Jennifer Lawrence sits in a hotel room during the Toronto International Film Festival waiting for her Silver Linings Playbook director and co-star. She’s wearing an almost blinding neon yellow shirt that matches the Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone star’s personality. She’s warm, thoughtful, and ultimately couldn’t remotely give a shit about what anyone says about her. When her director David O. Russell – fresh off his Oscar buzz year for The Fighter and equally known for not particularly caring what people think about him – and her co-star and former sexiest man alive Bradley Cooper arrive embracing each other after having not seen each other since the film wrapped, she’s still cracking jokes with members of the press milling about.
What strikes someone about these three people and the film they have made is how genuine they all are. Lawrence, O. Russell, and Cooper teamed up to make a film about a recently hospitalized and broken man (Cooper) suffering from bipolar disorder who strikes up a friendship with an unstable and somewhat promiscuous widow (Lawrence). They all seem to know the territory quite well, and all three don’t seem that much of stretch from their on-screen personas. They’re all really pleasant to talk to and not all that intimidating in person. They just don’t have any real capacity or time for bullshit in their lives. They’re more comfortable in their own skins than dozens of other actors and directors.
Lawrence is as self-effacing as she appears in most of her promotional appearances and seems incapable of censoring herself. Cooper is every bit as charming and thoughtful as his reputation suggests, and O. Russell deeply cares about how thoughtful he comes across. Together they make a filmmaking dream team that was kind enough to sit down with Dork Shelf to talk about their process, creating a realistic film about mental illness, and how to maintain a sense of reality at all times.
How did you guys come to work with David?
Jennifer Lawrence: I just WANTED to work with (David). I didn’t even read the script at first. I just heard that David O. Russell was looking at me and he was my favourite director, and then I said yes, and once I read the script I was relieved that I said yes. (laughs) I still really loved the character and how she was just so hilarious and so unapologetic.
Bradley Cooper: The whole reason I ever wanted to become an actor in the first place was to make the kinds of movies that this guy makes. The fact that he had the confidence in me to want to work together made me just want to take that leap of faith and I just trusted in him because he’s made some films that were just life changing to me. Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings, The Fighter. I Heart Huckabees.
David O. Russell: So basically all of them?
BC: (laughs) Yeah.
David, your films have a certain kind of aura around them that tends to set them apart from your average kind of character driven films. They feel oddly a lot like films that would have been made in the 1970s. What is the process like and what influenced you in the making of this film?
DOR: I would say one of my favourite points of reference is really someone like Scorsese, insomuch as I guess he’s someone generally identifiable with the 70s. But what I love about making a movie is really the creation of a world; that feeling like you’re a voyeur in someone’s world. That was really important to me both in The Fighter and in this film. I wanted to create blocks and neighbourhoods and a feeling where people could still live a few blocks away and really know each other. That’s very important to me, and that everyone feels real and authentic in that place. You know, Robert DeNiro, Bradley, Jennifer, Jacki (Weaver), Chris Tucker. Everyone had to feel real, and then you have all the emotion and story happening on the bed of all that stuff.
BC: And that’s a tall order when you’re trying to set a movie in Philadelphia, because if you’re not from there, you aren’t accustomed to the rhythm of the people from there. Quite often people think they sound like or are similar to people from New York, but they aren’t and they don’t. I’m from Philadelphia and I think we nailed it, but then again we also had the luxury of shooting just outside of Philly, but everything from the production designs to the outfits, and even to Bob, who just has New York City engrained in his DNA just wasn’t like that. He was so much like he was from Philly, and Jacki Weaver worked so hard to capture that essence. That sometimes old world xenophobia and that pride for your team. I was so happy that he captured that world so well, because having such pride in your city it’s wonderful to see it not be misrepresented.
What sort of research did you have to do in terms of finding the proper emotions to fit within that world, if any?
BC: From the very beginning when David wrote the script, we had a lot of conversations about the material and things to look at, but the bottom line was that none of us showed up to the set on the first day of our lives, either. If you’re going to tap into a truth, then you’re going to bring everything that you have lived since the day you were born, and that’s the real shit that I think David’s talking about when he says he wants to create a real world. He has this unique ability as a director to get people to go to their core instantaneously. We shot this in 34 days. There’s no time to bullshit. We have to get there NOW. When you have six people together in a room and you have a really compelling script, and you get them to go that place right away, you’re going to get the feeling in the room that you are going to have while watching it. Every one of his movies has that quality, and that feeling. Even back in Spanking the Monkey with Jeremy Davies character. These people aren’t acting. You have the world that’s just so entertaining. Same thing with Flirting With Disaster. You just see it. He has a way of getting actors to get out of their own way and letting our lived experience as human beings to come through in art.
