'Joy': Director David O. Russell
Issue: January 1, 2016

'Joy': Director David O. Russell

Since director/writer David O. Russell made his directorial debut in 1994 with the dark comedy Spanking the Monkey, he has amassed a small but diverse body of work that includes the Gulf War thriller Three Kings, the existential comedy I Heart Huckabees, and the sports drama The Fighter, which earned him Oscar Best Picture and Best Director nominations. He repeated those nominations with 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, a hit drama about bipolar disorder, and was again nominated twice — for Best Director and Best Writing, Original Screenplay — for his 2013 dramedy American Hustle, a fictionalized version of the real-life seventies political corruption scandal known as Abscam.

His new film, Joy, again takes a real-life story and gives it the David O. Russell treatment. Loosely based on the life of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, the genre-blurring film tells the story of a family across four generations centered on the girl who becomes the woman who founds a business dynasty and becomes a matriarch in her own right. Betrayal, treachery, the loss of innocence and the scars of love pave the road in this intense emotional and human comedy. Jennifer Lawrence stars in the title role, with a stellar supporting cast, including Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd and Virginia Madsen.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Russell talks about making the film, the challenges involved and his love of post.

Did you set out to make an epic, or did it just evolve into one?

“I wanted to make a story that’s about someone’s life, so I took half of the truth about this woman and her journey, and it’s got very great detail about her life, and all of the details in the film that are the most specific and fascinating are true. So the whole bit with the gun range outside her father’s garage, to the incidents in Texas and California, to the father being returned by girlfriends and the 900 number, are all true. That stuff’s too good to make up. And the other half is based on strong, fascinating women I’ve read about for years. And then for a long time I’ve wanted to make a film about the psyche of a child, so these were all new ambitions for me. I always ask myself, ‘What are my new ambitions? What are my actors’ new ambitions?’ So for the first time I thought, I’ll go from 10 years old to 43 years old, and tell these short little movies about her past, and play with the whole concept of time. So we’ll see her as a little girl, full of dreams, and then at 27 in a sort of frustrated, trapped life, and like we did in American Hustle, you gradually learn about other characters, and go back in time and forward again, and then we keep going with the whole story.”

You seem to have this repertory company of actors you use — Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, De Niro — this is your third film with them. But this time Jennifer isn’t the crazy one.

“Exactly. She’s this woman at the center of the story who changes a lot — from a vulnerable, rather anxious woman to a businesswoman who has to become a bit of a gangster. Some people completely forget the magic of their childhood, but she never does.”

You have a reputation for being loose and fluid on the set, and re-writing the script as you go. Is that how you work?

“Yes and no. I start off like most other directors with a tight shooting script and go out to shoot that, but what happens is that it keeps moving. It keeps changing. And that’s great. Look, we have to be disciplined, and there’s no such thing as a true Cassavetes improvisation in what we do. Everything is planned and very often storyboarded. It can change, but it is planned, and sometimes the ambitions can keep growing, like with the soap opera segments. They’re the idea of what they say to the psyche of the little girl, and we wanted the whole thing to feel timeless and beautiful, like all the films I love from the ‘40s and ‘50s. So the mother’s quiet, hidden life with her soap operas was very specific, and it becomes the landscape of Joy’s dreams, and things like the garage with its sign was very specific. You don’t have to be literal with all this. They’re emotional. It’s the feeling of being trapped, which dreams often are. They’re strange, what’s happening? Then you wake up.”

What were the main challenges and how tough was the shoot since it was in Boston during record snowfall?

“I loved the beauty of the snow. Adults have a lot of complaints about the snow, but kids love it, and it’s magical to them, and I wanted to capture that sense of magic. The sheer amount of snow was bad as we had eight feet of it, and the roof of our stage was declared ready to collapse, and we had to evacuate and move to another, and we all got sick. But we used all that for the film. You must take these experiences and make them part of your story. And here’s what I love about shooting in Boston; so much of the city and surrounding places are completely untouched for 60 years. You can find all these amazing locations, like abandoned city halls with amazing murals, and beautiful buildings you can repurpose into a Dallas location and hotel. And there’s all this strange, very unusual flatiron architecture, a treasure trove of it.”

