David O Russell interview: Joy, Three Kings & more

As his new film, Joy, lands in UK cinemas, we chat to writer/director David O Russell about the movie, geeky stuff, and Three Kings.

There’s a marked bit in this interview which has spoilers for the film Joy.

David O Russell’s latest film, Joy, lands in UK cinemas on New Year’s Day. Ahead of its release, he spared us some time for this chat about the film…

So how’s the day been? How have all the interviews been?

It’s actually been – I always have a little bit of trouble adjusting to the sleep when I get here, but – it’s actually been, I don’t know why – there’s been something very alive and stimulating about it. I’ve enjoyed the conversations. And half of that, I think, is because when you make a film that you like to talk about, or there’s things to talk about in it, it means you’ve put aspirations in there that you can talk about. And the other thing of it is – I think people have things to say about it. So it’s been a nice day.

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I’ll get the creeping out the way; Joy is a film that left me with a big smile on my face throughout.

Wow, thank you. That’s really kind of you to say. Thank you. That means a lot to me that you said that, so thank you for saying that. There are many diverse opinions, and when you’re a professional, as I am, you must tolerate all of them. So I’m happy to tolerate yours.

That’s actually something I’m curious about, because you’re a man who has received a lot of praise for your work, you’ve received awards, accolades – and deservedly so. But even early in your career – take for instance Three Kings – a lot of people didn’t get that, and I wonder how it feels when you’re putting so much into something like that.

What is your outlet?

Den of Geek.

That’s cool, I like that… I’ve been called a geek today… Someone said she was happy I was a geek, because I was getting all particular about music, which I like to do.

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I have the privilege of doing the David Lean lecture this year, which means I have to think about geeky things that I’m interested in saying about cinema, which thankfully, because I’m a bit of a geek, I do. There’s a lot of specific things I can talk about that hopefully have some useful things in them, from experience.

I read Oliver Stone’s [David Lean Lecture] – I also saw Paul Greengrass’, I’ve watched a few of them, but in Oliver’s he said something like you just said – basically filmmakers go through this. You have to meticulously do 1500 set ups, you have to meticulously write something, and you have to meticulously edit it, and shoot it with this crew. And you have the crew, and you live with the crew, and you use the crew, and you don’t see the crew any more – you have to reorient yourself to your regular life, which almost feels like a soldier who doesn’t understand his place in normal life anymore because you’re used to working on a film set where you have a mission.

And one of the parts of that experience is – even if you make a film that is recognised – it’s like a child, it recedes away from you. I’ve had two children and they recede away from you. They become different things, they can be close to you in different ways, but they’ll never be what they first were. And sometimes you can do that, and it’s not recognised or understood. And that is just part of giving yourself over to the gift of telling a story.

As part of the meditations of the movie, Joy, one of them was that watching Jennifer grow up, since I first met her, before Hunger Games came out, and seeing her have to handle all this attention, and own her power, and not have it taken away from her – from her soul – which is what can happen when you get a lot of attention. I also see that success is a fraught with complexities as failure is, and that it is as full of sadnesses and loss as failure is, which to me is fascinating, and that was a reason to want to make the film – among others.

It’s interesting you mention working with Jennifer, seeing her grow up and things. I’m curious, how does the process change for you, working with actors time and again. Does it become more collaborative than it once was, or do they have more blind faith in your decisions?

I’ve thought of one more answer to your last question – my other brain is formulating an answer to your new question – is that, there’s that expression, I think it was Fidel [Castro], not that I love to quote Fidel, but I think he said, “History will redeem me” and I do think, sometimes, when you make a film like Three Kings, you have to believe that the work will stand the test of time, and there are still people who come up to me and speak about that picture. So it has a different life in that regard, and you have to believe in that, like you would your child and you have to believe in it regardless. You have to believe your work will stand on its own two feet, and if you opened it up and looked at twenty minutes of it, “Oh, I can’t believe I participated in that”.

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Now, you asked me what the shorthand is with a partner like Jennifer, a collaborator, it has evolved, quite a bit.