These characters at first are really on the edge of likability and finding ways to keep them empathetic could be a bit of a challenge. Bradley, you can be menacing at times, and Jennifer, you can be a little nutty, so what did you guys like and find loveable about the characters?
JL: That’s part of what I really love about David’s characters in all his movies, though. David is probably the only filmmaker that gives his audience a choice to not like people. All of these characters have so many layers and motivations and stories, and there’s no manipulation in any of his movies. Here they are, here’s their truth, here’s their problems, here’s how they’re dealing with it. There’s never the tipping point where we are supposed to be on anybody’s side, or we know that so-and-so is supposed to be a bad guy. There’s never any of that. It’s just real people in any kind of situation, and you can just choose on your own. You can walk out of the theatre and not like me or (Bradley), or you can love them. You have a choice. (pauses) This feels like it’s becoming a reverse roast of David O. Russell. (laughs)
BC: To me it was… maybe I was drinking the Blue Kool-Aid, but I think that he’s the most likable guy I’ve ever played. (laughs) I just felt so emphathic for him because everything he goes through is just so heartbreaking. There’s not a bad bone in that guy’s body the way I saw it. He just can’t find his filter, and his emotions are just there on the surface the entire time. He’s like a child who wants to love and be loved. I never really thought “How do I like this guy?” I love this guy. I had endless amounts of love for this guy.
DOR: But much like the characters I worked with in The Fighter, these actors just gave us so many choices. They put so much heart and so much of themselves into their roles that in the editing room there were just so many different choices that if we wanted to we could have cut it so the characters were MUCH less likable. There were takes that you did where you guys were much more gnarly, but that’s important to them and living inside them as people, because that’s kind of what Christian Bale and Amy (Adams) did. They live with that inside of them. Then the other takes might not be like that, but it’s all still in there. All those colours are there.
(Bradley) knew from Wedding Crashers and The Hangover that he had this sort of intensity and anger that I found personally a little intimidating, and I told him that when I first met him. I told him that it was a really good thing that could help him play the role, because there was something scary about that. He isn’t just the affable grounded guy from The Hangover, and the more I got to know him, the more I saw that he had all these different colours and dimensions – perceptiveness, vulnerability – as a person that I was excited to put into the movie. Like the character, he was a guy who in a sense wanted to come back to this town and show themselves in this way. They were paralleling that. That’s a great thing for a director to have.
And with (Jennifer) there’s so few dimensional roles for young actresses, which is a real shame, and the main thing I do on all of my films is to ask how we can make the woman’s role equal to that of the guy’s. It’s something that can only make the whole movie better, and we had every great actress in Los Angeles who wanted this role, and we did have some great choices, but she came in at the 11th hour. We hadn’t thought of her because we thought at first that she was too young, and frankly none of us thought she was right for it because none of us really knew who she was. She came in and read for us. She auditioned for us over the computer from her father’s study in Louisville, Kentucky and she still just blew us away because she could seem 45 or she could seem 25. That’s something that you always forget about when you’re talking to her. It’s a very interesting quality, just like how Bradley can seem intense and fierce or alternately just seem like such a sweetheart. So that’s what’s interesting about both of these characters.
David, what was it about Matthew Quick’s novel that made you want to adapt it into a movie?
DOR: Well, Harvey Weinstein had optioned the book along with Sydney Pollack, and Sydney showed it to me about a year before he died, and I was just drawn to it in the same way I was drawn to The Fighter, and this was even before I had made The Fighter. It was a very specific world; a neighbourhood with specific teams and rituals, and again, that’s what I look for. It’s just as big of a part of the movie as the art, you know? It had that. Matthew Quick knew it all so very well. It was about people I related to. They were very emotional people. They were very intense, and extremely raw. They said things and it was always what they were feeling. It was never clean. It was always messy. Both these characters wear their emotions on their sleeves and tell the truth whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant or whether it’s going to make them look good or not. I was VERY drawn into that.
