Being David O. Russell: A Video Store Tour With Hollywood’s Mad Genius
David O. Russell opens up about his inspirations, upcoming biopic Joy, and his powerful muse, Jennifer Lawrence.
“I watch movies hundreds of times,” professed five-time Academy Award-nominated director David O. Russell on a crisp Sunday evening in Santa Monica, where an eager crowd of Westside cinephiles gathered in the warmth of video rental mecca Vidiots to celebrate the local institution’s 30th birthday.
He pointed out a postcard of the late John Waters muse Divine that had caught his eye on the short walk to the makeshift stage, where rows upon rows of meticulously ordered films had been wheeled aside for the evening.
“I believe that effort makes you love something better,” he declared, gazing around at a very rare milieu in the age of Netflix: the noble brick-and-mortar video store. “If something comes easily, you don’t love it as much. That’s true of making a film, and it’s also true of watching a film.”
Russell, who debuts his ninth feature film Joy this Christmas after taking three trips to the Oscars in four years with The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, is not known for doing anything easily. After coming to blows with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings, the filmmaker was caught on video verbally lashing out at Lily Tomlin while filming I Heart Huckabees. Earlier this year on the Boston set of Joy, bystanders reported seeing Russell unleash a “profanity-laden” tirade at his muse Jennifer Lawrence—which the actress took pains to quash in an interview with Vogue: “I was fucking mean on set,” said Lawrence. “I wasn’t mean to anybody but David. I would never be mean to somebody who couldn’t be mean back. But when you really love somebody, you fight with them.”And there’s the bizarre episode with his niece. Russell’s temper, needless to say, has a reputation of its own.
But Russell also tends to downplay his philanthropic work with causes like the inner-city arts program Ghetto Film School, the Glenhome School, and his support of the once-floundering Vidiots, which last year landed an 11th-hour angel backer in Annapurna Pictures producer Megan Ellison. “[Ellison] is prone to moods… and cinema saved her life,” he praised. “She loves videotapes, and she saved this place.”
For the store’s landmark celebration, he’d brought an exclusive clip from Joy and personal recommendations of two vintage female empowerment flicks that serve as spiritual predecessors to the biopic of single mom turned one-woman entrepreneurial genius Joy Mangano, the Home Shopping Network multimillionaire famous for inventing the Miracle Mop.
Just as Russell was extoling the virtues of Katharine Hepburn in the 1942 romance Woman of the Year (“a perfect film”), the loud clattering of DVDs arriving through the return slot from outside interrupted his spiel. He paused, bending down to peruse the stranger’s picks for the benefit of his audience, a conspiratorial glint in his eyes. “Let’s see what they returned!”
“Birdman of Alcatraz. That’s a very beautiful film,” Russell nodded approvingly, noting that Johnny Depp referenced the 1962 Oscar-nominated Burt Lancaster starrer this year in Black Mass. He examined the next selection in the unknown, unwitting customer’s returned booty. “Entourage the Movie. I mean, that’s what I love about going to a store—you make impulsive choices. I love getting out of myself. Free me from my own mind!”
He remembered how it took him years to come around on his early reaction to pal Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. “I watched the movie sitting next to him. Still didn’t get it. Had to sit through dinner and lie, like you do to your best friends: ‘I thought this was beautiful and this was beautiful’… if you want to support other artists you have to learn how to do that,” he laughed.
Challenged to re-watch it a decade later by his movie-obsessed son, Russell was astonished to discover he loved it. “It became one of my favorite movies. I can tell you why I think it’s a great work of genius, why I think it’s critical that Gene Hackman not only didn’t win an Oscar, but was not nominated.”
“The Oscars live in one world and great art lives in another world,” added Russell, who’s been nominated thrice for Best Director but hasn’t yet taken home the statue from the Academy. “Sometimes they match up, and sometimes they don’t.”
Falling down the video store rabbit hole also led Russell to a new appreciation for Adam Sandler comedies, he proudly admitted. “I even love Jack & Jill. I think Jack & Jill is almost like a Spike Jonze movie. The first half-hour of Don’t Mess With The Zohan is kind of bordering on art filmmaking. So I appreciate that. And I understand renting the Entourage movie.”
The video store chat was just one of several stops in a busy pre-release holiday schedule before 20th Century Fox launches what it hopes to be a fruitful Oscar campaign for Joy and star Jennifer Lawrence, who carries the picture alongside Silver Linings Playbook co-stars Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. An extended clip showed off a confident Lawrence in two scenes with Cooper, first convincing his Home Shopping Network exec to give her a shot, and then scrapping camera-ready big hair and power duds for the outfit she walked in with: “This is me. I wear a blouse and I wear pants. That’s who I am. I’m going to go on as me.”