She ran on as a 20-year-old who was extremely grateful to have auditioned for the role in Silver Linings Playbook, and sort of surprised us all with the magic and scope of her performance and who she is. And then did not audition, and won’t -for me – again. After that, it was, at the eleventh hour on American Hustle, I said, “I know you’re supposed to not have any time to do this, but I feel that I wouldn’t be your friend if I didn’t at least tell you about it”, and we were right about to shoot, and she said, “I want to take my vacation and do that.”

And then she had to tell her lawyer and her agent, and we were saying, “No, no, no”. That’s how that whole money thing went down; she was saying, “My lawyer and agent are saying, ‘don’t get on the plane’”, I said, “Get on the plane”. That’s what happened. Seriously, they were saying, “don’t get on the plane”, I said, “Get this kid on the plane”. And she got on the plane, because she is true to the music we do together, and we had such a blast doing that role – which I think will stand the test of time, that role, and you do develop a kinship and a respect, and a fear for each other, as I fear Robert De Niro; anybody you really love, it’s good to have a healthy amount of fear, including your better half. A little fear. That’ll make you be more careful about protecting it, otherwise you start to take it for granted, and that’s no good.

It’s now grown into something where on this picture she’s much more of an authority, and more of an equal partner, meaning she wants to say more about the story, and she wants to say more about how we’re doing it. She’s learning to become a filmmaker and a writer herself. That also would be fitting to the role though.

She also helped set the tone on the set. We had to decide what the hours would be, and had to negotiate that with each guild – there’s like six or seven guilds on [the shoot]. We decided we wanted to do something that’s called ‘French hours’, where you don’t have lunch. We thought that would be easier, because the days were getting longer and longer, and we were getting exhausted, and she said, “Once we get going David, let’s just not stop”. And we kind of each got off on that, we just go. We’d rather do that than stop. So she had to make that case to all the unions, and she was a leader in that regard, and everybody did it out of respect for her.

So I’ve watched her become this person – and on this tour, I’ve never seen her be so articulate or dare to try to speak in a slow fashion, with seriousness about her work. I think she always felt, “gosh, I don’t want to talk about my work, I don’t know how to talk about my work, I’m intimidated by that, I just do my work, I’d much rather just sit here and make jokes”, and she can be goofy. There’s still that child-like part of her that will always be there – we kept laughing our heads off on the flight. I wanted to be sleeping, but the lights are on with her. And I’m sure that’s a privilege, and the endorphins made up for the lack of sleep.

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But I’m watching her comport herself in a way that I believe – I said that to her. She said at one point, “I’m just going to do what I always do, it’s always worked before”, and I said, “No, you’re not that person anymore”. She said, “What do you mean?”, and I said, “Well, you’re older, and you’re considered accomplished, and you’ve got to handle that. I think to act like that’s not happening is just not real. In some way you’ve got to face that, and deal with that.”

And that’s something that would be naive, just like it is for Joy, to have any measure of success and think that somebody’s not going to take it away from her any second. When does it end? Never. You are never just like, “OK, I’m home free now.” Robert De Niro and I have an expression with each other, which is true of life, and commerce, and family, and everything, “It’s always something. It’s always something.” It’s part of this life.

[At this point a publicist comes in and gives me a signal to begin wrapping up the interview. Russell sees my face as I acknowledge the signal, and interjects]

Let this guy go, I like this guy. Can’t he have some more questions? I like the name of his site. We’ve got to get to some geek details. We should get to at least three geek details.

There is actually one slightly geeky thing that I’ve noticed, and it’s not just with this film. The cadence of the dialogue, and the way that the dialogue comes about. If you were to deliver the script as a student of writing, there are moments – little bits of exposition about the character’s lives – a teacher would chuck it straight out, but somehow it works with your movies.

I’ve got to tell you, it ain’t easy. You have to inhabit it, and by having it in a rhythm that’s unexpected is what makes it work. For example, in this story, the ending won’t really work if you don’t understand the legal web she’s walked into naively. When you set up a business at a kitchen table – I’m from a middle class home where things were started at a kitchen table. If you try to create anything, there’s a web of contracts around it that could easily defy you. And did, in this woman’s life, and nearly ended the whole thing. It is true that, were it not for the girlfriend of her father, you and I would not be sitting here today. The whole thing would not have been given a chance, or it would have ended more quickly. And it is true that it was declared dead until she went and confronted a man in California and a man in Dallas.