I also had personal ties to the material from my own experiences as father, and so did Robert DeNiro, and we had always talked about wanting to do something in that direction and dealing with family members that had such issues. Those were all things that drew me in.
Bradley, your character is very impulsive. Was there ever a moment where you did something that was almost in line with the character in the film?
BC: There were quite a few, but one just popped into my head. It was night time and we were shooting in the Solatano house, and we wanted to get some more jogging scenes and it was raining outside and starting to get late and everyone was sort of dragging by that point. If you ever came onto that set you very rarely ever just saw anyone lingering around, because we all kept going all the time. I got this idea to try and get this thing we talked about where I was running at night, and we just started running to get this shot of me jogging at night. Do you remember that?
DOR: (laughs) Oh, yeah. Because I was sitting in this warm room next to a Christmas tree and it’s pouring rain outside and I get this walkie talkie relay saying “Bradley wants to do that running in the rain thing.” I said “That’s fine! He can do that!” (everyone laughs) Then fifteen minutes go by and then someone goes “Bradley’s asking for you out here.” So I get out on a golf cart – because that’s how we do everything for those kinds of scenes, and I’m trying to ask the wardrobe department for some rain gear and Bradley’s just outside in a track suit, sitting on a cart, at literally 4 in the morning, and you just keep getting up and running around the block several times.
And there’s sort of a real kismet there, because my father said that you have to work very hard, but you always need a bit of luck, and that particular scene didn’t even get put into the movie until very late when we were looking for something to do where we could show something without telling it. This character is turning a corner and you can’t quite put your finger on what’s happening. You know something is happening, and you know he’s going to go do this dance with her, but you don’t know what he’s really thinking. Then we just thought “Oh, what about that running in the rain bit?” We were actually beginning to think we were going to have to reshoot something. Then when she’s taping his shoes later on, that was something else we weren’t originally going to use, but they were these great silent, independent moments that said a lot about what was happening to him. It was great that he could run in the rain for so long because we had a good ten minutes from that.
What was the process of working with David like as a director compared to other films you have worked on?
JL: It’s perfection. I don’t think the three of us could have imagined making a movie without the others, and Bradley and I actually did end up doing something right again after. It was something very no bullshit, and that was something that I love. At the end of something that was a long and possibly shit take there wasn’t a director who was going to come up to me and tip-toe around my feelings and tell me in a polite way that he didn’t like it. I mean, cut the shit. Just tell me what you didn’t like and let’s not waste time. Lets just do this. David is just so sweet, and he’s the nicest guy in real life and one of the few people who can actually get away with everything that he’s saying because it’s almost like being with a child in a good way. He just has this open heart where he can just say what everyone else only thinks about saying, but nobody can really get mad because he’s absolutely right. We were just constantly on our toes and constantly on our feet and we could be so honest with each other, and more honest than I think any movie we’ve ever been on, or at least that I’ve ever been. I don’t honestly ever really want to work in another way. (Look at Bradley) Was that good?
BC: (laughs) Yeah, that was pretty good.
DOR: They both love to act, and I find that there’s two kinds of actors out there. There’s the kind of actor that Robert DeNiro likes to call “bedroom perfect”. It’s perfect in the bedroom while you’re working on it back in the hotel. (Jennifer laughs) I don’t work that well with those actors. I just want to find out what’s going to happen here and what’s going to be different because he’s not alone anymore. He’s with her now, or he’s with other people. It all has to be different, and that can be really frightening because you don’t have anything to hold onto. You have to have what’s inside of you come out of you. But these guys aren’t built that way.
A day that’s really memorable to me was the first day that she showed up and we had been in it for a while already and already in this thing, and then here comes Jennifer running down the street in this black overcoat into the scene, and it was just really funny because we all had to remember that the female lead was actually in the movie now. And she very quickly just got right with it, and that’s one of my favourite scenes in the movie, was the conversation between the two of them.
BC: We were just talking about that, too. That was one of my favourite moments, also, because when she came in it was just, like, BAM.
JL: Glad I could help you guys. (laughs) It was really probably just because of the volume of my voice.
DOR: It was like a Joe DiMaggio walk on. (laughs) Just a natural.