Tucked away in a back room among shelves brimming with horror classics on DVD, Russell connected Joy’s themes to his recent portraits of American everymen and women forging their own futures.
“From The Fighter to Silver Linings to American Hustle to Joy, they’re sort of about salt of the earth people. Are they changing the world? They’re changing their world. It’s about the specificity of their world,” he told The Daily Beast. “I didn’t make American Hustle because I wanted to make a movie about ABSCAM. I wanted to make a movie about those people, what they loved about life and what they hated about life. The things that make you want to live and the things that make you don’t want to live. Those are the things that interest me.”
Joy tracks its heroine’s story from formative childhood years through love and heartbreak and betrayal as she fought her way to becoming one of QVC’s most successful and lucrative personalities. “You get to see her fall in love, you get to see what happens when she comes out on the other side of that at 27, and you get to see her in her mid-40s. It has to be interesting enough for us to want to do, and that was interesting, to see someone who is this woman in these places and what makes up her world.”
Mangano’s journey is shaped in part by her father’s work and her mother’s stories, which Russell borrowed from to illustrate the character’s inner life. “There are some very formidable women in soap opera, like Susan Lucci. She fought a bear in one of her episodes,” he said, eyeing a nearby shelf bursting with outré titles like I Walked With A Zombie, The Alligator People, and Boris Karloff’s The Body Snatcher. “Look at Russian literature. People don’t take soap opera seriously, but they’re so marvelous. When you have a dream, your dreams are operatic, and soap operas are operatic. So Jennifer gets to have a dream—or a nightmare—life in this movie that motivates her at different points during the story. What goes into the cocktail of your mind, and how does it present itself to you? It’s not literal, that’s what’s so cool about it—it’s emotional. Gothic things can be happening. Someone can be chloroforming you!”
He considered the influences his two recommendations to the Vidiots’ audience bore on Joy. In Woman of the Year Hepburn, an all-time favorite of Russell’s, plays a journalist negotiating marriage and a career with a fellow writer played by Spencer Tracy. “The last act is kind of not as strong because it was so far ahead of its time that I don’t think they really knew what to do with themselves. So they have this very powerful woman and in the third act they’re like, ‘How does she become a married person?’”
David Lean’s 1954 film Hobson’s Choice stars Brenda de Banzie as Maggie, a capable shoemaker’s daughter who proves her worth and abilities to her skeptical father. “A woman who is underestimated takes control of her destiny. I love when people seem trapped, or it seems like that’s it, and they have to keep being killed, then get up, killed, then get up. She has to create her own space, eventually.”
“Part of that story is a gangster’s story,” he continued. “You have to become a gangster in order to make yourself. It’s not going to happen unless you develop a steeliness and a resilience. It’s like Spike Lee said at the Governors Awards. He said he tells his students at NYU, ‘You have to be relentless to do anything.’ The whole notion of overnight success doesn’t exist. You just have to be relentless. And I think that’s true of me even today. If you want to make a movie, it’s just like when you made your first movie. It never changes.”
Off-screen, Russell’s been on the outskirts of a hot button Hollywood issue Lawrence galvanized when she decried the salary disparity between what she and her male co-stars were paid on American Hustle.
“When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself,” she wrote. “I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early… But if I’m honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’”
“I would say, yes, [women] are still in the minority, and that the pendulum can swing harder,” Russell said of Hollywood’s gender gap, which is perceptible not only in terms of what stars are paid but in how films are financed and green-lit, and in how female voices are heard. “I think that Jennifer’s special. Talent doesn’t always pick a race or a sex or a class, it just is. But in her specialness, she inspires people. They’re excited by her. And this is the first picture that she’s carried with her heart and soul, not with a bow and arrow.”
He credited Lawrence’s mainstream star power culled from franchises like The Hunger Games, with enabling smaller films like Joy, their third together. “I think the fact that she’s worked so hard and has had two franchises has had a massive impact on her ability to take risks, because she played ball on their terms. She did the work. And all that hard work has become a benefit to me.”
“I’ve seen her grow up quite a lot in the last four or five years,” he said of Lawrence. “I’ve watched her come into herself. And that statement that she made, it was her coming into herself and coming into her own. It very much reflects the journey of Joy, of owning her own life and her own opinions and standing for something. Jennifer’s a very formidable person and I think she’s still very young, but she’s not afraid to take a position that will benefit a lot of people, and a lot of her peers.”
Even if he delights in regaling audiences like the one at Vidiots with old Hollywood scuttlebutt about how difficult Hepburn was on set, Russell waved away the behind-the-scenes notoriety that will make for some very colorful footnotes one day in the telling of his own legend. “I think movie stars are usually more fascinating than directors. I would never presume as a director to be more spoken of than the actors or the films themselves,” he said. “I just hope the stories stay exciting.”