David O. Russell
“If the characters are written real and specific, from the heart, I want the narrative and suspense of every scene to grab people by the throat and not let them go, like life and death stakes.”
Real, Specific, and From the Heart
David O. Russell talks about the reason he chose Silver Linings Playbook for his first adaptation, and why, as a writer, he never stops looking for the details that can bring a world to life.

Written by Rob Feld

(December 7, 2012)

Challenging personalities have been David O. Russell’s playground dating back to his first feature, the Oedipal tale Spanking the Monkey, to The Fighter and now Silver Linings Playbook, his first book adaptation. Russell’s adaptation from Matthew Quick’s novel introduces Philadelphia native, Bradley Cooper’s Pat Solatano, at a low point in his life. After eight months in the hospital, a plea bargain for nearly killing his wife’s lover during a bipolar reaction, he is being released and moving home with his parents, Pat Sr. and Dolores, played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver.

Pat tries embracing a positive attitude in an attempt to manage his condition and reunite with his wife, Nikki, but is stymied by the restraining order she holds against him. Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman with her own psychological issues, offers to get Nikki a note if Pat agrees to be her partner in an upcoming dance competition, an effort which brings them together and lends Pat focus. The journey sees Pat struggle with his bipolar disorder and the effect it has on his perceptions, personality and family, as Pat Sr. tries to keep the family afloat with his new bookmaking business.

The specificity of the Philadelphia world and the story’s technicalities are trademark Russell, who gravitates to subjects with distinct rules of their own, be they military in Three Kings, bizarre existential in I Heart Huckabees, or Lowell, Massachusetts subculture and boxing in The Fighter. Russell’s stories also tend to be personal to him, some for political reasons, others for life ones, and Silver Linings Playbook is no different.

Why choose this book to adapt when all your other projects have been originals?

I'd been waiting a long time for something with characters who have dealt with the many issues my son has dealt with, so he could feel a part of the world, and Matthew Quick's book hit on it. So I was able to make it very personal. While I was waiting the five years to make it, I probably rewrote the script over 20 times, and I was able to plumb new depths of it in terms of calibrating the nature of the challenges the main character faces. I also wrote Robert De Niro’s character for him because we had spoken for years about my son and schools that helped kids who faced some of these issues. So it came around in a better way than it would have five years before, and The Fighter made me want to dig into that specific local neighborhood family dynamic more.

Photo: © 2012 The Weinstein Company
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook.

How did you approach the adaptation and what did the book give you?

I didn't have as much personal insight into the character in the book, who had been away for four years, not eight months. I made it more about what I knew: the families, my son's friends, my son. I wanted to make the De Niro character into a more subtly emotional father, who had issues about being obsessive about the Eagles, like in the book. But to me, the key to the whole thing was how specific the world was, because that's what I loved about The Fighter. De Niro's character was so specific, and the thing that evolved over time was to turn him into a bookie. That was something that happened in the forth or fifth year of rewriting, to take this obsession and make it a practical thing that was part of his life; and then to take the 2008 football season, which gave us a very specific year of the games being played. That was also the year the economy collapsed. People like De Niro's character lost not only their jobs but their pensions, and had to turn to ways to support themselves, including bookmaking. So things fit together in that respect, and went to the heart and stakes of the household.

These are different stories than you began your career telling.

The greatest focus I have as a writer and filmmaker is making the characters extremely specific and personal, and making the emotions specific. Anything that's going to be funny or upsetting is going to be based in what's real and what's raw. That's very different from back when I was experimenting more in Three Kings or Huckabees but still pondering other worlds. What I love here is the specificity of certain communities and households. I love that in my favorite Scorsese or Coppola films. That’s as interesting to me as the story; the detail and the flavor, the rhythm of the way people talk, eat, and what they wear.

Conjuring that world is something for which you can never stop looking for details as a writer. If the characters are written real and specific, from the heart, I want the narrative and suspense of every scene to grab people by the throat and not let them go, like life and death stakes. Pat Sr.’s emotions about the Eagles’ games are life and death, and that's not far from my own experience with my father. If you wanted to talk to him and have that connection, you had to sit, watch games and speak that language. Pat’s thing with his wife is life and death. It's the one thing he's hanging onto that's going to get him through this very difficult period. That to me is very real and how people live. People have their currencies, their languages and what matters to them, and everything is riding on it every day.