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So the second half of the film, rhythmically – to speak to rhythm of the cinema – is the rhythm of a western, or a gangster film – to me – a gunslinger, having to go and win.

The fact is, it’s based on truth, and it also goes to the rhythm of her own soul, because once you die there’s a certain kind of zen release, if you accept ‘Well I’ve been killed’, like a fighter, ‘what else can be done to me?’ so you’re gonna cut your hair off, and you’re gonna go, “I’m just gonna go”, and who has the time and patience, except you, the creator – you’re going to be lonely, or you will be alone as a gunslinger, or a painter, or a writer; as any human being will be.

That’s why Louis CK won’t let his kids have telephones, he wants them to learn to live with that solitude feeling. Everybody today doesn’t want to live with it, and they don’t have to, but if you do live with it, it makes you stronger. Anything you do ultimately comes down to just you, you’re the only one who will carry it over. People will help you or hinder you, but you’re going to have to be the one to do it, at the end of the day. So I liked defining herself in that space, in terms of the frame, which we called Edward Hopper-esque, or The Andrew Wyeth, define her in that space cinematically, in those frames. And, I was leading back to a question you had asked – about the rhythm.

See none of that would work, if you don’t really have a glancing understanding of what the predicament is. You have to understand that there’s something been set up here that she doesn’t quite understand. And that begins in the bedroom with the kid – y’know, “what’s a lawyer?” And it starts with Trudy’s four questions¸ which – those are the first two questions I ask anybody, ‘where did you go to high school?’.

Where did you go to high school?

[It’s at this point that I realise Russell is no longer talking about the questions in the film, and has directly asked the question to me. Only slightly less confused than the three publicists now in the room, I stammer out an answer]

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Somewhere called Southend High School for Boys.

Was it what we call a public school?

Yes, a normal school.

And who were you in high school?

Ignored, generally.

Okay. That’s all very fascinating to me. You were ignored, and what were you doing when you were ignored? Did you study films? Were you reading? Were you keeping to yourself? Did you ride a bike? What were you doing?

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Generally, just reading.

In solitude?


Jim Gianopulos, who’s a great guy, and the head of the studio… He said to me, “that makes no sense, those are the first two questions of Trudy’s four questions”. I said, “Well they’re my first two questions. They tell me an enormous amount about anybody”.

So I loved Isabella Rosellini from Blue Velvet, asking those four questions, and Jennifer accepting a bargain she didn’t fully understand. Because when you’re desperate to do something, you’ll accept the bargain, you’ll deal with the consequences later – which happened. And then, I love the prelap, cinematically, the little girl saying, “I’m going to remember” the rhythm, the rhythm of Isabella Rosellini, makes that all – “I’m going to remember” – that scene all becomes about her rhythm. The scene becomes about the rhythm of her musicality, of her speaking, and acting, and dialogue. “I’m going to remember that, when I speak, to my lawyer”. “What did Trudy’s lawyer say?”, as a prelap into “Well Trudy’s lawyer did a worldwide patent search”, “What’s a patent”, and the cadence of this dialogue with her daughter, that goes into the kitchen table conversation, which ends with them all sort of debating stuff, and her sort of sitting there listening, which is going to come back and haunt her. That’s that exposition question, I suppose.

Come on, let’s do a speed round. Two more questions, Geek Man, two more questions.

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Okay, just following on from that then. The time skipping element of the film’s structure, was that scripted, or did that come about in the edit?

That was scripted. What’s interesting about that, it was scripted, but right before I shot the film, I second guessed it. I kept debating it, and debating it, and debating it. And then I put the script into order. And I shot it, thinking it would be in order, and when I got to the editing room, I edited it that way the first time, then we discovered, no, it was right the first time; its better movie making to do it out of order, where you meet the husband and he’s a singer in the basement, and they’re divorced, and then you see the courtship. Because I love the notion – to me what’s magic about cinema is the timelessness of it.

And what happens in life? You’re sitting in your life, there’s your divorce, there’s your ‘this’, and you reflect upon, ‘do you remember when you fell in love with that person? Do you remember that?’ And you sit back and remember that, and now that’s a different experience, with the experience of where you are now, looking back on what it was then, that both appreciates the love that it was, and appreciates what is not right now, and how that happens in life.

