome to the glamorous world of filmmaking. They're sitting on a chair in 30 degree weather on some street at 12 o'clock midnight."

Campbell added, though, that the girl who worked as the director on the short film, which was screened at Wednesday night's benefit, was so inspired, she's now trying to get into a "theater college."

Wednesday night's event raised $265,000 for the Glenholme scholarship fund, with Russell auctioning off two roles in his next project, starring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore.

While the benefit took place the same night as the third presidential debate, it was light on political statements, but Russell did share his thoughts about some of the issues in the current presidential race, without going into specifics about the candidates.

"I happen to support the president and I think there's a lot of beautiful things about his legacy including his decency and his restraint and his kindness and his dignity. Those are things I think are very important to the country, I think are very important for everybody. I have two children, a young one and an old one, and I want them to look up to somebody like him. I just feel like that legacy is important. So I want to see it continue. I don't want to see it fall by the wayside," he said. "There's always half the country where I don't know where they're coming from, some other place that I don't understand. I understand the elites have failed our country, so I understand the anger and frustration. The elites failed us with the war and they failed us with the banking crisis, so I understand people's uneasiness. That doesn't mean that's the right solution to me at all. I think it's important to acknowledge those are meltdowns for the whole country that our leaders, the elites, led us the wrong way."