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David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" isn't the frontrunner for best picture many of us thought it would be, but don't tell that to the one time best director nominee. The passion project has given Russell much to be thankful for including audience awards at Toronto, Austin and the Hamptons film festivals, five Independent Spirit Awards nods, four Golden Globe Awards nominations and an impressive four SAG Awards nominations including best ensemble. "Playbook" star Jennifer Lawrence won best actress from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Russell snagged best adapted screenplay honors from the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association. Now, after coming close to winning best director with his semi-comeback "The Fighter" almost two years ago you'd assume Russell was intent on sealing the deal with "Playbook." That doesn't appear to be the case.
Unbeknownst to many (still), "Playbook" actually is a very personal project for Russell. He took the time to chat about the story's connection to his family, his reverence for star Robert De Niro and how Lawrence stole the role at the last minute, among other things, during an interview a few weeks ago.
Q: I saw you speak at the Robert De Niro tribute in Santa Barbara last weekend. I was unaware that your own son has been diagnosed as bipolar, that's correct?
Yeah, he has OCD and bipolar, and some Asperger's and that’s the reason why [when] Harvey [Weinstein] offered me the book 5 years ago, I responded to it.
Q: After taking the time to adapt it, where where did the inspiration come to have Bradley Cooper as Pat?
Over the five years, all sorts of fortuitous things happened. Part of it was the time to keep rewriting it, part of it was Robert De Niro and I saying 'Why aren’t you playing this role?' and rewriting it for him, and then Jennifer was cast with Bradley Cooper because she and I, over that time, had a few meals together and I got a sense of him, as a person. And so I would compare how I felt about Amy Adams. I had a couple of meals with her before we made 'The Fighter' and she was more baffled that I had created [a] bigger role for her and that I thought she could do it because she was the princess from 'Enchanted.' I knew she would be really hungry to do it. It was similar with Bradley. I don’t think people understand how the depth of his emotion as an actor. So that completely lined up with the character. The character literally reintroduces himself to the community running around in a garbage bag, going back to where he used to work and where he used to live and saying 'Hi, you know, I'm back here.' That, I felt, completely was the same as Bradley as an actor coming forward and saying 'Look you think you know me, but I want to reintroduce myself and I don’t think you understand who I am.' That was a great struck of fortune. [Then there was] Jennifer Lawrence, who was in high school five years ago.
Q: Was it Jennifer's performance in 'Winter's Bone' that made you think that she could do it? Or, did you have her come in and audition with Bradley?
I did not see them together until they had a phone call together. They had a couple calls where they really clicked on the phone. They spoke on the phone for a very long time, [and] then I Skyped my audition with her. That was my first time I ever did that and she dressed up in character for the role and stole it right at the last second from three other very big actresses, who were vying very seriously for the role. For me, creating a very, very emotional and rich women characters has become a great discovery in this period of films. In the last one, in this one, and the next one as well. Amy will be back for the next one and I’m very grateful about that.
Q: Jennifer is so good in the film you forget how old she actually is, especially in relation to Bradley. When you were working on the adaptation was her character supposed to be late 20s or 30s? What had you envisioned her character's age being?
Well, that was my main question because I didn’t know that she could do it because I’d only seen her in 'Winter’s Bone.' I thought she was terrific. I didn’t know much else about her. I would see her at awards events because she was on the circuit with 'Winter’s Bone' when I was there with 'Fighter,' as was Jackie Weaver. And so I kind of scouted them both from that season. I would see Jackie Weaver and I loved her in 'Animal Kingdom' and I would see her at the events. I had the same reaction when I would see both of them at these events: I never recognized them. They just weren’t recognizable to me from the roles they had played. I would say, 'Who’s that tall blonde like dressed up like that?' "Who is that?' And they would go, 'That’s Jennifer Lawrence.' And I'd always have the same reaction, 'That’s Jennifer Lawrence?' I never understood, and same thing with Jackie.