And also in the end, when she projects into her future, the grandmother narrating from beyond the grave, “This is what she didn’t know, she’d go on to be this”. I love that kind of magic, you get to see what she’s going to be. And then you come back to her on that street, “she didn’t know that that day. All she knew is… she was there, she’s done that.” That just gives me chills. That’s all we can know. A great writer [E.L. Doctorow] once said, “when you’re writing for a living, all you can see is as far as the headlights will see on a moonless road, but that’s all you need. To see, that far.”


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One more geek question.

[The publicists, in unison, scowl across the room at me as we’re now ten minutes over time. If it were up to Russell and I, we could probably go on all week, but it’s not, and I don’t want to make anyone else’s day longer than it needs be, so I decide the best option is to tell a white lie.]

You’ve covered the things I wanted to know!

Really? I’m going to give you a geeky answer. You’ve inspired me, the name of your site inspires me.

So geekiness – the specifics of the Nat King Cole recording, and how we shot to that precisely. That is a rare recording, I’ve been sitting on for years, as is I Feel Free, by Cream, which is re-recorded by Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, a big powerful African-American woman singer, who did a song for us in Silver Linings Playbook. And they were on tour here when she recorded that acapella [version] for the end of the film, of Clapton’s [song]. And it’s not what you would expect from Cream, because it’s an acapella harmonising between Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, so it’s not their usual wailing amazingness, it’s just those two guys. And there’s a vulnerability in that that is beautiful. And we bookended in the end.

Now Nat King Cole, I’ve been sitting on, because that introduction, which is spoken word, which is very unusual to find, even. It’s so specific, I just wanted it to take over the movie, like a Christmas fable, in the wake of her just having pistol-whipped her adversary, and walked out a made man – a made woman. She walks out, that changes you; she was changed from that moment. It meant that she had learned how to fight toe-to-toe at that level, and she was not going to let it happen again. She could lose, but it would be one hell of a fight. That’s what that level of experience meant. That’s when she really made herself a success.

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[It suddenly occurs to me that Russell is running through the directions he gave Lawrence on set]

And then she has a moment, through a toy store window, with the snow. It’s all timed out to the song. She walked exactly – I go, “This many steps, here’s the introduction. Now you see the speaker, that’s on the outside of the toy store”.

I had my sound mixer say, “It wouldn’t be that loud if she’s down the end of the street.” I said, “That’s poetic license, I want it to consume the movie, even though she’s 50 feet away. I want him to take over the movie”.

[He returns to reminiscing about directing Lawrence]

“Then we get to the little speaker, then you see she looks into the little train and the little house, and she’s having this weird memory, a moment of reflection in her moment of gangsterism – a moment of tenderness, remember when you were a child, remember when you had that family, but not quite that family.” And the snow, he [Nat King Cole] says, “can we have some snow?” right then, it snows. She looks up and of course, it’s a fake snow, she’s having this little, tender snow globe moment within the bloodiness of the bare-knuckle commerce she’s had to do, and that was the reason for making the movie. And to see her forgiving this, that’s what turned me on, at the end of the movie, because the real Joy is that forgiving, as Jennifer is, and that’s a true expression of power, in life and in cinema, that turns me on.

When I see Michael Corleone do that it’s his quietness, and his patience that is the most intimidating thing about him, and when we sat with the real Joy, which Robert De Niro insisted we do, I’d not done it, I only talked to her on the phone because I want to take license with her story – she’d given me her blessing. The first thing that happened is the dad goes, “I did all these things, I did all these things,” and we looked over at her, to see her shut him up, because that’s not true, he didn’t do all those things, she did them, not him, and she just had such grace; it was almost like she was looking at her child. And that really made a big impression on us. On Jennifer, and Bob. We learned a lot about her, just from that. She didn’t even wink or anything. We said, “wow, she is a badass”. True power is not easily shaken.

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Thank you for your geek interview. I loved going into the minutiae with you, that’s why I didn’t want to short change you.

David O. Russell, thank you very much.

Joy is in UK cinemas from 1st January 2016.

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