On a recent sunny morning at New York’s Greenwich Hotel, David O. Russell is all smiles when his adorable 20-month-old son, Leo, wanders over mid-interview to hug his dad’s leg. ”Leo, can you say hi? Are you being shy?” the filmmaker says. This is a gentler Russell than you might expect, considering that he came to blows with George Clooney while shooting 1999’s Three Kings and then made news again in 2007 when footage of him screaming at Lily Tomlin on the set of I [heart] Huckabees found its way to YouTube. Apparently, just as his new film, Silver Linings Playbook (now in theaters, rated R), suggests, people can change.
The movie, an offbeat hybrid of indie drama and mainstream rom-com that could only have sprung from Russell’s brain, has earned critical raves and Oscar buzz. Bradley Cooper stars as Pat, a recently discharged mental patient who moves in with his parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro) and strikes up a friendship with a fellow misfit named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Over coffee and granola, Russell, 54, discussed his personal connection to the material (his son Matthew, 18, who has a cameo in the film, attends a school for special-needs kids); bonding with De Niro (who recently told the Los Angeles Times he has a child with ”difficulties”); and how deep down he is just an old softy.
I understand Sydney Pollack was the one who gave you Matthew Quick’s novel The Silver Linings Playbook. He planned to produce the movie?
Yes, it was about five years ago, about a year before he passed away. Sydney and I had several talks — I had no idea he was not going to be with us much longer, so I feel like it makes [the movie] all the more special.
But you ended up making The Fighter first.
The money didn’t come together in time, so we made The Fighter. And that experience ended up impacting the way I rewrote and directed this.
Once I finished The Fighter I said, ”Okay, let’s deepen these characters.” The Robert De Niro character in the book is a bit more of a fire-breather, but given my personal experiences and Mr. De Niro’s personal experiences with family challenges, I wanted [his character] to be the full human palette: You can feel a great longing to connect with your child and yet at other times you want to kill him. [Laughs]
Your son’s scene is very funny: He gets to laugh in Robert De Niro’s face!
He loved doing it. He started laughing because you never know what Bob’s going to do. Because it was personal to Bob, we felt like he was stepping up in ways that maybe he hadn’t since Casino. When we read the script at his home two years ago, I thought he had hay fever. And then as we were talking about the story of the father and his kid, I realized he was crying. I watched him cry for 10 minutes. I could almost cry right now thinking about it.
Bradley Cooper is not an obvious choice for the role of Pat.
I don’t shy away from surprising an audience. I first saw Bradley in Wedding Crashers, and he seemed like a very angry person — like a big angry frat guy. Right there I was more interested in who he was. Then when I met him I asked him about that. He said that he’d been an unhappier person, and angrier. [Russell pauses and cocks his head, listening to the background music.] What is this song? Do you know it?
I don’t. I could Shazam it.
Yes! Do that! [The app doesn’t pick up the song, so Russell goes to ask someone at the hotel to find out the name. He returns a few minutes later.] Bradley had 30 pounds more on him and was angry and then made a change — that’s like the character. The fact that he was superhungry to do it and supernervous… There was an anxiousness and an eagerness, which is also like the character.
And you cast Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany before she even landed her role in The Hunger Games. Had you seen her in Winter’s Bone?
Yes, I thought she was terrific in that. Here’s the funny thing: We had a lot of great choices. Wonderful movie stars and actors auditioned. We thought we had our three final choices. Everybody in my world claims credit for this, so I can’t even keep track of who told me to audition Jennifer. We said, ”She’s so very young, who knows how much experience she really has? Who knows if she can credibly play this?” And she was really a godsend. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
She’s fantastic. And I love her character. I really get Tiffany.
How would you describe her?
She’s tough, and when she cries, she gets really pissed off about it. That’s my favorite thing about her. My favorite thing about this movie in general is that it reminds me of my grandmother telling me, ”Every pot has a lid.”
I never heard that. Oh, you mean the fit. Oh! That’s good. The fit. Oh, yes. Jennifer auditioned on Skype from her father’s study. She dressed up as the character: black eyeliner and black clothing. And she was just extraordinary. I remember at one point she cried, and I was sitting there spellbound, and I said, ”Do you want to get a tissue or something?” And so she gets up to go to the bathroom, and I hear her go, ”Auuugh!” She came back and said, ”There was a very big spider. I do not want to go back in there.” [Laughs] That’s just pure Jennifer. She’s unfiltered, she’s confident, she’s not neurotic. She’s unpretentious. But she has that magic — as our editor said, ”Kissed by the angels.” [A hotel staffer brings a slip of paper with the song title Russell had been looking for. He waves it triumphantly and puts it in his pocket. It’s ”Lying in the Sun” by Koushik.]
You’ve had some blowups on past productions. Both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook are about second chances. Is that what you’re searching for in your career, too?
Yes. It does feel like a different era for me. I just want to keep going and take whatever humble lesson I learned from that stuff and keep moving.
Your next movie stars Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams, and is based on a true story of corrupt politicians in New Jersey in the ’70s?
Yes, it’s a true story and has criminals, Mafia, con artists, the FBI. But again, it’s the romance and the relationships I care about. It’s about the people to me.
Did I see that it’s called American Bulls—?
That was the name of the script written by Eric Singer that I’m rewriting, but I don’t think I’ll call it that. That’s too cynical for me. Corny as it may sound, heart really is everything. I love Scorsese…but I love Capra just as much.