Tell me more about engaging these subcultures.

I take particular joy in the characters. How the people speak is everything. The rhythm of the way the “parlay” scene goes; you take all the major characters’ currencies – the bookmaking, the Eagles, the letter agenda, Pat’s struggle with his issues, Tiffany's agenda with her dancing and her secret agenda with Pat – and they collide. Almost every character in the movie is there. It's like playing different instruments, and a wonderful thing when all those elements can combine emotionally.

You seemed to be trying to maintain a real pacing with this narrative.

I wanted to grip you in an emotional experience, and in a world that has a lot of suspense in it. There are still quiet moments but that's the intensity and emotion I'm trying to capture in the writing, to keep you, surprise you and move you. If you keep it real, the same thing that can be gripping or emotional can also turn out to be funny in the same scene. That was something I discovered when I did Spanking the Monkey – Jeremy Davies is hanging himself and his mother says, “Come out here, I'm cooking hamburgers,” and he says, “Can’t I do anything around here?” It was tragic but also funny.

Tell me more about the language that creates the world.

I love language, so when I was looking into bookmaking and heard a word like “parlay,” which made me lean forward, I found it enchanting. That enchantment is critical to me. Language can make you lean forward to say, “Why is Robert De Niro so invested in this “parlay” stuff, and I don't even know what it is.” Like the language of the mother, with the “homemades.” That was stuff we got on the street where we were shooting. It's a word I heard a neighbor say, so I asked what it was. They said, “Homemades! It's when you do the intensive labor for a day to make the braciole, the lasagna, and parmesan and stuff. You make a bunch of it and everybody's like, Great there's homemades at the Cappaleti’s!” That became part of Jacki Weaver’s language, making homemades, which was as specific as DeNiro saying the “ju ju,” or his handkerchief or the parlay.

And that stuff then reflects the idea of each character’s individual currencies, you mentioned.

When De Niro says, “I believe in you, and therefore I'm betting heavily on the Giants game,” it doesn't make any sense, but we’re all prisoners of our own belief system. If you come into their house, if you love your son you're going to show it by betting heavy on the Giants game.

As odd as the conspiracy seems between Pat and Tiffany, to get the letter to Nikki, it makes sense to them from their points of view.

The subterfuge is so important to the characters’ paths. They have so much supervision, so many eyes on them trying to help them because they've struggled; for them to do something on their own means everything. They want the dignity of having the privacy to do it on their own.

The coffee shop date scene, which wasn’t a date, had a lot of water to carry between plot and emotional arcs. How did you approach it?

That's a very important scene. Emotionally, Pat’s point of view is that he's trying to look like a good guy to his wife; that’s why he’s there, to be nice to Tiffany and impress his wife as a solid guy. He can't help being entranced by Tiffany. Tiffany's emotional agenda is quite different. She thinks it’s a date. He says she looks nice and then orders Raisin Bran because for him that means it's not a date. I made it Halloween because holidays are so specific to season and community ritual. Pat and Tiffany are remaking and trying to re-find the magic in their lives, while walking amongst all these kids dressed up in costumes. In a funny way, they're trying to dress up themselves to figure out who they are being on Halloween. Is he going to be the bipolar guy? Or is he going to be the together guy that he wants his wife to see? That's an important writer's decision because you get to surround them visually with witches and goblins – our greatest fears, angers – all those things are circling Pat and Tiffany. They are unpredictable people, frank and charged emotionally.

You put your characters through many, many arcs in that scene, all while lighting the match to set the plot in motion. But it’s all springing off an initial connection they shared.

It traverses through five emotional climates, into the secret letter deal at the heart of the story. The emotions ride from guarded, to conspiratorial, to hypnotic seduction, to sober cold judgment, to explosion – catapults them outside to the volatile scene under the Halloween movie marquee, surrounded by goblins [a marquee playing Midnight Meat Train, a horror film Cooper actually starred in]. But to back up, Pat and Tiffany connect from the minute they see each other at Ronnie’s house, and that was the decision when writing the screenplay, to be one of those moments where she walks in, they look at each other and it's lights out for both of them. The rest of the movie is trying to catch up with that. Tiffany is more able to own it then he is, but they have that palpable chemistry. The movie is about emotion and these very specific people, struggling with specific emotions. And the next movie will be that again.