Director's Chair: David O. Russell — 'Silver Linings Playbook'
Issue: February 1, 2013

Director's Chair: David O. Russell — 'Silver Linings Playbook'

LOS ANGELES — What about a film piques your interest and keeps you riveted? Well, for two-time Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell (2010’s The Fighter and the recent Silver Linings Playbook), it’s a focus on personalities and emotion. 

That was the driving force behind The Weinstein Company film, which was nominated for eight Oscars in all, including in each of the acting categories: Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence, who won), Best Supporting Actor (Robert DeNiro), and Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver).

In order to tell Silver Linings Playbook’s highly personal story — the director’s son has mood disorders — Russell opted to shoot on 35mm film on-location in a house and in a Philadelphia neighborhood. He cites the format’s “lushness and richness” behind his decision. “I just like using film; call me old-fashioned,” he says. 

If you’ve seen the film, you likely felt early on that you were a fly on the wall, watching Pat (Cooper) and his family trying to maneuver their way through a difficult time. In order to help convey the feeling of being in the room with the characters, Russell opted to shoot 90 percent of Silver Linings Playbook on Steadicam, with the remaining 10 percent handheld. 

“Steadicam gives you a very organic and personal feeling to camera movement, allowing you to be in the room with [the characters],” he says, adding, “The camera movement itself is almost always emotional.” 

You might have also noticed that the camera is a bit shakier at the start of the film, in a sense mirroring Pat’s emotional state. Also, the camera focuses on Pat alone early on, but later in the movie, as he heals, other characters are let into the frame. “I wanted people to feel very intimate with his emotion in particular,” explains Russell. “I wanted them to feel like they were inside of him and the intensity of that. The shots do open up as the film goes on and steadies out as he gets better.”

So, while it helps to tell the story, Russell points out a more practical reason: “We had done the film in 33 days, with almost no traditional coverage. If we did, I don’t think we would have ever made the schedule. We just got the scene on its feet and everybody was up on all cylinders, and they would all be covered in some way in almost every take.”

He says sometimes they would shift emphasis. “It was almost like a stage play, so the actors had to stay in it the whole time, and you didn’t  have to adjust to them powering down out of the scene and then powering back up when we went to their side of the room. They were always emotionally present. That’s the practical side of it, but there is that extra silver lining of having that emotional intensity where they are on their toes the whole time.” 

Russell called on Into the Wild editor Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, assistant editor on The Fighter, to cut the film. Both received Oscar nominations as well. Here, he answers our questions about making the film.

POST: We interviewed your senior editor Jay Cassidy recently. He said the most challenging part of the film for him was the first act, where Pat was at his most manic. Did you feel that way as well?
RUSSELL: “The first part of the movie is uncomfortable. You are also laying a lot of groundwork, establishing a lot of things, and that is probably why it was hard to cut. The same thing with The Fighter… the first 20 minutes of that movie were in a lot of ways the most challenging because you are establishing so many different things: their world, their relationships, all these different people.
“This was similar. You were establishing the circumstances of him just coming out of the hospital, the fact that he still wanted his wife, that he was on edge, that his father was concerned. Setting the tone and suspending the viewer, so they were hooked and leaning forward. That all took some work, and some editing, to get those first scenes of Bradley and Jacki Weaver (Pat’s mom).”

POST: Can you talk about how you worked with the editors? How did you decide who cut what?
RUSSELL: “Crispin had been an assistant on The Fighter, and I like deputizing everyone — they need to be working on different scenes and in different rooms. But Jay was the ultimate authority and everything went through him, just as everything went through Pam Martin on The Fighter. That room is the ultimate room, but it means you can be chipping away at scene and trying things in another room. It’s a good way to challenge each other and to find and refine things. Jay almost always helped make them better, which is not a surprise, but we would cook up ideas in Jay’s room or Crispin’s room.
“We also broke off sequences, like the football game, and went into Crispin’s room and fooled around with it for a couple of weeks, then back into Jay’s room.”

POST: I would imagine the dance scene was tough to cut as well.
RUSSELL: “Jay had the foresight to see this coming. He said, ‘It always happens — we are not going to spend enough time on the last act of the film, so I am going to jump ahead and start working on the end, the dance scene.’ I typically like to be there working on everything with the editor, but I was really glad he blazed that trail on the last section of the movie, because it saved us. We would have arrived there without enough time or attention to give.”