Most of the characters in the film have mental illness issues. Is it something you think about as actors where you have to find the proper balance between what’s funny and what’s dramatic? Was it something you worried about in that you never wanted to make light of something serious?
BC: I think that it all comes back to what his intentions are with his movies, and that’s to create a real world with real people that you believe you are walking with. You have the utmost respect for those people because you are making them real. If someone was ever going to play me or anyone else, being real would always be the tallest order. In that breeds comedy and drama, as in life. Most of the memorable moments in my life have been utterly hilarious at moments. It’s not like you were searching for the comedy. We wouldn’t sort of back and ask how we could make something funnier. I don’t think that ever came out of our mouths. David always said to “make it gangster.” Make it real. When that starts to happen it actually gets funny. That’s where the rhythm happens and it starts to get tragic, and funny, and real. It becomes like life, and that’s when people can relate to it, and it’s all so simple. Everything else just takes care of itself at that point because you are respecting everything through what is real.
DOR: I had to base things on what I knew, and Bradley and Jennifer had to do it based on what they knew and people that they knew. We all knew people who had tangled with these issues both with and without medications. So as long as you’re close to something you know and you’re not being disrespectful to it you aren’t just playing with it. My heart was in it. I care about those people, and some of them are some of my favourite people.
It’s kind of like she said. There comes a point where you have to cut the shit, and I always have to even do that to myself. You can get so entangled in the construction, and your head is up your ass. I’m sure you can identify with that as a writer, too. It’s like you’re left wondering what happened. I just want to cut to the chase here and asking what that would be and that’s always what you have to deal with when you’re rendering something.
As someone who has dealt with long term depression and bipolar disorder, I think you guys all nailed your parts and did a great job really capturing the realism of those diseases, and you all made really interesting choices in how to convey that. How did you come to those choices when you are dealing with diseases that can sometimes be easily diagnosed, but are often like snowflakes in terms of how people experience them?
DOR: It was definitely a process because the book itself was a lot more explicit and extreme. I mean, Jennifer’s character was always that sort of volatile, charismatic girl that’s always very potent and you never know what’s going to happen and she’s very much a force of nature as a person. Does that have a diagnosis? I don’t know. Does that type of person get into a lot of trouble? Yes. Do they find inspired solutions? Yes. So that’s her character.
His character was someone who had been tagged as a black sheep in the family. They both had been, actually. They were the ones who weren’t doing what everyone else was doing, and they shared that. They immediately recognized that at the dinner table the first time they meet, even if they aren’t sure what to do with each other.
In the book, the guy had been away for four years, and I didn’t want to make a movie about someone like that because I didn’t know anyone who had been away for four years. I didn’t really know that. I knew people that had been hospitalized for a month, or a couple of months, a week. I knew people who had gone off their medication who had still been totally functional professionals who were working in very high functioning ways; parents with families and kids that had gone off their medications and they ended up in the hospital for a weekend.
And you’re absolutely right, no two are alike. They’re like fingerprints, and this was the process for us. Bradley came on set and he was playing some traits that were a little more like Asperger’s, because there’s some of that here, and sometimes that goes together with bipolarity, but maybe sometimes it was a bit too much in one direction or the other. Sometimes people with Asperger’s will say those sort of very direct things. That we liked, but in a measure that could be managed. We knew it had to be in the end somebody with a mood issue that manifested itself under stress, and that’s a very certain thing. It would explode under stress, and then they would approach it. That was the psychosis, and it extends in the film to even just hearing a song. There are people that get to reaches of that at very particular moments if they don’t handle that or medicate properly. There are other people who can still go there a lot, but he was someone who could only get there at his outer reaches, and that’s where he’s at at the start of the film and it’s about his journey coming back from that. That was the process of finding all that.
BC: I never really once thought about how I wanted to play it. It was always about exploring every day with David and Jennifer and the other actors. It was discovery every day rather than just a destination point. It was something that evolved and modulated and that I found, and if you’re going to do a movie with David O. Russell you have to realize that you are providing him with all the raw materials to go and construct it. You could have cut this film a million different ways because you shot it a million different ways. For weeks though we explored and every day informed the next and everything was incredibly valuable. I think it’s like Jennifer said that this is the best way to do a movie, and it’s not like we had tons of time and money to do it, but if you’re in it and doing a role like this you have to be ready to explore every single one of those options.