You and DP Linus Sandgren usually shoot Steadicam, right?

“Yes, we shoot it all on Steadicam and then we have to stabilize the shots as I want them to have the feel of a dolly. I just don’t want to put up with a dolly, as it slows you down, laying all the track and so on, and we shot for just 42 days, so you have to act quickly and instinctively. So Linus has the best operators and we like to just roll the mags — 10-minute, 20-minute mags on the Steadicam — and as we all know we’re burning film it adds to the immediacy and intensity of the process. But this was our most formally-conceived movie from a lighting and framing perspective, and we were inspired by artists such as Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and photographer William Eggleston. And we also used the notion of space and snow, and the isolation of a character in a frame — even in a crowd, or in a hotel window. So we used a lot more wide masters. We also played with light and designed it all so it’s monochromatic, like a B&W film that isn’t B&W. And I’ve never used shadow so much, and silhouettes and back-lighting. There’s something very magical about people in the dark, and we shot 35mm film. There’s always talk about going digital, but I’m a romantic and a little superstitious, and I love shooting film, especially the 16mm home movie stuff, which I shot a lot of myself. It gives it such a fantastic feel.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I love it. It’s like being in a submarine. We never leave it. The actors come and go, and they’re all a part of the process. We have a great post team headed by [editors] Jay Cassidy and Alan Baumgarten, who cut American Hustle for me, and we usually get into it quite slowly with the material, and post is where you really bring out the true voice of the film. The movie always tells you what it wants in post, and we all learn things. There are always big surprises. The biggest challenge on this was that it’s a lot harder to make a movie about ordinary people who do extraordinary things, than making one about crazy people who try to appear normal, which is what my other films were about (laughs).”

The film was edited by four editors. How did that relationship work? 

“Jay and Alan couldn’t get dailies on this as they weren’t available, so we were lucky enough to get Chris Tellefsen and Tom Cross to be our A team, but then they had to leave to do other projects, but by then Jay and Alan were able to come in and they carried us the rest of the way. So we mainly had two editors, and Chris and Tom were like our helper-starters. I don’t like to look at a rough assembly, so we tend to cut it in sequences, and what’s always hardest about editing is that there are so many ways to tell your story — especially when you’ve been doing this for a while, like me. You give yourself so many choices, you have many ambitions, and there’s this big dream in your head that in many ways is just unattainable. But that’s what makes any movie worth doing and keep you reaching for that vision. Scenes you thought were going one way suddenly turn out to go another way — or they disappear completely as you realize you just don’t need them anymore. Performances you thought were leaning one way now lean another way altogether, and things you’d overlooked become gold. I could have spent three years cutting this, and there’s a much longer cut that we did and looked at and went, ‘This is great and very beautiful.’ But is that the movie you want to finally release? Should the dream get squashed?”

How many VFX shots are in the film?

“More than it looks like. We used Lola VFX, Psyop and Mammal Studios. David Robinson was our go-to guy and VFX supervisor, and he was on-set and so helpful in dealing with the aging of our characters. He took 30 years off De Niro in some of the scenes with his young daughters, and they do that in a brand new way. I don’t want to give out secrets, but it’s not how they did it just a year ago. And then there’s the snow effects, and all the environments for the dreams, and stabilizing all the Steadicam shots.” 

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound as a filmmaker?

“They’re so crucial to my films. I can’t over-emphasize just how important sound design and music are to me, and I’ll actually sit on pieces of music for 30, 40 years, like the Nat King Cole, the Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield track, Expecting to Fly, and Cream’s I Feel Free. They’re all key pieces in the film.”

Where did you mix?

“We always do it at Olympic Sound, John and Nancy Ross’ mixing stage where we did the last three movies. Chris Minkler was our mixer and he worked closely with John, who’s our supervising sound editor and also a part of our team."

What about the DI? 

“It’s so important. We did it at Company 3 with colorist Stephen Nakamura, who’s a real artist. We go over it all frame by frame and I’m very happy with the look.”