Q: There was a great moment in your tribute for De Niro where you talked about one scene in the Pat's bedroom. De Niro's character, Pat's dad, is there to wake him up and it wasn't in the script that his character was supposed to cry and he just did it in context of the scene. Was that something that happened with Robert throughout the shoot?
He showed up a thousand percent and I had a sense that he would. If you heard that talk in Santa Barbara, we have shared our experiences with people we know who have [been bipolar] and over the years. And he had a very emotional response to the possibility of playing a father of such a person. He loves what he does. And I think that, that made it very special. It set the tone on the whole set for everybody because [he works] so hard and is so present. And he also teaches us how much can be done by doing less and he never stop doing push-ups. Every time he had to run in the door at the dance event, he’d be out of breath. So, he was an example to every actor there of how this guy, at his age, launched a craft and is in as deep as he can for every single moment of the film. And very often on the eighth or ninth take, he would do something that surprised us. In fact, consistently. Like when he pushed my son who was playing a kid who rang the doorbell - I don’t know if you know that’s my son.
Q: No, I didn’t know.
Oh, yeah. So, he didn’t tell anybody what he was going to do. I knew that I wanted to see Robert De Niro in his pajamas and the take happened in the middle the night. But [he surprised everyone by shoving] my son. And then my son was laughing nervously take after take because he found himself facing a very intense and angry Robert De Niro. And Bob played it brilliantly and masterfully. He said, 'No, let him do that. That's real.' And then he did those three Ferrari turns and I think are so real and only as he could do them. And he says 'I’ll take that camera, break it over your head, come back. What you laughing at?' It’s like watching a great athlete. It was just like we learn something everyday.
Q: You worked with a lot of legendary actors with long careers. But when someone like De Niro comes on set, do you sense that the other actors take it more seriously? That they won't goof around? That they don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of someone like him?
David: Completely. That is completely the deal. Everybody was extremely respectful and intimidated and stepped up their game. I think he fought for Bradley Cooper to be in the picture; they had a father-son dynamic. They knew each other from 'Limitless.' He helps Bradley believe in himself, to what Bradley capable of in this film and he helped Bradley the whole time in terms pointing him in the right direction in terms of emotions and trusting himself, and being raw and real. And that he was a great asset in every step of the game like that.
Q: I know that this project was something that you worked a really long time on and it meant a lot to you personally. Do you have any other passion projects you're hoping to get made?
Yeah, there’s two things that I’ve been working on for years that I’m definitely going to do in the next few years soon. And I'm doing a picture right now in February with Christian [Bale], Amy, Bradley, and Jeremy [Davies] [that's been] brewing for ten years. It’s a kind of picture I've wanted to do since I first saw some films that really had a powerful effect on me about 20, 25 years ago. So, the film I’m about to do is sort of me stepping in to the arena that I’ve very much wanted to step in to, which is a '70s period with some very intense and emotional New York characters and who are sort of fighting for their lives. And so I think that’s what’s going to happen now. And the other one I won't tell you what it is. There's another one that I want to talk to Jennifer about that has its genesis from something that I've been working out for a long time.
Q: Along those lines then, when you have a project as personal as this is the positive audience reaction more rewarding for something that you cared so much for? Or do you treat all your cinematic babies the same way?
Every child is different. You always care so much about them. But this one because it’s so personal to me, I probably have a deeper investment. Of the movies that are out there, the ones in America at least, this is the one that’s about people and emotion; it’s not about anything else. It’s about these people and for people to then connect to that emotionally is, therefore, everything to us, and it kind of delivers you to a magical [place] and that's a cinema thing that I've often loved. And that was very important to me doing this for my son. I wasn't going to deliver people struggling like this to anti-Christ but a forward-looking magical place for him, for his sake. So that was one of the appeals of the book to me because it had those elements in there. And it's something that you can't really even put words to very often. So, for them to have realized the dancing [at the end' was as beautiful as they did, and the audience was to feel that and to feel that the music and the dance means everything to me. That is profoundly satisfying.
"Silver Linings Playbook" is now playing in limited release.