POST: Were they on set at all?
RUSSELL: “No. In fact, I hadn’t met Jay. Pam Martin, who did my first movie The Fighter, was unavailable. Jay is the person I clicked with over the phone — and at that time we were already on location. I quite liked him and what he did with Into the Wild. 
“I can’t look at an assembly. I would want to jump off a bridge. I would rather just go through the whole thing together starting at the beginning. I’ve done it enough times to know that I never want to do it again.”

POST: Jay mentioned that Bradley Cooper was in the editing room a lot. Did he make many suggestions?
RUSSELL: “Bradley is a very generous actor in the sense that he’s not there just looking at his performance. He thinks like a filmmaker, so he was looking at the whole film. He’s a very smart guy, and a good voice to have in the editing room.”

POST: So you welcome the opinion of others?
RUSSELL: “I believe in healthy debate, and I believe that the creative process benefits from being challenged. I don’t believe in being precious about it. I’ll take notes from anybody — from Harvey Weinstein, or a preview. I like trying things in different ways and making sure it’s the best way it can be. That way you get the best moments, the best scenes and the best performances. 
“With a movie like this you have to define the tone, and it’s a tone that’s uncomfortable at first. But above all it had to feel authentic, and letting each character be as alive and riveting as they could be. There were many discoveries in that department, and many ways to cut that.”

POST: There are many moments of humor in the film. Had you considered going a different way?
RUSSELL: “There was a much darker movie in there if we wanted it. Bradley, Jennifer (Tiffany) and Robert DeNiro (Pat’s dad) all did very dark sides of their characters, so we could explore that on the set. You end up finding the right measure of that in the editing room. We found, in our early cuts, that a little bit of Bradley’s darkness went a long way. We had much more in the beginning, and people were like, ‘Wow, I get it, but it’s really intense and I am having a hard time getting on board with this guy.’ So we had to find that right balance.”

POST: As a writer and director, you come at filmmaking from all angles. What is your favorite part of making a film?
RUSSELL: “When you are in production, you end up falling in love with production, I do at least. I am a little sad when it’s over because it’s such a wonderful family you created. In this case it really was a family, with everyone in that house, so I was sad when that ended. But, I do love editing, because once you’ve been the hunter/gatherer and you’ve captured all of your performances and your emotions and moments, that’s when you can go on and continue to craft the film. I love them both. I do think that post is pretty awesome because you can come and go in that cocoon and keep making the film better and better.”

POST: You did a digital intermediate on this over at Technicolor. What do you like about DI, and how do you use it?
RUSSELL: “The first DI I ever did was on The Fighter. I like it because usually there is a lot of warmth I like to retain. That is my favorite thing. I don’t like to make things cold, and I don’t like it if it makes it more accurate. There is a certain character to what things look like, and while it might not be called dead accurate, it’s what I like. It has a personality and color in it. That is what I was always looking for in the DI.”

POST: Can you talk about your DP, Masanobu Takayanagi?
RUSSELL: “He did a phenomenal job lighting, so it had natural feeling to it and sometimes it’s very beautiful and also allowed the actors complete mobility like they were on stage. They could go 360 degrees and the camera could go anywhere at any time with any character in any part of the house. That took quite a bit of work. 
“He made the dance scenes feel so magical…that pool of light by the bar where Tiffany goes. He also designed a computer lighting program around the dance floor that was timed to their dance moves. I wouldn’t have known to ask for that.”

POST: Can you talk about the film’s music, since it plays such a big role?
RUSSELL: “Our music editor Phil Tolman did The Fighter with me as well. We have a great shorthand; he knows my taste and knows how I like to use music. Sue Jacobs was the music supervisor on both as well. There is an amazing use of Led Zeppelin in both films over major story points. In The Fighter over Christian Bale’s crime spree, and in this film over the bi-polar episode that shows how Tiffany touched a nerve inside Pat. All that music is story specific and takes so much work.”

POST: Can you talk a bit about Danny Elfman’s score?
RUSSELL: “It was perfect, with the right tone and heart, and it complements the music perfectly. It was a lean budget, so he did it all himself in the studio with a couple of musicians. He felt the heart of the film. He created a theme for Pat and Tiffany. Like everything else in the film, it was designed to be without pretense and almost seamless or invisible. That’s what we aspired to do.”